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August 11, 2003

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How To Write the Perfect Story

A lot of authors, from time to time, are asked, "What's the most important thing that goes into telling a good story?"  Most authors give one of two responses.  The first is to "Write what you know."  The second is that "Character is everything."

Now, both responses are pretty good advice, but both have their limitations too.  "Write what you know" means to write based on your own personal experiences rather than simply mimicking stuff you have read in other authors' stories.  And that's fine so long as you are writing a realist story set in a realist setting with regular, realistic people.  But what about if you're writing a story set on the planet Lysol and your main characters are plasmoid life-forms that have about as much similarity to people you know as the fungous between your toes?  For that matter, I will go further and argue that many of the most successful authors, even when writing stories set in realistic settings, nonetheless are still "lifting" a whole lot of stuff from previous authors they have read.  It's just that when this "lifting" is particularly egregious we don't call it "lifting, we call it "being inspired by", or "knowing your roots".  Write what you know but don't be afraid to borrow from others who may know more.  And, when all else fails, use your imagination.

So what about "Character is everything"?  Many authors will insist that the single most important trick to writing a good story is to create "good" characters and the rest -- like the plot -- will take care of itself.  Again, there's a lot of truth to that.  Readers will sometimes stick with a plotless, meandering mess so long as they enjoy the characters.  The problem is, how do we know when we have written a "good" character?  What is a "good" character anyway?  Often "good" is equated with "believable".  But what if we create a totally believable hero who happens to be a regular shitheel.  Then, believable or not, the readers may not stick with our story because they don't "like" the hero.  In fact, once again, I will go further and argue that many of the top, most successful authors are routinely criticized by the critics for "lack of characterization".  Michael Crichton for one. It clearly doesn't do them any harm.

But the main problem I have with this "Character is everything" mantra is this.  Character shouldn't exist in a vacuum.  What defines someone's character is the way they react to events around them.  In other words, the plot.  So, to me, to say character comes before plot is a lot like saying wet comes before water.  The two are inextricably linked and, without a good plot to define a character, any character -- no matter how "three-dimensional" -- is nothing more than exposition.

Anyway, this was all by way of a lead-in to my real point which is this.

If you were to ask me "Supreme Plasmate, what's the most important thing that goes into tellling a good story", I wouldn't say "character" and I wouldn't say "Write what you know."  I would say this: "Little grasshopper, the most important thing that goes into telling a good story is...the unopened box scenario."

Now, before I continue, I should make something clear.  I recognize that the very idea of defining a "good" story is impossible.  There are as many different definitions of a "good" story as there are readers.  Different strokes for different folks.  All I can do is talk about the sort of stories that work for me.  The ones that turn my crank, if you will.  And, because this is a webzine that specializes in Pulp stories, I think it's not unreasonable to assume that, since you, dear readers, have stopped here while surfing the Web, a lot of you like the same sorts of stories.  So I think we all know what I am talking about when I say a "good" story is one which keeps the reader reading.  A "page-turner".  The sort of story they can't put down -- no, not even to check the pot roast merrily smoldering in the oven.

Now, given that definition of a "good" story, our question transmutes into a slightly different animal.  Instead of asking "What's the most important thing that goes into telling a good story?" we should be asking "How do we keep the reader from putting our story down?"  How can we make sure he or she doesn't stop reading until the very last word?  That to me is the essense of Pulp.  And once you've figured that trick out, brothers and sisters, you're home free.

And so we return to "The unopened box scenario".

What I mean by that enigmatic response is, to put it another way, to keep the reader reading, the author must provoke questions.

Now, what you're probably saying right about now is, "Sure, that helps a lot.  Every story provokes questions, dummy, because the reader is constantly wondering what is going to happen next."  But I'm not talking about questions like that.  The questions I'm talking about must have two features.  First, they must be interesting questions.  Of course, I realize that's pretty damn subjective.  After all, one reader's "interesting" question, will put another reader to sleep.  Nonetheless, we aren't stupid.  For the purposes of this editorial, I think we can at least arrive at a ballpark idea of an interesting question.  For example, if a man enters a room and there is a chair in that room, we might wonder: Is he going to sit down or not?  That's a question, certainly, but it isn't a very interesting question, no matter who you are.  Now if that man enters a room with a chair and the chair is making a strange hummng sound, we might wonder: What is going to happen if he sits in that chair?  And that is a more interesting question.  Hopefully it's interesting enough to prevent the reader from putting down the story until he/she finds out the answer.

Nevertheless, thinking up interesting questions isn't easy, Lord knows it isn't -- which is why the authors who do it well get paid the big bucks.

But I said a good story must provoke questions with two features.  The second feature is that the question must at least have the potential to be answered in the next few pages, preferably in the next few lines.  This is very important and something which a lot of authors who know how to come up with interesting questions, still fail to realize.  Consider this example.  Our hero sets out on a quest, a quest that will require eight hundred pages to relate.  A wizard tells our hero that he will fight a terrible monster at the end of his quest.  Now, the reader may wonder what form that terrible monster is going to take.  That's an interesting question.  But the reader also knows that that question won't be answered any time soon -- in fact it won't be answered until he/she has slogged through the eight hundred pages that lead to the end of the quest.  So, even though the story has provoked an interesting question, the story itself isn't a "page-turner" because the reader is happy to put down the story and look into that smoldering pot roast.

