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How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

7 Jan
Victor Giannini's essay about his father's struggles with PTSD, "His Room's a Jungle," was published at Narratively.

Victor Giannini’s essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD, “His Room’s a Jungle,” was published at Narratively.

Every writer struggles at some point with transitions: how to move from one moment in time or idea to another moment. If the piece spans many years, these transitions become even more important because the writer is clumping together time: a moment here, a moment there, some context here. The transitions between these clumps can be simple (“And then…”), but how do you make them simple and also keeps the reader hooked?

Victor Giannini demonstrates how to use transitions in this beautiful essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD after serving in Vietnam. “His Room’s a Jungle” was published at Narratively, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it.

In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link:

  • A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. The essay begins with the writer sitting in his father’s living room, watching a storm through the window. The transition works by directly linking this storm with another storm. Notice how quickly this happens:

I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.

  • A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. The essay is, in part, a bildungsroman—a story about a young person learning some elemental truth that forever changes his life. The following passage demonstrates how to distill the belief that will change and the event that changes it:

When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.

War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.

  • A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This link is the opposite of the previous one, and, as a result, the two are often used in tandem, as is the case in “His Room’s a Jungle”:

Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!

Transitions become more difficult if you’re not sure what you’re linking: in other words, what is each passage about? The answer should be more than what happened. You’re also developing an idea: this happened, and this is the change that occurred as a result.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some transitions, using “His Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini as a model:

  1. Pick a true story to tell. Choose one that has personal importance, one that you’ve thought about a lot, one that gives you the sense that all was not the same after the events occurred.
  2. A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. In essence, this is the “This reminds me of a time…” link. When do you find yourself thinking about this story? Are there particular triggers? You can choose something timely (something from today’s news) or something routine (walking the dog, watching football, washing dishes). Keep in mind that the thing you remember is more important than the trigger—so just like a real trigger, the mechanics of it should happen quickly. Get the reader into the moment as fast as possible. Giannini does like this: “It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us.”
  3. A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. In short, how did you once feel about the thing you are writing about? Which moment really began to change that belief? This is an old storytelling technique—think about the New Testament’s Saul getting knocked off his horse by lightning and becoming the evangelist Paul. Your moment might be less dramatic than a lightning strike, but it should start a chain of events that will lead to a new way of thinking. To make this work, summarize the belief and then transition quickly to the moment. Giannini uses three words: “Then, one day…”
  4. A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This is your chance to tell the reader how your ideas changed. While this could come at the end of the essay, it’s probably better to put it nearer the beginning. Ideally, the new attitude will complicate matters. Think about it this way: Now that the wool has been pulled away from your eyes, what do you see? It’s probably something a little unsettling. The transitional phrase can be simple. Giannini uses this: “From then on…”

Good luck and have fun!

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Creating Suspense and Suspension of Disbelief

16 Jul
Laura van den Berg's story "Farewell My Loveds" was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg’s story “Farewell My Loveds” was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Every writer must learn to create suspense. But how? Laura van den Berg offers a masterful lesson in her story “Goodbye My Loveds.” The story is included in van den Berg’s story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books and was first published in American Short Fiction and republished by Atticus Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces a mystery right away: the hole in the street. But the exact nature of the hole is unclear. Is it bottomless as the little brother believes or simply a hole as his big sister, the narrator, suggests? In delaying the answer, the story not only makes the readers want to know the answer but also changes the readers’ expectations: perhaps the hole really is more than just a hole. In other words, when a story creates suspense, it also creates a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

Here’s a breakdown of van den Berg accomplishes this trick:

  1. She introduces the mystery (the hole in the street) and a sense of urgency (the brother wakes the narrator up at dawn to look at the hole).
  2. The narrator and her brother argue about whether the hole is actually a crack.
  3. The narrator and brother argue about when to use a flashlight.
  4. The narrator and brother argue about whether the hole is bottomless.
  5. The narrator imagines her brother disappearing into the hole.
  6. The characters go back to their apartment.

After each of the first five sections, the story shows us the hole. With each view, we (along with the narrator) see some new aspect of the hole and it becomes a little bigger, deeper, and darker. Here is each view:

  1.  “a dark circle on the asphalt. It was the size of a dinner plate, the borders uneven and jagged”
  2. “he reached inside, his arm disappearing to the elbow”…’Okay,’ I said, hoping he would stop before a rat found the soft tips of his fingers.”
  3. “It looked like a patch of asphalt just melted away, a miniature sinkhole precariously close to the rear of a brown Honda…I saw a narrow stream of darkness, as though I was gazing through a telescope trained on a black and starless sky.”
  4. “He aimed the light into the hole; the beam was swallowed by shadows.”
  5. “I examined the diameter and, to my relief, decided it wasn’t large enough for him to squeeze through.”

