Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Scrivening 5: Embodiment


 “Yes, she's bleeding to death upstairs, but I thought I'd avoid telling you right away, because I like to draw the suspense out.”

 – Cassandra Clare, City of Fallen Angels

The Valley of the Foreshadow

At the end of the Beginning, we carried the Reader's Interest over into the Body of the Story, shifting the focus from arousing curiosity about the Story Problem to maintaining suspense regarding its Resolution. We generated this interest by promising  a difficulty, a disaster, or an encounter with opposing forces. Do not now delay that encounter!

The Chief Actor will be confronted with one or more obstacles preventing resolution, and with some aiding or assisting it. These Forces need not alternate as in the graphic, and they need not end in success (Comedy). The Chief Actor may be defeated (
Tragedy.) These Forces may be major or minor, and their arrangement comprises the Plot.

A Story is a series of meetings arranged for dramatic effect. This arrangement may be 
  • Chronological (most common)
  • Chronological with Flashbacks
  • Chronological with Cross-cuts
  • Parallel sequences
  • Cyclic
  • Reverse sequence
 or any of a vast and various multitude. "There are nine and sixty ways," Mr Kipling told us, "of constructing tribal lays and every single one of them is right!" However, if you are a beginner, do not jump into the deep end of the pool right away. Experimental fiction is fine, but most experiments end in failure.
The story "Nexus" (Flynn) follows six characters on six separate tracks, each pursuing his or her (or its) own Problem as they gradually cross paths and become entangled in each other's issues. The movie The Red Violin circles around repeatedly to the scene in the auction hall as it tells successive stories across the centuries. Heller's Catch-22 likewise cycles back to the scene in the bomber. Memento famously tells its story in reverse order. H.N.Turtletaub's Justinian, cuts back and forth between the interrogation of blind soldier Myakes and the story he is telling about Justinian II.
Brunner's The Shockwave Rider does something similar. 
There is more scope for experimentation in the longer forms than in short stories.
There are three sorts of Meetings:
  1. Incident: a single act of a single force
  2. Episode: a meeting of two forces without clash
  3. Encounter: a meeting of two forces with clash
1. Incidents are the simplest kind of meeting, and as such do not usually evoke interest. For example: 
"As soon as he spied the policeman Henry tiptoed across the street."
In this incident, provided by Gallishaw,
  • The Force is Henry
  • The Stimulus is the sight of the policeman
  • The Act is tiptoeing across the street
Incidents are useful for separating bigger scenes, getting the Actor from point A to point B, and things like that. Incidents are more often told rather than shown, so we try to keep them brief. An incident like  
"Adam fought the rush hour crowds and took the A-train uptown"
does not need to explain what a subway train is or address every station the train passes. A simple summary statement suffices. (In an SF story, something may be required to explain e.g., Krasnikov Tubes.) Sometimes a writer falls into the steam of consciousness trap and the reader is dunked into every little thing that happens to the POV character. But you only need meetings when they advance or impede the Story Purpose. This is especially true in Stories, where word count is precious and must be hoarded as a dragon hoards his gold. In Novels, there is greater room for color commentary and, often, multiple Chief Actors with differing (even clashing!) Story Purposes.
2. Episodic Scene. In an episodic scene, two forces meet but do not clash. For example,
As soon as he spied the policeman Henry tiptoed across the street, and coming up behind the officer, tapped him lightly on the shoulder. ‘I’m going up the street for about two minutes. Keep your eye on the door of that garage, and if anyone comes out, blow your whistle.’ The policeman nodded. ‘Don’t be long. There may be something doing any minute now.’

-- Gallishaw

  • Force 1: Henry 
  • Force 2: the policeman
There is no clash here. The scene neither helps nor hinders Henry's Story Purpose, but such episodes may help develop Settings or Characterization. 
3. Encounters are full-monty Dramatic Scenes. The forces meet and clash. These are the meat and potatoes of the Plot.
At the sight of Henry, the policeman stiffened, his hand reaching instinctively for his revolver. 
‘Don’t get excited,’ said Henry. ‘I’m just going up the street for a minute.’
The policeman gazed at him coldly. ‘That, you are not. Nobody leaves this alley before the Chief gets here. '
‘That doesn’t include reporters, does it?’
‘Think not?’ The policeman continued to regard Henry without smiling.
It wasn’t worth it, Henry decided, and retreated back into the shadows. 


