One of the most satisfying elements of a story for readers can also be one of the most challenging for the author. The place in a story where there is no hope for the protagonist to succeed, sometimes referred to as a “hero stuck up a tree” or as I prefer to call it – the hero caught in the Drowning Cell – can really stump me.
The Drowning Cell was a particularly cruel form of execution in which the victim was placed in a small box which was then sealed and slowly filled with water. The victim had many hours possibly even days to contemplate drowning. There was no escape. A writer, even during the plotting phase, can spend pages and chapters getting the hero to a place where there is no hope; into a Drowning Cell. The reader expects a resolution and to make the story work well the resolution needs to be something not obvious to the reader.
When I discovered the heroes in my writing getting into their Drowning Cells but finding only cheesy predictable methods of getting out I turned to novels by some of my favorite authors, such as Tim Powers, to see how they managed it. That turned out to be frustrating.
The authors who get their characters out of their Drowning Cells in the most satisfying ways always seemed to be much smarter than I. As a reader I never saw the solutions coming; so was I somehow diverted by the author and not allowed to think about the best solution? No, not in the better stories. Was I just an idiot? Maybe.
After working through several of my own Drowning Cell situations I have come to a couple of conclusions. First, an author is not necessarily smarter than the reader, the author simply has more time; days, weeks, months, even years to work out the solution. The author should take however long it takes to find the right hero’s escape. Second; the author has a deeper insight into the characters and their motives than the reader. That is not to say the author has to hide something from the reader, in fact that would be the wrong approach. The solution that occurs to the character has to make sense, it has to be consistent with the character and should be a reasonable course of action for the character. For me, as a reader, I approach the Drowning Cell asking myself how I would escape but that is likely not the same solution the character will come up with.
That difference between reader and character is important. The reader may think, “I would have done it differently but it makes sense.” The author has no control over what the reader might find for a solution but they do have the advantage of living in the character’s head for a long time; and the author has time.