Monday, June 28, 2010


         Hi All,
Thought this would be a good time to stick some writing stuff in here about creating tension in stories.                                                                   
Creating Tension
©Leslie H. Edgerton

            Tension is the stuff of great stories. In fact, without tension, there is no story, at least in terms of literature. Tension is easy to explain, sometimes difficult to execute. It can also be called crisis or conflict. Without the element of tension, stories fall flat.
            Consider this: Dick gets accepted to Harvard, graduates magna cum laude, lands a job in a top Wall Street investment firm. While there, he meets Gwen, a beautiful investment counselor. They begin to date and a year later marry. They have twins, a boy and girl who grow up to be wonderful children, earning top grades in school and eventually progress to adulthood, go to good schools, marry well and give their parents terrific grandchildren. Gwen and Dick never have a fight, invest wisely for both themselves and their clients, and become wealthy. Perfectly compatible, they read the same books, enjoy the same movies, and end up dying in their sleep together at the age of ninety-four. Their funeral is well-attended by the rich and famous, all whom have loved and adored the lucky couple.
            A nice story... in real life... but a complete washout as a fictional story. Their story is interesting only to themselves and perhaps their friends and relatives, but to anyone else it is a major snooze.
            Now, make Dick black and Gwen white and Dick has an enemy... and you have a story (Othello). Or, they have a great love for each other but Gwen’s married (Anna Karenina). Or, he loves her with everything he’s got but she only goes for him after he’s exhausted his passion (Gone With The Wind).
            Mel McKee, an editor and teacher, tells his students that “a story is a war. It is sustained and immediate combat.” He gives four rules for writing a story.
                        (1) Get your fighters fighting, (2) Have something --the stake-- worth their fighting over, (3) Have the fight dive into a series of battles with the last battle in the series the biggest and most dangerous of all, (4) Have a walking away from the fight.
            A story is about a character wanting something intensely and there is an impediment to his or her goal. That’s it. Keep in mind, the thing the character wants need not be something huge and spectacular, but the character must want whatever it is with great intensity. In David Madden’s novel The Suicide’s Wife, the protagonist wants nothing more than to get her driver’s license, but she feels her identity and future depend on getting that license and a corrupt highway patrolman tries to manipulate her and because she wants her license so badly it becomes a terrific story.
            A result of watching too many bad movies and TV series and reading too many potboiler melodramas, is that beginning writers sometimes feel that the best way to introduce drama into their fiction is by way of murders, airplane crashes, bank robbers and the lot, not realizing most roadblocks to desires in real life are much closer to home, in the form of our own personalities, bodies, friends and families and make for much better literature. More passion, says Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, is destroyed at the breakfast table than in a time warp.
            Kurt Vonnegut speaks about story tension in an interview in the Paris Review, when he says,
                        When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.
            What we as writers want to do to our readers is keep them wondering and worrying. So long as they are doing that, they are turning the pages. The easiest (and perhaps best) way of doing this is by raising story questions at the very beginning. A story question is a device to make the reader curious. They aren’t put in question form, but are statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like (from James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel). A knock on the door late at night. (Question: Who could be there?) Jim meets Nancy on the train. (Question: Will they like each other?) Betty didn’t believe in ESP. (Question: Will this disbelief be put to the test?)
            These kinds of beginnings are very effective in creating tension in stories and they can be answered very quickly or they can be long-range story questions that won’t be answered until near the end of the story. Beware of story questions that don’t become fairly irrelevant to the story; the question must not only get the reader involved in the story, it should be justified by the story that follows. If it is a question that isn’t the main question of the story, it must logically lead to that question. A rule of thumb about story questions is that the further the distance between when the question was posed and when it was answered has to be reflected in the payoff. Short distance—small payoff. Long distance—large payoff.
            Poor openings that are often used, are openings such as Frey describes in his book:
·         Ginger’s bedroom had striped wallpaper on the walls and a desk under the window. (questions raised: none.).
·         Ocean City was no place to have fun at night, so Oswald decided to go to bed early and read about how to make a paper airplane. )This is a negative story question; the reader doesn’t want to read on because he doesn’t want to be bored.).
·         The old Ford had a rusted paint job and a horsehair seat that smelled like an old pair of sneakers. (Again, no question being raised-description only.).
·         The warm sea breeze blew in through the open window and the moon overhead was a golden globe on the horizon of the Santa Cruz mountains. (Sounds like a fiction story all right, but it isn’t going to hook a reader.).
            On the other hand, here are some examples of good opening questions:
·         The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. (The Red Badge of Courage. Question: What are the rumors?)
·         Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning. (The Trial. All kinds of story questions are raised here. Why was he arrested? What will happen to him? Who turned him in and why?
            To create anxiety in the reader, you must create a sympathetic character, one who most readers will want to see good things happen to. And then, throughout the story, the reader should be worrying about bad things that will happen to the character.
            Tension is created by first creating story questions, putting the sympathetic character(s) in a situation of menace (to their goals), and lighting the fuse, thereby making the reader wonder and worry.
            Keep in mind that sympathetic characters are not always wholesome characters--they can be the worst individuals on the face of the earth, but there must be something about them that the reader can identify with. That is what is meant by “sympathy” in the literary sense. In the novel, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector is definitely not the traditional character that inspires sympathy in the common acceptance of the term (in the nonliterary sense), but he represents an intellectual strength and control over his emotions that many wish they had. This makes him sympathetic in literary meaning. The word sympathetic in literature doesn’t mean we have sympathy for him or her; it means there is something inherent in the character that we admire or desire for ourselves, in Lector’s case, intellectual strength. The fact that he is helping catch another serial killer is his redeeming feature that can allow us to identify with him as readers and keep turning the pages to see what happens.
