Posts Tagged ‘Plot’
There are many reasons — many more than five — that I’ll keep reading your story.
But there are also at least as many reasons I won’t.
(For example: He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an over-temp according to a box’s direction. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow preferable to imagining talking to Nothing. And he found it embarrassing to get down on his knees in his underwear, and like the other guys in the room he always pretended his sneakers were like way under the bed and he had to stay down there a while to find them and get them out, when he prayed, but he did it. — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest)
Here, then, in no particular order, are five reasons I will:
1. You can sustain a long sentence.
I like long sentences that sing. I always have. It’s become cliche these days to talk about “simplicity in writing” and “clarity is king” and so forth — and it’s incontestably true that clarity is the principle thing: you must make yourself understood. But in delicate hands, long sentences are the opposite of unclear: they are the very acme of clarity. Here’s an example:
“If it made any real sense — and it doesn’t even begin to — I think I might be inclined to dedicate this account, for whatever it’s worth, especially if it’s the least bit ribald in parts, to the memory of my late, ribald stepfather, Robert Agadganian, Jr.” — J.D. Salinger, De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period
A writer who can sustain a long sentence is a writer who thinks clearly.
2. You’ve given me something to fret over
You’ve established a series of obstacles that in reason interest readers, and you’ve doled that information out gradually, feeding it to readers step-by-step, in a way that keeps us hungry for more. The obstacles your characters encounter are not inconsequential or meaningless obstacles — i.e. your lead character’s biggest conflict is not what color she should paint her nails — but you’ve instead asked yourself: are my characters’ values important enough for readers to fret over?
3. Your plot shows your inexhaustible imagination
Plot — true plot — is difficult. It’s plausible but unpredictable. It presents a sequence of events that progresses logically and builds toward a climax. Note that: your plot should build. It can build slowly, as in Anna Kerenina, or quickly, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This means, among other things, that your plot culminates in a climax. Climax is the point at which your plot brings together all the major elements of your story and then explodes. Good plots are not action alone. They are an integration of action and ideas. Good plots do not just raise questions. They raise questions and answer them, which in turn raises more questions which are in turn answered, and so on. That is partially what I mean when I say that plot is “a sequence of events that progresses logically yet unpredictably.” Good plots, through a process of satisfying your curiosity and then piquing it more, keep you wondering. They hook you and reel you in. “Good plots stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Killian.
4. Your story is about something
This means you’ve woven meaning into your story. (This, incidentally, is one of the many links between literature and philosophy.) That meaning can be purely historical, like Gone With the Wind, or it can be abstract, like Bladerunner. It can be a basic love story with a road plot, like Wild at Heart, or a love story with a horror plot, like House of Leaves. It is, in any case, a story about something — a story that appeals to things real within the body of the human experience, or “the human heart,” to use Faulkner’s beautiful phrase.
5. Your characters are believable AND remarkable
Readers like reading about exceptional people. We’re fascinated by antagonists like Hannibal Lecter and Mr. Frost, who are infernal but formidable, wicked but outstanding.
Readers are equally or more fascinated by protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Ellen Ripley, who are rarified but entirely human.
Yet it’s difficult to create believable characters like this.
Part of the trick is to develop a storyline (i.e. plot) that can showcase your characters’ virtues and vices. (It is in this sense that I refer to plot as a vehicle.)
Another part of the trick is to be able to show your characters’ motivation. In a real sense, the process of creating memorable characters is nothing more — or less — than showing what motivates them. This means that you know your characters inside and out, every bit as much as you know, for example, the human heart.
Plot is complicated.
The more I think about plot, the more complicated it gets.
Plot is the method by which you present your story.
Plot is a vehicle.
Plot is a purposeful sequence of events — and in a well-plotted story, those events all connect logically and culminate in a specific goal, or climax.
“Life is an unceasing sequence of individual actions,” said Ludwig von Mises.
That is true. Plot is similar, but plot is among other things selective in the actions presented. The author is the selector.
Plot is purpose — and for this reason plot requires that your characters who engage the plot meet with adversity, difficulties, obstruction. It requires struggles and obstacles of some sort. Why does plot require this? Because it is only by means of such things that characters can be presented and developed.
Plot is drama.
Drama holds the reader’s interest.
As Kurt Vonnegut said:
“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
Plot is not action alone. It is not random events.
