My brother regularly flies supplies to an outpost in northern Canada for the convenience of a climatologist who is living alone there to study the weather. I myself am an experienced explorer, and, at my request, my brother agrees to take me along with him on his next trip. We arrive at the camp. My brother asks the climatologist if I may stay with him for two weeks, until my brother makes his next trip. The climatologist is not enthusiastic but out of politeness is forced to agree. After my brother leaves, it takes two or three days to break down this man's strange reserve.
I have heard that there is a tremendous bear roaming the woods in the vicinity of the camp and, as a hunter, I am eager to have a crack at it. I tell the climatologist this and gather from the peculiar manner in which he receives the request that a suspicion of just such a reason for my visiting him had caused his original coldness toward me. It seems to me that the climatologist somehow identifies with the bear and wants to protect it from harm.
But I press him, and finally he agrees to go out with me on a hunt for the beast. After several days searching during which I suspect he has purposely led me away from the bear, we finally come on the animal. Immediately I train my rifle °n it, but its immensity and grandeur make me hold fire. I turn to the climatologist to find that he has taken a bead on me. I wait for him to shoot. He does, but over my head. And his shot brings down the bear who had spotted us and was lunging toward me. Later, the climatologist explains that he had been so repelled by the "hunter" in me that he was willing to shoot me rather than see me destroy the last living link the contemporary world had with prehistoric times. His feeling of kinship with mankind had reasserted itself at the last moment and saved me.
It's criminal to take the guts out of what was a fine adventure tale by outlining it in this manner, but it is a perfect example of a plot-type which, in one sense, contradicts the " impossible-assignment" stories and, in another, parallels them. In this tale of the adventurer-hunter no attempt was made to make the shooting of the bear seem a superhuman feat. The difficulties of the hunt were first established and in the course of the story elaborated after an unforeseeable fashion, but the writer desisted from playing the how-could-it-possibly-be-done game with his reader. The hero himself took on the assignment with complete conviction that his efforts would be successful; he was not responding to an exterior or interior pressure, but to an urge. He accepted the job wholeheartedly. As was pointed out, the writer of the impossible-assign' ment piece relies entirely for effect on the sleight-of-han d virtuosity similar to that used by the theatrical escape artist . Every apparent method of accomplishing the stunt is blocked, and then only either amazing luck or ingenuity saves the day. In these possible-assignment stories a unique but t horoughly feasible problem is set for the hero. The dangers or difficulties accumulate as the story progresses, and the emphasis is laid not on the fact of the solution alone but on the nature of the progressively confounding barriers to the solution which arise. The movement of the story is not an unraveling process, as with the "impossibleassignment " pieces. And, in particular, it should be remembered that the dangers or difficulties which the hero meets in prosecuting whatever job he has undertaken grow increasingly more intense right up to the very close. As soon as the hero passes through the most severe crisis, the story should end. In the story of the young amateur hunter, this crisis is, of course, the sudden addition of the climatologist as a threat to the hero's life.
There recently appeared in one of the slicks an interesting story about a young engaged couple who hired a small boat to do some deep-sea diving. The young man had served as a diver with the Navy during the war and on many occasions had explained the various techniques of diving to his fiancee. With this precaution, the young man goes down while the girl remains on the boat to tend the lines. In poking around the hull of a sunken ship, the hero inextricably catches his ai r-line on a ragged edge of rusty plating. His situation looks ho peless. If he cuts his tangled air-line and rises to the surface the girl won't be able to unscrew the headpiece in time to keep him from suffocating. He decides that the best thing would be for the girl to cut him loose and go back to p ort rather than engage in a vain attempt to save him and en, danger her own life while doing so. She pleads with him over the diving telephone to let her try. Finally she convinces him; he rises to the surface; and with some ingenious technique she manages to release the headpiece in time.
The story is successful not so much because of original treatment or superior handling but because of the writer's vivid description of death by suffocation. That doesn't seem very much to make a story from, and it isn't. But it was enough to differentiate this story from the thousands of other similar stories editors receive. Every dangerousassignment story contains descriptions of the hero's reactions to the dangers he meets with. The more genuine and original the writer can make these reactions seem, the more excitment he lends to his story, the more he will be able to make the reader thrill to the danger. A lion leaping out of the bush, the muzzle of a blue-steel automatic, the rattle of a poisonous snake are, unfortunately, old, old hat, and the terror of the hero in the face of such dangers won't be much newer. But with this diving story the writer had the rare opportunity of describing the hero's tortured imaginings of what suffocation would be like. Suffocation isn't entirely unique to the slicks, but it is different enough to be very effective. Also, it brings to every reader's conscious mind his own deep fear of suffocation. Everyone has experienced, at one time or anoth er, danger from suffocation, great heights, hideous insects, speeding autos—and everyone carries about a vestige of the fear these dangers inspired. On the other hand, few readers can react with the same emotional sympathy to such dangers as attend warfare, stunt-flying, big-game hunting, etc. In the case of this story about diving, it's doubtful that it would have sold without its vivid descriptions of suffocation, although the descriptions were not particularly essential to the plot. The majority of slick stories have no more nourishment than a glass of water. If they manage to be good fun, they do well. If the writer, by any means, can make the reader's heart beat fast, he most likely has a salable story.
The story about the possible assignment which is merely interesting and not dangerous covers a multitude of sins and virtues.
As an example, a high-school teacher is putting on a Lincoln's birthday program in the school assembly hall. The guest speaker he had lined up is unavailable at the last moment. He must find a substitute immediately. Luckily, he hears that the grandmother of one of his students, a Negro boy, saw Lincoln when she was a child and knows many original anecdotes about the great man. He induces the quaint old lady to appear. Originally, he feared she might be subject to stage fright, but she turns out so talkative, so full of stories, that the teacher physically has to take the microphone away from her. Eventually, the teacher discovers that the old lady is considerably younger than she claimed to be, that she never saw Lincoln, and that all her fascinating stories were her nw ll inventions. That difficulty is solved platitudinously, and the story ends with light and love shooting off in all directions . Or, consider this one.
I'm riding in a Pullman berth one night having a good deal of difficulty going to sleep. As I listen to the clickety. clack of the wheels, I imagine they are forming themselves into Morse code groupings. It reminds me of a boyhood friend who knew Morse code. The more I listen to the wheels the more certain I am that someone is trying to communicate with me. Sure enough, it is the same friend from my childhood. He has been dead for ten years, he says, and he needs help. He wants me to turn up some money he had hidden just before his death and give it to his widow who is now in bad straits. He vows he won't let me rest until I do this for him. After many mistakes and much time spent, I finally locate the money which is in the form of old, outsized bills long out of use. I manage to find the wife and after considerable arguing convince her that the money I am offering her has really been sent at the direction of her dead husband. On my way home to resume a normal life at last, I hear over my car radio that the widow has been picked up for possession of marked money from an almost forgotten robbery of many years past. Then I hear the familiar click in the wheels of my car. It's my dead boyhood friend, come back for the last time to thank me and to explain that he had to repay his widow for a certain mean turn she had done him before his death.
This story and the one about the Lincoln program are no more extreme than most pieces dealing with the merely interesting assignments. The story-form does not lend itself especially either to adventure or sentiment. In consequence, the details must usually be highly original.