Is Your Story Self-Propelled?

Flintstones car

Every novel and short story needs a hook if its writer expects attention from publishers and agents. The better it sounds in a logline, the more likely it is to get noticed.

For example, Alice Sebold’s The Lovey Bones offers this intriguing concept: “After a young girl is brutally murdered, she tries to intercede from beyond the grave as her father searches desperately for the killer.”

Not that he needed a logline at that point in his career, but Stephen King could have described Pet Sematary with this one: “After a young doctor discovers that the pet graveyard behind his new house can bring dead animals back to life, a heartbreaking family tragedy tempts him down a grim path from which he can never return.”

Those are pretty great hooks. The problem with a lot of books, though, is that the hook is not supported by an actual story. In recent months, I’ve quit a number of books with good hooks because they lacked something ultimately more important, which is internal momentum.

That is, a good story must not be able to end before it ends. I’m going to be vague in this example because I think it’s bad form for a writer to publicly trash another active writer, but I will explain why I just stopped reading yet another novel with a good hook but zero momentum.

It’s about a guy who is saved from a terrorist attack mere moments before it takes place when a strange woman hands him a note from his dead girlfriend urging him to flee.

Given the way modern stories are sold to publishers, that’s not a bad hook. The problem is that the hero survives the terrorist attack unscathed and then spends the next who-knows-how-many pages asking around and asking around and hitting dead ends, at least when he is not reminiscing about all the fun things he and his girlfriend used to do. Perhaps a threat and a villain emerge later in the novel, past the point at which I quite reading, but for quite a long time, the story has zero conflict. The hero could easily have said, “You know what? I have no idea what happened, but I’m fine, so I’m just going back to Wisconsin to finish radiology school.” The end.

Meow?

Meow?

One way around plot inertia is inevitability. Pet Sematary is a shining (pun intended) example of inevitability. The doctor doesn’t have to return to the cemetery that revives corpses, but you know he will. King masterfully sets up the tension by showing us how deeply the doctor loves and cares for his family—that he will do anything for them—and then showing us the dark magic of the graveyard when the doc buries his daughter’s dead cat there, hoping to protect her from discovering the critter had become roadkill.

The dark magic works and the cat returns alive… but it is decidedly off.

Then, when the person he loves most is killed in an abrupt and gruesome manner, the doctor misplaces his perspective on right and wrong and… well, if you haven’t read it, you can probably guess where the story goes. If you have read it, you know it goes there and then ten times farther still.

A writer can also inject story momentum by giving the hero a stark choice: a Seemingly Impossible Challenge vs. an Inevitable Dreadful Outcome.

The movie Alien pulls this trick off more than once, which is why it’s one of the most suspenseful films of all time. When the “facehugger” attaches itself to Kane’s face, the heroes have to choose between letting it potentially kill their friend or cutting it off and hoping the creature’s acidic blood doesn’t eat through the hull of their spaceship.

Later, after the Alien has killed two of the crew and is hiding somewhere in the ship’s air ducts, Dallas has to choose between going into the air duct with a flamethrower to hunt the monster, or letting it hunt them. I’ve seen well over two thousand films, and I’d rank this air-duct sequence alongside the restaurant scene in the Godfather as the among the most nerve-racking moments in cinema history.

Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through his spaceship's air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through the spaceship Nostromo’s air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Still later in the film, after the monster proves virtually unkillable, last survivor Ripley turns off the ship’s engine-cooling system to destroy the whole craft and the alien with it, only to discover the thing has blocked her only path to the escape pod.

There are many other ways to imbue a short story or novel with internal momentum that keeps the reader turning the pages. What are your favorite methods?

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25 responses to “Is Your Story Self-Propelled?

  • VarVau

    The creators of South Park have a piece of advice regarding plot advancement and momentum, which is what they use to define each episode. Instead of building a story with the philosophy of “and then” after every action or inaction, they refer to it as “if X happens, then X happens” leaving the possibility for multiple options that result from the first X. A lot of lesser experienced writers get caught by ‘and then’ without considering options, which is like dragging a corpse behind a horse.

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Very nice post, Eric.

    I follow Donald Maass’ advice in The Fire in Fiction: there has to be tension in every chapter/scene/paragraph.

    He conveniently lists 14 areas (weather, foreshadowing, action…) in his Chapter 8, with examples, and I make sure I haven’t missed any opportunities in what I’ve already outlined to increase the tension.

    You can always make things worse!

    OTOH, I’m trying a prove a practically impossible premise – I can’t afford to waste words. EVERYTHING tries to derail my plot.

    • ericjbaker

      I wish more writers took that advice. I’ve (started to) read too many novels that ran out of gas after the first pump of the accelerator.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        I believe in the suspense model: start high – rev higher as you go, and at the highest point (or very soon after) because where can you go from there.