Neither is plot a series of conversations (even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting), and it is not a catalog of day-to-day or minute-by-minute activities.
Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it is not a successful story.
Within this framework, there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions that aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it is appropriate to call this a plotless story. But of a story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposely, or even semi-purposely, and yet which is resolved by pure chance — or if there are actions unrelated to the storyline — it is appropriate to call this a plotted but poorly plotted story.
To dismiss plot because it is invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, as many academics do, is like dismissing the rules of chess as an unnecessary contrivance and yet trying to play chess without those rules.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in compendiated, encapsulated form.
That, incidentally, is the function of art — all art — and that is why plots are the indispensable device of storytelling: because they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience.
P.S. Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, my good friend Greg sent this to me:
Here, in no particular order:
5. Your storyline is compelling
You’ve created a sequence of events that progresses logically and purposefully and that culminates in climax. This sequence is called plot. The plot of a short story can (and probably should) involve just one single incident or main conflict. And conflict is clash. A clash of what? A clash of desires. On the other hand, the plot of a novel — even a short novel — should be more complex and involve a series of incidents. This series should progress naturally, yet not predictably, and if your storyline achieves that, you have on that level succeeded in writing a good book.
4. You’ve given the reader something to be curious about
This is what I call a Thread of Apprehension, which is closely connected to the issue of suspense, which in turn is closely connected to the issue of plot. To create such a thread, you feed information gradually to your reader and you build a conflict which will in reason interest your reader. What do I mean by “in reason”? If, for example, your character’s big conflict is what color she should paint her toes and what her friends will think of this, you will not have a conflict of any universal appeal: your characters, thus, being people who are concerned with such things, will not have universal appeal either. When you create a thread of apprehension, ask yourself this: is there any good reason that readers should be interested in this clash? Are the desires and values of my characters important enough to be curious about?
3. Your climax resolves your central conflict
Chekhov’s famous rule — “Never hang a gun on the wall in the first act if you don’t intend to have it go off in the third” — compendiates this principle perfectly. (The breach of that rule, incidentally, is known as a “red herring.”) If you create a lot of genuinely interesting conflict in your story and yet can’t bring the conflict together in one culminating scene, your story will fail. One piece of very helpful practical advice a screenwriter once gave me: devise your climax first in your mind and then plot backwards from that, away from the climax, always asking yourself along the way: what sequence of events are necessary to bring my characters to this point?
2. Your characters are remarkable
Readers are interested in exceptional people. What is exceptional? Out-of-the-ordinary and accomplished in some way. People who through their own choices and decisions and effort of will have risen above the average — even villains. Two-dimensional characters, uninteresting characters, characters with no depth, or characters whose motivations are unclear or unbelievable — they bore us. Upon the other hand, characters who are in some way remarkable — and realistically so — grab readers and make readers want to know what happens to them. To create characters with depth, however, the writer of course must also possess a certain amount of depth.
1. You know why your novel was written
Too often, we read novels written by writers who think that a novel is a journal. Or a memoir. Or a chronicle. A novel is not any of these things. You can in your novel write about mountain climbing or marlin fishing or marijuana smoking or your youth, provided you show us in the work why there’s a reason we should be interested in these things. That reason is called theme. Theme is the meaning that the events of your story add up to.
The situation is the nucleus of your story: it contains the kernel of your conflict from which the rest of your storyline will grow — and a real storyline cannot exist without some sort of conflict.
But what exactly is conflict? In writing circles, you hear the word incessantly, and yet you almost never hear it defined.
Conflict is clash. It is a clash of desires. And desires presuppose that your characters want something. That latter thing is, I believe, critically important because the want is the crucial component to the art of storytelling (and, for that matter, the art of life: Life is a process of valuing, to paraphrase Nietzsche).
It is the pursuit of values — The Want — that will propel your plot and infuse your story with meaning. When you pit that pursuit against an opposition, you create clash.
That is conflict.
The purposeful pursuit of values is in large part what will keep your readers interested.
If you have a specific message that you wish to get across (for instance, the destructiveness of superstition), it is ultimately that message that will shape the specifics of your story’s situation.
If, though, you don’t have a specific message, you must then begin by thinking up a good central conflict — and by “good,” I mean a conflict that is important enough to hold people.
