INSPECT YOUR GADGETS
by John M. Floyd
Here’s a piece of advice we’re often given, as writers: to succeed in fiction, what you write must be different. If you want a readership—or even if you just want to get one story published—you’d better come up with something more than the same-old same-old.
On the other hand, we also hear that there are certain constants, certain time-proven elements that must be present in your fiction or it won’t get past the starting gate. Contradicting information? Not really. There are rules, that’s true (remember the theory that there are only twenty master plots?), but innovation is the key. A logical plot and correct grammar aren’t enough; a story often needs some feature that makes it unique and different, that makes it stand out from the all the rest.
Some call those differences “gimmicks.” Maybe they are. But you should have a few of them in your backpack if you’re trying to climb this mountain, and certainly if you want to make the trip over and over again. Unique slants to your story can range anywhere from vampires to horseracing to Medieval Europe to cats who solve mysteries. (Cats who solve mysteries???) And sometimes they’re actual gadgets, like time machines or shoe phones or microscopic submarines or satellites that trigger earthquakes.
Part of this is terminology. Many folks think of a gimmick as a scam or a dishonest trick of some kind. In this case that’s not true. A gimmick is usually a scheme or a ploy, yes, to help achieve an end, but it doesn’t have to be negative. Inserting a word puzzle on page seven of the newspaper might be a gimmick to sell more copies, but that doesn’t make the puzzle, or its inclusion, a bad thing. Maybe “gimmick” is a poor word choice. In the literary sense, I suppose you could think of it as an unusual or off-beat aspect of the plot or the character(s).
Now pay attention, Double-O-Seven
Anytime this subject comes up I’m reminded of Q Branch, and the crazy gadgets that played such a big part in the Bond movies, especially the later, more foolish ones that bore no resemblance to Fleming’s novels. I loved the zany villains—especially Oddjob and his frisbee top hat—and the farfetched plots too, and gadgets like the Aston Martin ejection seat, but I thought some of Q’s outrageous inventions were not always a good thing. Too many fictional gimmicks of any kind can hurt a story, or a series, more than they help it.
The prose of the pro’s
Here are a few “differences” that have proven successful:
Character quirks/plot devices: Monk’s OCD, MacGyver’s practical knowhow, Lucas Davenport’s wealth, Columbo’s mysteries-in-reverse, John Steed’s hat and umbrella, Ironside’s wheelchair, Josh Randall’s sawed-off rifle, Martin Brody’s fear of the water, Gus McCrae’s playful nature, Jason Bourne’s amnesia.
Unique settings: Stabenow’s Alaska, Hiaasen’s south Florida, Hillerman’s Four Corners, Lansdale’s east Texas, Burroughs’s Africa, DeMille’s Long Island, Clavell’s Far East, Hamilton’s northern Michigan, McCullough’s ancient Rome. (I realize these aren’t really gimmicks, but they’re intriguing and the writers present them in such a way that they help grab and hold the readers’ interest.)
Unusual occupations: Myron Bolitar (sports agent), Anna Pigeon (park ranger), Arkady Renko (Russian policeman), Cliff Janeway (bookstore owner), Sookie Stackhouse (waitress), Sam McCloud (hick-cop-in-the-big-city), Penn Cage (small-town lawyer), Bernie Rhodenbarr (burglar), Stephanie Plum (bungling bounty hunter).
As I and my fellow CBers have mentioned many times in these columns, even catchy titles can be a literary sales gimmick—Grafton’s letters, Evanovich’s numbers, Patterson’s nursery rhymes, Grimes’s pub names, Konrath’s cocktails, Ludlum’s three-word titles, and so on. And Arthur Hailey made a career of writing about the inside workings of different industries: automotive, medical, financial, hotels, airlines, newspapers, utilities, etc.
One thing I don’t particularly like is the use of gimmicks in the style of writing: no capitalization, no quotation marks, no paragraph breaks, confusing POVs, everything in italics, everything in dialect, omission of a single letter, and so forth. There are exceptions—I loved Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and if I remember correctly its dialogue never included quotation marks—but I prefer novels and stories that stick to traditional formatting. To do otherwise suggests an attempt to be different just for the sake of being different, and I’m not sure that adds anything to the story or its enjoyment. But maybe that’s just me.
A final point. If your character oddity or plot quirk is clever enough and convincing enough, it can do what any literary device should do: make a mediocre story better or an already good story great.
Maybe being a little strange can pay off.
Speaking of strange, here are the first twenty answers to last week’s quiz on movie quotes:
1. Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.
THE GODFATHER (Lee Strasberg, to Al Pacino)
2. How could a degenerated person like that have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps? / He got drafted.
M*A*S*H (Sally Kellerman / fellow officer, referring to Donald Sutherland)
3. What is it? / The stuff that dreams are made of.
THE MALTESE FALCON (Ward Bond / Bogie)
4. My eyes are ceramic. Caught a bazooka round at Little Big Horn. Or was it Okinawa?
HOT SHOTS (Lloyd Bridges)
5. Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.
DIE HARD (Bruce Willis to himself, while trying on the bad guy’s shoes)
6. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? / So help me Me.
OH GOD (court officer / George Burns)
7. Where is your commanding officer? / Blowed up, SIR.
STRIPES (Robert J. Wilke / Bill Murray)
8. A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as clear as the nose on your face.
PINOCCHIO (the Blue Fairy, to Pinocchio)
9. Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of innocent people? / No, by causing the death of innocent people.
SUPERMAN (Christopher Reeve / Gene Hackman)
10. You talkin’ to me?
TAXI DRIVER (DeNiro, to his reflection in the mirror)
11. All you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, and charge me for a chicken salad sandwich. / You want me to hold the chicken? / I want you to hold it between your knees.
FIVE EASY PIECES (Jack Nicholson / smartaleck waitress / Nicholson)
12. The horse is too small, the jockey’s too big, the trainer’s too old, and I’m too dumb to know the difference.
SEABISCUIT (Jeff Bridges, to the crowd)
13. I made it, Ma! Top o’ the world!
WHITE HEAT (James Cagney, just before his death)
14. When do we land? / I can’t tell. / You can tell me, I’m a doctor.
AIRPLANE! (Leslie Nielsen / Peter Graves / Nielsen)
15. Step away from your busted-ass vehicle and put your hands on your head.
MEN IN BLACK (Will Smith, to alien)
16. What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful. / People kept robbing it. / Small price to pay for beauty.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (Paul Newman / bank guard / Newman)
17. I do believe Marsellus Wallace, my husband, your boss, told you to take me out and do whatever I wanted. Now I wanna dance. I wanna win. I want that trophy. So dance good.
PULP FICTION (Uma Thurman, to John Travolta)
18. Keaton always said, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.” Well, I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Kevin Spacey, to Chazz Palminteri)
19. Was that Wilson? / That was him—that was Wilson, all right, and he was fast, fast on the draw.
SHANE (Brandon de Wilde / Alan Ladd)
20. Apollo Creed vs. the Italian Stallion. Sounds like a damn monster movie.
ROCKY (Carl Weathers)