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How to Create Suspense in Any Story

21 Mar
John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense.

The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, as you might expect, about a blind astronomer’s daughter. Pretty much every word of that title is complicated, though, since she’s not exactly his daughter, he’s not exactly blind, and not exactly an astronomer since astronomy in Ireland two hundred years ago wasn’t the academic science we know today. So, there’s plenty of intrigue in the book. But much of the page-to-page suspense comes from the sort of mechanical strategies we’re familiar with in genre fiction. For example, early in the book, there’s a scene in which the daughter, Caroline, has finally convinced her father, Arthur, to take her to his rooftop observatory. The scene begins like this:

He insists that she tie herself to him.

The short length of thick-braided hemp is already knotted at his waist when he holds the fretted end toward her in the cramped attic. She words her refusal in terms he will appreciate.

“While there is comfort in having you anchor my steps, if you were to falter, the fall would carry us both.” She considers adding that a larger object will ever hold a small in its sway, but decides that this would overstate the point.

He warns her that even now, in the light of midday, there are still shadows ready to deceive, and that she must heed the sharp angle of the roof and hold fast to the railing with her strong hand.

“And there will be wind,” he says.

Caroline has imagine this moment often—her first visit to the observatory—but it seems odd that her father has chosen to bring her here during the day when there is nothing to be seen but blue sky and white clouds. As usual he wears the patch over his left eye, and when she asks him if it is a hindrance in getting to the roof, he explains that he has grown accustomed to climbing the stairs half-blind, that he has learned to translate two dimensions into three, that preserving the eye for the telescope is worth incurring some unsteadiness in his step.

In this short passage, Pipkin has made something as basic as going onto the roof of a house into a riveting question of “What will happen?” First, he starts with a statement that demands explanation (“He insists that she tie herself to him.”) We don’t yet know what’s happening in the scene, and so we naturally think, “Huh?” Then, she refuses to do it. As a rule, refusal is good for tension (unless acceptance means going along with something we understand to be dangerous). Pipkin introduces several elements of danger: shadows, the sharp angle of the roof, and wind. He also writes the scene into a moment we don’t expect it. Astronomer’s work at night, but this is the middle of the day. Finally, Pipkin gives Arthur an eyepatch (as a rule, eyepatches=awesome) and uses the patch to further throw everything a bit off-kilter. It’s one thing to navigate a dangerous place, but it’s quite another to do it without the full faculty of your senses. It’s a trick that every magician understands: they’ll escape an underwater box or stand in front of knives, but first they’ll tie this blindfold over their eyes.

Each one of these is a strategy used every day by genre writers. The only difference is that Pipkin is using them on a rooftop observatory rather than, say, an intergalactic war.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create suspense, using The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin as a model:

  1. Choose the scene you want to write. It doesn’t really matter what scene you choose. It can be one with obvious plot elements or one without. It should contain a kind of set piece: a particular thing happening in a particular place.
  2. Introduce the scene with an unexpected detail. Don’t “set the scene.” Don’t lay out the basic parameters of place and stakes. Instead, focus on one element that, stripped of its context, strikes the reader as unusual. Pipkin ties his characters together with a rope. You want to avoid cheap thrills, of course, and false innuendos. And you can’t do this in every scene. But it’s a great strategy now and then: state something about the characters or place or situation without context, a statement that demands explanation.
  3. Let a character refuse or or accept the premise of the situation. Refusal works because it leads to disagreement, which leads to tension. Acceptance works if the thing being accepted ought to be refused (jumping off that cliff your parents talked about, walking into Mordor). Again, this will require explanation.
  4. Use the explanation as an opportunity to introduce danger. Every scene should contain elements of danger. If there are none, what’s the point of the scene? In this case, the danger is falling off the roof. But the danger might also be saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing, doing the right thing but getting the wrong reaction, etc. In your scene, what poses a risk to the characters. Let one of the characters enumerate those risks.
  5. Give the scene an element of the unexpected. Pipkin knows we’ll expect the scene to take place at night, so he sets it during the day. There are other ways to play with the basic elements of the scene: something expected that is subtracted or something unexpected that is added. Or, some element is changed: day for night, bedroom for kitchen, outside for inside, work for church, etc.
  6. Impair or heighten one of your characters’ senses. Pipkin makes Arthur wear an eyepatch. He’s used to it, but it’s clear that is increases the risk in the scene. Superhero and comic book movies do this all the time (special powers). War movies and action movies do this in the negative: the hero is always fighting without his weapon or with some grievous wound. How can you impair or heighten your own character’s senses or abilities?