For example, if you’re hungry for cookies but you’ll only allow yourself one cookie, and you then find in your cookie jar two peanut butter and two sugar, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve — i.e. you must choose between those two things. But this isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. Why? The conflict — the clash of desires — is not important enough and the choices aren’t strong enough to be of lasting interest.
To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain relevance to many people. That last thing is sometimes known as universality. Good stories — timeless stories — are universal.
New writers often wonder if they should decide their theme first, or their plot first. The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Some writers first think of a subject they want to explore, and some writers first think of a situation.
The method you’re most comfortable with is a personal preference. Sometimes, in a fit of inspiration, you get an idea for a subject, and you must then figure out how to dramatize it, the act of which is called plotting.
Or sometimes you get a good idea for a story — a real clash of desires — and you must then, if you’re philosophical, figure out a way to convey a universal message which that conflict can represent.
In Moby Dick (which, incidentally, is poorly plotted) Herman Melville, who worked a brief stint as a whaler, saw good potential for conflict in the idea of an indestructible whale and the men who hunt whales. He then infused that conflict with a mighty theme, so that by the end, the whale and the hunters have taken on a much weightier meaning.
If you don’t have a universal message — i.e. a theme — your story will be a plot story without an added level of depth. Soap operas and much commercial fiction are examples of this.
The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is one of the most famous (and played-out) Situations in literature: Pretty Woman, for example, with Richard Gere and Juilia Roberts, used it. Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, also used it, though that story gave it a distinctly dystopic twist.
The reason the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is such a popular Situation is that it has a built-in conflict (a woman who betrays a certain respectability and then falls in love) and also because it’s inherently sexual, which is one of the most universal desires there is.
Here are some less common Situations:
The Situation of Crime and Punishment is this: a man who believes that great people are above conventional morality commits a crime and is then condemned by his own moral sense.
The Situation of Madame Bovary is this: a small-town French girl, bored by her petty bourgeois marriage, engages in numerous adulteries and dies as a result.
The situation of the movie Amadeus is: a marginally gifted musical composer named Antonio Salieri grows increasingly consumed by his jealousy over Wolfang Amadeus Mozart’s prodigious musical talents and so plots and carries out Mozart’s murder.
The Situation of House of Leaves is: a mysterious house that’s bigger inside than outside, and containing endless unlit hallways, is explored by the family who’ve just moved in — explored until it almost kills them. (This Situation is symbolic of their marriage.)
If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie wherein the characters do little more than engage in long, philosophical discussions, then you’ve seen an example of a plot that doesn’t support its theme — which is to say, a theme that is not well integrated into the plot. This is a flaw in the storytelling, and the basic standard of measurement for that is this: how complex are the events of your story, and are they complicated enough to support the philosophy that you’re putting into the mouths of your characters — without, mind you, taking readers out of the framework of the story?
The main point, though, is that theme, if it exists, must be integrated into your clash. This means, among other things, that when you’re searching for a good Situation — i.e. a good central conflict — you must find a Situation complex enough around which a whole story can be built, and which will support your theme.
“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
Said Herman Melville.
And it’s true: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art.
What is theme? In literature, theme is the meaning that the events of your story add up to. The events are the plot.
Not all stories have a theme. These are the stories that time almost invariably sinks.
Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, have no theme.
Some of the great books in world literature are great primarily because of their themes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does not translate well, is great because of its theme: the human potential which resides within us all.
But there is one other element to durable literature, another reason that some art is timeless, even when the theme is not mighty: That reason is depth of style.
Style is The How. It is presentation.
Here, for example, we can observe drastic stylistic differences in artworks whose theme and subject-matter are essentially identical:
I often cite in literature the Englishman Anthony Burgess, whom I admire, but who never, in my opinion, wrote a great book. Yet his literature, much of it, endures and will endure, for one reason alone: his writing style (at its best — not, incidentally, evidenced in his most famous book) is so sophisticated and so strong:
“This was the day before the night when the knives of disappointment struck.”
But the greatest example of timelessness in literature is unquestionably Shakespeare, whose themes are so often undistinguished and even trite. The power, though, of his writing style alone — what Nabokov called the “verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — is what makes Shakespeare’s literature last.
“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.”
That is a durable style.
Plot is not memoir.
Plot is not diary.
Plot is not journal.
Plot is not history.
Plot is not erotica.
Plot is not dialogue.
Plot is not essay.
Plot is not philosophy.