Here, we have a clash. Henry's purpose is to get up the street and the policeman's purpose is to keep everyone in the alley until the Chief arrives. In this scene, the Opposing Force (policeman) impedes the Chief Actor's story purpose. In other instances, the 'second Force' may assist the Chief Actor. 
The clash may come between two Actors or between the Actor and the Environment. In the following scene, evening approaching, Cindy is looking for a campground to spend the night.
Cindy exited the tree-shrouded trail to find herself facing a paved road. To the right, the road skipped over the creek on a brief concrete bridge to join the state highway. To the left, it curved north and out of sight. It didn’t look like there would be much in the way of accommodations either way. The fleshpots of Xanadu might be just around that bend, but she harbored doubts.
That left the big stone-and-wood building directly across the road. A large board sign above the entrance proclaimed it the Tatamy Book Barn: Old and Used Books. In the parking lot, three cars and a pick-up truck, also old and used, suggested that the building remained open.
God dumped a truckload of scrap metal on the sky, which turned bright brass for an instant, and that made up her mind. Cindy hitched up her backpack and strode confidently toward the entrance – just as the heavens let loose.
Stride became run, but she was drenched before she reached the door. She ducked through and backed against it, as if the tempest would try to force its way after her. The woman behind the counter looked up at this sodden eruption, took in Cindy and her appearance, and cocked a sardonic smile. “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.

-- Flynn, "Moonrise Over Tatamy"

Here, the First Force is Cindy, and her Scene Purpose is to find a place where she can camp for the night. the Second Force is not the book store owner, but  the Storm, which impeded her Purpose and is going to force her to spend the night in the Book Barn.

Gallishaw's Eighth Law of Interest

A Clash of opposing forces is the chief method of holding interest during the Body. The Outcomes of these Encounters foment Crises in the Chief Actor’s efforts to solve either the immediate Scene Problem or the ultimate Main Story Problem.
Eternity Road (McDevitt) is set 1700 years after a plague has wiped out most of humanity. The Chief Actor is Chaka and her Main Story Purpose is to learn what happened to her brother, who never returned from an expedition in search of the legendary "Haven," a supposed repository of ancient lore of the Roadmakers. She decides to mount a second expedition. But since the first expedition was a failure, her initial obstacle is to convince anyone to accompany her. Some refuse, most are reluctant; but she finally persuades enough that she sets out with a team.
This does not resolve the Main Story Problem, which remains in suspense. At this point, she has neither found Haven nor learned her brother's fate. Assembling a Team was only the first obstacle on her quest.

Five Steps of a Scene

A Scene is a miniature Story and has its own Scene Purpose distinct from the Story Purpose. It may be subordinate to the Story Purpose, as Gathering a Team in Chaka's case was to Learning Her Brother's Fate. But in larger works, a Scene Purpose may be independent. 
A Scene has a five step structure:
  1. Bring Actor and Opponent together 
  2. Show the Purpose of One
  3. Show the Interchange
  4. Show the Conclusive Act
  5. Describe the Effect
Step 5 might be done as a separate episodic scene. The Effect is typically whether the Main Story Purpose has been hindered or assisted. In Eternity Road, we find the following scene after the funeral of Karik, the leader [and sole survivor] of the first expedition, who has committed suicide after his return.
  1. Bring Actor and Opposition together 
    •  After the funeral, Karik’s son Flojian asks Chaka to stay behind.
  2. Show the Purpose of One
    •  Flojian means to pass on a legacy his father left for Chaka
    • Who, me? Yes, you.
  3. Show the Interchange
    •  Flojian gives her a copy of Connecticut Yankee.
    •  Chaka refuses. The ancient manuscript is much too valuable.
  4. Show the Conclusive Act
    • Flojian insists she take it. "It's in Father's will." 
    • She accedes.
  5. Describe the Effect
    • Both Flojian and Raney [Chaka's suitor] think she should sell the book and use the money to expand her business; but she refuses. In a series of follow-on episodes, curiosity grows over where Karik had found such a rare folio.


Plotting is the selection and arrangement of Crises, leading up to the Resolution of the Main Story Problem. That is, Plot is the arrangement of the Fifth Steps. If you outline, focus on these. Don't worry about Incidents and Episodes. You can fill those in as you go. Nor need you worry too much over steps 1-4. Just get the Crises. You'll probably change your outline anyway. (If you make one at all. Sometimes, the outline is called the "First Draft.")
In Novels, the gaps between Encounters may be used to flesh out a Setting or a Character. For example, if Adam Apple takes the A-train from Harlem to Midtown, you may set an Episode in the departure or arrival stations so as to create an Atmosphere, or to explore a Character trait. In a Story, you will want to be more economical. 
In the following Episode, the harper and the scarred man have come to the great domed Inbound Station orbiting the planet Harpaloon, a major emigration port,
Above their heads, but below the springline of the dome, stretched the famed Harpaloon Murals, painted fifty years before by Hendrik Pak Gbọnju.  Bold, broad, bigger than life, they portrayed the great migrations of the mythic past.  Thick-hewn men and resolute women moved west in ox-drawn “prairie schooners,” Cossacks trudged east through S’birski snows, Zhõgwó families creaked in great two-wheeled carts up the Gansu Corridor, Magreebees homesteaded in the decaying suburbs of Yurp.  Across the banks of the Great Fish River, Four-trekkers heading north greeted Mantu cattlemen heading south.  Here too, legendary figures posed: Jacinta Rosario peered across the rusty sands of Mars; Yang huang-ti pointed dramatically to the lichen-covered plains of Dao Chetty; Chettiwan Mahadevan, hands a-hip, stared at the crumpled ruins of the first-found prehuman city on New Mumbai. 
It was all very improbably epic, the harper thought while standing on line for Inbound Customs.  Gbọnju’s imagination had wrestled with history and had pinned history defeated to the mat. 
-- Up Jim River (Flynn)
The purpose of this Incident is to provide an Atmosphere or Setting characterizing Harpaloon. A Story would have scant room in it for details like the muralist's name or details of the depictions.

