One A Strong Plot

In category fiction, there is no substitute for the age-old story formula: the hero (or heroine) has a serious problem; he attempts to solve it but plunges deeper into danger; his stumbling blocks, growing logically from his efforts to find a solution, become increasingly monumental; at last, forced by the harsh circumstances to learn something about himself or the world around him, to learn a Truth of which he was previously unaware, he solves his problem—or loses magnificently.

One of Donald E. Westlake's early suspense novels, Killing Time, while flawed in other ways, is a prime example of the well-used story formula. The story concerns a private detective, Tim Smith, who is the only professional investigator in a small, New York State town, Winston. Smith is in tight with the town's business and government elite, because he has enough "dirt" in his files, on each of them, to make them want to be friends rather than enemies. Because he knows them all so well, he's on the city payroll for services he never renders, and he gets a cut of the backroom pie. Smith justifies this because he feels the present Winston power elite is far more desirable a group than any other that could replace it, that despite all their flaws, these men do get things done. When a crusading non-profit organization—Citizens for Clean Government—comes to Winston to scour away its corruption, Smith will not help the crusaders, for he believes they'd only be opening the door to new wolves, by getting rid of the old. Still, one of Smith's powerful friends is afraid Smith will spill what he keeps in his files, and an attempt is made on Smith's life. Now, we have the hero, and the hero has his problem: how to find out who panicked, and how to keep that nameless man from killing him. As the book progresses, and as Smith makes several attempts to discover the would-be killer's identity, the attempts on his own life become more violent and more difficult to escape. Smith becomes a man without friends on either side of the issue; his stumbling blocks become more and more monumental. At last, when his apartment is destroyed by a hand grenade and a bomb is placed in his car, he decides to face the truth about himself: he has always cooperated with Winston's power elite because he cherishes power and money himself, not because, as he always pretended, he thought his friends were tamer wolves than others that might replace them. Facing this in himself, he is able to act more ruthlessly than before; he becomes a less admirable man, but a more honest one and a more formidable one.

Because it does require a formula, many writers mistakenly assume that category fiction is limited in scope and artistic merit. Not so. This same plot formula can be applied to any number of respected mainstream works, like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Generally speaking, the plot in a category novel must contain fewer muted, psychological story developments of the Hemingway sort-that is, developments which, for pages and pages, deal solely with a character's changing attitudes—and more overt, physical action. But the latitude for individual creativity is broad indeed.

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