Plot is not chronicle.
Plot is not action alone.
Plot is something very specific: it is the method by which you present your story. It’s a purposeful sequence of events — and in a well-plotted story, those events all connect logically and culminate in a specific goal or climax.
Plot is selective in the actions presented. The author is the selector.
Plot is purpose.
For this reason, plot requires adversity, obstruction, struggles, obstacles, conflict. Conflict is clash. A clash of what?
A clash of desires.
Plot is a clash of desires.
Clash is drama. And drama is what holds the reader’s interest.
As Kurt Vonnegut said:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.
Plot is neither random events, nor is it a series of conversations — even if those conversations are in and of themselves interesting. It is not a catalog of day-to-day, minute-by-minute activities.
Novels are by definition about human action. If, therefore, the subject of the story isn’t dramatized in terms of action, it won’t be a successful story.
Plotting, however, does happen along a spectrum, and for this reason there are degrees of plot-versus-plotlessness. Thus, of a story that has a sequence of actions which aren’t motivated by purposeful action but rather by accidents, it’s perfectly appropriate to call this a plotless story.
A story that has a sequence of events which does progress purposefully, or even semi-purposefully, and yet which is ultimately resolved by pure chance, it’s appropriate to call a poorly or thinly plotted story. (The Godfather is an example of a thinly plotted story.)
To dismiss plot, as many do, because it’s invented, or to describe plot as an unnecessary contrivance, is like dismissing chess because it has rules you must follow.
Plots are invented because humans need to see human life in an encapsulated form. That’s what plots do: they encapsulate, via the writer’s selection of events, the human experience, and they turn what in life might happen over the course of years into a condensed piece that can be experienced quickly.
Or perhaps you have.
Yet the following list, laid out in no particular order (with the exception of Number 1), is relatively obscure:
10. Light Years
Published in 1995, this is James Salter’s fourth novel — a novel as real, as poetic, and as heartbreakingly beautiful as anything I’ve ever read.
By Fydor Dostoevsky. Once translated as The Possessed and often regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s four great masterpieces, the novel Demons (which contains my favorite character of all-time) nonetheless remains poorly known. Perhaps it’s the first 100 pages, which Dostoevsky later admitted were “a mistake” and not the proper way to start his mind-spinning story, which is an absolute masterpiece of plot-and-theme integration.
Tom Drury’s fourth novel, published in 2006, is intelligent, endearing, funny — though perhaps a little too farcical — and contains an exceptionally likable hero named Pierre Hunter.
The final novel by Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who, in 2004, died somewhat mysteriously at the young age of fifty. 2666 is a strange and sprawling novel — not quite one thousand pages — which depicts, among many other things, the unsolved murders of over 300 young, poverty-stricken, uneducated Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez. The story is poorly paced, but the novel is symmetrical and stylistically stunning.
6. Mao II
Written by the prolific and inconsistent New York City writer Don DeLillo, Mao II is one of his very few that held me to the end, with its excellent and unorthodox prose and its memorable female protagonist — the photographer Britta — and, most of all, his utterly real J.D. Salingeresque hero Bill.
Nick Tosches, who writes for Vanity Fair magazine, got poor reviews for this book, and in many ways you can understand why. It is an undeniably flawed novel (his third), but if you’re at all interested in the actual craft of writing, this book will sustain you with the sheer power of Tosches’s writing style and the fascinating originality of his story. Johnny Depp recently bought the rights to this book and is tentatively planning to make it into a movie.
Many regard Truman Capote as America’s finest stylist, and I think there’s a good reason why. This book, which was published posthumously in 1986 in England and in 1987 in the United States (though chapters of it first appeared in Esquire magazine), represents Capote at his best. Because of it’s subject-matter, it created a firestorm of negative controversy, from which he never recovered. Admittedly, the plot, such as it is, is wobbly, but the prose positively coruscates.
3. Outer Dark
You’ve doubtless heard of the author — Cormac McCarthy — but you might not be familiar with his second novel, which was published in 1965, when Cormac was thirty-three-years-old. There’s something biblical and apocalyptic in this book — a raw and, at times, astoundingly poetic read. The title itself appears three times in the Bible, all three of which from the book of Matthew:
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12).
Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (22:13).
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30).
That’s a lot of teeth-gnashing, I think you would agree.
But Outer Dark will not leave you gnashing your teeth, though it just might leave you weeping.
