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?
Jasper Fforde is a master at this. Everything in the Thursday Next books is perfectly normal in their world but utterly bizarre. Love it.
I have to admit that Victor Gishler's book sounded interesting, but when I went to Amazon and discovered that the e-book price is $11.99 I scratched him off my list. This is too bad, this is not the first book I've discovered on a blog that I might have enjoyed, but I won't even spend that kind of money for an e-book by one of my favorite writers, much less an unknown. I think that the publishers are killing a lot of writer's careers with their unrealistic e-book pricing.
Alaska eh? There's got to be a Sarah Palin joke in there somewhere! 😀 How about an ensemble cast that comes at the story in ways that make you momentarily wonder, why is this in the book…only to have everyone come together in some truely unexpected way that works because, it's fiction and it's damn well written (Dickens, Hugo).
O J.D.! How could you have ruined Sean Connery for me? I'll never think of my favorite James Bond the same way again.
Westlake's Dortmunder series does that for me. So many of the jobs are just so ridiculous and you never know if gang is going to succeed or not. The one where they heisted a bank located in a temporary trailer just killed me.
And I love Lois MacMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan because here's this horribly physically crippled guy — who is also brilliant — who lives in a society where physical prowess is highly valued. And yet Miles has these astounding swashbuckler adventures and even gets the girl.
A blind, female auto mechanic in the book written by one of Rati's own – Louise Ure's, The Fault Tree, did it for me. Hooked me from the first line – outrageous odds, outrageously funny!
And I second PK's suggestion of Jasper Fforde. What a wonderfully invented world.
The first “I can’t believe she is going to do that/did that moment” that pops into my head is when Grandma Mazur shoots the chicken in Evanovich's ONE FOR THE MONEY. But, the character that personifies these moments, and does so almost one after the other, is Toni’s Bobbie Faye.
I have never read Jasper Fforde, but after checking his books out on Amazon, I have put his first book on the must read list. One of the kings of the “Audacity Factor” is Douglas Adams, not only in his Hitchhiker’s series but also in his Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective books.
I highly recommend SOULLESS by Gail Carriger. It is a combination a comedy of manners, a Victorian romance, Steampunk science and alternate reality. Alexia Tarabotti lives in a 19th century London where vampires, werewolves and ghosts are part of society, including the titled gentry. Even in this reality Tarabotti is special, unlike the supernaturals, that have an abundance of soul, she is a preternatural with no soul. A secret kept from most of society, including her step father, silly mother and half sisters.
I don’t know if Mathew Reilly’s Shane Schofield books move into ZARDOZ territory, but Schofield and his team’s impossible escapes from death, which occur repeatedly, are very annoying.
Oh, and thanks Dusty for warping my image of Sir Sean Connery’s forever. What the hell was he thinking when he took that part.
Great post! Makes me feel like I don't have a creative bone in my body!
Anything time travel related I adore, but that's a different kind of world-building. I agree about Jasper Fforde, those are brilliant.
Clearly I'm going to have to give Fforde another chance. I found him on first read to be just a little TOO clever, without enough story. But I'm willing to be persuaded.
And Louises' and Toni's books…of course!
Stephen, I'm sure you have several creative bones.
Stephen, seriously? The incarnation of Kerouac thinks he's not creative? Nah, we'll just ignore that one! 🙂
JD, I couldn't get into Fforde the first time. I had to listen to the audiobook and the Brit/Monty Python humor really shines. 🙂
I am a fan of Jasper Fforde as well. While I like his other work I find his Thursday Next series to be his best work.
The "Audacity Factor" ruled the pulp fiction world of the 1930's and 40's. Operator 5 book series featured zombies and America being conquered by the "Purple Empire". The Spider series was also known for going that extra mile over the top.
Then there were the "men adventure' paperbacks such as The Destroyer (by Warren Murphy & Richard Sapir) to the soft porn adventures of The Coxeman (by Michael Avallone and others).
How about Ross H. Spencer? Greg Mandel's "High Hat" (the Pope as a PI). John Swartzwelder's "The Time Machine Did It".
Fforde and Spencer both have almost a cult fan favorite feel to the readers reaction to their work. You either are die hard fans or you think us die hard fans are nuts.
SF and fantasy are more acceptable to over the top ideas because the writer sets up the entire universe, while mystery and thrillers exist in our reality. Spencer worked in a parody universe while Fforde uses the sf/fantasy device of an alternative universe. Mandel's Pope as a PI failed to make me believe the character was the Pope, acting and talking more like a hardboiled PI than a religious leader. Swartzwelder also used fantasy elements but seemed unsure which genre, mystery PI or sf, he was spoofing.
Certainly today's Vampires and monsters walking among us qualify.
My favorite of today's over the top modern cozy mystery is Leslie Langtry's "'Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy" featuring a single mom who, as her entire family, is a professional hitman. How about Christopher Moore, Elmore Leonard, etc?
Of course, I might add Toni McGee Causey but living in Louisiana I find her work more based in true reality and almost non-fiction.
I too have to admit a definite attachment to Miles Vorkosigan (Lois McMaster Bujold) and Cadence Moran (Louise Ure) – heh for obvious reasons, perhaps. I also have a huge keenness for Harley's Wollie and her brother PB Shelley, especially in their relationship. And Wollie alone, free spirit with a conformist goal– really fun.
But, JD I did not need to see that photo of Sean Connery. Hey, that is not funny.
"(the Pope as a PI)"
I must have this book, I MUST.
How could I forget George H. Chesboro's Mongo the Magnificent books?
"Dr. Robert Frederickson, also known as Mongo the Magnificent, is a criminologist, ex-circus headliner, martial-arts expert, and private eye, who also happens to be a dwarf. The Mongo series is a blend of mystery, suspense, science fiction, and the supernatural."
JD, and how could I forget Robert Leslie Bellem? The list is endless, isn't it?
High Hat by Greg Mandel is available over at Amazon or I could give you my copy if you'd like.
Michael, that made my day. And yeah, I kinda felt bad labeling that "fiction."