I love the word “workaround.” It is a word of fairly recent vintage. When software program users discover that a program has “bugs” – errors in coding that stop the program from functioning as it is meant to do – they create “workarounds.” Workarounds are fixes that don’t eliminate the coding errors, but that allow the program to work as it is meant to do despite the program’s hitting a wall. They are exercises in creativity and resourcefulness.
As a novelist works to shape a pageturner story – one that present readers with a resourceful hero facing a series of truly disastrous situations, the novelist actually needs to arrange for the hero to hit one or more walls. In a pageturner, a hero needs to face an impossible situation – a situation so dangerous or deadly situation he appears doomed.
In fact, readers love to see a hero in this situation. That is, of course, because they want to see how the hero will get himself out of it. It is exactly these “hit a wall” situations that glue readers to a book, and keep them turning pages.
But once a writer has placed his hero into a perilous apparent dead end, how does a writer get his hero out of his fix?
All the obvious saves are closed to the hero. (Or else the reader would have thought of the solution – and stopped reading.)
Enter the workaround – i.e., the resourcefulness of the hero. A hero’s workaround might appear to bend logic and defy gravity – but it makes the story’s “program” work!
A hero’s workarounds are limited only by the author’s imagination.
The only caveats to the pageturner author are as follows:
- Don’t limit yourself. Think big!
- At the same time, don’t “jump the shark.” Keep your hero’s workarounds within the scope of possibility – although amped up, hyper possibilities are fine.
Examples of workarounds:
Note: Spoiler warning – do not read the examples below if you haven’t read/viewed Goldfinger, The Hunger Games, Back to the Future, or Hitchcock’s classic 39 Steps.
- In Goldfinger, James Bond has been drugged by his nemesis, Goldfinger, and wakes to find himself on a hijacked jet guarded by Goldfinger’s goon, Oddjob. Bond extricates himself by breaking a window on the plane. This depressurizes the plane, sucking Oddjob out. Bond then fights and defeats Goldfinger and forces the crew to land in friendly waters.
- In The Hunger Games, a murderous gang pursues the heroine Katniss. They finally corner her up a tree. Confident she will have no option but to descend shortly, the gang rests beneath the tree, waiting for Katniss to come down so they can kill her. It appears to be curtains for the heroine, but (alerted by a friend), Katniss notices a tracker jacker (amped up wasps) nest hanging within her reach. She saws the nest from the limb it hangs on, it falls on her pursuers, and they flee in terror.
- In the Hitchcock classic, 39 Steps, the hero – a Canadian visiting Britain – has been framed for murder by a gang of spies. He believes he has reached a safe haven, the home of a professor who will help him notify the authorities both of his innocence and of an impending threat to Britain. But the professor turns out to be the leader of the gang of spies. The professor shoots the hero point blank and the hero collapses. In the next scene, we find that the bullet has been stopped by a prayerbook in the breast pocket of an overcoat a friend provided to the hero. (In this instance, it is the writer – not the hero – who is resourceful.)
Note: if Bond’s depressurization “save,” and the “book in the pocket” save now appear familiar, that is because they have been re-used by authors since Fleming and filmmakers since Hitchcock. In their day, these were spectacularly fresh. (In recent decades, the “book in the pocket” has been replaced by the bulletproof vest – as in Back to the Future.)
Somebody once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Workarounds (resourceful and surprising solutions) often save the day in real life. In pageturner fiction, they are a must.