‘m in my reader’s place, sitting at Juniors Diner, a short walk from the house. My wife and I are enjoying our books while browsing through our Sunday lunches, our standard routine. And beyond this normality, beyond the sunlight streaming through the picture window (with the reversed RENID neon sign), beyond the humming traffic, 35 million miles away, Mark Watney is really screwed on Mars.
See, Mark was left behind on a Mars mission, accidently abandoned by his crew. And now, as told in Andy Weir’s deservedly successful The Martian, he’s struggling to survive. But something just happened, a component failure (and it’s subsequent fallout) so horrifying that I can’t see how the main character will survive. It’s the end for Astronaut Watney. It’s over. He’s a dead man. He won’t survive the long, cold Martian night. Goner.
And there I am sitting there, feeling myself chill over my burger and fries, and I take a moment to reflect.
I’ve got a whole lot of book in my right hand at this point.
Mark can’t die. He’s got too much to live for, at least 200 pages worth.
My mom tells me that when she was a little girl, when she was scared in the movie theater, she’d turn around and look at the projection booth just to bring herself back to normal and make things okay. And I suppose, by that right, that’s what I did – I consciously stepped out of the story and looked at where I was at in the book, to see that, yeah, the main character would be just fine (for now).
That’s one of your goals as a good storyteller, to make things so dramatic and tense and exciting that your readers have to occasionally hit the panic-stop button. You want them so wrapped up that the fear is personal for them, that they have a physical reaction to it, that they actually find themselves picking flight over fight. You don’t want readers passively browsing your words while your hero clings to his literary life. You want empathetic buy-in, tension, trembling, an actual response. You want them to jump, to rock back, and even to pull themselves out to look at how many pages are left. And a good storyteller can do that.
As you can see, I’m really enjoying The Martian and will probably bump the review up in my list. Because that’s another thing a great book makes you want to do – you want to share it!
Anyway, Mark isn’t going to die just yet.
There’s a third of the book still left.