On Writing: Don't Be a Welfare Hydra
by Amy Deardon
For those of you who don't know, I've done an in-depth study of story (novels and films) with the aim of articulating how stories can be put together. I've been fortunate enough to coach several writers to apply and refine my paradigm, and I think I'm onto something! This is something I'm writing up now, as a book that I hope will be out before too long.
A main, and I mean really main, really big, problem that I keep running across I've called the "One Darn Thing After Another" syndrome. But I've just found the icon for this that I think is perfect -- the Welfare Hydra!
First, take a look at this 3 minute clip. This scene is from 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason needs to kill the 7-headed Hydra in order to steal the golden fleece. The chick is a high priestess who's basically betrayed her people to help Jason, but we won't go into the whole ethics of Jason's quest here -- after all, this is high Greek mythology, so let's just watch it for fun:
This is an impressive movie with astounding special effects for 1963, and I enjoyed watching it on many levels. I first saw this movie about 6 years ago with my boy, when as a first grader he became interested in ancient warfare topics in general (as an aside, he impressed the heck out of his teacher by taking half an hour to explain the Pelopynesian War to the class. My daughter, though, is the Greek myth expert. But as a proud mom, I digress).
I feel a bit guilty being so critical here since the special effects technology WAS so primitive, but hey, this makes my point. In this clip, did you notice what the Welfare Hydra does?
Yes, the Hydra waves its heads a bit, hisses, and slithers on its floppy little belly. It even catches Jason in its tail at one point, but promptly lets him go and doesn't press the attack. You can almost hear the Hydra saying (in a squeaky voice) "I'm scary! I'm scary! See how scary I am?" At the end it bares its chest so Jason with his sword can conveniently stab its heart, at which it obligingly dies.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Simply this: in many of the stories that I critique, I find this same sort of "Welfare Hydra" mentality appearing, on both the macro and the micro levels. The writer describes exciting (or not so exciting) events that the protagonist wrestles through, but in the end, these events don't make any difference to the story. They don't push the story along.
The micro events just add word count. A character will find a chilled bottle of water, unscrew its tight cap, take a few sips of the cold liquid, then screw the lid back on and wipe her hands on her black summer-cloth-weight capris, feeling refreshed now. Excuse me? Does any of this detail really add to the story? Now, maybe if the character had arthritis, then her method of opening a bottle might give a little grace note to her character, but otherwise this is throwaway stuff.
So how might one push a story along? There are many techniques to do this, but the core principle is to consistently raise the stakes for the protagonist: put more in jeopardy, make it uncertain that the protagonist can accomplish a goal that is vital to him and for the long-term success for the story. Everything counts, including little actions. Who cares how the character opens a bottle of water? But if the character isn't sure that she will be able to sneak a sip of water to calm a cough before she has to make an announcement, it might be more interesting.
A good way to raise these questions is to write in a deep third person point of view. Many manuscripts I read are written in a superficial POV, where actions are captured as if on camera, and there is no insight into the character's thoughts. The penetrating POV is one of the great strengths of novel writing. (Films of course have music, camera angles, and other tricks that make them a different, yet also strong, medium).
Use your POV!
Here are two passages:
(1) Sam ran down the hallway. It was long, and there were no windows. He picked up speed. The entrance was twenty feet away. (objective POV)
Sam couldn't see the intruder, but knew he must be close by. This was the hardest part to get out of the building: a long white tunnel, no windows.
Twenty feet. He might just have time. If only he could turn off these lights to race in the dark, but no time, no time.
And then he heard a footstep behind him...
OK, it's a hokey example written off the top of my head, but you get the idea, I trust.
When you write, whether a paragraph or a scene or more, keep asking yourself, "Are my words a Welfare Hydra?" If they are, stab them through the heart.
I'm married and fortunate enough to be able to stay at home with our two children who both earned their black belts in tae kwon do last summer.
Besides tapping on the computer keyboard, periodically I play the flute. The most moving performance (for me) was playing for a crowded memorial service for a serviceman killed in the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.
I took over a year on a personal quest to investigate the claims of Jesus' resurrection with the goal of destroying them. To do this I studied Biblical accounts of Jesus and numerous commentaries by believers and skeptics alike, listed the facts agreed upon, and began to explore scenarios that could explain what was known. To my surprise and considerable dismay, the evidence kept pointing away from naturalistic explanations and eventually formed a virtually certain case for the resurrection of Jesus. Finally I admitted defeat and became a Christian.
My first novel, A Lever Long Enough (due to be released in January 2009), combines my loves of technology and derring-do with the universal longing for transcendent truth. I believe there is a rational basis for this longing.