Nicholas Christopher is one of the best least-known novelists and poets alive today — a true writer’s writer. His novel Trip to the Stars was first published in 2001, and here’s how it’s appositely described on his website:
At a Manhattan planetarium in 1965, a ten-year-old boy called Loren is kidnapped from his young adoptive aunt, Alma. The event profoundly changes the rest of their lives. Told through their alternating voices, A Trip to the Stars charts the paths of Loren and Alma over the next fifteen years, as they search for each other and in the process, discover themselves.
When he is whisked away by strangers, Loren at first believes he has been mistaken for another child. But his abductor turns out to a blood relative–his great-uncle Junius Samax, a wealthy reformed gambler. To his even greater surprise, Loren learns his “real name” is Enzo.
Growing up in a lavish converted Las Vegas hotel, Loren is surrounded by a priceless collection of art and antiques, and a host of eccentric guests–including experts on Atlantis, Zuni occultism, vampires, and other mysteries of the universe. Slowly, he pieces together the truth about his mother, and the complicated history that led to his adoption shortly before her death. He also battles a malicious woman, with hidden ties to both his birth parents. Although he still thinks about his aunt far away, Enzo is lulled by the belief that she knows he is safe.
But in New York, Alma is devastated by Loren’s disappearance. After months of frantic, fruitless searching, she stops and starts striving to escape the past. Changing her name to Mala– the word for “bad” in Latin, Spanish, and Italian–she gets a car and drives as far as New Orleans. After a stint working for an arachnologist, she volunteers for duty in Vietnam–a war she opposes. Trained as an X-ray technician and assigned to the Navy Nurse Corps, she keeps to herself and mourns for Loren. On Christmas day, the unexpected happens. Mala meets Geza Cassiel–a striking Air Force captain with the strange outline of a key in his stomach. Immediately, they are drawn to one another. Yet just as Mala opens her heart, Geza too vanishes. Devastated again, Mala begins a restless ten-year journey, moving from island to island around the globe, seeking for some way to overcome her losses.
Seamlessly fusing fantasy, scholarship, and suspense, A Trip to the Stars follows Enzo and Mala across a vast landscape–with stops in the Mojave Desert, Greece, North Africa, the South Pacific, and Hawaii–and through harrowing and electrifying events. At every step, Christopher tantalizes with dark secrets, breathtaking coincidences, psychic revelations, celestial influences, and the converging forces of fate and chance.
Christopher builds a story of tremendous scope as he traces the intricate latticework of Mala and Loren’s lives. Each remains separate from the other, but both are tied in ways they cannot imagine — until the final, miraculous chapter of this extraordinary novel comes to an end.
Toilers of the Sea is one of my all-time favorite novels, and Victor Hugo is one of my all-time favorite novelists. This book is a paean to human ingenuity, human strength and self-discipline. At the same time, this book is an absolute condemnation of superstition.
Toilers of the Sea was first published in 1866, when Victor Hugo was sixty-four-years-old, and I promise you one thing: you’ll never forget Gilliat, surely one of the greatest characters in all of world literature.
Seven o’clock in the evening. A hot and moth-populated mountain night. Gasteneau sat alone in a rundown motel on the outskirts of town, a cheap room that he’d rented for this reason, because it was cheap, and because he could have it by the day or by the week, and because it was spacious and commanded a view of the outlying plains.
Outside, it was not dark yet, but all his shades were pulled. He sat in a corner of the room upon an old sofa. He sat fully dressed and with his hair combed back, as if he was going somewhere, but he did not move and had not moved for some time. On the arm of the sofa lay a black cigarette lighter and a pair of pliers. He appeared lost in his thoughts, his face haggard and ill-at-ease. An iron band of pain tightened around his head. He was sure now that he had not been imagining things after all, his old sickness was indeed lurking there, just beneath the surface, pulling at him persistently, and it was only with a great concentration of will that he could fend it off.
He had been sitting in the room the entire day, growing more and more uneasy. He had trained himself to wait in this way, motionless, hour after hour, like a prisoner. But something else was happening as well: an old injury to the big toe of his left foot had begun reasserting itself, nothing serious at first, a minor ache, but building and building until at this moment his toe was pounding away with each beat of his heart. It was a running injury caused from his toes banging repeatedly against the tops of his tennis shoes—except this time, as had happened once before, when he was in the army, in addition to the bruising, the toe itself had become infected, so that blood could freely flow in but could not escape. Periungal hematoma. The words kept running through the corridors of his brain, volleying, it felt to him, around the acoustical concavities of his skull.
