Storytelling Essentials: How to Buy Time for the Boring but Important Stuff

clock

The hardest storytelling element to successfully integrate into any story, in my opinion, is theme.

The theme of your story is the message you are trying to teach your readers. When theme is successfully implemented, story has the power to influence viewers and readers into perceiving the world in a different light.

This is where fiction earns its value – tell a kid not to smoke and he may not listen, but show him someone dying of lung cancer who still can’t kick the habit and he’s bound to think twice about lighting up.

Properly integrating theme into your story is one of the most difficult things for writers to do, and only the greats can truly master it.

Part of the problem with giving out moral lessons, however, is they’re generally pretty boring.

That’s why I’ve titled this post “Buying yourself time.” In the following excerpt, Danny O’Keefe gives James a speech that could easily bore readers and keep them from reading on. One of the great powers suspense wields is the ability to keep your readers zoned in on crucial information due to the urgent threat of danger, lurking just around the corner.

Notice how anticipation keeps you locked in on an important, but not riveting, conversation in the excerpt from “A New Kingdom” below:

* * *

“Everyone is going to die.”

James pushed away from the window, shoved his way through the tree branches, then ran up the steps to the front door and threw it open.

“What is going on?”

Mr. O’Keefe’s eyes dropped to his bottle of whiskey. Gregg pinned his lips closed and looked away.

“Why can’t I know?”

Gregg tried to make eye contact with Mr. O’Keefe, but Mr. O’Keefe was too infatuated with his whiskey bottle.

James marched over to his dad then grabbed the whiskey from his hands. “I’m seventeen now. I have a right to know whatever the hell is going on.”

Mr. O’keefe stood up and swatted the bottle back to himself. “Oh, quit whinin’! It don’t matter how old you are, I’m not even old enough to understand this.”

“Danny, we have to leave now. It locks shut at midnight.” Gregg said.

“Alright Gregg, can you give me a minute to talk with my boy?” Mr. O’Keefe moved over to the sink and poured himself a shot.

“We don’t have the time!”

“Then make the time!”

Greg shook his head, then waved his hand as he left the apartment and went outside.

Mr. O’Keefe addressed James. “Now, if he hadn’t been my good friend, I wouldn’t ‘ave believed him. And when he told me what was going on, I wouldn’t ‘ave even listened to ‘im if he hadn’t been pacin’ so bad. And after he finished talkin’, I still didn’t believe him, until he had me look through his telescope. Now, son, I believe him.”

Mr. O’Keefe took James by the arm and led him over to the scope. James peered through and felt his heart race from what he saw – Giant balls of light were bouncing around like mad, multiplying even.

“Gregg says, and this doesn’t roll off my tongue too easily, that we got aliens coming. That’s right boy, aliens. We’ve known about ’em for a while, apparently. They’ve been kept secret by our own government, Greg says. Up until now they’ve been friendly, but I suppose that was their way of getting to know us, to prepare for their invasion. They’re coming to ‘Take earth’, so to speak. Which means destroy us. I asked Gregg why we don’t fight the damn beasts, we got no shot, he says. Compared to them, we are as smart and powerful as little bunny rabbits, he says. I think that’s rubbish if you ask me, I never saw a fight that couldn’t be won, somehow.”

James’ attention remained glued to his dad.

“So Gregg tells me that a military man knew this invasion was going to happen. He sent out Gregg, among others, to retrieve those privileged enough and take them to Pine Mountain. There’s an underground base there. He says if we don’t get to it in time we won’t be alive come morning.” Mr. O’Keefe played with his shot, swirling it around a bit, then brought it to his nose and took a whiff. He then looked at James, then lowered the shot and smiled.

“What?” said James.

“Not tonight.” He laughed. “I’m not going to drink tonight.” Mr. O’Keefe poured the shot out in the sink. He then grabbed the bottle and poured the whole thing out, watching it blip blip blip its way down the drain. He rested the empty bottle on the counter, composed himself with a quick glance out the window, then took a seat in the wobbly wooden chair across from James. He scooted in close so that he sat face-to-face with his boy, then spoke with a direct, wise tone of voice.

“I’ve been really angry for a while now, James. Mad at my enemies, my friends, but especially myself. But more than anything else, I’ve been mad at God. And I think it’s because part of me knows that there is a God. That makes me so mad, Jimmy – knowing that there is a God, and he chose to let my beautiful, perfect wife die. He let your mother die, James… I try to understand that, with everything in me, but I can’t. Your mum loved God, you know. A lot more than I ever did.”

Danny smiled and went on. “But God let’n mum go dying didn’t just hurt me, James. It hurt you, too, and I know this. I see a lot of pain in you, Jimmy. I see a lot of struggle, a lot of sorrow. But beyond all that, buried deep inside a you, I see potential for greatness. You’re going to do great things, Jimmy, I know this in the bottom of my heart. There is greatness like I have never known within you.”

The front door swung open.

“We gotta go now!”

