Saturday, June 13, 2009
When reset buttons work
I hate reset buttons.
I didn’t have any strong feelings about them until I watched Star Trek: Voyager, where they were a weekly occurrence. The ship would be half destroyed in a battle, but by the next week it would be as though the damage never happened. Or someone would die/turn into a salamander/make some other major change, only to be restored/rehumanified/returned to wherever they’d been before the change. On the whole, this struck me as a cheap way to wring sentiment from the readers while not disturbing the status quo.
And some time after that I read the anti-reset button, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, which further cemented my belief that when characters suffer (or die), they shouldn’t be miraculously healed or resurrected in a hurry. In other words, no reset buttons.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to enjoy a book with a reset-button plot – especially to the point where it made me want to write something similar. And it made me want to analyze why that worked.
The book is question is a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel titled Fallen Heroes, by Dafydd ab Hugh. In it, two characters are involuntarily sent forward in time by a few days, and they find everyone else murdered. They have to get back to their own time and prevent the murders.
So, why did this work for me?
The story made me want the button to be pressed.
A lot of reset buttons change a bad situation. They don’t change a situation so unbearable that the reader will want any way out of it, any way at all.
In the Star Trek universe, of course, the writer didn’t have a choice – the main characters couldn’t have died (and certainly not en masse). But the cleverness of the story was to make the readers grieve for their deaths – flashbacks showed how they went down fighting – and want this to be undone.
If a character is mutilated by the villain, as in David Farland’s The Runelords, I don’t want them to be magically healed (so I stopped reading the series when that happened). If just one character dies nobly, the readers might resign themselves to the character staying dead. But all of them, down to the kids? That’s too much to take. Anything would be better, including the reset button.
The story made the characters committed to pressing it.
If the plot is focused on something other than the reset button, activating this plot device will feel like a cheat. Say the hero is trying to find the mystical jewel of Lumpit (so he can give it to a wizard to use against an invading army), and during his quest he loses an arm. Or two, or three. But when he finds it, the jewel magically restores him to full health. Readers will feel justified in hurling the book at the wall. Or in my case, placing it on the floor and jumping up and down on it.
Fallen Heroes, on the other hand, worked because it acknowledged the reset button from the start, rather than trying to slip it in as a happy coincidence or after-effect of some other event or object. The restoration of the status quo didn’t seem like something bestowed on the characters by an author who was too fond of them to let anything permanently bad happen to them. It was a goal the characters struggled towards and finally reached. And when they did, I was happy for them.
No matter how much I dislike some plot device, there’s always an exception – when the author is good enough to make it work.