Writers note: The purpose of this essay is to show how you can hammer someone's attention to a first crisis in a work of fiction. I wrote it primarily for a suspense novel. The steps are toward the end. When I hit a snag, I dig my way out by looking up definitions of words and definitions of the words that make up the definition and keep drilling down until I see some light. Then I test what I absorb by finding movie and/or book sequences that relate to the concept. Then I write myself an essay and share it. I use this approach to master subjects, which have led to many book contracts. I wish I would have written this essay years ago.
Do you ever ask if your book's crisis situation arouses and fascinates you? I don't have to read, cogitate and kick it around before I know. It either does or not. I just don't like the idea of throwing spaghetti against the wall hoping it will stick.
I remember one literary agent saying that a writer will spent a long time with his or her book and if boredom sets in, everyone will know it. Aside from that, I have given up long-suffering. I want to just know how to make something happen.
Boredom scares me. I have to make sure I don't get bored. If you knew me, then you would say that when Tom gets bored, he'll gain thirty pounds. My weight gain or loss is proportional to the intrigue in my book.
I had to ask myself what creates intrigue before I could write it. It's a concept, I know, but it's like getting pregnant. You can tell some things about a baby from ultrasound, but you still don't know until it comes out. I want to get my arms around the substance of intrigue and write it over and over again.
I once had a coach who defined a professional athlete as a person that could repeat the same successful action over and over again. He was referring to golf and then went to another country and turned a basketball program around in one season using the same rule. That's what I want to do: Repeat the same winning action over and over again.
Take intrigue. When do you feel it? What sends your endorphins flowing? Ask yourself that and see what you get.
What a set of questions wow. When I don't feel the emotion, I have to give that hard thought. That's when I need to have an adult conversation with me. What about you?
First, as the writer, we want to captivate and entertain ourselves. I know when that happens. It's when I start to research the hell out of my topic and can't put the material down. I'll start writing and when I come to a place where I need to research, I crank up Google. Hours later, I want a diet coke and notice the time.
Therein lies a problem. What fascinates me, may not fascinate the reader or audience. They want the Cliff Notes for a cliff hanger. They want the version of the fascinating thing we found and they want the topic to grab, hook and rivet them to the book.
I know better than to make broad generalizations, but I believe every reader wants a book to rivet their attention when they read (or when they watch a movie).
As a kid, I saw the first Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost when it hit the theaters. I saw it on a large screen and didn't see anyone leave. That's Stephen Spielberg for you. He uses a jack hammer to pull you in. Well, I went out and got the DVD after they remastered it. Spielberg never gives the audience a break and that's what's so great about it. It's really a formula and he makes it seem like he doesn't use one. Take one of Evan Marshall's blank section sheets from his book and go through every scene in a Spielberg movie and it starts off with the old "where, when, goal, conflict" and so forth.
Marshall talks about raising the bar on each major crisis in a story. Spielberg does in from the start of a section to the end. The he raises the bar on the next section and keeps going until a brain can barely stand it any more.
For example, take Saving Private Ryan. The landing at Normandy by itself is a Rembrandt. After he lets you down, he starts building again until you get to the final moments of the battle to save the bridge and Matt Damon's character. I'm not into war movies at all. I did see it on the big screen though and it knocked me out of my body. We read history books about Normandy or see old news clips. If Spielberg had produced those news clips, no one would ever go to war. If you haven't seen the movie forget the DVD unless you have a big viewing room and keep the sound at max.
The Secret to Intrigue
In order for a crisis situation to work; Wait just a minute. I'll give you my Paypal account number and you can wire $100,000 to my corporate account and send me a royalty agreement for 10%. Nah.
I don't know why people don't disclose the structure of a crisis situation. When I read these clowns, they tend to write, "Make your crisis grab your reader." Hmm. Either tell me how or tell me you don't know. As Ben Afflect's character Rafe McCawley said to Danny in Pearl Harbor - "get out tha way."
If you're still reading, pat yourself on the back.
To create an intriguing crisis incident, you have to structure events so that the reader wonders what's going to happen next at every moment. Call them micro events within the crisis event, but you start tiny and build. First with an event that makes the reader want to know what's going to happen next and then next and then next and so forth.
The first event might seem benign but turns bad and then it leads to another and another. Think in terms of what's next and then what's next and what's next and then what's next and so forth in a gradient manner. That's why the old movie makers call them cliff hangers.
That makes sense doesn't it? You have to keep everyone guessing. You use fast action clues to lead the reader toward an expectation. He or she expects one thing to happen and something else happens. You do that consciously. For example: there's a funny noise on the plane. Jim looks out and the right engine is spitting fire. The noise stops. The plane is riding smooth. The noise starts again. The engine is spitting fire again. Then it stops, but the noise continues only louder.