Suspension in Dialogue

“What should we do, Alan?” she asked.
“What we should do is...,” he said.
Do not resolve plot issues as soon as they are raised. Leave issues in doubt for at least a short while.  
“What should we do, Alan?” she asked.
Alan would not look at her. He picked up a book and put it down again. “I heard from Kovacs this morning.”
“What has that got to do with…?”
“He sounded worried.” Alan drifted to the window and lifted the blind a little bit from the side. The street below was deserted. Or seemed to be.
“I think what we should do is...,” he said…

“Not Enough Story Interest”

 When an Editor (or Reader) says that there is not enough "Story Interest" in your Story, she usually means in your Plotting or your Presentation.
As regards Plotting, it means:
  • Too few Fifth Step Crises to keep reader in suspense regarding the Resolution
  • Not enough Encounters to provide a sense of conflict
As regards Presentation, it means:
  • Not enough Clash in the meetings you did select
  • Incidents and Episodes in between Fifth Step Crises are not sufficiently interesting to carry reader to the next Fifth Step Crisis

The Pivot

One way to maintain Suspension is the Reversal. At some Crisis point, the Chief Actor decides that his original goal is no longer relevant and he pivots to another. In order to achieve his Goal of forcing Agamemnon to return his rightful booty, Achilles stages a sit-down strike. But then his lover, Patroclus, gets himself killed, and Achilles drops his grievance against Agamemnon and pivots to the Goal of avenging Patroclus. 
In Heinlein's YA book, Tunnel in the Sky, a rebuttal to Lord of the Flies, Rod's goal of finding a safer and more defensible location for the refugee settlement is reversed after the Crisis caused by the dry season animal migration, and he is now determined to stand fast.
Not every Story or Novel benefits from a Pivot, but sometimes the Chief Actor achieves or nearly achieves his Goal, only to decide/realize that it isn't worth it. This is actually an extreme way of Suspending the Resolution of the Story Problem or Decision, essentially by moving the goal post.

The Conclusion

But sooner or later, Resolution must come, evoking in the Reader the third kind of Interest; viz., Satisfaction. The Reader finishes the Story with the the feeling that "Yes, that was exactly the way it should have ended." The Critical Act is taken; the Final Decision is made. The Main Actor achieves his Goal -- or not. 
In the end, Winston Smith loves Big Brother; Rod Walker and his companions master the hostile environment; the harper finds her mother (or not). Regardless, the Reader closes the book, or turns the last page of the story, feeling satisfied. Not necessarily happy, understand - he may have been rooting for Winston Smith, not the boot grinding the human face forever -- but given the events of the tale, there was no other way it could have ended.
One way to conclude the tale is with the Unexpected Act.
The satirical musical Urinetown (Kotis/Hollman) describes a rebellion by the poor against the "Urine Good" Company, which charges exorbitant fees for the drought-stricken inhabitants to pee at the rigidly-controlled Amenities. But after the revolution succeeds, and people can urinate for free as many times as they want, the ground water is quickly used up by flushing and people begin dying of thirst. UGC, as oppressive as it was, really did manage the water supply. Kotis & Hollman exploited modern expectations (Rebels good; corporations bad) and adroitly flipped things around. But the Surprise Ending, made popular by O. Henry, has been overdone and the reader is now surprised when there is no surprise.
Another satisfactory conclusion is the Symbolic Act.
In "Dayspring Mishandled" (Kipling), "a dark story of hatred, and long matured plans for revenge," the story ends at Castorley's funeral with Manallace taking out a pair of gloves. 
There, then, Manallace and I met. He told me that she had asked him whether the book need now be published; and he had told her this was more than ever necessary, in her interests as well as Castorley’s.

‘She is going to be known as his widow—for a while, at any rate. Did I perjure myself much with him?’

‘Not explicitly,’ I answered.

‘Well, I have now—with her—explicitly,’ said he, and took out his black gloves. . . .

As, on the appointed words, the coffin crawled sideways through the noiselessly-closing doorflaps, I saw Lady Castorley’s eyes turn towards Gleeag.

