Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Started today’s blog by automatically typing “How I Got . . .”
Over the course of our NES, many of you dear BGs posted comments about wanting to discuss this or that once the “never” became an “ending.” Rather than go back through page after page of comments and try to glean them all, would you do me a favor and post some topics you’d like to see us cover?
Thanks for all of the comments yesterday as our story ended. I appreciated them muchly.
By the way, east coast Linda, who wonders when I get up in the morning. No it’s not 2:30, Pacific time. I will make a confession. I post between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. at night, and set the time for 6:00 the following morning. I do this specifically so the east-coasters can catch the blog early. Otherwise they’d be having to wait until noon or so. All right, now that I’ve admitted this publicly, how many of you late-night Pacific-timers caught on to this and read the next NES installment early? ’Fess up, now.
For today, here’s one comment/question I remember from the cliffhanger on Friday, May 27. This was the scene of my being in a prayer meeting with four women, and God telling me “one word” about one of them. Becky wrote: . . . think about it. None of us knows anything about this woman, so it isn't character (as important as that is to a story) that has us all on the edge of our seats and groaning--in my case, audibly. So, the question. This seems like a new way of creating suspense, or maybe a twist. Do you have a catalogue of techniques you use? Is this conscious or do you do it instinctively?
I found that an interesting question. Yes, at this point writing cliffhangers has become rather instinctive with me. So I had to pull back, re-look at what I wrote and think, hm, just what did I do?
Two things made this cliffhanger work, I’d say. (And by the way, to discuss this, we must put aside our empathy with the real gal in the story—since it was true—and look at this objectively, as if I’d written fiction.)
1. Becky’s right—readers had just been introduced to this character and didn’t know her enough to have built emotions about her. But you had hung with me for a long time through the NES. I remained the main character here, this gal a new introduction into the story. If this cliffhanger got you, it was because you were concerned for the effect of that “one word” on me, even though the word from God was directed toward this character.
I’d taken some time to build this scene up. (You might want to go back and read the post on May 27.) I’d told you for a day or two how stuck I was in trying to find a plot for Web of Lies, and how much I was praying about that. Then I mentioned that this scene kept coming to mind. That I now realized this scene was an answer to those prayers. In describing the scene, I used words such as “heart-tugging” and “wrenching.”
So there’s the set-up. Something I'm about to hear is going to hit me hard—even though it’s not about me.
Point to remember here for your writing—an event in a peripheral character’s life can be used as a cliffhanger if the outcome of that event will affect the protagonist in some major way.
2. When I began to near the cliffhanger point, I slowed the story down. This is done to heighten the impact. Here are the last three paragraphs:
I came to one of them, a young woman. This is the scene I will never forget. She was sitting, and I stood over her, placing my hands on her head. I asked God to show me whatever He would . . . and waited.
He answered, all right. One word hit me hard in the chest.
Just one word.
First paragraph, second sentence (This is the scene . . .) reminds you of something you already know—that what’s about the happen will impact me. Next line draws out the scene by injecting details—where she was, where I was. Next line is a line of action—asking God—then the use of ellipses to denote the passage of time. The sentence ends with the word “waited.” That’s a suspense-building word if you’ve got the readers, ’cause they’ll be waiting along with the character.
Next paragraph begins to tell you what happened, but draws it out some more, using two short sentences. (The languid rhythm of one long sentence would have lessened the impact.)
Last paragraph is a mere phrase that doesn’t even tell you anything new. It just restates what you're waiting for. It’s like someone already standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down, who then slips his/her toes over edge.
Technique #2 of slowing down is a good way to build suspense out of an otherwise nonsuspenseful scene. But to really make it work you need to set it up by a long series of events. Those of you who've read the NES since way back may remember the cliffhanger of my sitting in front of the fax machine, watching pages spit out, wondering if it’s my first novel contract. (March 29.) This slow-down technique was used then, also. Here is the ending to that post:
One day I was sitting at my computer. The fax clicked on. A page spewed out. Another and another. What was this? My pulse did this odd little quiver. Almost as if I knew . . .
I stared at the pages. Heard the whir of the machine. And froze. I could not reach out and pick up that first piece of paper. Absolutely could not.
So I sat, watching pages spit out. Click, whir, click, whir. My heart tumbled into a dull thud. You know how people say when you die, your years flash before you? Trapped in my chair, tense-muscled and sputter-breathing, I saw the past 9 ½ years flash through my head. The hope, the tears, the determination. Nights of writing until dawn. Watching the mail, trembling at phone calls. The scenes zipped before me in a kaleidoscope of emotion and will—
The fax machine fell silent. I stared at the pages, telling myself--hey, relax; so some solicitor got a little long winded. I remember managing a prayer. Not a long one. Something simple like, “Okay, God.”
Pulse scudding, I reached out, gathered up the pages . . . and turned them over.
In itself, there’s nothing suspenseful about watching a fax machine spew pages. But I had built up to this momentous event in post after post. In fact, I'd built up to it for so long that it deserved a slowing down as we finally aproached it. Anything faster would have left you unsatisfied. I used up time by alternating between action (sounds and sights of the working machine) and inner monologue. With these thoughts I reminded readers how much was at stake. Then at the very end, I slowed it down even more with the use of elipses. And left off with the final action that would answer the suspended question.
Another thing to point out is the sentence rhythm. Most of the sentences are short, many are only phrases. This is the subliminal ba-boom, ba-boom rhythm of an increasing heartbeat.
For all of you, no matter what genre you’re writing in, these techniques can be helpful, because a hook keeps readers turning pages in all kinds of fiction.