Great Ideas, Poorly Executed

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” —Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

I’m a lifelong fan of the Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders. And for those who have followed the NFL for the past two decades, our team has seen better days. One of the comments I get used to hearing after a loss is: “Well, we had a solid plan going in. We just didn’t have the execution that we needed.”

Planning. Execution. Both are necessary when you are putting together a novel. Believe me I know, because after nearly two dozen published books, I have had my share of hurrahs as well as many oopsies.

As I plan future books, I occasionally come up with what I consider great, innovative ideas. Sometimes I even try them out, with varying degrees of success. And sometimes I see other people try them, and discover why it might not be a good idea to include those ideas in my work. Let’s take a look at two of them.

1. Technobabble. I’ve written a couple of science fiction books, and as someone who isn’t really a scientist (or even plays one on TV), there’s a natural tendency to overcompensate. You want to make sure that the readers believes you know what you are talking about. In my book Tesla’s Ghost, I wanted to make sure that I knew the physics behind Tesla’s work, so I read two books on him as well as two books on physics. Suffice it to say, I was more enamored with the working of electromagnetism than were my readers. I brought a section in for my students in Rough Writers creative writing club to read and they informed me that they just blew past the section that I had labored over that used physics to validate everything in the story. My former teaching colleague and film director Kyle Portbury always reminded me: “Remember: they are there for the story.” The moral: don’t get caught up in the exposition, the explanation, the technobabble. Just tell the story.

2. Linear vs. Non-linear storytelling. Non-linear storytelling has become quite popular in recent years, especially in TV and films. And that’s probably why novelists why me toy with the idea of incorporating this into their toolbox. But I suggest you think long and hard before doing so.

The plus: You can start with an exciting part of the story, and go back for past history, bringing the reader back to the main story occasionally. The idea is to balance the action with the context, giving the reader both excitement and character development.

However, there are other ways to do this. Perhaps better ways.

The problem: Non-linear storytelling runs the risk of confusing the reader. It has to be done well and carefully. I am currently reading a book that spends more than half the book in flashbacks. The idea is that the story makes more sense by understanding the background of the main characters. The problem is that (1) the back and forth bouncing around is confusing, accentuated by the scenes in the present being told not only in present tense but in first person; (2) there are many, many characters in the story that the reader needs to keep track of, which is harder when you are reading it non-linearly.

I had toyed with non-linear storytelling for the book I am currently working on. It consists of five sections with the last section consisting of a confrontation in 1939 between the protagonist and the antagonist. I had considered starting and ending with that scene, but then going back and telling what happened in the past 13 years before that as the bulk of the book. After seeing what happened in the book I am reading, I am convinced a more traditional linear approach will work better.

Those who are just getting started writing a book probably aren’t considering (and shouldn’t) complex storylines as I have talked about. It’s best when you first get started to simply tell the story of one person with as few characters as possible. But as you get more polished in your work, other considerations come up. You look at other tools as possibilities.

Just make sure the tools you use are the right ones for the job.