True Story - bad plot!
On how I grappled for a gun - but could never use it in a book ...
Let me tell you a story, and before we get started, let’s break all the rules and list the main characters.
The first is a retired American naval officer called Tom. He is based in Madrid, and is an official military historian, in pursuit of which he visits every American military base in Western Europe (this was before the Berlin Wall came down) and collects reports from the sergeants collating the information. He is also – and everyone knows this – working for the CIA.
Our second character is called Juliet. She is a dark-haired French women in her late twenties/early thirties, and reminds me a little of Jeanne Moreau. She is in Madrid (living in the back of her car) because she is on the run after a series of armed jewellery store robberies. She is, additionally, a heroin user.
The third character is called Andre, and he is head of Madrid office of an Iron Curtain airline. That is all I know about him.
And then there is me – I am in my late thirties, an ex-teacher and struggling writer who has yet to have a book published.
The story begins ...
Towards the end of the 1980s, there was a small bar at the edge of a park in the centre of Madrid which had become a watering hole for some of the ex-pat community. It was used by teachers and journalists, insurance brokers, businessmen and engineers. It was there that I met Tom and Juliet. They had become a couple by that point, and Juliet was now in a much safer position than she had been formerly, since Tom, who had access to US passport blanks, had filled one in for her in the storeroom of the bar, thus giving her papers which would pass at least a superficial inspection.
They were an incongruous couple, but I liked them both, and we all got on well. Once, we went to the 4th of July celebrations at the American air force base, and half-way through the evening, Tom announced that he had to go back into the city, but would return within an hour – which he did.
The next day I was drinking at the bar when I saw one of the drug pushers who infested the park was hobbling round with his arm in a sling.
Who beat him up? I asked the barman (who knew everything!)
Do you mean who beat him up or who paid to have him beaten up? the barman asked.
I agreed that the latter would be the more interesting of the two questions.
Tom paid - last night, the owner said.
It appeared that the pusher had sold Juliet some bad dope, and Tom had left the celebrations to arrange for him to be punished. The problem was that, as he hobbled around the park, the pusher kept forgetting to limp.
Ah yes, the barman said, that’s because they didn’t actually beat him up, but, after all, everybody’s happy – none of the pusher’s bones were broken, the thugs came into a nice bit of money, and Tom believed he had had his revenge.
It was a few days later that Andre appeared on the scene. Tom was a slim, quiet man, but Andre was built like a bear, drank like a fish, and roared like a lion. No one could be unaware of his presence at the kiosk - and Juliet certainly wasn’t.
It was a Saturday morning, a few weeks later, that things came to a head. When I arrived at the bar, Tom was the only other customer, and though it was only eleven-thirty in the morning, he was already drunk.
‘Juliet didn’t come home last night,’ he told me. ‘I know who she was with, and when he gets here, I’m going to waste him.’
I might not have taken him seriously, but for the fact that I knew he always carried a gun in his shoulder holster.
Let’s go outside and discuss this, I suggested.
Sure, Tom agreed.
Once we had left the bar and slipped down a quiet alley where we could talk without interruption, Tom took out his weapon. Waving it around, he explained to me exactly where he was going to shoot Andre.
I asked him to give the gun, and he refused. I took hold of the barrel.
In the movies, this always works, because the guy with the gun doesn’t really want to use it, and is happy when his friend gives him a way out. This was not the movies. I pulled the barrel, Tom kept a firm grip.
It was at this point that I began to consider my own position. Though I didn’t want Andre to get shot, I had no strong feelings about him, and while I didn’t want Tom to go the jail for shooting him, I had even less desire to be shot myself. I released my grip on the barrel, and reverted to persuasion as a way of disarming him.
In the end, I managed to talk him into removing the magazine from his gun. It wasn’t ideal, but at least I wasn’t accidentally dead, and I figured that if Andre did turn up, I would have time, while an increasing drunk Tom reloaded, to warn him to get the hell out of there.
In fact, Andre didn’t come to the kiosk, because at that moment he was about to check Juliet onto a flight to somewhere in Eastern Europe. The generally-held theory was he wanted to get her behind the Iron Curtain, and then use that as leverage to get Tom to cooperate with the eastern intelligence services.
Juliet never boarded the plane, because an English journalist called William (who had attended the right sort of public school to attract the interest of the British intelligence services) “happened” to be at the airport, and talked her out of it. The last I heard of Juliet and Tom, they were living together, quite happily, in the south of Spain.
Looking back on what I’ve just written, I can find holes in the story you could drive a horse and cart through.
Would the CIA, for example, ever employ a man who was likely to fall for a foreign jewellery store robber? Of course not!
And if he did go off the rails in that way, wouldn’t someone at Langley have spotted it and taken the appropriate action? Absolutely!
Once the Soviet agent had talked Juliet into going behind the Iron Curtain, wouldn’t he have contrived some clever - inconspicuous – way to get her out of Spain, rather than using a conventional airline flight? Definitely!
And finally, if British intelligence wished to stop her leaving the country, wouldn’t they have come up with a better plan than having a middle-aged journalist try to talk her out of it? For sure!
The story as it stands simply doesn’t work. It’s not credible and it’s messy.
There are too many loose ends – too much left to chance. Before posting it, I should have gone over it again, and tidied it up.
Yet I can’t in all honesty do that, because although I have changed some of the details of the story, what I have written is exactly what happened in reality! **
And here we touch on one of the problems and challenges of writing, which is what is real doesn’t usually sound real.
Dialogue is a case in point. If you reproduce what people actually say, it often sounds awkward and unconvincing, and just not real (try it yourself) – so in order to sound real, you have produce dialogue which is (to some extent) artificial.
The same is true of plotting. You can’t make your characters too stupid (although some of the people your readers know often are). You can’t rely too much on chance, because while most folk are prepared to accept coincidence in their actual lives, they tend to think that a coincidence in a novel makes it seem less real.
Life is disorganised at best, and chaos at worst, and what most readers look for a book (I think) is some sense of order. They don’t like loose ends, and they don’t like anti-climaxes, although their own lives are full of both.
And why should they?
If the author doesn’t provide them with an escape, then what is he there for?
Of course, the reader knows, on one level, that the work is a fiction. He knows that the people murdered in it never existed, and that the police officers tracking them down are simply the author’s creations. But, on another level, he is prepared to suspend his disbelief, which is why, although he knows the characters are built only of words, he can get slightly depressed if they meet an unjustifiable sticky end.
And if the reader is prepared to take this leap of faith, then surely it is the responsibility of the writer to create a context in which this leap is possible – and he cannot do that by writing about things as they really are!
** Perhaps I should clarify that: I know I wrestled for the gun in the alley, but since I got much of the information second-hand, I cannot prove it, and can only say I really do believe that’s what happened.