Spoilers ahead? You bet.
Writers are very often sedentary, even intellectual types. If we didn’t like the world inside our heads better than the one out there, why would we write? Okay, there are notable exceptions. Hemingway liked to fish. Shakespeare preferred being on stage. But I’m just saying there’s a type. Jeans and a sports jacket. Whisky not brandy. Men (and women) of letters are a tribe apart.
This can cause problems, because obviously readers like stories they can believe in, but often writers have unrealistic and pretty unbelievable ideas about how the world works. For example, I was watching a movie based on a Stieg Larsson book. Let me tell you how I’d escape from Colditz if the rules of reality were like in the movie. First I’d attack a guard. He may shoot me a couple of times, but as long as it’s just a handgun I’m okay. Then the guards would carry me out to the cemetery. Maybe the officer even guesses I’m not dead (he’s used handguns before) but he goes ahead and has me buried alive. Maybe a shallow grave, just two or three feet, as it’s all I deserve. He thinks I’m done for. The fool. What he doesn’t know: I have the lid off a coffee tin in my pocket, and I can use that to dig my way to the surface.
It’s a story, you say? It doesn’t have to be realistic? Well, see, it does – realistic within the rules of the world you’ve set up in your story, at least. Road Runner physics is not kosher with Newton, but we understand and accept how the cartoon world works. In a thriller, if you have your hero shot and then buried, the reader is going to be on the edge of their seat. How the hell is she going to get out of this? Maybe her phone..? Her journalist friend could find her by ringing it, locating the sound, and digging her up. But no, the answer is simpler than that: she’s Supergirl. You sap, for ever supposing there would be a clever solution.
You may feel inclined to forgive the poor writer for not knowing about guns and burials and stuff. Again, I can’t agree. Here is a simple experiment that would have told him what he needed to know. Go to a garden centre (as the characters do in the movie at one point, funnily enough) and pick up a bag of soil. Man, that’s heavy, right? Now lie on the ground and get a friend to load a couple of those bags on your chest. Another couple on your head, your arms, your stomach, your thighs, your ankles. Now sit up. You see? You didn’t even have to leave the comfort of your chair; the thought experiment is enough on its own. (Einstein figured out the whole of relativity using thought experiments, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a thriller writer might give it a go for the sake of a story.)
Of course, in The Girl Who Played With Fire, the soil isn’t in bags. The character is actually buried in a grave with two or three feet of soil packed on top of her. But wait – she has a cigarette case, thoughtfully given to her, not by Q, but by her girlfriend. So naturally she digs herself out of the grave.
Right, thought experiment number two. Imagine yourself under those fourteen or so bags of soil. And let’s suppose you are equipped with an oxygen tank. And haven’t got any bullets in you, ‘cause after all it was just a revolver and they only do flesh wounds. Okay, you have a trowel in your hand. Now what? You can’t lift your arm. Ah, so you start with a kind of rotating motion of the wrist, working the trowel around. Visualize that. Close your eyes, smell the damp soil, feel the weight. Focus on that hand with the trowel. What’s happening as you work it around?
You don’t need to be Einstein to figure out that you’ll dislodge a bit of soil and another bit will fall to take its place. On the surface, you wouldn’t even see the minute depression created as the soil settles in above where you’re moving the trowel. What you are actually doing here – the only thing you’ll be able to achieve – is shifting the soil so that it’s more compact than it was to begin with. And, without leverage, you’ll never get your arm to the point where you can actually dig upwards – never mind that the soil has nowhere to go, so you can’t create any kind of a hole anyway.
Moles do it? Yes they do. They take soil from in front of them and they pass it back and pack it behind them. They’ve had a few million years of evolution to help out with that, not only with body shape but with tolerance of carbon dioxide too. And that’s tunnelling. You take a mole, shoot it a couple of times, and bury it in your garden, and that sucker is not coming back.
Writers need to put some thought into their stories, because they are asking us to invest our time and our imagination in those stories, to believe what is happening to the characters and to care. Life and death decisions are made, for stakes higher than we see in everyday life, and for the story to thrill us the writer must keep the contract with the reader. They must play fair. Invent a Superman, but invent Kryptonite too – and then stick to your rules.
Here's William Goldman - a writer who always does the work so that his surprises and reversals suspend disbelief without actually burying it alive:
ANNIEWhen I was growing up in Bakersfield, my favourite thing in the whole world was to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons for the Chapter Plays.PAULCliffhangers.ANNIEI know that, Mr. Man! They also called them serials. I'm not stupid ya know... Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no-brakes chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn't cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn't what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn't fair! HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODIE CAR!