Writing Right with Dmitri: Making It Exciting
Everybody knows how to lend urgency to their writing, right? Just use exclamation marks! Lots of them!! The more exclamation marks, the more exciting the story is!!! Wow!!!!
At least, that's the approach of certain social media, and a large segment of the advertising profession. Does it work? Not really. Exclamation mark fatigue sets in pretty early, doesn't it? Besides, you feel manipulated. Compare.
John woke suddenly. His senses were heightened in the total darkness. Somewhere in the room, there was a faint scratching sound. Burglar or monster? He held his breath.
John woke suddenly. His senses were heightened in the total darkness. Somewhere in the room, there was a faint scratching sound! Burglar or monster!? He held his breath!
See? If the words convey the excitement, the interrobanging does not help a bit.
Another way of generating artificial excitement is to use emphasis. Back in the pre-typewriter days, there was a lot of underlining going on. Queen Victoria was a champion underliner. When she felt that her underlining hadn't got the point across, she underlined twice. When she got to three underlines, nations trembled.
Your purpose in building story excitement is to keep the reader in the moment. You want to focus on the details that create a flow leading up to the peak of discovery. This can be done in small ways.
On 15 March, 1953, at 6pm, EST, Albert K Bender lay down on the bed in his attic apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He cleared his mind, as best he could, and recited the appeal he had written for himself and his fellow-members of the International Flying Saucer Bureau. Hoping his friends were doing the same, Bender recited his mantram three times…
Soon, Bender had his answer. It was not one he really wanted to hear.
Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, from the Edited Guide.
Now, that's a 'no-big-deal' kind of build, but it illustrates the process. A much more thrilling one occurs in the epic poem Beowulf.
Friends of the Scyldings, /to many a liegeman
The sight causes them great sorrow.
Sad to be suffered, /a sorrow unlittle
To each of the earlmen, /when to Aeschere’s head they
Came on the cliff.
The translation doesn't do it justice. Old English rhetorical structure was more like German's: it was possible to put the operative – read, exciting – bits on the end of the sentence. Beowulf and his men are following the monster Grendel. The path winds and winds…he's got one of their men…finally, they round a curve, and stop short in horror. There, on the path…is Aeschere's head.
No exclamation points needed. As the poet says, 'Hwaet, y'all.'
Tricks for making things more exciting;
- Use shorter sentences. It picks up the pace.
- Use specific, action verbs, like 'sprinted'.
- Use only the most salient details. Don't go circumstantial on the reader.
- Pace the discovery, and never bury the lead.
That last point is important. 'Burying the lead' is an old newspaper term for piling on background and detail so that the reader doesn't understand why the story is interesting. An older lady I know once started her story of how she ended up in the hospital with a medical emergency with, 'Well, you know how much I like maple syrup on my pancakes…' While comedically untoppable, this opening did not please me, as I was urgently interested in why my stepmother was hooked up to a monitor.
If you've ever seen the film version, you know that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a dark, brooding, thrilling tale. Heck, it has cannibals in. (Iman is gorgeous in that role.) If you've read the book, you're not so sure. It's Conrad's dense prose. He's almost as bad a buzzkill as Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Bore of New England. Having tried to cajole college students into reading this stuff, I know whereof I speak.
The all-time worst offender, for my money, was Britain's own Charlotte Yonge. For pages and pages, the woman will go on and on about the most inconsequential details, until you're just about asleep…then, hidden in an obscure paragraph, not even the topic sentence, she'll make some major change to her characters' lives. It's maddening. If you don't believe me, read The Heir of Radclyffe, I double-dog dare you. Pick a page at random, see what it does to your sense of excitement. It's sort of like Haydn's 'Surprise Symphony', only less melodic. That author is a menace to the reading public. She should have been put to work in the diplomatic corps. After listening to her drone on, nobody would have had the energy to go to war.
So there you have it. Inject a bit of excitement into your tales. Keep the reader in mind, and in the moment. And that, as Forrest Gump says, is all I have to say about that.