At the end, the narrator imagines her brother falling into it—and this moment introduces a new mystery: why would the narrator imagine such a thing? It is this mystery that will drive the story forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a small scene around a mystery.

  1. Choose a mystery. You might use a familiar horror from books/movies. In this story, van den Berg has used the bottomless pit. Here are some other options: pit of snakes, endless staircase, secret doorway, cutout eyes in a painting for someone to spy through, trapdoors, secret passages, monsters under the bed, bogeyman in the closet, stranger hiding in the back seat of the car, and spider under the bedcovers.
  2. Translate the mystery into familiar realistic setting. van den Berg makes her bottomless pit a pothole. Think about how you could put a secret doorway, endless staircase, or monster into your kitchen or bedroom. Which familiar objects could be made mysterious? Show it to the reader using non-fantastic details.
  3. Create two characters. One will believe that the mysterious object is truly mysterious, and the other will believe that it’s not. List ways that the first person might investigate the mystery.
  4. Let the characters argue about the nature of the mysterious object.
  5. After each investigation or argument, show the object again, with new details, each more mysterious than the last. Your goal is to make the reader appreciate the object in a new way.

Good luck and have fun.

The Inscrutable Stranger Comes to Town

16 Apr
Kirstin Valdez Quade's story "Nemecia" won first place in Narrative Magazine's Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia” won first place in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

The writer Charles Baxter once wrote in an interview that he liked “to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself.” And yet Baxter has also written, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”

This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories—such as “Bartleby the Scrivener”—are those about the search for understanding. In Melville’s story, the narrator nearly drives himself  mad trying to figure out why his employee, and then former employee, Bartleby, responds to all requests with “I would prefer not to.” In the end, though, Bartleby resists explanation. He remains a cypher.

That same inscrutability can be found in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia.” The story won the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Short Story Contest, and you can read it here.

(Note: Registration is required–but it’s free and definitely worth the few seconds required to do so.)

How the Story Works

The story is about Nemecia, an unsettling character who has joined, under chilling circumstances, the narrator’s family. The narrator’s attempt to understand Nemecia’s odd behavior shapes the story. The first section acts as an introduction.  Here are some select lines:

  1. Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated…At night she stole food from the pantry, handfuls of prunes, beef jerky, pieces of ham…The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it made me sick to think of her body permitting such quantities.
  2. I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.

The next section operates in the same way as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The narrator’s new knowledge affects her view of the entire community. Here are some select lines:

  1. The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
  2. I wondered if they were afraid of what she might do to them. Perhaps the whole town was terrified of my cousin.
  3. At night I stayed awake as long as I could, waiting for Nemecia to come after me in the dark.

A great story can put goosebumps on its readers’ arms, and following that last line, the story leaps into action. With each new awful attack by Nemecia, the narrator tries to understand her nemesis, to comprehend what has made her so cruel. But she repeatedly fails and, by the end, she can only watch as “Nemecia held a wineglass up to the window and turned it. “See how clear?” Shards of light moved across her face.”

Nemecia remains inscrutable.

The Writing Exercise

This story is a fresh version of the age-old tale “Stranger Comes to Town.” Let’s try our own version. As you brainstorm for each step, write quickly. Don’t think too hard. Let your subconscious spit out material. You can edit it later.

1. Pick a town/neighborhood. Describe the main street, the stores, the residential streets, a house. Who lives there? What objects are important in the street, the stores, etc. Be specific.

2. Pick a stranger. Keep in mind that the best strangers have poker faces; they do not give away their thoughts. Some people will consider them sweet, and others will find them menacing. Give the stranger behavior that suggests both views—but that also suggests something isn’t quite right.

3. Pick one of the objects described earlier in Step 1. Make it go missing. Or make it malfunction. Or make it suddenly turn up in the stranger’s possession. In other words, disrupt the world that you created. Regardless of what disruption you choose, the stranger should be implicated.

4. Provide the stranger with a logical excuse—or simply allow the stranger to remain quiet so that others will make the excuse for him/her.

Your goal is to slowly increase the pressure on the town to discover why the stranger has behaved in this way, to understand what is happening. Yet you must also allow the stranger to resist this understanding. When done well, this can produce an incredible tension in your story.

Good luck.

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