You had the reader expecting a problem with the engine. Your boyfriend or girlfriend is on that plane. Write it so that the noise occurs whenever the engine spits fire. (Which jet engines seem to do when they're burning exhaust, by the way.) If you continue to have the noise and the fire happening simultaneously and the captain turns on the seatbelt sign, then you have some sort of expectation. No big deal the engine is going to fail and my pregnant sister is on that plane. If you don't have a sister, put some woman on the plane with a new born baby. When the noise starts again and the engine doesn't spit fire, you have a surprise on the way. What is it? If it's not the engine and things start to creak, then what's that?
Again, in your crisis situation, you create small events that start-off like tiny steps at first. For example: "It's the 1929. Johnson sniffed something that he hadn't noticed on the train in the past two days. He looked around and saw a modern woman's hat just above the seat across the aisle behind him on the right. She had a cigarette holder and she lit a cigarette. Tobacco wasn't the odor. He pulled his fedora forward over his eyes and laid back, but the smell grew a little stronger. One of the attendants had to grab the railing as he walked by. Johnson thought they must have hit some rough tracts. He looked out the side window, but the railing looked new. He felt a jerk forward. The train's speed increased. The car swayed back and forth slightly. Then the train sped up some more. Someone pulled on the rope to ring a bell, but nothing happened and the train sped up again. Now, it's going faster. It's heading down a steep curve and it's going faster and the woman behind the lady with a cigarette is holding a new born baby and my baby sister is behind her. She was holding a small puppy dog. The man says, 'Oh boy,' to one of the attendants. 'Why have we sped up?'
'I don't know sir. This is my first trip on the route. I noticed we had sped up though. It's a little creepy.
'You don't know what's happening and you work for the train company.'
'No, I'm the pilot of the plane with fire spitting out of the engine and I don't know what it is.'
In about a page, Johnson will jump off the train and watch it explode over a gorge with the bridge collapsing. The $500 thousand dollars in his trunk went up in flames with it. Only two other people stood up among the many bodies thrown off the train through the windows when the train whipped around the curve. All that started with a tiny whiff of something Johnson didn't identify.
In the context of the story, that $500,000 meant Johnson needed everyone in his life to think he died in that explosion and one of the survivors was a beautiful woman who also was running from life events. The other was the woman with the baby and she needed to get to the doctor at the next stop or else.
The crisis works in beats. Each little event builds to a climax and the end result is awful, terrible, worse and worse than you wrote it the first time. However you write it - the first time, write it again and make it worse and make the consequences worse and do it again and again and have some critical need - until it frightens you.
The main game you want to play with the reader is to keep him or her guessing. The reader needs to ask: "what's next"? You hope that they will ask that question unconsciously.
Does this work with comedy and romance?
You betcha. If you're writing a story and I have to assume that; then you have to have an inciting incident that throws the action in a completely unexpected direction. The character's routine life has to change. Juno has to get pregnant at age 16 and decide she can't get an abortion because the little thing has finger nails. Imagine a pregnant teen. Does that throw life in another direction. Then give Ellen Page the ball and let her run wild with it.
In the comedy "Ghost Town" with Tea Leoni, Greg Kinnear and English comedian Ricky Gervais, the inciting incident is when Gervais' character has a near-death experience while under general anesthetic during a colonoscopy. (That's funny by itself.) When he recovers, he is able to see and communicate with ghosts who populate the area. Gervais is an accomplished English comedian, actor, director, producer, musician, writer, and former radio presenter. He's usually a behind the scenes guy. Kinnear and Leoni are quintessential comedic actors. The near-death experience keeps the audience guessing, because no one at the hospital wants to talk about it. They keep Gervais and the audience guessing as to what happened. What changed? What's next. Will he wake up in the morning and the ghosts will be gone? I don't know and neither does he.
You can go many places with intrigue. Something as simple as going to the refrigerator for a Dr. Pepper and finding a Mountain Dew instead can become a germinating idea for story and used to initiate a crisis. "I remember a Dr. Pepper. I remember it vividly. Who took my Dr. Pepper. I live alone. Does someone have access to my house?" Think about it, because this is what creative writing is about: Making up stories that work. Keeping the reader on the hook using vulnerable characters that face odds so staked against them, you know they can't possibly make it out of there. Think War of the Worlds and don't tell anyone that Orson Wells isn't really a newscaster.
You don't know about that? The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated "news bulletins", which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air ran without commercial breaks. H G Wells, no relation to Orson, was a master of intrigue. I was not present for Halloween 1938, but I read somewhere that people panicked. Each news bulletin upped the gradient.
That's how a 21 year-old, unknown, radio voice became a famous actor.
Intriguing, isn't it?