Half an hour passed, one hour. A moth landed on his face, its touch light and dry. He did not brush it away. The room grew dark. The walls were filled with shadows. Finally, he reached up and snapped on the overhead light. He leaned forward and removed his shoes. He sat barefoot. His big toe, feeling to him now rather like an epicenter from which great waves of pain ceaselessly and concentrically pulsed, had become turgid and huge, the nail obsidian-black.
“Jesus,” he said aloud. He’d been afraid to look, and now he grew frightened.
At that moment, his gaze, shifting to the right, saw reflected in the dead cyclopean eye of the television screen a white envelope as it was being slid beneath his door. He gasped, turned his head.
He stared for thirty seconds, almost afraid to move. Had he not been paying attention, he may very well have missed it; for it had been pushed beneath the door in such a way as to slide under a nearby dresser, where it might have gone unnoticed, perhaps for years.
But he was paying attention, he was always paying attention.
He stood up and hobbled over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered out.
It was very dark. Still, he thought he caught the tailend of a long coat flapping once in the breeze; then it disappeared around the corner of the open hallway. Upon second thought, he was not sure. His palm, still clutching the doorknob, felt clammy. In the east, the moon was hovering up, pared so thinly now and with the earthshine so bright that the moon itself looked like silver pincers delicately a large gray ball.
Joel’s head swam. He did not trust his vision. All day long, in fact, he had been watching multicolored planets orbit slowly in front of his eyes and then explode without a sound. His toe was a live scorpion hanging off the end of his foot. It even occurred to him that maybe the envelope was not there after all.
He bent down to look.
There the envelope lay, peeking out from beneath the dresser. He closed the door, dead-bolted and chain-locked it. He reached down. He placed his fingernail on the corner of the envelope and eased it out. The carpet had cigarette burns here and there across it. His head as he bent over throbbed in unison with his toe. He slit the envelope open with his pinky. A small note on thick paper fell out into his hand. It said:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
His body went cold. His scalp numbed. He felt as if he might lose consciousness at any moment. He looked down again at the note in his hand. He reread it:
I learned a few things that might interest you.
Coffee at The Clear Sky, 11:00 AM?
He squished his eyes shut and rubbed his eyes. After several minutes, he read the note a third time:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
What the hell was going on? He tried to think; he could not think; he could not process anything. Greatly perturbed, he set the envelope and the note on the dresser and went for the pliers. He reached up and removed a framed seascape from the wall and then wiggled out the thin nail that the picture had been hanging upon. He sat back down on the sofa and, holding the end of the nail with the pliers, ran a lighter flame all along the nail-tip. His brows were deeply knitted.
In the army, they had fixed his toe roughly this same way, years ago.
In no time, he had the thin metal pulsing hot-pink. Large beads of sweat stood out along his forehead and along his upper lip, and the flame was reflected individually in each bead. His brow glowed like expensive wood.
He dropped the cigarette lighter onto the floor and leaned forward. Blood poured into his head. Sweat dripped onto the carpet. He looked once more at his toe: from the swelling, the skin was stretched out so taut that the whole top part of the toe glinted dully, the color of lead, a leaden ball. Another peristaltic wave of lightheadedness coursed through him. He closed his eyes, waiting for it to knock him over or to pass. It passed. He opened his eyes slowly. Concentrate, he thought, you’ve got to stay focused. He squeezed the pliers as tightly as he was able, and then without further reflection he jammed the molten metal through the top of his toenail and down into the flesh, extracted it. It took three seconds. A tiny geyser of infected pus and blood erupted, the engorged tissue squealing thinly, like a hog fetus, and then a blinding flash of white-hot light filled his vision, and after that all he saw was black.
Editor’s note: That was excerpted from Chapter 9 of this book:
Suspense, which isn’t a genre but a specific manifestation of plot, is when you can’t put the book down because you must learn what happens next. Suspense is when you’re champing at the bit.
