Lessons from a Reader: What Now?

I just finished reading the sci-fi thriller Angels of Vengeance by John Birmingham, which is the conclusion of the Without Warning trilogy. The basic premise of the book is that an unexplainable phenomena, dubbed the “wave,” covers a huge swath of North America, instantly killing everyone inside.

How’s that for a premise? Everyone in the continental United States (except for a tiny triangle in Washington which includes Seattle) is instantly gone.

But Birmingham’s trilogy is not about this strange phenomena. In fact, he never explains how the wave came or why, at the end (uh, SPOILER ALERT) of the first book, it inexplicably disappears.

Instead Birmingham’s series is about what happens if you took away the entire population of the United States. Who would fill that vacuum?

It’s not a story about the event. It’s a story about what happens next.

And what happens next is a lot more interesting than whatever sci-fi hocus-pokus you can think up. That’s the lesson for interested writers. Thinking up some incredible event is not the trick. The trick is taking us on the roller-coaster that happens afterward.

I should have realized it, but the same thing happens in Birmingham’s other trilogy, The Axis of Time. An international military force is inexplicably transported to the middle of World War II and accidentally destroys the U.S. Navy (oops). In this case what happens is explained (experiment gone awry), but it doesn’t matter. The story is about what happens next. Not why it happened or how it happened. It’s what now?

That’s perhaps the single greatest question for a writer: What now?

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