Monday, August 09, 2010

What Works: Small Favor by Jim Butcher

This week I return to my "What Works" blog feature where I discuss what's done well in an excerpt from a book. Today we'll look at a passage from Jim Butcher's Small Favor.

First a bit of set-up: in this scene, the protagonist Harry Dresden is trying to escape from an enormous creature called a gruff. A gruff is a huge, sentient, occasionally-magic-wielding billy goat--as in the three billy goats Gruff.

And hence you know the Harry Dresden series features a lot of humour.
Small Favor by Jim Butcher

Anybody with an ounce of sense knows that fighting someone with a significant advantage in size, weight, and reach is difficult. If your opponent has you by fifty pounds, winning a fight against him is a dubious proposition, at best.

If your opponent has you by eight thousand and fifty pounds, you've left the realm of combat and enrolled yourself in Roadkill 101. Or possibly in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.


My body, meanwhile, had flung itself to one side forcing Tiny to turn as he pursued me, limiting his speed and buying me a precious second or three--time enough for me to sprint toward a section of floor marked off by a pair of yellow caution signs, where Joe the janitor had been waxing the floor. I crossed the wet, slick floor at a sprint and prayed that I wouldn't trip. If I went down it would take only one stomp of one of those enormous hooves to slice me in half.

Footgear like that isn't so hot for slippery terrain, though. As soon as I crossed to the other side of the waxed floor I juked left as sharply as I could, changing direction. Tiny tried to compensate and his legs went out from under him.

That isn't a big deal, by itself. Sometimes when you run something happens and you trip and you fall down. You get a skinned knee or two, maybe scuff up your hands, and very rarely you'll do something worse, like sprain your ankle.

But that's at human mass. Increase the mass to Tiny's size, and a fall becomes another animal entirely, especially if there's a lot of velocity involved. That's one reason why elephants don't ever actually run--they aren't capable of it, of lifting their weight from the ground in a full running stride. If they fell at their size, the damage would be extreme, and evidently nature had selected out all those elephant wind sprinters. That much weight moving at that much speed carries a tremendous amount of energy--enough to easily snap bones, to drive objects into flesh, to scrape the ground hard enough to strip a body to the bone.

Tiny must have weighed twice what an elephant does. Five tons of flesh and bone came down all along one side of his body and landed hard--then slid, carrying so much momentum that Tiny more resembled a freight train than any kind of living being. He slid across the floor and slammed into the wall of a rental car kiosk, shattering it to splinters--and went right on through it, hardly even slowing down.

Tiny dug at the floor with the yellow nails of one huge hand, but they didn't do anything but peel up curls of wax as he went sliding past me.
In this excerpt, Jim Butcher demonstrates how to handle explaining something that is not necessarily intuitive or believable to your reader.

My field of study was physics, so E=½mv² makes perfect sense to me. However, this is a book where magic is real--and where the author doesn't want to count on the reader remembering their high school physics.

If Mr. Butcher had merely shown Tiny being vanquished by falling down, it would have seemed a bit too convenient and thus unbelievable. After all, people and animals fall down all the time, and as Mr. Butcher points out, in our experience that's not a big deal. Furthermore, this book is set in a world where magic exists. Why would a magical creature necessarily be damaged by stumbling?

And so, Mr. Butcher eases you through a dubious plot point that would normally threaten your suspension of disbelief. He starts by acknowledging what your logical reservations to this moment would be--you've fallen down, and you know it's not so bad. Then he explains those reservations away--yeah, it's not bad for you, but for a larger animal, it could be devastating.

Then he gives you a vivid idea of what would happen to a large animal if it fell down while travelling at speed--broken bones, stripped flesh, impaled by foreign objects, oh my.

Then, and only then, he shows the gruff crashing down and sliding past the protagonist like a freight train, helpless to stop itself. And at that point, it's believable to you that this would happen.

If the tumble had occurred without all this explanation, your mind would have slipped out of the story for a moment while it puzzled over whether to actually believe this could happen. By convincing you before showing you, Mr. Butcher keeps your mind firmly planted inside the narrative.

Note Mr. Butcher hasn't actually explained away every reservation you might have. The gruff is a magical creature; why wouldn't it have natural defences against this sort of thing? If the world of the novel is already so divorced from our mundane reality that the gruff exists, why not divorce it a bit further so the gruff can exist? Without needing a LifeCall pendant?

The fact is, as long as your brain believes this event could happen, you'll keep ploughing through the exciting narrative without pausing long enough to realize it doesn't necessarily make sense even now. The author has convinced you this moment is plausible, and that is enough sleight-of-hand to keep your willing suspension of disbelief intact.

It's worth looking back at this excerpt and analyzing how it breaks down in terms of "show" versus "tell". There's a lot of "telling" in this passage, but all of it is necessary so Mr. Butcher can explain away your reservations. He does intersperse the "telling" with "showing" to keep you grounded in the story, but he also holds your interest with a few additional tricks.

Or possibly in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

...evidently nature had selected out all those elephant wind sprinters.

Humour will keep people reading things that don't necessarily have a strong narrative, and the lines above are pretty funny. They act as a reward that keeps you reading through paragraphs that are otherwise striving to tell you something fairly boring about mass, velocity and energy.

Mr. Butcher also keeps his physics lesson vivid and visceral with plenty of real world examples you can picture in your head.

You get a skinned knee or two, maybe scuff up your hands...

That's one reason why elephants don't ever actually run--they aren't capable of it...

By doing these things, and by returning to the action via "showing" quite often, Mr. Butcher eases you through a problematic moment in the story--a point when you might have gone "hmm..." if he hadn't been using a variety of skills to keep you reading onward.

At a seminar I attended given by Donald Maass, he noted that writers of high-concept thrillers have to be able to do this on a larger scale. They can convince us that Jesus has been cloned, OMG, or some other insane thing--but they have to do it carefully in order to keep the reader's suspension of disbelief intact. He noted these authors start small, and convince us one tiny part of the whole picture is plausible. Then, they convince us that some other part of the mystery is also a possibility.

And so on, and so on, until they have built up the whole picture and have us, the reader, completely buying into a concept that would have made us laugh if we'd heard it cold, i.e. without all the careful build-up.

Mr. Butcher is doing exactly this--and skillfully too--but on a very small scale.

IN SUMMARY: What works about this excerpt is the author eases us through a moment when our suspension of disbelief might have been threatened. He does this by acknowledging our reservations and explaining them away, all the while keeping us engaged with the narrative via humour, vivid examples, and by returning to the action often during an extended period of "telling".


Can you remember a book where the author made you firmly believe something outrageous? How did they do it? What tricks did they use? What pulled you in? And did you enjoy the ride? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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