Here are five ways to keep readers in suspense:
5. Arrange your events in such a way that readers will wonder about the outcome.
If a storyteller gives away all that’s going to happen, the story won’t hold interest. But neither will the storyteller hold interest if he doesn’t give you any idea where the story is heading. Feed readers information gradually — which is to say, release your information in a step-by-step fashion, so that the reader will gobble up your information like so many breadcrumbs.
4. Misdirect your reader.
If you think a story is going one way but the story takes a drastic turn, you will continue reading.
3. Make the events of your story meaningful.
An event is something that happens in actuality. If, for example, your main character drives down to the bar and that is all, this IS an event. But it’s not a very meaningful one. If, however, your main character sits down at the bar and the lady next to him immediately throws a drink in his face and says “You bastard!” — well, that is a more meaningful event, provided there’s a motive behind it and you the writer disclose the source of the conflict.
2. Create interesting characters.
Characters who possess strong qualities go a long way in holding a reader’s interest.
1. Give readers something to worry about.
A professional writer I once over-served says he begins every story NOT by establishing a plot-line but by establishing “a line of anxiety.” By this he means, a sequence of events that will cause people to worry. In order to manage such a thing, you must create a clash which in reason will interest your reader. I say “in reason” because inconsequential events — such as getting your scalp massaged or your knob polished — are really not strong enough to make your readers worry.
Holding the reader’s interest is the total goal. In determining whether an event is interesting, ask yourself this: Is there any good reason why I myself would be interested in this episode? Are the values presented herein significant enough to worry about?
Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions, said Ludwig von Mises.
And so is plot.
But unlike life, plot is selective — and what that means, among other things, is that the author is the selector.
The author chooses the actions his characters undertake.
This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways that fiction differs from journalism, and it’s why “the pressure to record” is not — contrary to what the Naturalist School of Art would have you believe — the primary function of art.
Art creates. Journalism records.
In life, there are a great many actions which are mundane and of no major consequence — whether it’s walking around the block, or scratching your back, or brushing your teeth, or yawning.
Art by definition selects OUT the insignificant, and thereby grants significance to those issues the artist has chosen to focus upon. Art isolates and clarifies those issues, condensing into one single unit what in life might be spread out over a period of years, or even decades.
That, in a nutshell, is the purpose and power of art.
A novel, even a short novel, is a story about human beings in action. If, therefore, your story isn’t presented by means of physical action, it isn’t a novel. It may be a journal, it may be an epistle, it may be a memoir, it may be a diary, and it may be many other interesting things as well. But it is not a novel.
It’s important to note here that physical action doesn’t necessarily just mean fist-fights, car chases, and sex-scenes.
Physical action means that humans are engaged in purposeful action — which is to say, your characters are engaged in the pursuit of values.
Whether you’re writing a potboiler, a romance, a horror, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi book, or a literary novel, you must appeal to something real in the body of human experience.
Life, said Nietszche, is a process of valuing. “When we speak of ‘values’ we do so under the inspiration and from the perspective of life” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).
In my experience, the most talented editors are able to flesh out those parts of the story that have always troubled the writer even when the writer has never quite been able to put her finger on exactly what is troubling her. Virtually every manuscript I’ve ever written or worked upon has had issues with pacing. The reason for this, I’ve come to believe, is that writing a book of any length requires, perforce, a certain myopia. And yet sustaining a narrative pace for hundreds or even ONE hundred pages requires the exact opposite of myopia: it requires a kind of far-sightedness. Very often, writers are simply too caught up in the details of their story to see how the overall pace flows.
That, I now think, is the greatest value of an editor: to show where the story grinds to a standstill.
Moby Dick is an example of a poorly paced book.
It is, at times, extraordinarily well written from a stylistic perspective, and Moby Dick remains erudite and interesting on a great many levels, but the fact is, Moby Dick is not even really a novel. It’s a treatise: it’s a treatise on truth, it’s a treatise on whales, it’s a treatise on America, it’s a treatise on God, and it’s a treatise on many other things as well. But it’s not a novel.
Think of pacing as a journey; and will your readers go along? Quoting editor-turned-agent Betsy Lerner:
The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags. I like to imagine the narrative as a trip. Just as the ride feels shorter on the way home, a phenomenon all school-age children remark on, even though it is exactly the same number of miles as the trip away, the reader expects that time will pass more rapidly as the book heads toward the finish. Once we know the way, the scenery rolls by like so much wallpaper. Your editor should help you see when the writing has turned into wallpaper (Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees).