Monday, October 11, 2010

Analyzing Harry Harrison’s “The Stainless Steel Rat” – Part 2

Michael Salsbury
Part one of this series looked at Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat from a purely statistical viewpoint, examining chapter length, sentence length, and various readability indexes. This installment will take a look at the craft used by Harrison to tell the story.

Analyzing the Chapter "Hooks"

I've been told that if you want your novel to be a real page turner, there are a few simple techniques that can help you achieve that. First, start each chapter with a "hook" that gets the reader asking questions like "Who is this? Why did that happen?" End each chapter with a cliff hanger of sorts that makes the reader wonder what's next. If you also keep chapters close to an average length of around 2,500 words, most readers can get through one fairly quickly. They'll get to the end of the chapter they're reading and think, "That last chapter went pretty quick. I wonder what will happen next. I'll just read one more chapter before I quit." This cycle continues chapter after chapter, and soon the reader has finished the whole book. With this thinking in mind, I took a look at how Harrison started and ended the 19 chapters in The Stainless Steel Rat. (For me, the book has always been a page-turner.)

Chapter 1 starts off with a pretty strong hook:
When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up. It had been a money-maker — but it was all over. As the cop walked in I sat back in the chair and put on a happy grin. He had the same somber expression and heavy foot that they all have — and the same lack of humor. I almost knew to the word what he was going to say before he uttered a syllable.

At once, the reader starts asking questions. Who is telling me this? What money-making game is over? Why is a cop coming in, and why does that make the character smile? How does he know what the cop is going to say? The rest of the chapter explains that our main character is a career criminal who has been running a scam where cans of fruit stolen from a government warehouse are re-labeled by robots and sold to unwitting shopkeepers at great prices. He knows what the cop is going to say because it isn't the first time they've tried to arrest him. The cliff hanger at the end of Chapter 1 is that although Jim has eluded the initial pursuit, he is still on the planet and might not get away.

Chapter 2 doesn't a hook at the beginning. It takes some time to explain what our anti-hero is all about, how he views his life of crime as a sort of public service, and that there aren't many like him in the galaxy. It ends with him on a different world, about to end a second criminal enterprise, only to realize that something isn't right. Someone is looking for him.

Chapter 3 starts with Jim wondering who is after him, and trying to escape from them. It ends with him receiving an offer to join The Special Corps, an elite government agency that catches dangerous criminals and solves problems that individual planetary governments can't. Jim sees this as "the end of loneliness".

Chapter 4 shows Jim finding life in The Special Corps as a new recruit incredibly dull. It ends with him discovering a plot to build a nearly unstoppable battleship and being sent to investigate it.

Chapter 5 begins with a description of the planet Cittanuvo, on which the battleship is being built. It ends with the battleship taking off ahead of schedule and escaping, and Jim wondering how he's going to catch it.

Chapter 6 is primarily there to slow down the frantic pace of action established in the earlier chapters. Jim spends time thinking about the mysterious people behind the battleship, what their motives might be, and how he might catch them. It ends with the cliff hanger that "the next four days passed very slowly", leaving a reader to wonder what happened after that.

Chapter 7 ramps the action back up, with the battleship threatening Jim's ship (which has been setup as a tempting robbery target). It ends with Angelina, who turns out to be the criminal mastermind behind the battleship's construction, escaping. Jim realizes he'll be seeing Angelina again.

Chapter 8 has Jim stealing a ship and heading out after Angelina. When an explosive device detonates on the ship just after Jim disconnects it, he realizes that he's on his own now and can't expect help from the Corps.

Chapter 9 sees Jim as an independent again, deciding how to find and capture Angelina. It ends with him finding her in a bar, pretending to be a prostitute.

Chapter 10 starts with Jim pretending to hire Angelina's services following her back to her room. It ends with Jim realizing that this was a trap, and that she knew who he was. "Then, at the exact and ultimate moment of my maximum realization and despair she pulled the trigger. Not once, but over and over again. Four tearing, thundering bullets of pain directly into my heart. And a final slug directly between my eyes." Naturally, the reader wonders how in the heck Jim can survive that.

Chapter 11 finds Jim coming around in an ambulance, groggy and in pain. He survived because of a bullet proof vest and a reflexive move to shield his head with his arms. He modifies his medical charts to appear dead on arrival and is taken to the morgue. He exits the hospital before being treated.

Chapter 12 finds Jim looking for a disgraced medical professional to help heal his wounds and perform plastic surgery on him. It ends with a realization that Angelina is mentally ill, and that he'll have to "follow her down the path of insanity" if he hopes to catch her. This is another chapter that breaks the action for a bit.

Chapter 13 starts with Jim taking a combination of drugs to simulate Angelina's various psychological issues. It ends with him passing out, after triggering a booby trap he set for himself to prevent him from taking human life in his psychotic state.

Chapter 14 begins with Jim realizing he's in love with Angelina and that simulating her psychotic mind was intoxicating to him ("Even while detesting the thought I felt the desire for more of the same.") It ends with executing the first step in plan to get her attention as a member of the planet's royalty.

Chapter 15 starts with Jim in the royal prison wondering if he'll ever get out. It ends with hooded figures breaking into the prison and pulling him out.

Chapter 16 finds Jim being introduced to Count Rdenrundt, who wants to take over the planet (presumably with Angelina's help). There's no way for Jim to know if Angelina is here or not, but he plays along anyway. It ends with him meeting Angelina and learning that he had killed the Count's wife, only to cause her family to threaten revenge.

Chapter 17 has Jim wondering what to do. Should he turn Angelina in or stay with her? It ends with him learning that her psychotic nature was caused by childhood taunting over her ugliness, and Jim telling her that she's not that little girl anymore (but slipping and calling her "Angelina" in the process).

Chapter 18 begins with some suspicion over an assassin sent to kill Angelina the night before. It ends with The Special Corps showing up and capturing Angelina, who thinks Jim was stalling her so that they could close in.

Chapter 19 explains that The Special Corps had been monitoring Jim all along, and waited to see what he did with Angelina before finally swooping in to capture her. It ends with Jim and Inkskipp believing they might be able to cure Angelina of her homicidal tendencies.

So we see that most of the chapters in the book follow the pattern. There is something of a mystery at the start of the chapter, and a question at the end that makes you wonder what will happen next. Chapters 6 and 12 serve as a kind of break in the action and provide readers with a chance to catch their breath.

The hooks are a bit subtle in some cases, but are present in nearly every chapter.

Coming Up in Part 3 - Characterization

In Part 3 of the analysis, I'm going to look at characterization. How does Harrison establish Jim DiGriz as a career criminal, yet a sympathetic and likable guy? How does he depict Angelina as a cold, calculating criminal, yet leave her sympathetic enough that Jim can fall in love with her? And how has Harrison set the stage for Angelina to become a major character in future Stainless Steel Rat novels?

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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