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

Excerpt from A New Kingdom

Storytelling Essentials: Suspense

zombie-t-shirts

Suspense.

We’ve all heard the term, but an alarming number of people, writers even, don’t have the slightest idea of what suspense actually means. Hearing the term alone may enough to bring to mind images of zombies, dolls that talk, or maybe even a person rocking back and forth, biting their nails, and darting their eyes every which way.

In reality, none of those things have anything to do with suspense.

Suspense – information delayed.

In other words, the last example about the “nervous rocker” in the bit above is exactly what you want your reader to be doing when attempt to incorporate this element in your future stories. And in terms of importance to stories, suspense is not too far below conflict, which is really saying something.

The television show “Lost” thrived on suspense. Take that back – lived on it. And that’s also why the ending came as such a disappointment – though the writers were masters at keeping you glued to your screen from questions, they weren’t so good at delivering meaningful answers.

The key to good suspense is to get your readers to want to know what happens next. Zombies running out to tear you apart isn’t suspense, it’s violent and horrific. Approaching a door that may or may not be an entryway to a room-full of bloodthirsty zombies, however, is suspense. In fact, once you get your readers to care about the lives of your characters, you will have them hooked from the moment your characters approach that door until the moment they open it.

That’s why great suspense writers keep always keep us reading on the edge of our seats – for every answer they give us, another question is instantly raised, and another three probably already exist.

If I can get you to take anything away from me it’s this – your ability to raise questions in the minds of your readers will always be more important than your ability to deliver an incredible answer, though the ability to do both successfully will make you a master. But if the meat of your story is boring, than nobody is ever going to make it to that epic ending you put all that time and thought into.

The following is an excerpt from “A New Kingdom.” I’ve highlighted every line that is meant to make you ask a question and keep you desiring an answer.

* *

There was a loud pounding at the front door. James shared a look with his dad, until Mr. O’keefe finally got up and hobbled over. He opened the door to find Greg, dressed in combat boots and army attire.

“This is beyond urgent.”

“Why hello there Gregg, my wallet’s on the counter over there, judging by your entrance that’s what you’ve come for, isn’t it?”

“Where’s James?”

“He’s here… Why?”

Greg barged in, rushed over to James, then grabbed him by the back of his shirt and began shoving him towards the door.

“What tha hell are you doing? What’s going on here, Gregg?!” said Mr. O’keefe.

The military officer kept his firm hold on James and didn’t break stride. He tossed James down the steps of the stoop, turned around and headed back in.

CHAPTER 3

Whatever Gregg had to say was important, and James knew it. He crawled under a cluster of trees limbs and made his way over to the kitchen window. He couldn’t hear anything, but Greg’s frantic pacing and sporadic arm-waving told him all he needed to know – James and his dad were in danger.

James watched as Gregg finally stopped, tossed his arms in the air, then raced through the contents of his backpack. He hurriedly put together the pieces of a telescope, then set it up by the backyard window. After some frantic jolts of aim, he found whatever he was looking for. Gregg waved Mr. O’Keefe over to take a look. Mr. O’Keefe looked amused before he did. Afterward, the expression on his face dropped to a blank, lifeless stare.

Mr. O’Keefe walked over to the counter and swiped his bottle of whiskey into his chest. He took it with him to the kitchen table, sat down, then reached to unscrew it. He stopped short, then placed his hand around its body instead. He leaned back, ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed his eyelids shut. His lips moved so slow even James could read them:

  “Everyone is going to die.”

 * * *

Hope this helps!

Thomas M. Watt

A New Kingdom

Would you kill the love of your life if…

prison cell

What if the love of your life lost their mind, and their inability to show restraint during a time of crisis was putting your own life at risk?

What if a group were chasing after you, and one loud noise would give away your position and get you killed?

Would you risk hurting someone you loved to save yourself?

What if hurting them were your only option, and the future of humanity depended on YOUR survival??

James faces the same predicament in the following excerpt. To give you some context:

– James is locked in a hidden prison room.

– Zephrons are giant red aliens who invaded planet earth and enslaved whatever humans they chose not kill.

– The night of the invasion, a group of locals escaped to an underground military base. They were soon afterward indoctrinated by Colonel Fitz, who considers himself to be the new messiah. This scene takes place in that underground base.

– The zephrons are going to wipe out the rest of humanity in one day…

And James is the only person who can stop them.

* * *

CHAPTER 52

James’ stomach grumbled loudly. He hadn’t eaten a good meal since before his sentence to the picking plant. He looked around aimlessly for something edible to distract him. Nothing. Only the doggie saucer of water. He took handfuls from it, desperately hoping for the water to trick his stomach. He began weeping as he drank.

“I wanna marry you,” said Penny.

James raised his head. Penny moved in, then began licking water out from the bowl. James crawled backwards then clutched himself and began to rock. He smeared dry the tip of his nose, then looked across the room to Spes’ cell.

