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by Seuzz
Rated: ASR · Outline · Action/Adventure · #2117047
Review/analysis of the Hugh Lloyd novel
Summary: "The Lost Mine of the Amazon (outline)

This novel was reprinted in the Boy Detective Megapack, and I guess it's not misplaced there. But this is more of an adventure story than a mystery, and Hal Keen's deductions are flashes of author-provided insight rather than conclusions inferred from evidence.

The plot manages to be both busy and simple at the same time, which sounds like a better compliment than it is. Hal Keen (whose age I don't recall and maybe wasn't stated) is traveling up the Amazon with his uncle. The latter is acting on behalf of the United States government, which in cooperation with the Brazilian government is trying to stop a flow of arms to a rebel group. Uncle Denis is on the trail of the arms merchant who has been arranging the sales, and he is quickly victimized (via theft) by rebel agents trying to thwart him. The mystery of who the rebel agent is quickly falls by the wayside when Hal and an expatriate go for an airplane joyride that ends in a plane crash. Hal tries to hike back to civilization, in the course of which he is taken in by native tribesmen, then by the descendants of Confederate refugees, and finally gets captured by the rebel army but turns it around to rescue those Confederates after they are kidnapped by those natives. The "lost mine" of the title is almost an afterthought -- a MacGuffin that is introduced way too late and as a distraction from conflicts that would be harder to solve.

Now, this doesn't sound very simple, so why did I call it "simple"? Because the book follows only one rule, and follows it pretty rigorously: Always increase the tension.

Every time something happens, something worse has to happen next. Hal sees a man trying to steal his uncle's wallet; worse, he was probably trying to steal a secret document; worse, he succeeds in stealing it; worse, without the letter the heroes can't get in to see the governor because the document held their credentials; worse, while killing time before getting in to see the governor by other channels, Hal crashes two hundred miles out in the jungle; worse, he gets attacked by dangerous animals; worse, after being rescued by natives he transgresses against a taboo and is going to be shot at dawn ... etc., etc.

And if you can overlook the thin characterization and the hokey dialogue, this is just about enough to keep the reader interested as the book progresses. It is surprising, in places, at just how much trouble the author is willing to pile onto his hero's shoulders, and that willingness to pile it on thick creates enough involvement to pull you along.

Did I say "just about enough to keep the reader interested"? All by itself, it probably would be, but for the book's structural failures.

The main one is the book's diffuse set of goals. It is all over the place in terms of giving Hal something to worry about. First it's an espionage story. Then, after the plane crash, it's a wilderness survival tale. After he falls in with the Confederate Pembertons it turns into a mild mystery as he figures out their connection to the rebels and the mysterious "Renan." Then it turns into a straight adventure as he tries to save the Pembertons from the villainous SeƱor Goncalves.

There are two ways of understanding this problem. The general problem is that there is no unified pattern to the story. It's true that each incident follows logically on the previous one, but not just the identity of the threat, but the nature and even the atmosphere of the conflict change radically. By the end, when a story about government agents fighting rebel spies has transmuted into a story of the rebel army attacking native tribesman to free Confederate expatriates, you have no sense of what the characters (and hence the reader) care for most deeply.

This is something that stories need -- at least, it's something needed by stories where the characters purposefully put themselves into conflict with others. At some point in the story we need to understand what the character wants or values most deeply, and to understand that was the desire that sustained and drove them through the plot.

The typical way of doing this is to give the character a specific, identifiable need at the very beginning of the story. In most mysteries/adventures this will be a mystery that needs to be solved. The Hardy Boys want to discover who is stealing automobiles. Rick Brant wants to figure out what the "Blue Ghost" is and why it is appearing. Dutch wants to catch the person who conked him on the head and stole some Egyptian artifacts from the museum. But in "Lost Mine of the Amazon," Hal's desire at the beginning (find the arms merchant) vanishes, and his desire at the end (rescue Felice Pemberton) isn't even a possibility until the book is more than halfway over.

Establishing a desire at the beginning is the best way of giving a novel a shape and destination, but it occurs to me that it's possible to delay the reveal until the end. That is, a story can be the story of how the protagonist comes to realize what it is that they desire, and the reader can come to the realization at the same time. However, everything that has happened in the course of the story needs to make sense in light of this final revelation.

This is where I'd usually do a bullet list of things I learned while reading the book -- what worked and what didn't. But this book gave me something a little more general to think about.

"What happens next?" That is the question that David Mamet (someone I keep coming back to, for the obvious reason that he's so good at what he does) says is the key question in any story. The reader doesn't want to know what happened before, and is barely concerned with what is happening now. When a story is working, the reader is only concerned with what comes next.

At the same time, Mamet says that the essence of drama lies in another questions: "Who wants what from whom, and why?" That is, who is the protagonist, who is the antagonist, and what is the goal+motivation that pitches the protagonist into the conflict.

The two lock together most transparently and efficiently in the classic goal-oriented story. Mamet's own Heist is a terrific example. Gene Hackman has been caught on camera robbing a jewelry store, so he wants to retire. He can't do that without a nest egg, and so he is forced to commit one more caper, working for a man he dislikes and the lowlife thug foisted on him by that employer. What follows is a series of "what happens next" scenes as Hackman pitches into one adversity after another to reach his goal.

But though the two questions fit together so neatly, they are actually separate, and the degree to which you emphasize one over the other you can get very different kinds of stories. "What happens next?": If the incidents are especially well-constructed, the reader will follow even if the motivations-goals are obscure. But there had better be some sort of pattern visible at the end that makes sense of the story as a whole. "Who wants what from whom?" A story with a strong sense of desire can sustain a character study even in the absence of strong action or sense of motion. But we had better care enough about the protagonist that we want some kind of change -- something to happen next -- that settles whether the protagonist gets it or not.

I like to improvise my stories, and it occurs to me that a strong grasp on these two principals is necessary to the improvisation of a long-form story.

First, you must start with a character who has a strong desire. If they don't understand their own desire at the start of the story, they had better understand it at the end; it is best if they understand it at the start, however. In the absence of a clear motive-goal pair, the improvising author will have to understand the character so intuitively that he can act on her hidden motives even when those motives are hidden from the author as well.

Second, you must be able to improvise complications that will leave the reader wondering "what happens next?" Here it is best if the complications thwart the protagonist's attempts to reach a goal. However, it is often sufficient that they keep the protagonist in motion and unsettled.
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