The goal is use these basic strategies for increasing tension in any scene, no matter if the story is literary or genre.

Good luck.

How to Create a Narrative Arc

14 Mar

Susan Muaddi Darrel’s story, “The Journey Home,” is part of her Grace Paley Award-winning collection A Curious Land.

In my MFA program, I learned the term narrative arc and the idea of the narrative triangle, which says that a character must get from point A to point B through a third point. This makes perfect sense. I didn’t understand it at all. My stories suffered as a result. If you can’t create that third point, then you can’t create suspense, which is, at its most basic, the art of making readers anticipate point B and delaying their arrival there. Without a point B, there’s nothing standing in the way of a quick rush to point B and the end of the story.

This way of thinking about narrative arc applies not just to stories but to scenes as well. A great example of this can be found in Susan Muaddi Darraj’s story “The Journey Home,” which is included in her Grace Paley Prize-winning collection A Curious Land. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in Lebanon in 1916, during World War I’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign and follows a group of families as they walk from village to village, looking for food and trying to stay ahead of the armies and the war. It’s also a love story, but for now, we’ll focus on a section of the story that centers on a village where the group decides to set up camp. The village is seemingly abandoned:

“Nothing moved—no sound emerged, as if a jinn had cast a spell and turned the people into stones. They’d come across places like this before, but here she felt frightened, as though someone may jump out from behind a door or a tree and snatch her away.”

Clearly, the stage is set for something bad to happen or for us and the characters to discover something awful. That’s point B. We know where we’re going. Darraj does a really great job of building our anticipation for that destination:

“As she filled the jar with water, she glanced up suspiciously at one house, the one directly opposite the well. Who had lived there? Its small windows looked like seashells, built by alternating dark and pale stones. The door was slightly ajar, and she knew it could swing open easily if she wanted to go inside. That made her feel worse—had the people walked out alive from their own front door, she reasoned, they would surely have bolted it behind them. People who had solid walls, who owned doors, would lock them. Their well was full, the water cold and crisp. She cupped her hand into her jar and sipped it, then used the last few drops to freshen her face.”

Now, we have a much clearer sense of point B: eventually we’re going to walk into one of the houses, through one of those doors left slightly ajar. But what will delay our entry?

The easy answer would be some obstacle or impediment, something that makes entering the houses difficult or undesired. But Darraj smartly does something else. An obstacle could feel contrived. So instead she introduces a diversion, something new to attract our attention away from those doors:

“Only when she looked up, using her scarf to wipe her eyes, only then did she finally see it, where it lay on the other side fo the well. It looked like a sack, and at first her hunger made her imagine that it was a hastily abandoned sack of rice or grain. But then, there is was—a dirty foot jutting out from under one side, and she recoiled, screaming for help.”

The main character, a young woman, thinks the body is dead, but then her father says, “No, he’s breathing.”

