Five things I’ve learned from Franklin W. Dixon

Now this was a franchise that knew its readers.  And I’m here to tell you that readers haven’t changed as much as you think.  The Hardy Boys may seem hackneyed and Pollyanna-ish to modern eyes, but I have witnessed an eleven-year-old boy who cut his teeth on Captain Underpants and Harry Potter fall under the spell of these books.  Not the Casefiles, either–I mean the originals.

Once I got over my horror at Mrs. Hardy’s griddlecakes and gentle remonstrances to be careful, I asked Mr. Dixon what wisdom he could bestow upon the authors of today.  What follows is his response:

1. Don’t mess around.

On page six we’re told, “Macpherson was lying face-down on the floor.”  By page eight both Joe and Frank Hardy have been clobbered and have slumped to the floor. This stripped-down launch of the adventure proves that an effective hook is just that: sharp and pointy.

2. Find a good epithet, and flog it.

Homeric epic employed repetitive tag-phrases to help its listeners remember who was who (and to fill out a poetic line where needed): ox-eyed Hera, long-suffering Odysseus, rosy-fingered Dawn.  If you think the pleasure of such formulae died with the ancients, think again.  “Chet Morton, plump and jovial,” is like the mistuned bell in the Hardy Boys‘ carillon.  We wait for it, we wince at it, and damn but we’d be sad if it was missing.

3. Never leave the hero in peace (Part I).

I have used cliffhangers but sparingly in my fiction.  At times I’ve even felt a little embarrassed about them.  No longer!  Dixon shows us: you can give the Hardys’ bruises time to heal, but then Chet had better be headed for a crash-landing in his homemade parasail.  The reader needs an excuse to beg his mom for one more chapter before bed.  Give it to him.

4. Wish fulfillment is a huge part of reading.

Okay, okay, it was Freud who taught this lesson first.  But the Hardy boys remind us that we need to take our protagonist seriously enough that our readers can throw the whole weight of their fantasies behind him/her.  Chief Collig leaves the getaway car untouched so that Frank can find the Aztec ring wedged under the gas pedal.  No kid ever read this and thought, oh c’mon, the cops wouldn’t let a teenager take over.  If she did think that, she was already too old for the series.

5. Never leave the hero in peace (Part 2).

Poor Frank and Joe.  They’re concussed frequently enough over the course of a single installment that, after five or six books, the impairment in their movement and thinking skills should equal that of early-stage dementia.  But so it must go for heroes.  If they fly, their plane goes down.  If they dive, the oxygen line is cut.  If they climb, they dangle.  Don’t spend time on sutures, let alone traction and physiotherapy: patch em up, get em on the road, and nail em again.

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