            Writing theorists divide conflicts into basic categories--man against man, man against nature, man against society, man against machine, man against God, man against himself, and most stories will fit one of those categories. This is all very nice but can be confusing to someone beginning a story. This is because a writer needs a specific story to tell. If he or she sits down to pit “man against nature” he will have less of a story than if he pits fourteen-year-old Corey John against a one hundred and twenty pound tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico.
            Once you have established tension with your story question, you must keep it going. And escalating to a final act of epiphany in which the main character is changed forever. James Joyce is responsible for developing this idea on which most modern short stories are based. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the true territory of struggle is internal, in the main character’s mind and therefore the real crisis action must occur there. (Read this again and then say it aloud. This is the definition of a contemporary short story.)
            Janet Burroway gives a good example of such a story when she gives us a story outline about two brothers on a fishing trip who struggle with each other. The protagonist, for most of the story, holds his older brother in contempt, only to discover at the end of the story that they are really bound together by love and family history. This is a clear epiphany, a mental reversal. An immature writer might mistakenly signal this change in a section whereby “suddenly Larry remembered their father and realized that Jeff was very much like him.” Doesn’t work. Why? Because even though the realization is internal, it must be manifested in an action so the reader is able to share the experience and thereby be moved with the character. The way it should be portrayed is--Jeff reached for the old net and neatly bagged the trout, swinging round to offer it with a triumphant, ‘Got it! We got it, didn’t we?” The trout flipped and struggled, giving off a smell of weed and water and fecund mud. Jeff’s knuckles were lined with grime. The knuckles and the rich river smell filled him with a memory of their first fishing trip together, the sight of their father’s hands on the same scarred net...
            Here is a memory, leading to a realization, and it was triggered by an action and sensory details the reader can share. Do you see the difference? There has to be a physical action that leads to the moment of realization that is what makes story... story.
            Another technique to avoid like the plague, is the “John Wayne rescue”. This was the hallmark of many bad Westerns and other movies and poorly-written stories. This occurs when the wagon train is circled by Indians and all appears lost...and out of nowhere the cavalry appears to rescue them. Don’t do this! This is just simply bad writing. The ability to resolve a conflict must come from within and it should be foreshadowed, not foisted as a complete surprise on the reader as something completely foreign to the situation. Also, don’t use this technique (John Wayne rescues) to further the action. There is an awful movie that every now and then makes it rounds on late-night television you may have seen that illustrates this. (Just shows you Hollywood will put out anything)
            I forget the name of the movie, but the plot line is based on a man and woman being trapped inside a new-fangled, high-security office building they can’t get out of until Monday morning. I also don’t remember why, but a thug is chasing them around the building trying to kill them. They’re out on ledges, running down stairwells, etc. Lots of grubby, stereotypical "action" of the lowest rank. At one point, about midway through the movie, the man and woman somehow miraculously get the drop on the bad guy and knock him out with a staple gun. At this point, the movie fails, because they drop the staple gun and leave the unconscious villain and begin running again. This is a grave insult to the viewer’s intelligence. In a life and death situation like this, anyone with any brains at all, would either finish the bad guy off or if they have moral qualms about killing, would stay with him and every time he came to they’d knock him out again. Or tie him up or something. But no, these geniuses elect to start running again. They’re so dumb as characters you want the bad guy to whack them out just for their stupidity. This bit was written into the story just to advance the plot and keep the action going. It’s a trick and any intelligent viewer is going to switch the dial off at this point or walk out of the theater, assuming that they value their time and don’t wish to waste it on movies for the terminably brain-dead. Whenever you get to a place in the story where basic common sense dictates one course of action and you, as writer, have the characters take another (let’s call it an “idiot” course), just to advance the story, then the story is doomed. So beware.
            In today’s world, good fiction echoes life itself in that there are no clear or permanent solutions, that the conflicts of character, relationships and the universe can’t be permanently resolved. There are no more “and they lived happily ever after” kinds of stories, at least ones that anyone would want to read. But the story form demands a resolution of some sort. Take a war story, for example. After the initial skirmish, after the guerrillas, after the air strike, after the poison gas and the nuclear bomb, two survivors emerge from a shelter. They crawl, then stumble to the fence that marks the border. Each grasps the barbed wire with a bloodied fist. The “resolution” of this battle is that no one will ever win. There will never be a resolution, and this epiphany leads the reader to realize a change has been effected from the opening scene in which it seemed worthwhile to initiate a skirmish. In the opening question of conflict was contained the possibility that one side or the other would win; in the resolution of the story it is clear that no one can ever win. (From Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction)
            To sum up, one effective way tension is created is from the onset by use of a “story question”. (Created by the inciting incident - will (s)he resolve the problem?) It is then escalated by a series of incidents in which the protagonist tries to resolve the question, until when all else has failed, there is one last scene in which by his or her own initiative, and triggered by an action, the question is resolved, for bad or good. Out of this must come a change in the situation from whence he or she began, a shift in the main character’s thinking, belief, or take on life. You might look on “story” as someone traveling down a path and the things that happen to him on that trek take him down a different fork in the road in the end than he or she initially intended to or was even aware of.
This photo represents incredible tension. This was taken just before a Notre Dame game a couple of years ago. Would they win or not? All I can say is we weren't smiling after the game... At least not until we got back to the cooler...           

