Ever wonder what makes a book catch fire? What makes a book impossible to put down?
I found this gem of an essay on storytelling with an unlikely title, The Dance of the Flaming Chainsaws, by Benjamin Percy and wanted to pass it along to my readers. Percy wanted to understand how The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is 672 pages long, was so compulsively readable, so he read the book again with a pen and legal tablet, outlining the structure.
I paid particular attention to trouble. Emotional, physical, financial, familial, professional trouble. Mikael Blomkvist’s reputation has been slandered—he’s experiencing legal and financial issues—he’s sleeping with a married woman—he’s on the rocks with his daughter—he’s battling isolation and the elements on a cold northern island—he’s chasing down a labyrinthine mystery—his life is in danger—and on and on. His point of view is balanced out by Lisbeth Salendar’s. She is weighed down with troubles of her own and eventually their storylines thread together when they become lovers, partners.
I began to color code the major problems the characters faced—blue, black, red, green, yellow, pink, purple—and to track page numbers. Larson would introduce a blue problem on page 25, return to it on 78, 169, 240, 381, and so on, each time ratcheting up the tension and complicating things further. Interspliced with the blue problems were red problems, pink problems, a kaleidoscope of trouble, ever-changing
I have come to call these flaming chainsaws. Your success as a storyteller has to do with your ability to juggle them. Every time the flaming chainsaws pass through your hands, they gain speed, become more perilous, until at last they are extinguished.
Percy elaborates on how to use these flaming chainsaws in a dance:
The more characters you have, the bigger the book, the more flaming chainsaws. Let’s say the average novel has seven. One might be romantic (somebody chasing somebody for a date, a kiss, a relationship), another might be financial or professional (somebody getting fired or hunting for a promotion or hoping to keep their bakery afloat), another familial (a divorce is imminent, a child is getting into trouble at school), another physical (somebody can’t stop eating or blows out a knee or gets diagnosed with cancer).
You can read Percy’s essay in its entirety at The Dance of the Flaming Chainsaws. And if you don’t have flaming chainsaws in your story, you should throw in a few. I found this concept immensely constructive in my own work-in-progress.
I’m off to juggle!