-- "Dayspring Mishandled" (Kipling)

Now, men commonly did wear kidskin gloves in those days, so the act is in one sense unremarkable; but the act is also symbolic: the opposite of "taking the gloves off." Manallace has abandoned his plans for revenge on Castorley and he will now handle the matter with kid gloves. 
In William Trevor's "The General's Day," the elderly Gen. Suffolk is shown "contentiously greeting his housekeeper Mrs. Hinch; walking to the village cafe and talking to his friend Basil; trying to recruit another elderly friend from his house for day-drinking; day-drinking by himself and then with a woman he meets; sexually harassing her and driving her away; drinking more at night; getting into a screaming fight with his elderly friend upon a second visit to said friend’s house; stopping at Mrs. Hinch’s house blind-drunk and being helped home by the lady (who steals money from his wallet)." In the story’s final scene, General Suffolk, “the hero of Roeux and Monchy-le-Preux,” is shown leaning and weeping on his cleaning woman’s fat arm as she laughingly helps him back to his cottage. “My God Almighty,” he mutters, “I could live for twenty years.”
That last line is a killer. 
A final example of a Conclusion is from "The Steel Driver" (Flynn). Reuben Judge had been sent by the Babbage Society to evaluate the new Ingersoll steam drill in use and has taken a job as a holder for the steel drivers in the B&O cut. Not planning to be undercover for long, he tries to stay aloof from the other frillers and holders, until one of the drillers, John Henry, kills himself trying to beat the steel drill in a series of contests. They have just taken Henry's body out.
Ben's eyes burned.  He took hold of Henry's hammer.  The handle was smooth from the tallow, the head still warm from the kinetic energy.  He ran his hands up and down the handle.
Then he stood and, before he even knew what he was doing, he began driving on Henry's stake.  The steel rang and Ben heard gasps from the tunnel, and running feet.  Then there was nothing but the hammer, and the steel.  He swung with all his might, feeling the spike sink into the rock like it was butter.  He recovered and struck again.  And again.  And again.
The tears came now, blending in with the sweat that poured off his brow.  The tunnel rang with the echoes of his strokes and Henry's laughing bass was mixed in with them somehow.  He breathed in sobs, in time to his hammer.  The feeling of indescribable power was on him as the mountain gave way to his will.  He was exalted and grinned in a fearsome rictus.
Then strong hands took hold of him, and the hammer was taken from his grasp, and he was half-carried, half-led, still weeping, up the tunnel toward the day.
(Analog, Jun 1988)
It is an Episodic scene giving significance to the earlier Encounter of John Henry with the steam drill. Once again, we have a symbolic act. Ben has failed in his effort to hold himself aloof, and his impulsive act has placed himself firmly with Henry and the others.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Scrivening 4: Getting Info Out of the Dumps

The Beginning is that portion of the Story in which the Main Narrative Problem is set out (Part 2). Some Story Situations are so fraught, they need no set-up in the Reader's mind, but in all stories, the plausibility must be justified This is the Explanatory Matter

"Let me e'splain. No, it would take too long."

The Explanatory Matter addresses the conditions precipitating the Story Situation. Ways of exciting Interest include:
  1. Importance of the Story Situation,
    • Intrinsically or
    • Synthetically through foreshadowing,
  2. Something unusual in
    • the Story Situation or 
    • the Character of the Chief Actor
  3. Otherwise, some Originality of conception or interpretation so that the apparently usual is made unusual.
  4. A contrast or juxtaposition of opposites.
  5. A foreshadowing of difficulty, conflict, or disaster to carry interest over into the Body of the Story.

3. Explanatory Matter. 

What’s the Matter Wit' You, Baby?

