Tag Archives: Alien

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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