Rising Tension: Roy and James Play Cards

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The purpose of today’s excerpt from “A New Kingdom” is to reinforce some of the concepts discussed in my last two posts, building stakes and increasing tension. If you don’t have any idea what either of these terms mean, I suggests you click those links^ and check them out.

I’ve highlighted any lines that are specifically designed to increase tension, establish the stakes, or foreshadow problems to come. This scene is about Fitz and the threat he poses. He is the antagonist of the underground scenes. Enjoy.

* * *

        “What about Fitz? He’s not going to want us back there.

Let me worry about Fitz,” said Roy.

The pair got up and made their way down the corridor. The yellow lights helped make daytime feel almost authentic. Many families sat in the hallway, exchanging their horror stories from the night of the invasion. The cute blonde girl with the yellow rubber boots sat alone, and for a moment James thought about introducing himself, maybe even inviting her to play cards. He wondered if she were dealing with the loss of her parents as well.

Placed at the end of the hallway was a cardboard box, labeled “ELECTION.” When they finally reached it, James peered inside and saw it was filled with napkins – write-in votes for the new underground ruler.

“I don’t get why we are having this damn election today, you know? We’re done if Fitz wins – might as well as be underground slaves from here on out. And why are we voting for a ruler? Shouldn’t we vote for a leader? Somebody oughtta speak up about this stuff,” said Roy.

They entered the backroom that Fitz had strictly reserved for underground council meetings.

Roy dealt James a couple of cards, who turned them around to see a queen and a seven.

“Why don’t you speak up?”

Roy checked on his own hand, “Wouldn’t do no good. None a’them are gonna listen to me, kid. Most adults don’t like me.”

With a quick hand, Roy flipped over three cards on the table. There was an eight, a nine, and a six, giving James an open-ended straight draw. Roy bet and James called.

“Maybe you should try to make them like you? You never know unless you try.”

Roy laughed, “There’s some people I prefer to dislike me. If a guy like Fitz liked me, I don’t think I’d like myself.”

A fourth card was flipped on the table, and a ten was turned over. James had a straight. Roy bet and James re-raised all in. Roy put his hands behind his head, sat back in his chair, and looked as though he were thinking his move over.

“I’m sure you got a seven, which gives you a straight. The damned thing is, I flopped one too, ‘cause I got a five-seven. So I gotta call, but I’m gonna be pretty damn upset if that last card gives you a better hand.”

Roy pushed all of his chips into the center, and both of them were all-in. He flipped over the final card, a jack of clubs. James revealed his hand, and Roy tossed the entire deck into the air.

“C’mon kid, how could you do that to me?”

James didn’t see it at first, but when he studied his hand further, he realized why Roy was upset – The last card gave James a higher straight, Queen-Jack-10-9-8. He got lucky. Roy’s frustration died down, as he chuckled at his bad-beat and picked up the scattered cards.

“You see, in this game, all the brains in the world won’t guarantee success. The skilled professional can lose to the young novice, any day of the week-

The office door flew open, and Colonel Fitz’s entered in.

“Pick up your things and leave. This isn’t a game room – it’s for official government meetings only.”

Roy shuffled the cards and dealt out a new hand. “With all due respect, sergeant anus, there are only four rooms in this place. If there were more, I’d understand. But we may be down here for a very long time, so I’d ‘ppreciate it if you eased up a little bit.”

James pretended not to notice the escalating tension between the two grown men as he picked up the cards.

Fitz marched over to Roy until he stood over him. “It’s Colonel Fitz, low-life. And I will not stand for any under-age gambling. This meeting room is for grown-ups only. That means both of you need to leave.”

Fitz used his arms to pile up all the poker chips into the center of the table, erasing the winnings for both opponents. Roy stood up and put his face to Fitz’s. “Look, Colonel Dick head, when you and your friends finally come here to play ‘pretend government,’ when you make huge decisions like ‘who showers when?’ Then we’ll get out of here. But until then, I’m gonna enjoy life the little bit that I can, and me and my buddy James are gonna play cards right here, whenever we want,” He said, then pounded his fist against the glossy marble.

The colonel took a step back. “Today, go ahead, play your silly game. But I got news for you.” Fitz pressed his finger into Roy’s chest. “I am a military man, Roy, and you don’t wanna start a war with a military man. When I win that election, you’re going to change your attitude.

Fitz left the room. Roy grabbed the deck of cards and returned to dealing them like nothing had even happened. After a couple minutes, James finally broke the silence.

“I think you might be right about some people not liking you.”

Roy shook his head. “If Fitz wins that election, ain’t nobody down here is ever gonna see the surface again. That man is power hungry, James, and hungry people don’t like sharing their food.”

* * *

–  Thomas M. Watt

Author of “A New Kingdom”

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

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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