Even within a genre there are endless variations. As an active reader you can analyze them all in terms of the affect they have on you, then use then use what you learn to find the best way to pull your audience into your subject. Here’s an added bonus of Principle 3: You’ll never see bad movies or read a bad book again. Let me explain. I love $1.75 movies. You don’t feel “had” as you do at a full-priced theater when a heavily hyped feature turns out to be a colossal turkey. About five minutes into one of these cheap movies, you can tell if it’s going to be good or fall somewhat short of your expectations. If it is bad, that’s when I start analyzing the creative choices that were made in its production. Given the scene the director starts with, what would I present next? If it confirms my prediction I feel clever; if the movie enacts another scene instead, then I try to anticipate, given that pattern, what the third scene will be. Of course you can also do this with television programs and books. But don’t overanalyze things you really love. It takes the magic out of them. You are going backstage to learn techniques from people who are trying to move an audience, just as you, a writer, are trying to move an audience. We have an affinity for certain directors and writers because they have sensibilities in doing this that are similar to ours. And, that is part of your appeal to your readers: you ‘re acknowledging the role of the audience and trying to make the story interesting for them.
Let’s try another example. You are in a shopping mall, waiting for your husband or wife. It’s early December and you overhear someone saying, “Isn’t Christmas a great time of year.” You think to yourself, Is it? Certainly if you’re young, healthy and expecting wonderful presents Christmas seems great; but what if you’re old or poor or alone? This is a story idea. A story idea is something you want to explore, not quite knowing where the subject will lead you. How will you find its truth? If you’re Charles Dickens and you have the chart of different type of reactions (Figure 1), you might simply see what your character’s reactions are to people, places, and events in the past, in the present, and in the future. Seems rather contrived, yet it works. The reason it’s effective is that audiences find this taking stock of past, present and future is a way of regaining one’s equilibrium. And that’s appealing, especially at that time which is right before the end of the old year and the beginning of the next. Remember, as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future appear to Scrooge so they appear to us and take us with him to the corresponding scenes he witnesses–and reacts to. The past is nostalgia, the present unfulfilled promise, and the future–for Scrooge, as much as for Oedipus–represents death. And when the ghosts disappear we are left having undergone a rekindling of our feelings. They are real emotions, though the mechanism that evokes them is formula. As a child hearing the recording of Lionel Barymore read A Christmas Carol on the radio every Christmas Eve, I thought: This is probably something I’ll hear every year on this holiday for the rest of my life. I was wrong. It was replaced on television, by something that has become even more a part of the Christmas tradition—It’s a Wonderful Life. But look at the story line. We get a flashback to the James Stewart character’s past, we see his present, and with the help of an angel (in place of a ghost) we see what could have been had he never been born (a twist on Scrooge’s pondering what his life has meant while at his gravestone with the Ghost of Christmas Future). And it works. From the audience’s perspective, it works like magic.
A TICKING BOMB
What other things can we do, besides add characters and change the order of scenes, that would build reader interest? Let me describe them informally, and later I’ll give you some technical names and definitions. Picture a generic film noire, black and white classic movie of the forties. A train is hurtling through a stormy night. Inside a suspicious, foreign looking gentleman is nervously glancing out the window. Suddenly, without warning, there is an explosion. The sky is filled with a tremendous white flash. The train is blown to bits. Tragic? Yes. But not necessarily suspenseful.
An Alfred Hitchcock would have some fun with the same scene, building tension through juxtaposing different scenes and different elements within the scene. He might start with the same establishing picture, perhaps throw in some suggestive touches–the man is reading No Exit, for example. The scene switches to the mail car. A clerk is eating his lunch. The camera is viewing him from floor level. As it changes focus we realize the camera is under some kind of cot and inches in front of it are sticks of dynamite attached to an old fashioned alarm clock. The dial fades into a wristwatch dial of the foreigner as we return to the passenger car. He looks up from it, beads of sweat drip from his brow. Two customs officials make their way down the aisle stopping at each seat. There’s a flash, and the lights go off in the car. But, it was only lightning. And when the lights come on everything is back in order. Except the foreigner’s seat is now empty. Cut to the mailroom. The clock’s minute hand jerks to one minute to nine. As the clock’s ticking becomes ominously louder the camera again changes focus–the foreground blurs, the distant shape of the mail clerk becomes clearer. He picks up an apple which slips from his hand. In slow motion we see the apple hit the floor, bounce one or two times, and roll toward the cot. In fast motion we see the foreign man hurrying through a passenger car, opening the doors between cars pushing past a crowd of people waiting in a dining car. A hand reaches under the cot feeling blindly for the apple. It pats the shape of the clock on the bomb, and its fingers clutch the dial just as the hand snaps to nine. The train whistle screams as the train crosses a trestle bridge hundreds of feet above a canyon. For an instant the face of the man running through the train freezes in close-up, and then…
What I’ve done in this example is to juxtapose scenes of our anxious passenger with those of a bomb about to go off. The reader’s knowledge about the bomb (and the passenger’s ignorance of it) creates the suspense. I go from the dial of the bomb’s clock to the dial on his wristwatch to draw the connection, then suggest possible things that might save him–his jumping off the train to escape customs, the mail clerk’s discovering the bomb before it goes off–then dash those hopes. I contrast a distant shot of the train crossing a bridge in the thunderous storm with an intense close up of fingers clenching a clock face. I slow down the time of the apple bouncing on the floor to intensify the drama of its possibly leading to the bomb’s discovery; and quicken the time of the man running through the train to convey his panic. These are examples of techniques that can be used in your writing by playing one element or scene off another.
Sometimes I think we can be too clever. A reader may also be intrigued by something much simpler than the complexities of plot or techniques of juxtaposing and sequencing scenes. For example, we have a basic need to just stare at another person. That isn’t socially acceptable, so what do we do? We go into a darkened movie theater where no one can see us and stare at a huge close up of another person often expressing a vulnerability we would be ashamed to witness in real life. A picture from a still camera fills another need. It gives the illusion of stopping time so we can examine others without their constantly changing, or see ourselves as we think others see us (a change in perspective). What is horror? Seeing someone change too rapidly from a handsome person to an ugly, distorted “monster.” A time-lapsed photo study compressing time of someone going from an adolescent to old age does the same thing. The important thing is to realize you have many technical choices in how you present your subject that directly influence your audience. You get to decide whether a scene should go quickly to build excitement or slow down so your reader experiences each detail more fully than that person would in real life. It’s said that in Shakespeare a comedy always ends in marriage, and tragedy begins in marriage. Think about that: The Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing as compared to Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello. Whether you have a comedy or a tragedy may depend upon which scene you choose to begin or end your story. It could be as simple as that. But what is true for certain is the observation of Barbara Tuchman. She said, “The best book is a collaboration between author and reader.”