“Do not worry, human. It will never-”

“Never what!” James screamed. He stood up, grabbed the prison cell bars, then shook them. “What do you want me to do? My best friend is dead, my dad is dead, and tomorrow morning, every human on the surface of the earth will be dead! And here I am.” He grabbed both sides of his hair and breathed chaotically. “Stuck in a prison cell, unable to do anything about it.” He squinted back at them and pointed his index finger. “And you idiots expect me to believe that this is God’s plan? That somehow my being here is going to help me conquer the zephrons?”

“Calm down, human. God knows-”

“God knows, God knows, you know what? God knows shit. That’s what I think. If you want something done you’ve got to do it yourself, period.”

A humming noise came from outside. The door started to creak open to the corridor, and Fitz entered in. He held the ring of keys.

“Well well well, traitor.” He walked over to James with the key ring in one hand, a rifle in the other. “I get your bicep, in case you were wondering.”

“What happened to Roy? What happened to your daughter?”

“I locked Penny up for disobeying me. She was hanging around that drunk loser after I forbid her to.”
“And Roy?”

“Why don’t you ask her?”
“I did.”

“Well? Did she tell you?”

“She’s a little kooky if you haven’t noticed.”

Fitz smiled. “Roy is dead.”

“From a bullet?”
He nodded.

James lowered his head. “Suicide.”

“Not suicide.”

James looked back up.

Fitz grinned and pointed to himself. “That was all me.”
“You killed Roy?”

Just then, the ambulance sirens in the hallway began going off – the same that were triggered whenever someone stepped out from the elevator and entered the underground base. They were soon accompanied by the sounds of zephron howls. Human shrieks quickly followed.

“You led them back here!” said Fitz.

James tried to shake his head as Fitz raised his rifle.

“You led them-”

Janie ran in and tackled Fitz. The ring of keys dropped to the ground, but the rifle remained in his grasp.

“My king! My king! We have to go!”

Greg, Juan, and the other underground council members rushed in. They grabbed Fitz and carried him off his feet and out from the room, then turned towards the back end of the corridor. The keys remained in the middle of the room, unreachable by any of the now-fully exposed prisoners – the door to the secret prison had been left open. All the zephrons had to do was peak inside and James would be toast.

“Ahh!” screamed Penny.

James hurried over then hugged Penny’s face into his chest. He picked up a ratty, child-sized blanket and did his best to cover them both with it. He whispered into her ear as the loud, nightmarish yells echoed from the main room over to them.

“Penny, I need you to calm down,” he whispered.

She bit her lips into her mouth. “But what’s happening?”

The screams only intensified. So did the wild zephron howls. It was a slaughter – no doubt about it. James was nervous and scared, but knew that as long as everyone inside the secret prison area remained quiet, there was a good chance the zephrons wouldn’t bother leaving the main room. And even if they did, they were more likely to run straight past them and battle Fitz and his small army instead.

“What’s happen-”

“Don’t worry – I just need you to be quiet. Can you do that for me?” James’ eyes flickered up. He noticed the hammer in the corner of the cell. “Everything is going to be okay.”

“James!” said Penny.

“Shh,” he whispered, then covered her mouth. “Be quiet, Penny.”

Soon he heard their loud, thumping footsteps echoing through the corridor.

“Hime-cared!” She blurted out.

James hugged her face into his shoulder. “Please… just, shhh.”

Penny struggled to break free as the monstrous roars grew closer. She began to move her limbs erratically, and screamed more muffled words. James struggled to keep her quiet, but she wouldn’t be still. Penny escaped his grasp.

“James! James! Promise you’ll marry me, James!”

He could hear the zephrons closing in. James crawled on his hands and knees over to the hammer. He picked it up, then gulped and looked at Penny.

“Say you love me! Say it!”

James grabbed Penny by the throat and shoved her down, back against the ground. His hand shook as he held the hammer over her forehead.

“Shut-up,” He pleaded through a whisper.

“JAMES!” Penny screamed.

“Don’t!” said Fides, from across the room.

“JAMES!” She shouted again.

James swung the…

* * *

Well, what would you do? I’d love to hear a variety of perspectives.

* And if you’re dying to know what actually happens, you can start by clicking here.

– Thomas M. Watt

Intelligence Vs. Faith

darwin

One of the great questions every person faces during their lifetime is whether to place their faith in God or scientific reason. The debate has gone on for centuries.  An issue that I find particularly captivating is, at what point do you reconsider your own religious views due to the testimony of another?

For example, I’m certain every atheist has heard a man of unshakable faith recount stories of spiritual blessings and unexplainable phenomena that suggest “help from above.”

Likewise, any person who lives for God must at some point face the fact that many of the most accomplished and brilliant people of this world have achieved great success without so much of giving God a head nod.

This is a major conflict my hero must face in “A New Kingdom.” The alien invaders conquer mankind in one night, and after enslaving humanity with tremendous ease, he is left to wonder what kind of God would allow his children to be defeated by a Godless race.

Would you be willing to change your views on faith if a more intelligent race of non-believers were to conquer the human (and historically God-fearing) race with ease?

– Thomas M. Watt