        And I’m writing a love story.

        The book – mine is scribbled and underlined to death – serves to remind me that even a static moment can be packed with tension.

  • Godless Cranium

    Sometimes history keeps me turning the pages. For example, The Terror by Dan Simmons kept me turning pages because of the true history the book contained about the Franklin Expedition.

    James Rollins is another one, who leaves at the back of the book what facts in his book are true and which are made up.

    Lots of books do this and I love it because I get to be entertained and learn something at the same time. What’s not to love about that!

    • ericjbaker

      “Another time and place” is a great way to add intrigue, if the writer is skilled enough to place the reader there. I’m fearful of attempting historical fiction because I’m not sure how well I could do it.

  • Arkenaten

    So often I have an engrossing opening sequence and a super finale.
    All I have to do then is fill in the space between – and that’s where the fun -and the hair-pulling and nail biting starts. By building on the opening premise I try to write as if it is a sort of treasure hunt where each scene/chapter reveals another aspect of the ”hunt” but is still unfulfilled thus forcing the characters to move forward.

    But I enjoy adding the ‘But wait …there’s more,’ aspect to my stories so the plot or goal contains a hitherto unforeseen task or element.

    And I agree with you on Alien. It ranks as the most tension inducing and atmospheric movie I have ever watched.

    • ericjbaker

      “But wait… there’s more” is a good way to phrase it. I feel like his stories are ultimately silly by the time you get to the conclusion, but I will say that Dean Koontz is very good at layering in new elements. I forget the name of the book, but one novel started with a heavy rainstorm and built to a worldwide invasion from bio-mechanical starships.

  • 1WriteWay

    Not sure if I’ve done this in my own writing, but what I enjoy when I’m reading is being provided a piece of the puzzle in each chapter. I don’t have to be reading a mystery. It can be literary fiction where each chapter reveals an as-yet unknown aspect of the main character or a different perspective on a past but important event. The problem with some novels, as in the example you gave, is that all the “good stuff” is given up in the first couple of chapters, rather than being drawn out at a pace that keeps the reader engaged. It’s a challenge and yet another reason why I avoid reading my drafts 😉

    • ericjbaker

      Exactly, which is why the hook-dominated approach to writing produces so many books that are easy to put down. I mean, what’s the hook for “Of Mice and Men,” one of the greatest books of all time? Would that even be published today?

  • The Boss Book Club

    Great post! Alien remains one of the most suspenseful, horrifying movies for me… and has put me off pregnancy for life! The movie gone girl certainly self-propels (I haven’t read the book yet…) The initial mystery is the hook, but the rest of the action is watching a train hurtle down the tunnel!

    • ericjbaker

      I haven’t seen Gone Girl yet, but your words about it intrigue me. As for the whole pregnancy thing, I’d avoid getting romantically involved with facehuggers. They don’t make good fathers. 😉

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Well, I haven’t read Pet Sematary or watched Alien, but I think I get the point regardless. I like how you say a good story must not be able to end before it ends. Books are long (some very long indeed; I’m currently working my way through a 600-page monster) and need a strong line attached to that initial hook to keep pulling you along all the way through. I can tell when books lack this because there will come a point where I think, “I could just stop reading right here with no feelings of regret”. I kind of just stop caring, which should never be the case with a truly compelling story.

    • Janna G. Noelle

      Oops! Guess I forgot to close the tag there.

      • ericjbaker

        I fixed it, hopefully the way you intended.

        I don’t worship at the feet of Stephen King like a lot of people do, but he is the master at imbuing a story with inevitability. Obviously that works better with a tragedy. Pet Sematary is my favorite horror novel by anybody, and the reason is for the sense of doom that permeates every line. King himself has commented on how much this story weighed on him long after he wrote it.

        Sadly, I probably bail out of more novels than I finish due to lack of story momentum. A particular reason I dislike the ubiquitous “cold case” approach to modern crime novels. If the “real killer” doesn’t at some point decide he/she has to kill the hero and keep things quiet, there’s no story.

  • livelytwist

    You hit the nail on the head. What more can I add? Let me say it in my own words- an obstacle like a moral dilemma and a twist for good measure. In between make us care about the character(s). Help us understand why they do
    what they do. Sounds easy? Lol, if it was, we’d all be doing it. 🙂

  • juliabarrett

    Genius. Love this post. (I know it’s an older post – it’s okay.) As it happens I recently watched that exact scene in Alien. I had to follow you after reading a comment you left on another blog.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for visiting!

      You kind of have to overlook the lack of 23rd-century technology in Alien, but beyond that the film is a masterwork of screenplay writing. I can only dream of creating tension like that.

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