Darraj has introduced something concrete to attract our attention. It doesn’t feel like a diversion because it’s a legitimate thing to deal with (as dead or almost-dead bodies always are) and because the characters have such intense reactions to it. The story will eventually take us into one of those doors (and it will be unexpectedly awful), but the horror of it will be compounded by the fact that we’ve been paying attention to something else and have, for a moment, forgotten about the doors.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a narrative arc, using “The Journey Home” by Susan Muaddi Darraj as a model:

  1. Give your characters an inevitability to face. This works on a story or novel level as well as the level of a scene or chapter. Inevitably, Darraj’s characters will figure out where everyone in the village has gone. The word inevitable is key. Don’t try to surprise the readers yet. Let them know where the story is going. You can’t have a narrative arc if no one knows what’s going on or what to expect. In any given scene, ask yourself, “What will my readers anticipate is going to happen? Where do they think this is going?” Set up the scene so that it plays to those expectations.
  2. Make the inevitability specific. Darraj shows us the slightly ajar doors and writes that beautiful passage about what it means that the doors have been left that way. As readers, we know exactly where this part of the story is going: through one of those doors. How can you make your story or scene’s inevitability specific and concrete? How can you show the readers, “This is the place where the inevitable thing will happen?”
  3. Introduce the new thing. Children intuitively understand how this works. In their stories, ninjas storm a school and then they’re attacked by a dragon in a chicken suit. The problem with these stories, as anyone who’s ever taught creative writing to little kids, is that the new things are almost always random. The body in Darraj’s story is not random. We haven’t seen it yet, but we’ve understood that its presence was a distinct possibility. The characters are walking around in a war zone. They’ve entered an empty village. A body is part of the framework created by the setting and situation. What’s surprising is that the body isn’t actually dead. Now we’re paying attention. So, how can you introduce something that is an expected part of the framework of your setting and situation—and then tweak it so that it’s not quite what is expected?

The goal is to build anticipation (what will happen when the inevitable happens) and then introduce an expected element with an unexpected twist, drawing the readers’ attention away from what is inevitable to what is immediately curious and interesting.

Good luck.

How to Add Interiority in the Midst of Suspense

7 Mar

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

The death note for any work of fiction is just that—a single note. When a novel or story is doing just one thing at a time, readers will get bored and walk away. Good fiction, then, juggles multiple elements at once. There are large-scale ways of doing this (multiple points of view, multiple timeframes), but it’s also possible to juggle elements on a sentence and paragraph level. Even when writers are moving between the big building blocks of POV and time, they’re also doing the same thing in small ways because those small shifts are what keep a reader engaged. After all, readers read pages and chapters one sentence at a time, and so writers must hold their attention on that level.

A good example of juggling elements on this small-scale be found in Alexandra Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is a thriller with a slow-burning fuse, driven as much by mood and eeriness as some of the flashier mystery writing tools. The prologue makes this clear. Instead of, say, a murder, it shows us actions that we seem urgent and weird but that we don’t entirely understand: an unexplained and hurried trip, an encounter with the police that ends in a robbery (and not the other way around), a robbery that doesn’t quite make sense, and identities that are tossed aside and replaced with ease. All of this happens in four pages. But the multiple elements aren’t the things that happen. They’re laid out in chronological order, one thing after the other. Instead, the multiple elements are what is happening and what the main character is thinking: exterior action and interior thought.

Here is an example of how Burt shifts between the two. All we know is that a girl and her mom are driving across the country. Here’s the girl:

She opened a bag of Red Vines, sucked on them and then gently rubbed them over her lips until they turned crimson.

Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia—the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion; a box-shaped bellows-driven musical instrument, colloquially referred to as a squeezebox—she concentrated on the sound of the pages rustling like old parchment as she flipped through the tattered book.

Her mother called her Pet. The girl didn’t like the name, especially when her mother introduced her. This is pet, she’d say with a smile. She’s very shy. Then her mother moved on quickly, as if she had told too much already.

Pet, the encyclopedia said, a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship. Treated with care and affection.

The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page. She remembered when it was new, how the pages and the spine had not yielded as readily, and she wondered if the pages would eventually shed. She attempted to focus on a word but the movement of the car made her nauseous. Eventually she just left the book cracked open in her lap.

“My feet are cold. Can I get a pair of socks from the trunk?” she asked somewhere after the New Mexico/Texas border.

