by J.D. Rhoades
L’audace, l’audace, encore l’audace, et toujours l’audace!
-George S. Patton, supposedly quoting Frederick the Great
This is the second in my series of posts on what gives books that all-important yet elusive element of fun. As we remember from my last post on the Bad-ass Factor, any moment that makes you want to leap up, pump your fist in the air and holler ‘Hell YEAH!” increases the fun factor exponentially. But so can moments that make you say to yourself “Oh, no. She’s not really going to do that”, or moments in which the reader goes, “No WAY is he going to pull this off.” Sometimes the Audacity Factor–the sheer outrageousness of the topic or of the way it’s carried out–can add fun to a book.
Take for example, one I’m reading right now, EMPIRE OF IVORY by Naomi Novik. It’s one of her Temeraire series of fantasy novels. They’re basically Patrick O’Brian-esque Napoleonic Era naval adventures–but with flying, talking dragons taking on the French hordes instead of sailing ships. If that made you involuntarily laugh out loud in disbelief at the imaginativeness of the concept, you’re not the only one.
Another example is Victor Gischler’s GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE. Hell, the title alone makes you think “we are in for one wild ride.” And you’re right. How can you not love a book in which a post-apocalyptic American civilization rises from the ashes, based around a chain of strip clubs owned by a guy named Joey Armageddon? After all, once the inevitable destruction of society and the following Dark Age is over, a fellow could really use a cold beer and a lap dance.
On a more literary note, Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION sets us down in an alternate world where the post-Holocaust Jewish state was established, not in the Middle East, but in the Sitka peninsula of Alaska. Say what?
In Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH, not only is the hero/protagonist named Hiro Protagonist, he starts the book as a pizza delivery guy–for the Mafia:
If the thirty-minute deadline expires, news of the disaster is flashed to CosaNostra Pizza Headquarters and relayed from there to Uncle Enzo himself–the Sicilian Colonel Sanders, the Andy Griffith of Bensonhurst, the straight razor-swinging figment of many a Deliverator’s nightmares, the Capo and prime figurehead of CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated–who will be on the phone to the customer within five minutes, apologizing profusely. The next day, Uncle Enzo will land on the customer’s yard in a jet helicopter and apologize some more and give him a free trip to Italy–all he has to do is sign a bunch of releases that make him a public figure and spokesperson for CosaNostra Pizza and basically end his private life as he knows it. He will come away from the whole thing feeling that, somehow, he owes the Mafia a favor.
The Deliverator does not know for sure what happens to the driver in such cases, but he has heard some rumors.
After that, things start to get weird.
There’s a lot of overlap, you’ll note, between this factor and the idea of High Concept that Our Alex talks about here. Outrageous High Concept can often equal serious fun.
All of the above books are gripping, page-turning, and thought provoking. They’re also a hell of a lot of fun to read. Why?
One thing that makes audacious concepts fun is the same thing that makes watching an acrobat or a high wire artist fun: you wonder if they’re going to pull it off or if they’re going to crash to the floor before your very eyes.
So how do you pull it off? Well, there are a few things you need to do:
First, be matter-of-fact. Your readers may find the world you build outrageous or strange, but to your characters, it’s their everyday life (unless you’re doing a Wizard of Oz type tale, where your protagonist is dropped into another world). They’re not going to spend a lot of time examining or thinking about their surroundings, so neither should you by lapsing into long passages of description or having them think about “how wonderful it is that we have flying dragons.”
Which leads to our second point: move fast. Get right into the story, and don’t give the reader a lot of time tho think “Flying Dragons? How the hell does THAT work?”
This leads to something akin to the high wire act mentioned above: you’ve got to be able to put in enough backstory to let the reader know what’s going on, without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks with the dreaded “As you know…” Chabon, for example, doesn’t have a character say, “As you know, Meyer, the State of Israel was founded in 1948, but was destroyed after only three months, so we ended up here…” He gets to the story, and you have to figure out what’s going on. In some unimportant respects, you never do; in THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, casual mentions of things like “the Cuban War” and “The Third Russian Republic” are never explained; they’e part of the background noise every real society has.
But most importantly, you have to have a story to tell. YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION is more than just an audacious concept, it’s an engrossing neo-noir murder mystery. GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE is more than just laugh-out-loud outrageous, it’s a cracking good adventure tale. In order for a story to be outrageous and fun, it has to first be a story. If you don’t have that, you have something like John Boorman’s movie ZARDOZ, which has outragous concept to spare, as well as Sean Connery running around in a red leather jockstrap and a ponytail talking to a flying stone head, but it ends up being nearly incomprehensible, unless you’re really really stoned.
Don’t let this happen to you….
So tell us, readers and writers…what are some of your favorite fun, audacious concepts? Which ones does the author manage to pull off, and if you dare, which ones veer into ZARDOZ territory?