Being inexplicably dropped into the past, as happens to Martin Padway in Lest Darkness Fall, is intrinsically interesting, as is Davy’s discovery that he can teleport to any place he has previously been.  Consequently, the Situation is presented almost immediately with little or no set-up.  Padway is dumped into Late Antiquity already on the fourth page of the text.  Davy “jumps” on the second page.  The reader blinks and says WTF?
Other Story Situations may not be interesting intrinsically.  To drive a car from Denver to St. Louis is not interesting in itself.  It must be made synthetically interesting by the use of Explanatory Matter.  Driving a car from Denver to St. Louis to escape the aftermath of a meteor strike makes it interesting.  Celebrating a birthday is not intrinsically interesting, but celebrating one’s eleventy-first birthday without having apparently aged, as Bilbo Baggins does in The Fellowship of the Ring, leads the reader to wonder. 
The Explanatory Matter makes the Story Situation both interesting and plausible and sets out the condition or state of affairs that precipitate the situation.  The Matter makes clear to the reader that the Accomplishment (or Decision) can come only when the Chief Actor has:
  1. Overcome a Difficulty;
  2. Engaged in Conflict with Opposing Forces; and/or
  3. Averted a Disaster.
Lawrence Block recommended “First things second.”  That is, if Chapter 1 is the set-up or prep and the Situation gets rolling in Chapter 2, make the second chapter the first one, and then backflash the Explanatory Matter.  In Writing the Novel: from Plot to Print, he tells us:
[Death Pulls a Double-cross] was a reasonably straightforward detective story featuring one Ed London, an amiable private eye who drank a lot of Cognac and smoked a pipe incessantly and otherwise had no distinguishing traits. …  As I wrote the book, it opens with London being visited by his rotten brother-in-law, whose mistress has recently been slain in such a way as to leave the brother-in-law holding the baby, or the bag, or what you will.  In the second chapter London wraps the young lady’s remains in an Oriental rug, lugs her to Central Park, unrolls the rug and leaves her to heaven, or to whatever necrophiles are prowling that expanse of greensward. Then he sets about to solve the case. 
I showed the book to Henry [Morrison]. He read it all the way through without gagging. Then we got together to discuss it. 
“Switch your first two chapters around,” he said. 
“Huh?” I said. 
“Put your second chapter first,” he said patiently. “And put your first chapter second. …. The idea is to start in the middle of the action, with London carting the corpse around, and then go back and explain what he’s doing and just what he’s got in mind.”
In other words, if the Situation is inherently interesting – lugging a corpse wrapped in a carpet and leaving it in Central Park, for example; or being dropped by a bolt of lightning into Ostrogothic Italy – start with the Situation and bring the Explanatory Matter afterward, even if the Explanatory Matter happened earlier in story time.
In my story, "In Panic Town on the Backward Moon" for the anthology Mission: Tomorrow, I had started with an explanation of the Visitors and the program to divert asteroids as a way of presenting the setting. Then, a furtive character enters the bar and leaves a mysterious object for safekeeping with the shady owners. Bryan Thomas Schmidt made the same suggestion: start with the shady dealings. Then back up and give the environment. 
An infodump is simply a wordy way of saying, "Stop reading, now." If a narrative passage is there to inform the characters, then okay. (Unless, as you know Bob, it's something they ought to already know.) But if it's there only to inform the readers, it's an infodump, and you must tread softly and carry a big blue pencil..
The irony is that I had initially written it that way, and then thought, Wait. I've got to explain why they're on Deimos and that long-ago aliens had used it as a base for booby-trapping asteroids, and there is now a major project underway to capture the booby traps, and... Yes, I'll stop now. Get the interest going right away. The shady stranger was enough for that. This is the way it begins now:
The man who slipped into the Second Dog that day was thin and pinch-faced and crossed the room with a half-scared, furtive look. Willy cut off in the middle of a sentence and said, “I wonder what that Gof wants?” The rest of us at the table turned to watch. An Authority cop at the next table, busy not noticing how strong the near-beer was, slipped his hand into his pocket, and VJ loosened the knife in his ankle scabbard. Robbery was rare in Panic Town – making the getaway being a major hurdle – but it was not unknown.
That the bar is semi-illegal, why it's supposed to serve near-beer, what the Authority is, and even who are the guys sitting around the table can be presented later,
Explanatory Matter can be presented through:
  • Biographical details
  • Special quality in the background or atmosphere
  • Prior happenings; especially those that suggest the likelihood of failure and the probability of opposition. 
For example, in After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (Nancy Kress), it is only after Pete has kidnapped the two children that we learn about the post-apocalyptic future in which he lives and in which there is a machine that allows irregular scavenging trips into the pre-apocalyptic past.  These resources, including genetic diversity, are desperately needed "after the fall."   

Hors d'oeuvre

But for many synthetically interesting Situations, the Explanatory Matter must come before presenting the Situation, because the Situation would not otherwise be Interesting.  You may have to prepare the reader with several scenes and/or chapters before he is ready for the Main Story Situation. 
In Double Star (Heinlein), Lorenzo Smythe does not learn of his Story Problem – to impersonate the prominent politician Joseph Bonforte – until page 31.  But by then, the Reader has been presented with a down-at-luck actor trying to cadge a meal off an apparently chance-met spacer, a mysterious phone call to meet at another hotel, a conflict with Jock Dubois, hints of hidden machinations, the revelation that Smythe is to do an impersonation, his initial refusal, a deadly conflict with a Martian and a human, the gruesome disposal of the bodies, secret identities to slip through spaceport security, the lift to rendezvous with a torch ship bound for Mars, and the 2-gee acceleration to meet an unspecified deadline.  So there is plenty to keep the reader Curious along the way –- and to make the Situation plausible, for we are shown a) Smythe’s genuine acting talents and his ability to “read” other people, and b) his professional pride in being a “trouper” who keeps his commitments.  The show must go on. And does. 
We employ a “hook” or an appetizer to grab the reader’s interest while building up the Story Situation.  It is best to do this within the first few hundred words of a short story or within the first few chapters of a novel.  Sometimes, the opening sentence or passage will hook the reader.  Nancy Kress particularly notes the opening sentence of Anna Karenina:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
because, she says, “immediately I wanted to know how the unhappy families were unalike and whether we were going to meet one of each.  My interest was sustained by the closely-following introduction of the Oblonsky household in disarray because of Stepan's affair with his children's governess.  There was conflict by the second paragraph.” 
Yet Dostoevsky opened The Brothers Karamazov with the following lumbering two-sentence giant:
Alexei Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless.
This is remarkable in that Alexei is introduced in the first sentence and then disappears from the rest of the chapter.  We are learning about his father instead!  But it serves to announce that the narrator is given to digressions and distrac– oh, look!  a squirrel! 
The "hook" typically takes the form of a Scene or Chapter Situation which will incite curiosity in the reader while the Story Situation is being set up.  Thus, before we learn about the Ringworld, we get interested in Louis Wu celebrating his 200th birthday using jump booths to follow midnight around world.  The Fellowship of the Ring opens with Bilbo Baggins celebrating his eleventy-first birthday:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved ; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
This is followed quickly by Frodo’s mission to deliver the One Ring to the Council.  John C. Wright writes of this opening that:
“The fishing line to snare the reader's interest here is that, of course, it is too much of a good thing that anyone should possess perpetual youth and inexhaustible wealth. That thread leads step by darker step to a magic ring, which turns out to be a cursed magic ring, and the curse is from the darkest of Dark Lands itself.  Mr. Bilbo’s perpetual youth is not just unnatural, it is a gift from the pit of Hell. The Ring is already drawing the Enemy. The thread leads all the way to the Cracks of Doom.” 