The passage begins with action (“She opened a bag of red vines”) and continues with more action (“Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia”) but then shifts into the character’s head and what she notices about the encyclopedia (“the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion” and “the sound of the pages rustling”).

Then, it moves into background information (“Her mother called her Pet”) that turns into the character’s feelings about the name (“The girl didn’t like the name”) and a memory of her mother saying it.

Next, the passage returns to the encyclopedia’s definition of Pet.

The next paragraph starts with more action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”) and moves again into memory (“She remembered when it was new”).

Finally she puts the book down and speaks—back to action.

Of course, one might argue that there isn’t much action in this passage, and it’s true. The action consists of reading a book. But it’s just a small passage situated in a prologue about a mysterious cross-country drive and some inexplicable things that happen along the way. Without this moment of interiority, the novel might have a couple of problems. First, the drive would happen too fast, in two pages instead of four. Second, readers might not care what happens because the characters would be simply pieces moved around by the author. Third, readers might not have a sense of the world and how it feels. Sense (or mood) is often, though not always, built with interiority.

So, to create mood, pacing, character, and a sense of the world, Burt must move back and forth between intriguing action and interiority.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s move back and forth between exterior action and interiority, using The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt as a model:

  1. Know what is happening—generallyThink in terms of the larger unit (prologue, chapter, section). What is the overall arc? If someone asked your reader, what happened in that part, what would they say? In Burt’s case, the characters seem to be on the run from something. They’re driving. That’s the general happening of the prologue. What is the general happening in the part of your story/book that you’re focusing on?
  2. Zoom in on a smaller piece of action. Within the larger arc, what is happening on the smaller scale. Try phrasing it this way: While they were ____, So-and-so _____. What action fills the second blank? In Burt’s case, it’s the character eating Red Vines and reading the encyclopedia. Notice that she gives her character two things to do. The first action serves as a kind of transition to the second action, taking some of the weight off of it so readers don’t initially read too much into it.
  3. Give the character something to notice while doing this small action. Burt’s character notices something about the page of the book? What does your character notice?
  4. Add information. At a certain point, Burt needs to tell us the character’s name. It’s one of those pieces of information that must be included early in a story/book. Burt chooses one that seems particularly important to the story and drops it in, seemingly out of the blue, but then lets the character react to the information, remember something about the information, and then act based on that information (she looks up Pet in the encyclopedia). So, don’t just add the information. Let it lead back into interiority and then back out again into action.
  5. Zoom back out. Burt moves us out of the character’s head and into less specific action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”). Finally she sets the book aside and speaks, and then we’re back into the general action of the drive again.

The goal is adjust narrative pace by creating layers of action and the opportunity to portray a character’s interior state (and also to drop in some basic, unavoidable information).

Good luck.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

How to Give Your Characters a Kick in the Pants

21 Feb
Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that it’s boring to read about characters thinking. If thinking and realizing are the primary actions in a story, that story probably isn’t going to work. Even the most brilliant ideas need to be attached to drama—action, intrigue, conflict. On a practical level, this means that it can be a great exercise to start chapters or stories by giving your character a kick in the pants and forcing him or her to act, not just think.

Paige Schilt proves that this strategy works for nonfiction as well. Again and again, she starts chapters of her memoir Queer Rock Love with action. You can see how she does it here.

How the Memoir Works

The book is a love story featuring Schilt and her wife, Katy, an Austin rocker/therapist (a very Austin combination). Unlike many love stories, it begins with marriage, which means that the drama is found not in falling in love but in dealing with the obstacles that threaten to overwhelm love once it’s established. That said, this chapter comes early in the book, when Schilt is finishing up graduate school in Pennsylvania and still figuring out what it means to be the relationship. One of Katy’s friends decides to buy a house in Austin, but since Austin prices are quickly rising, the only place he can afford is a duplex—if someone splits it with him and lives in the other unit. He decides that Katy will be that person:

“And, because Katy and I had decided that we were married, that meant that I was meant to buy a house with Jim too. That night on the phone, Katy told me that she and Jim were going to look at a house in South Austin. “He says it just has this remarkable energy.” I rolled my eyes in the privacy of my Pennsylvania apartment, and Katy continued unaware. “He thinks we ought to buy it together. It’s a duplex, so we could live in the top and he could live in the bottom.”

