Getting into Trouble with Cat Rambo
This week’s story isn’t available online (sorry!) but if you click the picture to the left you’ll find the page for F&SF March/April 2016 where it appeared and, from there, links to places where you can purchase a copy. I love reading F&SF because it is one of the most eclectic mags around, and if you give it a try you’re bound to love at least a handful of the stories in these huge issues. And just a warning: spoilers ahead. I’ll be talking plot, so there’s really no avoiding them.
Sometimes one problem is not enough to get your character to the end of a story (although sometimes it is). Sometimes, you have to continually get your characters in trouble again and again, and it can be hard to think up compelling ways for them to get in trouble. It is, in fact, easy to brainstorm real awful, obvious things (off the top of my head: a set of apocalyptic heroes are starving, looking for food, so they go hunting but they can’t catch any meat, then they find out they’re poaching land claimed by a dictator, then a zombie hoard comes upon them and those zombies eat them alive).
What strikes me as more challenging is coming up with believable challenges and obstacles that push the story forward with out the sigh-worthy melodrama my above example.
Now, I can’t confess to being a die-hard Cat Rambo fan, but one story I read recently that really impressed me was “Red in Tooth and Cog” in F&SF‘s March/Apr issue. This story has a super clever premise: if all your appliances are vaguely self-aware and have the ability to modify themselves, what happens when they get loose? Rambo answers: they form an ecosystem and a society that we can witness only if we’re paying enough attention.
It’s a really neat story, and it does awesome work as far as getting the character into trouble in ways that are believable and that we can relate to.
What I’ll offer first is a sort of outline of the trouble that the main character, Renee, gets into, with some commentary in between each one. If mundane, the start of this story is decidedly distinct and bold. Here is the first data point, the first piece of trouble, that I offer.
1. “It was an expensive, new-model phone in a pretty case, and that was probably why it was stolen.” (40)
Doesn’t sound super interesting does it? But, you know, losing a phone is something many modern people can relate to and it’s an absolute pain. To help us toward this feeling, Rambo actually begins the story with a short meditation on the value of phones and, through negation, what you lose when you lose your phone. And to keep up the interest, we are shown our first glimpse into the mechanical ecosystem of this future Central Park. Her phone was stolen by a semi-conscious can opener.
To take the stakes further though, as Cat knows she must to keep the story going, she piles on to what has already been lost. The phone didn’t really matter, but the case “was customized, irreplaceable.” And that mystery carries us until we learn Renee’s grandmother’s gemstones had been set into that case, and that not only does Renee really want them back, she is also soon to see her grandmother, who will be very angry to find the gems missing. Renee spends a few pages searching the park and learning about this ecosystem, which is fun and the little bit of stakes in the background tells us it’s heading somewhere. She briefly mentions that she has “creative time” at work that allows her freedom to be in the park.
So you know where this is heading, don’t you?
2. “Work was suffering” (51).
What relateable trouble to be in: she got a little too invested in something outside of work and now her job is in jeopardy. It’s perhaps even more relateable than losing a phone and is definitely an increase in stakes. Losing a job has all of these implied horrors: eviction, hunger, crushing poverty. And we’re at this point in the story where we know that Renee can’t just give up her trips to the park. She’s too invested!
At the same time, the ecosystem in the park might not be around much longer. A park inspector is coming with some drones to scan the park for anomalies and when she finds them, she’ll send all the appliances for recycling where they’ll be shredded down to bits.
So we know where this is going too, but we’re waiting for it in suspense the whole time.
3. “Her supervisor called her in, a special meeting that left her hot-eyed, fighting back tears” (54).
Not surprising right? But then, it is, because she doesn’t get fired. Or written up. It’s a warning, an opportunity, a choice: give up your obsession, come back to this job you don’t really like (her training is in art) and you can keep your job, your lifestyle, your home. You can go back to the happy bejeweled-phone life you had before. She reacts to this choice presented to her, and it could be really easy to have her just walk away at this point, choose her job–all the conflicts are resolved, there’s no obstacle to push the story forward.
But then the next paragraph happens.
4. “There’s a way to save the creatures.”
“What is it?” Renee asks.
“But what is it?”
Right here, this exchange, made me give in to this story completely. On one hand, as a writer, I was thinking, isn’t that such an obvious move? Create a new struggle in the next paragraph? But then, it’s elegantly done (because a lot of foreshadowing has led to this point) and it’s exactly where it needs to be. Just as the tension drops away, it spikes right back up. And it’s the perfect time for this mission to appear because it is part of the choice she was presented with by her boss.
This could be a way out of her obsession. Let them all die.
And it’s brilliantly done because, even though she could easily get caught, it’s as simple as pressing a button. In the end, if she presses the button, she saves the little creatures and probably loses her job. If she doesn’t press it, she keeps her job, but loses this new world she’s discovered.
The tension of this leads us right to the end of the story. What do you think Renee chooses?
It’s an incredible structure. Very well controlled and thought out, and quite relateable. Ultimately I think the lesson I take from this story is that stakes don’t actually have to start with life and death, as long as they grow to something serious during the course of the story. And sometimes the trouble can be really mundane, everyday stuff, and that can have greater impact than all the zombie hoards on TV.
A lost phone? Trouble at work? Breaking the law for the greater good? We get these kinds of trouble.
They harbor immediacy.
The first two, at least, are pretty common. And are completely free of melodrama.
So when thinking of getting your character in trouble, maybe the best place to start is by mining your own life? Maybe something you take for granted would become real serious if it was threatened. Also, an even bigger takeaway: if you’ve run out of trouble, make more in the very next sentence. Don’t skip a line. Don’t transition. Just do it, and probably go back to foreshadow. Sometimes we are wrong when we’re writing and we feel like a move is clunky or obvious.
Do you have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? What are your experiences with getting characters into trouble?