I’ve been watching more of the Masterclass video seminar series of late, with a focus on the writing courses. The first, Aaron Sorkin’s, was really good and then David Mamet’s was helpful too. They were all about screenwriting but now I’ve finished James Patterson’s on how to write popular genre fiction. He’s the guy who did all the Alex Cross detective stories that have since become terrible movies. What all three writers had in common was their advice:
Raise the stakes.
All drama involves intention-plus-obstacle, meaning the protagonist has something he needs/wants and drama ensues when he encounters and attempts to overcome the barriers in his way. This is the engine driving the plot . However, the intention cannot be “I want a Mars Bar from the local Paki shop” and the obstacle can’t be “but a dropped my last pound coin down the toilet.” Sure, there is some drama here – do you put your hand into the bowl of piss to grab the coin, or do you flush first and risk the water sweeping the pound coin away for ever – but the stakes are not high.
What’s the worst that could happen?
So, you’re supposed to raise the stakes. Perhaps the Mars Bar purchase is just a feint and actually you’re part of the English Defence League and the Pakistani store owner may be the only link to a shadowy underage grooming gang who has kidnapped Tommy Robinson’s daughter . The stakes are now much higher and the story should be more compelling. What if you can’t fish that pound coin out of the toilet and you need to find a different way into the shopkeeper’s confidence? Perhaps you decide to confront him directly.
What’s the worst that could happen? Well, you could be called racist. The stakes don’t come any higher than that, do they?
Anyway, I digress. The point is that it’s standard practice in modern genre fiction to raise the stakes. If there’s spies, you can bet there’s a nuclear bomb about to go off. If it’s detectives, the crime will be murder rather than loitering. If it’s soldiers, it’s war rather than a drinking competition in a Berlin bar. This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s famous Jeeves & Wooster series is quaintly charming – the stakes are always very low.
In the case of the first Jeeves novel, Thank You Jeeves , it’s all about whether his buddy Chuffy can successfully propose to an American girl without getting a reputation for being awfully forward. Those are the stakes. It takes some polished writing chops to form a compelling novel from that, what?
Wodehouse achieves this primarily through farce. The book is narrated by Bertie Wooster himself, a dim-witted but soft-hearted young aristocrat who pompously clings to etiquette and Eton-style relationships but isn’t above bending the rules to help a chum. Wodehouse builds his character subtly through Wooster’s odd choices of metaphor, frequent lapses into digression, and his inner monologue identifying what he finds important in any situation. His efforts to aid his friend Chuffy always makes things worse, and his efficient butler Jeeves operates in the background – not unlike a benign Mr Moto – to straighten things out and prevent disaster.
It’s a lot of fun and it’s easy to become embroiled in the silly concerns of the young aristocrat, such as when he blacks up like a negro minstrel to effect escape from a yacht but can’t find the butter needed to wipe off the shoe polish and thus must hide from the local village police who are beating the bushes for him. The dialogue is also great, amply describing the relationship between aristocrat and butler without needing to spell it out. Consider this, the very first conversation in chapter one:
‘Jeeves,” I said, “do you know what?”
“Do you know whom I saw last night?”
“J. Washburn Stoker and his daughter, Pauline.”
“They must be over here.”
“It would seem so, sir.”
“I can conceive that after what occured in New York it might be distressing for you to encounter Miss Stoker, sir. But I fancy the contingency need scarcely arise.”
Also funny is how Wodehouse has Wooster describe his new butler Brinkley. Early in the book Jeeves resigns because he cannot bear Wooster’s new habit of playing the banjolele and thus the latter has the agency send a new man, who turns out to be a Leftist . Wodehouse peppers the book with cheerful references to the man’s class-opposition to Wooster and how the latter doesn’t grasp how serious a revolution may be.
Like a sheep wandering back to the fold, this blighted Bolshevik had rolled home, twenty-four hours later, plainly stewed to the gills. All the householder awoke in me. I forgot that it was injudicious of me to allow myself to be seen [he’s still blacked up]. All I could think of was that this bally Fiver-Year-Planner was smashing up the Wooster home.
Or earlier in the book:
Outwardly he was all respectfulness, but inwardly you could see that he was a man who was musing on the coming Social Revolution and looked on Bertram as a tyrant and oppressor.
‘Yes, Brinkley, I shall dine out.’
He said nothing, merely looking at me as if he were measuring me for my lamp-post.
Wooster wasn’t to be knocked from his peace of mind by a blighted Marxist so he persists in giving his instructions to his butler.
He sighed slightly. All this talk of my going to shows was distressing him. What he really wanted was to see me sprinting down Park Lane with the mob after me with dripping knives.
‘I shall take the car and drive over there. You can have the evening off.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he moaned.
I gave it up. The man annoyed me. I hadn’t the slightest objection to his spending his time planning massacres for the bourgeoisie, but I was dashed if I could see why he couldn’t do it with a bright and cheerful smile. Dismissing him with a gesture, I went round to the garage and got the car out.
I will say that with such low stakes powering the drama this book got a little boring at times, hence I can see what Sorkin, Mamet, and Patterson were getting at. Shifting to accommodate this reduced urgency in plotting, I figured the best way to read a book such as Thank You, Jeeves is to read it on a sunny day, sitting in a chair overlooking a pleasant park, and with a tequila sunrise cocktail by the side. Which is what I did.
If you’d like to read books about a dim-witted hero and his competent man-servant you may enjoy the interplay between Nick Krauser and Jimmy Jambone in my series of memoirs available here (USA readers) and here (everyone else).
 And why Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace is so bloody boring. There’s no intention-plus-obstacle. It just meanders along.
 Does he have a daughter?
 Thank You Mr Moto does indeed deal with war and murder. A different world.
 In the pre-War sense of supporting trades unions, socialism and Marx, as opposed to the modern sense of being a mentally-ill transexual liar.