“Hmm…” I said. In my heart I had decided to move back to Austin, but I hadn’t given much thought to where we would live. I was filled with dread at the prospect of telling everyone—my department chair, my mentors, and especially my parents—that I was quitting my job. Through six grueling years of grad school, life had seemed linear. If all went well, I would land a tenure track position and move up the ladder at regularly scheduled intervals. Now I felt like I was sailing over the edge of the known universe in a barrel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I would survive the journey. What did I care for the details of how we might live when (and if) I arrived?

A few nights later, Katy brought it up again. “You’re going to love it,” she said. “There’s something about it—it’s just got the greatest energy.” I tried to remain noncommittal, but suddenly Katy was talking mortgage lenders and down payments.

“But,” I objected, “I haven’t even met Jim! How can I buy a house with someone I’ve never met?”

My feeble sandbags were no match for the tidal wave of Katy’s enthusiasm. “You’re going to love him too,” she assured me. “He’s super smart, and he reads Lacan! I think you guys actually have a lot in common.”

Think about how this passage could have been written—and often is written in early drafts, especially in beginning writer workshops. The character/narrator would have agonized over what to do, perhaps while drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, or looking out the window—actions that would have been meaningless filler. Schilt avoids that problem by giving the scene real drama and action (people buying a house) and, therefore, a meaningful choice to make. The same pondering that would have filled the alternative draft are still there, but now they’re made concrete with the duplex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character or narrator’s thoughts concrete, using Queer Rock Love by Paige Schilt as a model:

  1. Identify your character’s or narrator’s existential dilemma. For Schilt, that dilemma was about what it meant to be in a marriage—and in this marriage in particular. It’s a lot for any person or character to think about, which is great for drama. It’s what we often mean when we use the term stakes. So, what does your character or narrator (real or invented) worry or think about late at night, while driving, or while he or she ought to be focused on something else?
  2. Introduce a decision made by someone else. In this passage, Schilt does not suddenly get it into her head to buy a duplex. The idea doesn’t even start with her wife, Katy. Instead, it’s a third person who talks Katy into it, and then Katy goes to work on Schilt. This is important for two reasons. First, it takes some of the pressure off of the main character to be the focus of all the drama. The drama should affect the character/narrator, but it doesn’t need to be started by the character/narrator. Second, it creates a larger world for the story. Suddenly a character we haven’t even met yet is playing a crucial role, which means our sense of the place around the main characters grows. So, look beyond your main characters. Who are their friends, coworkers, family members, and acquaintances? What decisions are those people making that might impact the main characters? How and why would these side or minor characters try to include the main characters in their plans?
  3. Force the issue. Katy doesn’t raise the possibility of buying the duplex and then let it drop. She brings it up over and over again, each time applying greater pressure, moving from “you’re going to love it” to practical issues like mortgage payments. The duplex is becoming a reality, whether Schilt wants to engage with it or not. As a result, she must figure out her feelings about the big, existential issue because this more practical matter is coming to a head. How can your characters apply pressure, forcing your main character or narrator to make a decision, not just about the practical issue (whether to buy a duplex) but also about the larger existential issue, whatever it is for your character?

The goal is to move the story along, from though to action and, therefore, drama by forcing the issue. Important practical matters often require us to sort out our feelings about existential dilemmas.

Good luck.

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

14 Feb
The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped. Read essays by writers responding to the book at Books Are Not a Luxury.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white-hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Barefoot Dogs,” originally published as “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can read the story here or in the collection.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white-hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white-hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white-hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white-hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white-hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

How to End a Story

7 Feb
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Essay Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

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