The Earnestness of Being Important

In the Explanatory Matter, there are several ways to incite Curiosity.  These are not mutually exclusive and a story may employ some or all of them to good effect. 
3. Importance of the Story Situation, intrinsically or synthetically through foreshadowing, made clear in Scene or Scenes. 
Getting rid of a ring is not very important.  Getting rid of the One Ring, which Sauron could use to control all Middle Earth, is. 
The importance need not be Saving the World.™  Sometimes, the importance is personal: Davy’s ability to teleport could have led to a routine story of super power adventures; but during the Beginning of Jumper it is coupled to Davy’s personal safety from his abusive father and later from sexual predators. 

In Space Pioneer, by Mack Reynolds, Analog (Sep-Nov, 1965), the nameless protagonist stows away on board a colony ship out to settle a new world.  He takes the identity of a colonist who chickened out at the last minute.  This is modestly Interesting in itself; but its Importance is heightened when we learn that the stowaway is an assassin intent on killing one of the colonists, whose precise identity he does not yet know.

The Explanatory Matter comes first in “The Darfsteller,” by Walter Miller, Astounding (Jan 1955), because the Story Situation as such – an out of work actor wants to be in a play – is not intrinsically interesting, or at least not very.  But Miller takes care of that with the very first sentence, now almost legendary as a “hook.” 
"Judas, Judas" was playing at the Universal on Fifth Street, and the cast was entirely human. 
Only after this are we presented with Ryan Thornier, his contempt for robot acting, his penurious circumstances, and his desire to tread the boards once more. 

“Barkeep, I’ll Have the Unusual”

4. Something Unusual in the Story Situation or in the character of the Chief Actor. 
This is very nearly a sine qua non in SF and Fantasy stories.  If everything was usual, it would be mainstream fiction! 
Unusual Actors: The private detective is a standard character type, but Nero Wolfe is a lazy, overweight, agoraphobic orchid breeder.  Louis Wu in Ringworld is an unusual character.  So is George R.R. Martin’s Haviland Tuf, introduced in “The Plague Star.”  He is unusual in appearance and temperament.  In Up Jim River, the character of the scarred man is unusual in that he has seven quarreling personalities inside his head. 
Michael Swanwick’s “Mother Grasshopper," The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (April 1998) is set on a grasshopper the size of an asteroid.  That may qualify as an unusual setting.  As does Tolkein’s Middle Earth.
In her novel After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress elicits the Reader’s curiosity with Pete, a crippled teenager materializing on a beach and then snatching two children from their bedroom.  The character is unusual in his deformity and chronic pain; and the situation is unusual in his sudden appearance, the deadline by which he must accomplish an unnamed task, and then the Reader’s shock at finding that task to be child abduction. 

In Ancient Shores, April Cannon, a fairly usual character type, learns that the yacht unearthed on a Dakota farm is made of a stable transuranic element, which by current knowledge should be impossible.  (As if a yacht buried in the North Dakota prairie were not unusual enough!) 
Constant Reader may realize at this point that the mainstream writer has a far more difficult task in making the mundane world unusual.  In “Last Wishes” (William Trevor), the beloved mistress of an estate dies before she has signed a will giving all the servants life tenancy.  This is a change in the environment that puts the Chief Actor, Plunkett the butler, in conflict with it (See part 2).  The Unusual is introduced when Plunkett conceives of the idea of concealing Mrs. Abercrombie’s death so that matters may continue as before and sets about convincing the other servants to go along. 
Rudyard Kipling’s “Dayspring Mishandled,” McCall’s (March 1928) is a tale of jealousy and revenge in which Manallace conceives an Unusual means of revenge; viz., he will forge a manuscript by which he hopes to discredit Castorley, a Chaucer scholar.  In his earlier fantasy story “Wireless,” Scribner’s (August 1902), Kipling's narrator arrives at a chemist's shop on the south coast of England to witness attempts to communicate with another experimenter, using Marconi’s new wireless telegraphy.  Radio was unusual in 1902, but Kipling introduces the capital-U Unusual when the chemist’s assistant, a consumptive, falls into a drugged trance, during which he apparently receives “wireless” messages from John Keats a century in the past. 
A Story Situation may be Important without being especially Unusual, and Unusual without being especially Important.  Either will do to elicit Curiosity from the Reader; but of course doing both may heighten the Interest. 

