Sunday, 27 April 2008


The excitement's building: my outline's coming together and I'm approaching that moment when I sit with a blank piece of paper and write the words Chapter One. Although I might not call them chapters - I haven't yet decided. Maybe Ghoul One. We'll see. Or maybe I could replace chapter headings with internal organs. I digress.

Having recently reminded myself that the most page-turnery book I have ever read was Torey Hayden's Ghost Girl, I figured I could do worse than re-read the book and examine its behaviour.
Again, I was captivated.

A few chapters (or spleens) in, several things occurred to me:

1) Her tone is very affable. That's to say that she writes with a barely concealed humility and optimism. That's to say that you just can't help liking Torey and trusting her. And wondering if she's single. Hmmm.

2) Her language is very simple. On several occasions, I found myself a little annoyed that she would use three words when she could have used one; I felt her vocabulary might be slightly not-quite-as-good-as-it-could-have-been. Deficient. Inadequate. However, this is a part of the book's charm - that she writes almost conversationally, enhancing the one-to-one, real, normal, typical person effect. (I would say that this is preferable to the author who attempts to impress through language, but we might be entering a literary fiction vs commercial fiction debate. It just so happens that I have one of those forthcoming!)

c) The pace is quick, steady and unremitting. It's not frantic, but it seldom gives the reader an opportunity to make a cup of tea. Maybe 'steady' is the novel's mantra.

kidney) Punctuation, like the language, is perfunctory. I counted only a handful of semi-colons, and she likes using them just before the word 'however'. That's nice.

But the secret to this book's success ..?


The book begins with Torey on her way to a new school.
What will it be like? What will her special needs kids be like?
It's a long drive, but she's there at her new school, meeting her four kids, by the end of the first chapter. No messing about. The first few questions are answered.

Very quickly, we're presented with the big mystery - the one which keeps us turning pages:
What is wrong with Jadie?

Torey gets a handle on the other kids immediately. They function primarily as foils.
Jadie is an elective mute (she chooses not to speak at school) and she hobbles around, hunched - almost doubled up - clutching her belly.
Why is she like this? What's up with Jadie?

By the end of the second chapter, Torey, having had experience with elective mutes, has succeeded in getting Jadie to speak. But the hunching remains a mystery.
Jadie speaks of a girl named Tashee whom she plays with.

Chapter three: Torey speaks with the regional psychologist and they discuss Jadie.
The chapter ends with Jadie revealing the cause of her hobbling: if she doesn't clutch her stomach, her insides will fall out.

It's the same question: What's wrong with Jadie? But we feel as though this mystery is slowly being unravelled. We are moving forwards.

Chapter four: Torey sets up a videocam to record her interaction with the kids. When she plays back the tape after school, she is surprised to see a bit extra at the end. Jadie swoops like a ghost and speaks to the camera: Help me.

Chapter five follows the same formula. Torey mulls over Jadie's problems, and a new piece of information is revealed in the last line: we learn that Tashee died over a year ago. Jadie plays with a ghost.

Chapter six - the same routine. Jadie draws queer symbols. Torey puzzles. The chapter ends with Jadie explaining 'X marks the spot.'

And so on. We move through the possibilities of hallucinations, then onto sexual abuse, and then to witchcraft. The pattern is established. We have a question; we are offered a nugget of information which moves us closer to the answer. Dynamic development. Always changing, always moving towards the end ...

Next week's Doctor Who contains yet another countdown. The countdown has always been an important sausage in the Doctor Who diet. I do feel that Russell has gone a bit countdown crazy (and maybe he just misses Richard Whitely), but I shouldn't complain.

So what's cool about the countdown?
It inherently poses the question: What happens at zero?
We'll typically be presented with the projected outcome and this might or might not come to fruition (prophetic direction or misdirection).
Imagine how unlikely it is that someone would tear themselves away from a book or tv show in the middle of a countdown!

And that's the secret of Ghost Girl (and The DaVinci Code). It's a drawn out mystery. With each new nugget of information - with each new reveal - another number falls away as we plough inexorably towards zero. Everything else exists either to fuel this countdown or to keep the reader inside the novel (here I'm referring to sensory stimulae and character bonding and the like).

How does this help me as I prepare my outline?

It reminds me that I must always have an unanswered question, and that I must always move towards the answer. I can have lots of questions if I like, but I must always be developing the plot - tugging the reader towards zero.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ...

I don't think the question needs to be explicit. Sunset Bickham illustrates the concept of the scene question with a ship hunting for a U-Boat. The implied question is 'Will the ship discover the U-Boat?' Furthermore, he suggests that resolution should always lead into a new question. Similarly, we don't need to have it explained to us that the countdown ends at zero. We already understand and accept this.

And if I don't do this?
Imagine the countup as opposed to the countdown.
There's no sign of a resolution - no visible sign of something to look forwards to. We're always moving, but it's an aimless, unfocused wander.
... 306, 307, 308, 309, 310, 311 ...

Or imagine if the countdown reaches zero and continues: -1, -2, -3 ...

No comments: