Sunday, August 19, 2018

What Kind of Suspense…?


Last time I told you that suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered. Variety is good, so in my own work I use three different kinds of suspense. 

There is “what’s going on here?” suspense. If you watched the tv show Lost, or more recently Colony, you know what that is. You came back every week trying to figure out what the heck was going on. 

There is also “why is this happening?” suspense.  This is what writers mean when they tell you to start the story in the middle. Perhaps your story opens with someone holding a gun in your hero’s face, saying “This is what happens to people who go poking their noses into my business.” Then you have to answer the obvious questions during the action. 

Btw, in my humble opinion, Stephen King is the best novelist alive and, also in my opinion, King writes suspense, not horror. Every Stephen King novel is a master class on how to write the “why is this happening?” style of suspense. If you don’t have time to read one of his giant books, rent the first season of his TV show Under The Dome. You’ll get the idea.

The most common kind of suspense is probably “will the hero accomplish his major goal?” That can take different forms based on the genre you write. In a mystery, where the violence usually takes place before the protagonist is involved, the question may be “who done it?” You maintain suspense there by keeping your villain one step ahead of your detective, and your reader. In a thriller the reader may be anticipating the antagonist accomplishing his goal, so the question is “how can this impending crisis or crime be averted.” The reader might know about dangers the protagonist doesn’t know about. That creates suspense. In a horror story the question may be “will the protagonist survive?” 

So as we write, how do we ratchet up the suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats? To an extent this depends on characterization and conflict. The first key to creating suspense is to create characters that readers care about, and then put those characters in jeopardy.

Next week we’ll discuss the foundations of narrative suspense, so don’t worry (that’s for the reader to do!)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Keep Them in Suspense


Last week we discussed the importance of a scene list. While you are making that list you have to remember to set things up to create suspense. All readers love drama, as long as it’s not in their own lives. The key to suspense in a short story is to set up a dramatic question.

In a horror story it could be as simple as “will he survive the zombie apocalypse?” In a romance it could be “will she get the man of her dreams?” The point is to make clear that the protagonist’s fate is in doubt. That’s what makes the reader want to know what will happen next. To do this successfully you need to say less not more. Carefully restrict how much information you give the reader. Nothing destroys drama like telling too much too soon.

 Suspense is what keeps people turning the pages, no matter what genre of story it is.  In some genres suspense may be thought of as frustration.  The reader wants to know something, and the writer keep saying, “I’ll tell you in a minute.” By the time that minute is over the story is done.  If you write thrillers or that subgenre we call suspense, the word worry might work better.

 I first learned about suspense when I read the Tarzan novels.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an interesting technique for holding his readers’ attention.  After the first book every story featured both Tarzan and Jane.  They always took off on some adventure, and they always got separated. So, you might see Tarzan running thru the jungle – he comes face to face with a lion – the lion roars – he pulls his knife.  The lion jumps at him and…

The chapter ends and we’re following Jane.  She’s lost so she climbs a tree.  She finds herself on the limb with a huge snake.  It gets closer.  She’s about to fall out of the tree.  The snake rises, about to strike and…

The chapter ends. We see Tarzan grapple with the lion, but the whole time we’re watching Tarzan, I’m worrying about Jane. At the time I found this kind of thing very frustrating – but fun.  I learned that people like to be frustrated this way.

So, suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered. For variety, there are different kinds of suspense. I’ll spell a few of them out next week.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Making the Scene

The last few weeks we’ve been preparing to write a short story. We’ve found the actual story, chosen a protagonist and focused on the importance of that first sentence. The next step is to break your story down into scenes. 


Every good piece of fiction, regardless of length, is composed of a set of scenes. Each one takes place in a specific time and place. You’ll want to make a list. The scene list helps you organize your story. Not only does this approach lend some structure to your story, but it makes it easy to see which part needs more details or more work. And just like a novel outline there’s no law that you have to follow that list exactly. But if you’re like me and write the story in more than one sitting it will help you work thru the story.

I don’t imagine your short story will have too many scenes, but every one will be important to your story. I know you’ve heard the saying “show don’t tell” a thousand times. Keep it in mind as you make your scene list. When anything happens in your story that is interesting, or that changes the fate of your protagonist, don’t tell us about it. Show it in a scene. Your readers deserve to see the best parts of the story play out in front of them.
I’d suggest your scene list have four columns:

Point of View (POV)  Summary:
One sentence about the scene:
Planned word count:
Actual word count:

The great unintended consequence of this plan is that you can’t do it until you have your major plot points pinned down. This list kind of forces you to flesh them out.

If you’re working on a novel I would consider doing this too – only in an excel spreadsheet or something. But for the short story it puts everything in front of you, all nice and organized. You can see where there’s a scene missing (Hmmm… How did I get from here to there?) and it’s easy to see where a new scene belongs.

While you are making your list of scenes don’t forget to set things up to create suspense. All readers love drama, as long as it’s not in their own lives. The key to suspense is to set up a dramatic question. I’ll details how to go about that next week.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Let’s Get It Started


Still talking short stories: have you considered having more than one protagonist? Buddy pictures and most romances have two protagonists. And while this works in Romeo and Juliet, and Lethal Weapon, I strongly recommend you not try it in a short story. There generally isn’t time and space to build enough caring about more than one character. I am not saying it can’t be done, just saying it’s not for us beginners.

Once you know whose story it is, I’d suggest you write the opening line. You don’t just want good… you want perfect. It’s a short story: you need to hook the reader in right away. A great first line will entice the reader enough that he or she can’t put the story down. That first line needs to invite us into the scene. It should have some surprises. How can a first line be surprising? How about the opening line of 1984 by George Orwell: “it was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  I thought this was an ingenious way to show that the world he’s describing is slightly off from the real world.

 That opening line should also establish a voice. It needs to be clear. For example, does anyone NOT know the first line of Melville’s Moby Dick? “Call me Ishmael.”


If possible, it should tell your whole story in one sentence. How can that be? Take Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Yeah, that just about says it all – we see his entire journey, from the realization of his situation to his total alienation to his eventual death.


Honestly, you won’t see perfect very often , but I want to share and discuss a good example. Gene Wolfe’s book “The Shadow of the Torturer” opens with this line: “It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” These are the first eleven words of a thousand page story cycle, but look at all they accomplish. First, they establish the first person narrator. They establish that he is looking back on his life. They also help to set the scene and establish a definite voice. How about the first three word? “It is possible…” a little stilted, and maybe overly formal. Suppose he said, “It’s possible”? It wouldn’t establish such a deliberate voice, right? And using a word like “presentiment” – way more formal than “I’ve got this idea…” or “I have a sense that…”  but it doesn’t carry the foreboding that the word “premonition” might carry.  


We’ll talk about scene breakdowns  in your short story next week.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Motivation by Example


Last week we started talking about character motivations. These motivations can appear to be simple at the beginning of your story. Characters may even think so themselves at first. But you need to know the deep down reason why the opposing goals are important to these people before you begin to build your plot.  If they don’t care deeply about these goals, your reader won’t care either.  and if only one is deeply invested, we’ll wonder why the other one doesn’t just give up.

Consider rocky – Sylvester Stallone’s first sold script. I use movies as examples for two reasons: first, we are all more likely to have seen the same films than to have read the same books.  but also, the plots tend to be more transparent and easily seen.

Rocky is a boxing movie but not much of the film is taken up by fighting. It’s good evidence that conflict is not violence. What does our protagonist, Rocky, really want in that film? He wants a shot at the title. Keep that in mind, because his actual objective is important.  He also wants to prove he’s not a loser. And he wants his girl to respect him.

Our antagonist – Apollo – wants to prove once again that he is the best ever. Please note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. He doesn’t have to be evil. And I prefer stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist have worthy goals and are both absolutely determined to attain them.

In that context you can see that the plot of that movie is all about what Rocky is willing to do to attain those goals. Each beat in the script is about Rocky facing some obstacle to achieving one of his goals. And really, he’s not particularly good at much of anything. Consequently, each beat in the film contains a conflict that shows us how badly Rocky wants these things he is driven to have. 