Original Flynn

5. Original Conception or Interpretation so that the apparently usual is made unusual.
Genre fiction in general relies on something unusual in the Story Situation: air stories, sea stories, adventure stories, war stories, and the like depend for their interest on presenting the Reader with situations unusual to him: the wild west, darkest Africa, biplanes, a Napoleonic-era frigate, a dark and romantic stranger in a remote manor house.  But the host of pulp magazines that once catered to these interests are largely gone now, because constant reading within a genre makes the settings less and less unusual and therefore less and less interesting.  (The same thing can happen to a series that runs on too long.)  There are only so many Westerns you can read before they all begin to seem the same, or at least begin to seem ordinary.  SF, fantasy, and mystery magazines have survived because within those genres there is a much wider range of the Unusual. 
However, today you would have to do something very different to make a story about a trip to the moon Interesting.  It has been done too many times, not only in fiction but in fact.  To make such a story interesting, you would need an unusual “take” on it.  The same goes for most of the usual tropes of SF and fantasy: alien invasion, time travel, first contact, and so on.  They’ve all been done; so if you plan to do them again, do something new and original. 
For example, in Firestar (Flynn), the Story Situation imagined a time when the government no longer has an active manned space program and the effort is taken up by private interests with a variety of motives and with the support (and opposition) of various factions within society. (Yes, I know; but that was not the case back then when I wrote it.) In Eifelheim (Flynn, again!), first contact with aliens is given a twist by placing it in the 14th century Black Forest.   
OTOH, Jack McDevitt gives another sort of twist to this in Infinity Beach by suggesting that first contact had been made in the far future, but has been concealed by the team that did so.  The Reader then wonders, WTF?  Why would they do that? 
The Unusual involves shedding new light on an old subject. 
  • An unusual interpretation of a usual phenomenon
  • An unusual adaptation of a usual incident
The Unusual may lie in the Situation or in the Character.  A story set in Cleveland may be made Unusual, at least to people who don’t live in Cleveland.  Likewise, a story set on Mars.  Urban fantasy takes the familiar tropes of elves and demons and sets them in the contemporary world.  Elves at the Mall.  John Dunning’s The Bookwoman’s Last Fling is set in the world of horse racing, sufficiently unusual for most readers to capture their interest.  His book Two O’Clock Eastern Wartime is set in the milieu of live dramatic radio in the 1940s. 
OTOH, too much genre fiction depends on simply placing unusual characters in unusual settings, much as modern sci-fi movies depend on special effects.  Even when necessary, this is not sufficient.  Settings and people have no plot interest in themselves.  They are stimuli.  A plot is a series of responses to those stimuli. 

Best of Times; Worst of Times

6. A Contrast or Juxtaposition of opposites. 
Kipling’s early stories created interest “not so much by the unusual that was India, as by the unusual that was the Englishman in India.”  That is, from the juxtaposition of something usual with something unusual.  In “The Man Who Would be King,” he sends two ordinary British soldiers into a remote valley inhabited by the descendants of Greek colonists from the time of Alexander. 
The contrast may be
Between a character and a setting
; for example, a homeless beggar panhandling on Millionaire’s row; or an ordinary modern archeologist in out-of-the-ordinary Ostrogothic Italy. 
Between the main character and another character; for example, between Louis Wu (human) and Speaker-to-Animals (kzinti) in Ringworld.
Between an unusual character type and a usual problem.  In A Mirror for Observers (Edgar Pangborn), the usual problem of blending into society is made interesting by having hidden Martians on Earth trying to blend in. 
Between a usual character type and an unusual problem.  For example, Max Collingwood in Ancient Shores restores antique airplanes, which makes him somewhat unusual and therefore somewhat interesting; but he is faced with a yacht buried on a North Dakota farm, surely a somewhat unusual problem.  Similarly, Colin Ferguson is a Los Angeles policeman; modestly exotic to non-Angelino non-cop Readers and therefore modestly interesting, but he must deal with the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption, an unusual problem, we can only hope. 
You can see how these contrasts tie in with the list of Interesting Situations mentioned earlier.  You can also see how these same juxtapositions lead naturally to the next tool for creating Curiosity.

