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

Storytelling Essentials: The Maze Runner

STORYTELLING ESSENTIALS: The Maze Runner

I want to talk about The Maze Runner today, a novel written by James Dashner and adapted into a screenplay. I saw the movie with a beautiful girl this week and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to point out some of the reasons it was such an effective story.

The movie begins with Thomas rising in an elevator shaft. He reaches the top, and the hatch doors flip open to reveal twenty or so teenage boys staring down at him. He has no memory of his past, and does not even recall his own name. He tries to run, only to discover the young men are surrounded by giant walls that close and open by their own power. When he stops at an open section of wall, thinking about running into the spooky woods, one of the boys violently shoves him to the ground, then assures Thomas that he was lucky for the knockdown.

This is an outstanding opening. Let’s discuss why:

1. Who is this young man? I’ll tell you who. He’s any and every person. Thomas does not recall his past, let alone his own name. Creating a protagonist with general characteristics is a great way to give the readers someone they can relate to (think Harry Potter).  Still, crafting a protagonist who can stand out in any crowd will create someone more memorable, as long as your readers can identify with them on some level (think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men)

2. Instant conflict – The elevator Thomas rises on travels at an incredible rate of speed. It looks as though he is headed for a collision at the rooftop. Instead, the doors open to find a group of boys staring down at him. But these boys don’t readily accept him as a friend – they look like a group of punks who want to start trouble with the new kid. Thomas tries to flee, only to find he is trapped by the giant walls surrounding the area, and will be forced to live with them.

3. Suspense – So many great questions are raised in this opening. Who is this protagonist, and why was he sent here? And where is ‘here’ – what is this new world? And the moving walls – we already know he is in a maze (the title kind of gives it away), but what is behind those walls? After Thomas is violently shoved just short of entering the maze, he is told he should be grateful. The viewer is left to wonder what could possibly be behind those walls that’s worse than a violent, forceful knock to the ground. It isn’t until later we learn about the mechanical creatures lurking behind them, and by the time we do we are already expecting them to terrify us.

We want to know the answers to these questions, and more specifically, the answer to this one – Will Thomas find a way out of the maze? (that’s the plot)

Anyway, I strongly suggest you go check out this movie. And bring along a beautiful date if you can, it will only make it more enjoyable.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Author of A New Kingdom

WordPress

Dear WordPress,

I know we just met. I really do. But it’s been three days now, and I’m beginning to feel like we’re on a different page. I have no friends, only one comment, and every time I try to search for friends, you bring me to some ‘Matt’ guy who likes to surf and already has about fifty friend request from me.

I’ve given you many posts, I have, I have, but haven’t received a shred of feedback. I’m essentially posting blogs for myself to read.

Went to ‘Public Works’ page earlier today. They seemed like a good friend to make. A good connection. But you wouldn’t let me post a comment. You hid the button from me, wordpress, why did you do that?

And then, when I sought out small profiles so that I could connect with human beings, you showed me to a page called ‘Gravatar’. First off, they look nothing like aliens, second off, gravator makes me feel pressured to dress up like an alien for my profile picture. I just want a normal picture, wordpress, just a ‘Picture of yourself’ would have been great.

Well, back to exiting my blog, and waiting for friends and followers… Though I know nobody is coming, and I have spent so much time already trying to get others to come. But you suck, WordPress, because you make it so hard to do the things I try to do.

You suck,

Thomas M. Watt