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  it might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis. Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, sure he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but should he? Yes many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Good Bad Guys Make Good Good Guys


Last week I told you that when writing a short story your protagonist needs to be the center of your story, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby – which reads like a big short story anyway, and Gatsby is not the Point Of View character. But he does drive the plot and it’s his fate that gives the story its meaning. So it’s really important that you choose the right protagonist.

But how do you make that protagonist really interesting? How do you show this person’s personality when you only have a few thousand words to tell his or her story? I would suggest that the best way to illustrate the protagonist is through a strong antagonist. Remember the antagonist isn’t necessarily the bad guy. He or she is the protagonist’s opposite. Readers naturally compare people, so everything you do to characterize the antagonist creates a comparison that characterizes the protagonist. The stronger the antagonist, the more impressive the protagonist is when he wins.

Remember that without conflict, you don't have a story. Conflict drives your story forward. You may think that’s easier in a thriller or a mystery but actually it applies to all fiction worth reading.  To be clear:  conflict is not violence.  Conflict is a function of character.  It’s about motivations. Most good stories are driven by some external conflict.  The protagonist needs to do something, go someplace, get something… and the antagonist has opposing goals.

In a romance, it might be as simple as the leading lady wanting eternal love and the fellow she’s attracted to not wanting to be tied down.  In a murder mystery the hero wants to find the killer, and the killer doesn’t want to be found.  Most often in thrillers the villain’s objective kicks off the story, and the protagonist’s goal is to stop him from accomplishing that objective.  But one way or another, whatever the goals they are pursuing, they must be very very important to both the protagonist and the antagonist – and you have to let your readers know that. 

So as you consider your story idea decide what it is that your protagonist wants so badly.  Then figure out what he or she is going to have to do to accomplish that goal.  That effort, after all, is the plot.

Next, attach an emotional context to that goal.  In other words, why is it so important?  What is this person’s motivation to accomplish this goal?  Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation.  Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations.  The need to prove something to yourself or to others is a fine motivation.  “it’s my job” is not a very good motivation for your hero. Nor is “because I’m evil” a good motivation for your villain.  Dig deeper. 

We’ll talk more about character motivations next week.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

What the story? And whose story is it?


Last wee I told you that the first step in creating a short story is to write down the story. And yes, I know that sounds silly but let me expand a bit.

A true short story has characters, plot, setting and theme. What I’m talking about now is the story as you’d tell it to me if we were having lunch together and I hadn’t seen that news story and you just wanted to bring me up to speed. We all tell stories like this all the time. I suggest that you start by writing that out, your basic story idea.  Don’t overthink it!  Don’t do research. Don’t make an outline. Write it out in one sitting.

The next step is to find your protagonist. It’s easy to assume you know the role of the protagonist. We’ve all read enough stories that we know a protagonist when we see one. But for your own story, don’t assume you already know. Step back and look at your story idea from all angles. Whose story do you want this to be. Last week I used the example of the recent flood that devastated Ellicott City. If that were a fictional story you might have already decided this is the story of the lost National Guardsman who died trying to rescue someone. But remember, the protagonist doesn’t have to be the hero. We can all agree on the protagonist in Macbeth, and he certainly is not a hero. It doesn’t even have to be the point of view character. Consider every Sherlock Holmes story. 

The protagonist is simply the person who makes choices that drive your story forward. If the character doesn’t choose his or her own fate and get the reward or suffer the consequences of those choices, then that’s not the protagonist. It’s all about a character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it. If the character doesn’t want something badly enough to choose to go thru the conflict your reader will be disappointed no matter how the story comes out.

More importantly, the protagonist is the person whose fate matters the most to the story. This character’s fate determines whether our story is a tragedy or not.  In this case it could be the person our hero dies saving. Or his partner who arrived too late to make the rescue attempt. Or the mayor who chose not to evacuate the city. You decide whose story it really is.

Next week we'll talk about how you can make that protagonist interesting to your readers.