Yea, Though We Walk Through the Valley of the Foreshadowing of Death

7. The Foreshadowing of Difficulty, Conflict, or Disaster to carry interest over into the Body of the Story.
You can generate interest in the Beginning by hinting at
  • Difficulty to be overcome
  • Coming conflict
  • Disaster to be avoided
There ought to be a very real possibility that the Chief Actor could fail to achieve his purpose.  Otherwise, if the harper and the scarred man want to find the harper’s mother, they would simply go out and find her.  There must be difficulties in their way that must be overcome; there must be conflicts with Opposing Forces (human and/or inanimate); and there must be the chance that they might not find her.  Since you cannot pack all of these into the Beginning, you must hint at or foreshadow them.  Up Jim River did that by informing Constant Reader that the Kennel had given up the search, by showing what a large haystack is the Spiral Arm in which to hunt for a needle, by suggesting that whatever it was that Bridget ban had been looking for, it had evidently been too much for a Hound of the Ardry, let alone a harper and a drunken old man.  There are also hints that the Shadows of the Names may also be hunting for the trail.   
Allayo of the Gariniki, "Let the Word
Take Me" (art by Jared Fiori)
In Juliette Wade’s short story, “Let the Word Take Me,” a human settlement intended to mine the planet Garini's biodiversity is about to be kicked off because humans aren't able to communicate with the gecko-like Gariniki.  This possible failure is made known early and is shown by an encounter between the translators and the Gariniki.  What makes it interesting is that the humans can speak and understand the Gariniki language; yet somehow they cannot “communicate.” 
In Double Star, we learn early on the likelihood that an impersonation (esp. that of a public figure) will fail and that an opposition group is prepared to use deadly force to foil it. 
Lest Darkness Fall suggests a number of difficulties in the Beginning: Padway’s pockets contain little of use in the sixth century; only his metal coins have any value.  He knows Italian and classical Latin but not the Vulgate.  He must find (and pay for) lodging for the night. 
The Rhys Davies short story, "The Benefit Concert," begins thusly:
When it was decided to give a Benefit Concert for Jenkin, so that he could buy an artificial leg, no one thought this ordinary event would lead to such strife.
But then no one suspected that the loss of his proper leg—it had gone gangrenous through neglect—had turned Jenkin into a megalomaniac. The affair not only divided the valley into bitterly opposed camps but it nearly caused a strike in the colliery. Imperfect mankind is addicted to warfare and a false leg is as good a pretext for liberating smouldering passions as greed for a continent.
A number of factors here elicit curiosity.  Jenkin has lost a leg to gangrene and must buy a prosthetic, and a benefit concert has been proposed to raise the money.  This is fine, and a little ordinary.  But then we are off-handedly advised that the loss of his leg has turned Jenkin into a megalomaniac!  An interesting contrast.  And we are warned of conflict lying ahead, indeed one that bitterly divides the valley!  The reader’s curiosity is certainly aroused by this promise of conflict to come. 
We find the same kind of foreshadowing in The Fellowship of the Ring.  John C. Wright tells us that “Not merely the oddity of ‘eleventy-first’ or that the main character is over one hundred and ten captures the reader's interest. There is also a hook of curiosity, an almost inaudible note of omen hovering behind the gossip of a rustic gentleman of means.” 
Bit by bit, the sense of foreboding is built up as Gandalf realizes the nature of Bilbo’s ring and warns Frodo to skip town with it.  By the time the main Story Situation is established at the Council of Elrond, we have encountered opposing forces like the Nazgûl and the physical hazards of travel, and the power of the One Ring that “wants to be found.” 

Bodily Functions

The Beginning is concluded once the Story Situation has been presented and justified in the mind of the Reader, and the Main Actor has determined to address it.  This required the author to elicit Curiosity, because the task was to engage the Reader’s Interest.  Once that Interest has been engaged, it must be sustained
The Body is that part of the story by which the Main Actor attempts to resolve the Story Situation by encountering a series of obstacles to his success and avert an Epic Fail.  For this, we will need a different sort of Interest: namely, Suspense.  This does not require the suspense suggested by the “suspense genre,” but that the resolution of the Story Situation remains “suspended,” in doubt. 
Our first taste of Suspense lies in the foreshadowing that comes in the Beginning.  In Up Jim River, the Beginning runs to the point when the scarred man agrees to accompany the harper at least as far as the Kennel, where he hopes she will be talked out of her hopeless venture; essentially when, after initially refusing to help, he steps across the threshold of the Bar of Jehovah to find her waiting.  These two chapters hint at difficulties to come: Donovan doubts his own ability to act in an integrated fashion in a crisis.  Whatever has prevented Bridget ban from returning would just as easily prevent them. The Kennel might not cooperate with their amateur efforts. The possibility of opposition is suggested by the thought that only the Shadows of the Names might prevent a Hound from returning.  And of course, the potential exists of disaster, the failure to accomplish their objective. 
The resolution of these problems is suspended until the Body.  And this is a subject all its own. 


Our favorite Situations.  What Stories have effectively justified their Situations? Were they intrinsically or extrinsically interesting? What techniques did the Author use to enhance Curiosity?

Wonder and Anticipation, the Likes of Which We Have Never Seen

  Hello family, friends and fans of Michael F. Flynn.   It is with sorrow and regret that I inform you that my father passed away yesterday,...