My dear old dad, who has ninety-one years to his name, chose to spend at least seventy of those years as a bench scientist. This term does not refer to people who study benches, but rather, to people who make their contribution at the laboratory bench. Dad studied things like how a milk fat globule is made. You shrug, but the question takes on significance when you consider the fat globule ends up being larger than the mammary cell that produces it—and without these processes, we would not have whipped cream.
I am quite fond of whipped cream, myself, also butter, ice cream, and mousse, which depend upon the same little miracle.
Dad also looked at how light alters flavor compounds in milk (which is why we have opaque milk jugs unless they’re made of thick glass), and he studied flavors and fragrances from a chemical standpoint.
Dad earned a reputation for coming up with excellent experimental designs. If you had a great hypothesis, an earthshaking insight you wanted to test, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to isolate your variables or measure results, Dad was the guy you bounced your problem off of.
He loved a failed experiment. The failed experiments were the equivalent of the locked room for him. When you discover you’re in a locked room, you try the door knob. You jiggle it hard, then harder. You back off, and wait for somebody to come by, but at some point, alone in that room, hungry and cranky, you Get Creative. You fashion lock picks out of paper clips, you build ladders out of modular furniture, you slide messages under the door written in Pepsi on your T-shirt. You bust out windows, you drop paper airplanes down the ventilator shaft, and so on.
And that process, that wracking-your-brain process, enthralled him as a scientist. I expect it enthralled him as a little boy, too, and still occupies much of his mental day.
Authors find themselves in locked rooms all the time, though my creative space feels more like a broom closet. I can usually envision my characters, I have some idea of their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but to craft a story for them, I need tension, conflict, problems. I need ways my hero and heroine reveal themselves to themselves, and to each other. I need the right problems and the right solutions to those problems to structure a 400 page book.
In this struggle, because by God, it is a struggle, I’ve come across some wonderful tools. Each tool is in the form of a question, and one of the most powerful is: What is the one thing my hero/heroine would never, ever, no matter what, be caught dead doing? How can I make them do it? (And thanks to Michael Hague for developing that one.)
What is the worst, most terrifying development that can befall my hero/heroine? How can I inflict it upon them?
What does my reader expect at this moment in the story? How can I surprise the reader without losing my credibility?
My dad had ultracentrifuges, microtome slicers, electron microscopes, and a relentless curiosity, and with those, he found his way out of many locked rooms. I have tools too—elegant, incisive, illuminating questions, and with them, I can also get out of locked rooms.
What question has helped you escape a dead end situation?