The Writer As Houdini

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On March 27, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have written myself into a roadblock.

So in my WIP, the bad king’s plan is to release a deadly epidemic on his kingdom then go away before he gets infected and bring back an enormous army to conquer the remaining weak subjects. The good guys have a plan to cure the disease, thwarting that part, but it is totally unrealistic for them to throw together an army in less than a month when they haven’t had one for a good number of years (BTW anything that seems like a loose end in this summary all checks out in the actual story it’s just too complicated to explain it all here). I considered having a good guy send a letter to the approaching army with all sorts of bluffs in hopes of scaring them off, but that’s also unrealistic.

I need some help, please!! I have no clue how I’m going to get out of this.

A few of you responded.

Kyryiann: You could have a group that wasn’t happy underneath the King’s rule and was already planning on raising an army anyway. Or have veterans of war be able to call on their old contacts, who are close by.

Melissa Mead: Maybe one of the disgruntled subjects is the one who crafted the disease, and they expose the evil king to it. When the army sees their king showing signs of the Dreaded Plague, while the opposition looks perfectly healthy, they flee.

Christie V Powell: Sounds like list time! Feel free to list any of these you like and keep going.

An army is made up of people. That means they can be changed. Perhaps if you feed them propaganda, they’ll doubt their orders or even switch sides. Perhaps you could send a special task force in to defeat just the leaders, so that they’re now the ones issuing orders to the army. You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural. You could use a natural barrier of some kind to block the army, such as an avalanche clogging a mountain pass or redirecting a river to make a flood. You could speak to the king’s underlings, sub-captains and whatnot, and offer them the cure in exchange for the king’s life.

Me: I’m so glad to see a LIST! Thank you, Christie V Powell!

Yay, Writing Ballerina! You’ve made a mess–and that the writer’s job. It’s our task to tie our MCs and other characters the reader cares about into knots that would challenge Houdini. I’ve done this more than once without an exit strategy.

Christy V Powell’s list is great, although I suspect she might have cut the stupid ideas that crop up in all my lists, like the giant frog that materializes in the evil king’s bedchamber and kills him with its acidic slobber.

Let’s look at this one of Christy V Powell’s possibilities: You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural.

The You here would probably be the MC, and everything will turn on the characters of the MC and the evil king, whom we’ll call Zigurd, and we’ll call the MC Lady Edna, who is a renowned warrior.

Let’s start with the Zigurd. What might make him susceptible to persuasion by Edna?

We make another list:

∙ He’s considers himself a visionary and likes to delegate the nasty details to others.

∙ He has this deep-down fear that at bottom he’s not very clever, so anyone who sounds brilliant can win him over.

∙ He’s susceptible to flattery.

∙ He devises unpleasant loyalty tests. If Edna passes, she’s in.

∙ He has a mistaken idea that he’s fabulous at reading other people. He tends to guess wildly wrong about people’s motives.

You can keep going. Note that I’ve listed only qualities that make him vulnerable. We also need for him to be formidable, which may require another list.

Onto Edna:

∙ Her beloved brother was killed by Zigurd. She’s willing to sacrifice her life to bring the king down. What she lacks in skill, she makes up in determination.

∙ She is better than good at flattery. She has a knack for making people feel loved, no matter what the truth is.

∙ She’s a super-skilled liar.

∙ She’s a pastry chef, and her mother is an herbalist. (We may need to add to Zigurd’s list that he’s a glutton.)

∙ She’s a whiz at chess. Her thinking is always three steps ahead of everyone else’s.

Again, we can continue. And again, I’ve listed only qualities that make success possible. We also need traits that will handicap her–another list.

In both cases, the characters can have more than one quality on our list.

The reason for the second list in each case (of strengths for the villain and weaknesses for the hero) is that we don’t want to make success too easy. First Edna has to get into Zigurd’s good graces, and she may fail a few times along the way. Then, she needs to put her plan into operation, and this shouldn’t go smoothly either. Until the moment when Zigurd swallows the poison, the reader’s knuckles on the book should be pale.

The point is that, almost always, the resolution, happy or tragic, of terrible situations goes straight to character. Houdini got out of the restraints he set for himself because he was Houdini. I would have been dead if I tried his stunts. I just googled him, and a quick look suggests that people who preceded him used their skills at getting out of restraints to create other illusions. Houdini seems to have been first to make escape the main event. He was the real Houdini.

There’s another principle we can bring to bear: setting things up early. Suppose we decide Zigurd gives loyalty tests, and that’s how Edna will win him over. We show him giving a loyalty test to someone else earlier in our story. And to ratchet up the tension, we show the consequences of failing. Then, when Edna gets tested, the reader recognizes the pattern: Zigurd doesn’t trust people until they’ve proven themselves.

If we want to bring in a natural event, like the avalanche on Christie V Powell’s list, we have to be sure there are mountains in our setting and that people sometimes start them and know how to–more or less-aim them.

We’re always going for both the surprising and the believable. Surprising, because we’ve used sleight-of-hand (speaking of Houdini) to divert the reader from thinking about avalanches, and believable because the reader remembers that there are avalanches in this world.

Before I began learning to be a writer, I was into watercolor painting, about the least forgiving artistic medium there is. If I made a mistake–and I made lots of them–the painting was ruined.

But writing is kind. We can revise and revise again. If we need to change Edna or Zigurd or both, if we need to grow a few mountains or introduce a loyalty test, to save the day, we can go back and do it.

I don’t recommend revising until we finish our first draft if we can possibly keep going. We make a note of the revision and continue writing as if the revision has happened.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick the loyalty-test option. Write the scene when Edna takes it. Make it touch and go. Make the consequences of failure evident.

∙ Write the scene in which Edna wins Zigurd’s trust.

∙ Write the scene in which Zigurd eats the poisoned meatloaf (or roast hart). Make Edna almost have to eat it, too. If you’re up for it, write his suffering and slow death.

∙ Invent an escape artist. Think about the qualities she needs to be successful. Develop a plot around her and write the scene in which she tries her most daring stunt. Decide if you want her to succeed or fail.

Have fun, and save what you write!