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Student Lesson on the Inciting Incident

Hi folks,
I teach creative writing online for various venues and thought perhaps it might be a bit helpful to take a look at how I address one of my student’s work as pertains to creating a proper inciting incident for the opening of her novel. I won’t name the student, but just to let you know, she is a wonderful writer with a rare, original and very compelling voice. She’s already a very good writer and is going to emerge as one who can deliver the kinds of novels that are publishable. Like many beginning writers, she’s struggling a bit with inciting incidents, but with each rewrite she gets closer and closer. The response below is to her second submission in class.

(This is almost word for word the comments I provided for her work. I’ve deleted her name as well as the names of her characters. She had much better names for her characters...)

(Student’s name deleted), again your writing itself is wonderful. A great, original voice, infused with self-depreciating humor that will win you lots of readers. But… again, there’s no problem here simply because there’s no inciting incident in sight. What you listed as a new inciting incident just isn’t for the reasons given.

The problem is that there are two important elements involved in publishable work. One is a compelling voice. The other is that the structure corresponds to what we accept as story. You’ve got the first one… in spades. Now, you need to work on the second—the structure. Which means you need to begin with an inciting incident that will reveal a story problem. A story problem isn’t a bad situation or a bad feeling about oneself. It has to be a compelling problem that the reader will buy as compelling and want to see how the protagonist resolves it.

Okay. Here’s what I think is happening with your story. It looks as though Janine has a problem with her weight and her self-image of herself. That’s a potentially powerful story problem to have. The problem is you’re not beginning with the incident that reveals that problem to her properly. Let’s compare your story to Thelma & Louise, because, in story structure terms, you have much the same story.

