Due to a deficiency of submissions to flog (as in the cupboard is bare), I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about an opportunity to create story questions that arise from positive events in a story.
In critiquing submissions here on FtQ, I frequently bemoan the lack of any hint of jeopardy for the protagonist that is sufficient to raise a story question. In a sense, the motivation for the story question is fear—fear of failure. But what makes that meaningful is the protagonist’s hopes for success. Without that hope, without that desire, there’s no tension derived from potential failure.
When I talk about hope as a tool for creating tension that stimulates story questions in one of my workshops, the example I speak of is in a romance story. When the heroine meets the man of the story, if the heroine is someone the reader likes the reader immediately fosters the hope that they will get together. But the reader also knows that her hope is likely to be frustrated because of . . .
Expectations. Modern readers, those who have read at least a novel or two, are wise to the ways of storytellers. They know that events will be followed by twists and complications that upend them. The kiss can be followed by a slap. The love letter can be followed by a lawsuit. The promise can be followed by betrayal. Readers anticipate those things, and the “what will happen next” story questions pop right up.
Hidden jeopardy. A terrific way to create story questions is to conceal a threat to the protagonist’s hopes from the character but not from the reader. A character driving down a road on a foggy night isn’t tension-producing . . . unless the reader knows that the road has washed out and there’s a fifty-foot chasm awaiting her that she’ll never see in time.
In my current WIP, Gundown, Jewel has met a man that she has developed a liking for. She has just gotten a new job that she’s excited about, and invites her man, Earl, to come to a public meeting at which her new boss, a man she respects greatly, will be speaking. From the text:
“Maybe you can meet him at this newcomers meeting he wants me to come to. It’s at the park Thursday night.”
His voice sharpened. “The park? Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll take you.”
She smiled at Earl. “It’s a date.”
Earl turned a thoughtful face toward town and said, “Yeah. It’s a date.”
Sounds mundane, right? No tension there. But the reader knows that Earl has vowed to kill the man who is her boss in a public meeting. So there are two layers of meaning in his turning his face toward town and saying it’s a date: Jewel’s innocent interpretation (hope), and the reader’s knowledge of Earl’s intent—which means jeopardy for Jewel if he does what he plans. The story questions arise: will he kill the man? If he does, what will that mean to Jewel? How will it affect her?
So don’t hesitate to inject positive, hopeful events into your protagonist’s life. The reader will expect you to somehow sabotage them and will wonder what happens next, especially if she knows that forces unknown to the character are ready to act to destroy her hope.
For what it’s worth.
Submit your WIP to FtQ for a critique:
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.