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Give ‘Em The Heater

In some ways, writing fiction is like being a baseball pitcher. (And in one very important way it’s completely different, but we’ll get to that.) Sometimes you have to get something by the reader, and you have a variety of tools for doing so.

The unfortunate fact is that no story of any length is completely airtight. Quite often, if the reader stops to think about things, they may spot holes in your plot, or an anachronism, or begin to doubt some character’s motivation, or some other thing you’d just as soon they didn’t. Or perhaps you want to misdirect the reader, to set up a plot twist later; you have to have clues to the impending twist, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when the twist is revealed, but you don’t want her picking up on it too soon.

You might finesse it; throw the reader a curve or change up, that looks like it’s going one way, but ends up going another. Or you might try to just blow it past her, moving events along so quickly that she has no time to stop and reflect. Either way, you have to execute with skill.

Here’s a case where the author didn’t execute properly. In THE PARTNER John Grisham tries to get a few things past the reader. (Spoilers ahead, if that applies to a thirteen-year-old book.) First, he raises the question of who sold out runaway lawyer Patrick Lanigan, leading to his capture, torture, and extradition to the United States to stand trial for a slew of crimes. Grisham drops hints that it was Lanigan’s Brazilian girlfriend, but isn’t very convincing. The reader (most readers, I think, though perhaps I am overestimating the average reader) recognizes the slider coming out of his hand and is not fooled. Only two people could have betrayed Lanigan; the girlfriend and Lanigan himself. We don’t really believe that it was the girlfriend, so it is obvious from fairly early in the book that Lanigan himself must have tipped off his pursuers in exchange for the reward money. And in fact, near the end of the book, it is revealed that that is exactly what happened; after years on the run Lanigan got tired of looking over his shoulder and dropped a dime on himself (in exchange for a couple million dollars).

This exposes a plot hole big enough to sail a carrier battle group through. If Lanigan was tired of running, there was no need for him to arrange for his own capture by unscrupulous private investigators, then return to the US to stand trial. All he had to do was open negotiations with the FBI from the safety of Brazil and, with the improbable masses of documentation he has, settle matters without all the unsightly fuss of torture and arrest. This would have made for a very short book, unfortunately. Grisham tries to finesse this point past the reader, fails, and so fails the book. He hangs the curve ball, and the reader hits it out of the park.

The second place where Grisham really fails in this book is the ending. He tries a surprise twist, but it is completely unconvincing. His curve bounces in the dirt and rolls to the backstop.

(About two-thirds of the way through the book I found myself thinking, “I hope Grisham doesn’t have the girl run off with the money at the end. That would be really stupid.” And it was.)

The opening of the book, though, where Grisham relies on velocity, works pretty well. Perhaps the heater is his best pitch?

Like a pitcher, the writer cannot keep trying the same thing and hope to have success. You might blow something past the reader once, or drop a plot curve in for a strike, but if you probably aren’t going to be able to blow two or three plot holes or dubious character actions past the reader. She will eventually catch on, and once that happens you’ve lost her. Use the same trick over and over and the reader will come to expect it. (I’ve enjoyed several of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, but his persistent gimmick of going to great lengths to disguise a character’s identity, trying to trick the reader into thinking that one character is actually another, finally turned me off.) Mix things up; if you used a sex scene one time to keep the reader from thinking about the clues you just planted, next time use a fight. Or some other entertaining digression. (Royale with cheese?) Keep the reader guessing about what you’re going to throw next, and you will both be happier with the outcome.

That, you see, is the biggest difference between a pitcher and a writer (aside from quibbles about physique, and possibly spitting), is that the pitcher wants to beat the hitter. They are in opposition. The writer wants to delight and entertain the reader. You don’t want to fool the reader to make her look bad, but rather to increase her enjoyment of your work.

Even if, sometimes, you have to just rear back and blow something past ’em.