Now, instead, consider an example from the Pulp era, specifically from the Doc Savage story, The Running Skeletons.  This story begins in the baggage compartment on a train.  A porter notices a pet-carrying case in which there is apparently a whimpering dog.  Feeling sorry for the little mut, the porter decides to open the case for just a moment.  But, when he opens the case and looks inside, whatever he sees is so terrifying that he runs screaming from the baggage car and leaps off the still-moving train.  Exit porter.  Now, over the next few chapters, the carrying case is passed around from person to person, all the while it remains closed so we, the reader, don't know what's in it.  This is what I mean by the "unopened box scenario", since, in this case we are literally talking about an "unopened box".

An interesting question has been provoked by the author, Kenneth Robeson -- What is in the carrying case that could scare the porter so badly? -- at the same time, it is a question which has the potential to be answered at any moment.  At any moment someone could open the case and reveal its contents.  You see what I mean?   The trick for the author now becomes one of coming up with reasons to keep his characters from opening the box.  And Kenneth Robeson was a master at that.  In fact, it became a running gag in the Doc Savage stories that Doc would often figure out the whys and wherefores of a mystery long before the end of the story, but then he would keep putting off revealing that information to his men, often for no other reason than because "it was in his character".  The real reason, of course, was because Kenneth Robeson understood how to keep the reader reading by provoking questions that had the potential of being answered at any moment.  At any moment, Doc could have revealed the solution to the mystery -- but the longer he didn't the longer the reader was kept in suspense.

Actually, there is a third feature which goes into a "good" question, which I have implied but not made explicit.  The author should provide clues so that the reader can at least try to guess the answer to the question.  In the case of The Running Skeletons, we have at least three clues.  First, whatever is in the carrying case is the size of a small dog.  Secondly, it makes a whimpering sound like a small dog.  And thirdly, whatever it is, it scared the porter so badly he leaped off a moving train.

Let's consider another example.  A science fiction story, this time.  Contact has been lost with a research base on the moon, Bugghunt Central.  When Captain Taikno Guff arrives with his faithful crew he finds the base is in ruins, all the personel are missing with no sign as to where they have gone or what happened to them.  Now, an interesting question has been provoked -- What happened to the personel at the research base?  Clues have been provided -- Whatever happened it was very destructive and quick enough that no one managed to send a distress signal.  On its own, this might be a question that will keep the reader reading.  But we are still missing one vital feature.  In addition to all this suppose the rescue team discovers one lone survivor lying unconscious amongst the wreckage.  Now our question has the potential of being answered at any moment, because at any moment the lone survivor may wake up and reveal what he has seen.  The longer he remains unconscious, the longer the reader will keep reading.

Of course, care must be taken using this technique.  If the survivor remains unconscious too long, the reader may begin to suspect he isn't going to wake up and that this is all a cheap trick to keep him/her reading.  What to do?  When the survivor wakes up, it turns out he is blind.  He is able to describe what he heard, thus providing more clues, but ultimately he still isn't able to give the ultimate answer -- he still doesn't know what really happened to the personel.  The question remains but the story has still progressed, and the reader keeps on reading.

Now, faithful readers that you all are, you know that we at Pulp and Dagger publish longer fiction in the form of "serials".  We publish a chapter a week.  You will also notice that we try to end each chapter on an interesting question that has the potential of being answered, not just in the near future, but at the start of the next chapter.  There is a name for this -- it's called a "cliff-hanger".  The name comes from the old 1950s movie serials where each episode ended with the hero apparently caught in a situation from which there was seemingly no escape, such as hanging by his fingernails from a cliff -- hence, a "cliff-hanger".  Since the audience knew the hero would find a way to survive, the question provoked was "How will he get out of this one?"  And, sure enough, at the start of the next week's episode, that question would be answered.

The point of all this is that cliff-hangers should not be thought of as something that belonged only in the old serials.  The cliff-hanger is intrinsic to writing a good "page turner".  But instead of episodes, we should think in terms of chapters.

My theory goes like this.

There is a continual battle between the reader, who wants to put down the book and check on the smoldering pot roast, and the author who wants to keep the reader reading, pot roast be damned.  To win this battle, the author must keep two things in mind.  First, most readers will finish reading a chapter once they have started it.  And, secondly, most readers will put down the book at the end of a chapter.  Therefore, the problem for the author becomes this -- how to make the reader, when he/she comes to the end of a chapter, turn the page and read at least the first line of the next chapter?  Because, hopefully, having read that first line, the reader will feel obligated to read on to the end of this second chapter.  Then the trick is to make the reader turn the page and read at least the first line of the next chapter...and on, and on.  The result is a "page turner".

This might seem fairly obvious, but it's not at all.  For example, many novels involve two or more storylines.  Say, one storyline is about Luke Skywalker and the other is about Han Solo.  Very often the author will then divide up the chapters so that the first chapter is about Luke and the second is about Han, the third is about Luke again, and the fourth is about Han.  There's nothing wrong with this, but it defeats the purpose of a cliff-hanger because, no matter how interesting the question may be at the end of a chapter about Luke, the reader knows he/she has to read through an entire chapter about Han before that question will be answered.  Far better would be for the author to put the chapter breaks at slightly different spots, so that, when the reader reaches the end of a chapter and there is a cliff-hanger involving Luke, he/she can turn the page and find the solution to that cliff-hanger in the beginning of the next chapter.  Then, somewhere in that chapter, the storyline can change to the one about Han, by which point the reader doesn't want to put down the novel until the end of this latest chapter.

So, there you have it -- the Supreme Plasmate's theory of "The Unopened Box scenario".  Just remember these two pearls of wisdom.  First, the most important points in a "page-turner" are the chapter endings.  That is where the battle is won or lost.  And secondly, always provoke questions.

Now, you are ready to go out into the world and make a million bucks.  Just as soon as you can snatch the pebble from my hand...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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