Noses, the Olympics, and Die Hard: Vodnik Chapter Nine

We’re up to chapter nine this week, and this is another one that has a lot of various odds and ends. First up is the Czech movie Tomas sees with Katka. You know the one I’m talking about–where a woman’s nose goes on an international trip, all while still being connected to her face? The Czech and Slovak classic?

Yeah. That one.

I didn’t make it up for the book, you know. It actually exists, and is called Tri Veterani. It is truly bizarre, from an American standpoint–but totally beloved from a Slovak one. It’s times like this–when watching the movie with my wife–that I’m reminded how drastically different your views on life can be, depending on where you’re raised. It’s easy to assume that humans all share the same core values. And we do, more or less. But the interpretation of those values can really depend on your culture. What’s acceptable and good in one place can be the complete opposite somewhere else. Not that nose-walking-movies is the perfect example of this, but it makes the point.

And yes, we own the movie. Haven’t showed it to the kids yet. Maybe we need to correct that . . .

The experience Tomas has smelling food with Katka is also based on my experiences with my wife. She’ll often tell me to smell some food to show me how good it is. Bread. Sausage. You name it. For the first five years or so, I had no clue what she was talking about. I’m slowly starting to come around, though. It helps that she’s a baker, and that I’ve had a fair number of good quality sausages by now. :-) And I still remember the first time I was in Slovakia with her and we went to a bakery later in the day. The place was chock full of breads, and Denisa complained that the selection was really crummy.

Like I said–different outlooks on life.

And finally (MINOR SPOILER ALERT), there’s Katka’s seizures. In the original draft, she was just fine. Still slated to die, but it was due to heart failure, not a brain tumor. This was changed for a number of reasons.

  • First off, if Katka isn’t sick, Tomas finds out about it from Morena through complete coincidence. He was leafing through her death date book, and happened to see Katka’s name. Having plot points depend on coincidences is something that should be avoided as much as possible.
  • Secondly, putting the seizures in up front managed to make the earlier parts of the book have more tension. In the first draft, it took a really long time for things to develop to the point that real significant conflicts started to arise.
  • Additionally, Katka’s condition ties the conflicts of the book together better the more closely it’s related to Morena and the vodnik. Tomas finds out the vodnik wants to kill him. He finds out his new best friend is going to die soon. And then he finds out the two problems are intertwined. Deal with the vodnik and Katka’s death at the same time.
  • Finally, Tomas finding Katka’s death date by coincidence misses a chance for him to excel as a character. By changing it so that he has the foresight to look for her name in the book, it makes him more resourceful. In the earlier drafts of the book, Tomas had a lot of things happen to him. He was fairly passive, as far as characters go. Having a passive main character is a recipe for boredom. 
After the seizure scene was added in the second draft I wrote, the rest of the chapter didn’t change too drastically–mainly because so much of it is scenery/slice of life details like shopping and the movie. But the more I write, the more convinced I become that having scenery/slice of life moments are a must in a book. Maybe not all books, but it’s necessary to take breaks from the action now and then so that the characters have a chance to be people.
Think of the Olympics. A lot of people complain that NBC focuses too much on the people stories instead of showing the actual events. But I’ve watched the Olympics without knowing anything about the people competing. It’s not even half as much fun. If you don’t know the stories behind the competitors–the issues they’ve struggled with, the families they’ve come from–then the competitions don’t mean as much. It’s just a bunch of people trying to run fast, or throw something farther.
Yes, you can have a book or a movie with non-stop action. Just event after event after event. But I doubt you’d care much. Take Die Hard as another example. Awesome action movie. But it works as well as it does because it takes the time in the beginning to set the stage: to show that the main character has a family. Is trying to get back together with his wife. Or follow the teddy bear McClane is taking to his daughter over to Hunt for Red October, where the bear is a gift for Ryan’s daughter (trivia: it’s the exact same bear in real life. I know. I just blew your mind). They take the time there to establish what the characters want. What they’re defecting for.
There’s a temptation to leave out the boring parts, but here’s a writing tip for you: parts that establish the stakes and the characters and the setting don’t have to be boring. In fact, they may be more important to your story than a lot of the action scenes.

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