I remember in the movie The Sixth Day how a futuristic low-end assassin drove around in a rusted, battered neo-beetle, and how clever that was at the time.
Well, now I’ve got one.
My car is thirteen years old. It’s in good shape but its had its little share of aging problems. Right now, I’m concerned by the oil it’s burning. A slow steady drop.
The other day, before driving to work, I popped the hood and pulled out the dipstick to check it. Stood there blinking. What the hell was this? After a few more seconds spent recalibrating, I realized that the plastic sheath-tube that houses the dipstick had come out too. Great. The plastic base of the thing had cracked apart with age. Pushing the entire thing back into place, I limped over to the car shop and bought a replacement tube. There in the lot, popped the hood, pulled out the dipstick and set it aside, pulled out the tube and reached way down into a hot engine to knock the broken base off. Forced the new tube home. Dusted my oily hands, job well done. And looked at the dipstick sitting across the top of my engine, ready to be reinserted.
And had a writer’s pause.
Didn’t I go into a long explanation of my favorite story fault HERE, about a dipstick and how you never, Never, NEVER would have a reason to sit a dipstick anywhere but back inside it’s holder? That this would be impossible, and broke an otherwise perfectly magnificent story? Ooops. I could only stand there in that gritty, traffic-humming lot, looking at the counter to my arguments.
Not that I’m totally wrong, of course. The story still doesn’t work, because for it to work, it needs to maintain the “for lack of a nail, a horse was lost” theme. You can’t slow the story of the car/fishing fetisher with a detailed explanation about why the dipstick was actually removed. Like Chekhov’s gun, it has to be subtly used. The man stops. He gets gas. He gets service. He drives on towards his dream. Yet he has been undone. A detailed service record bogs the story down, killing it before it delivers.
Still, I thought as I rechecked my oil level and sabered the dipstick back into place, there is still something to consider here. Mysteries rely on a lot less. This could be the perfect Baker Street moment – and I yield it without hesitation or copyright to any inspiring writer who wishes to use it. For here is the basis of the classic misdirection, a clue that is solid from one angle, then unravels (like an old plastic tube in a hot engine compartment) the next. This could be the ice dagger, the other man on the train, the twist that keeps your readers with you till page 300.
To me, it’s interesting to reflect on my cognitive shift on this: going from “never” setting down a dipstick to “almost never”.
Like a good mystery, there is always a catch.