First, it appears evident that being overweight is a condition Janine has had for some time. Perhaps most of her life, even. That means it’s not yet a story problem. At this point, it’s merely a bad situation. In real life, yeah, it’s sad and all that, but it’s not yet the stuff of stories. What has to happen to raise it to that level is for something to happen to her (an inciting incident) that raises it beyond the level of a bad situation and reveals to her that she’s got a problem that she can no longer ignore for even brief periods of time (as it looks like she has before), but has to, from that point forward, devote all of her energies, her every thought, to resolving it. That’s what the inciting incident accomplishes.

The thing your story has in common with T&L is that Thelma’s situation (backstory) is that she’s been in a bad relationship with Darryl for eight years. Your character has been overweight for a lengthy amount of time as well (also backstory). Thelma is fairly aware that her marriage sucks and she’s treated like a vassal, but for eight years it’s only been a bad situation. As is Janine’s situation—she’s been overweight for a long time and is aware of it, but that’s only a bad situation. Not yet the stuff of story. Thelma also has been fully aware she’s in a bad situation, and, from time-to-time has performed actions to deal with it. She’s probably spit in Darryl’s food, gossiped and complained about him to Louise, not given her all in bed, whatever. Other times, she ignores her problem. Janine has probably also done things from time to time to address her weight problem—gone on diets, exercised, whatever. But, it’s not yet to the point where it becomes the biggest single problem in her life and at a stage where nothing can get in the way of her resolving it, any more than Thelma has before her inciting incident. That’s what’s required to raise it to the level of becoming a story. If she can still ignore it for a time, can alibi what her true state is for a time to herself, can even forget her problem for a time… then it’s not yet a story. It’s only when she reaches her tipping point, when that “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment occurs and reveals to her that it’s the single biggest problem in her life and that she can no longer ignore it, even briefly, that it becomes a story. In T&L, Thelma’s inciting incident is a small, dramatic moment. We’ve seen clearly via the phone conversations with Louise that it’s imperative Thelma ask Darryl for permission to go on the trip with her. She even begins to… twice. It’s the second time she starts to ask his permission that constitutes her inciting incident. It’s what Darryl does to her—remember?—the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist? What Darryl does, is something he’s no doubt done before, But—this time it’s different. This time it’s the one time too many that he’s done this. And what does he do? Simple. She attempts to ask him the second time for permission and he crudely and rudely dismisses her, treating her as an annoyance rather than as his wife and a person. It’s the tipping point for her, the inciting incident, the thing that finally reveals her problem clearly to her. (Keep in mind that the word “problem” in story terms doesn’t have the same definition as the lay term. In story terms, it’s more than a bad situation—it’s a problem that the protagonist won’t let go away until it’s resolved.)

Here’s the actual scene:

THELMA goes through the living room to the bottom of the stairs and leans on the banister.

(hollering again)

Darryl! Honey, you’d better hurry up.

DARRYL comes trotting down the stairs. Polyester was made for this man and he’s dripping in “men’s” jewelry. He manages a Carpeteria.


Dammit, Thelma, don’t holler like that! Haven’t I told
you I can’t stand it when you holler in the morning?

(sweetly and coyly)

I’m sorry, Doll, I just didn’t want you to be late.

DARRYL is checking himself out in the hall mirror and it’s obvious he likes what he sees. He exudes confidence for reasons that never become apparent. He likes to think of himself as a real lady-killer. He is making imperceptible adjustments to his overmoused hair. THELMA watches approvingly.

(My note. This was the setup. Now comes the inciting incident.)

(still annoyed)


(she decides not to tell him.)

Have a good day at work today.





(as if he’s trying to concentrate.)



          You want anything special for dinner?

And, that’s the inciting incident. For perhaps the hundredth time (or more!) in their relationship, she started to do what she’s always done in the past—ask for her husband’s permission to go on the trip. But… something’s different this time. With his evident attitude—his crude dismissal of her and of anything she’s trying to say—she reaches her limit. Before this point, she’s just put up with him and played the dutiful wife. This time, her problem is clearly revealed to her. The little light in the refrigerator of her mind just clicked on. This is why it’s important to understand the complete definition of the inciting incident. (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her.) If she has what appears to be a problem but it’s not clearly revealed to her that she has, then it’s not yet a problem in story terms. It has to be revealed and clearly to her. That’s the only thing in the definition that has to be there in the inciting incident scene. The problem—at least to others—may have been there for a long time or it may be created in the scene. That doesn't matter. What matters and is crucial is that it is revealed to her as a problem.  (As is Janine’s overweight problem in your story.) She may have even been very aware of a bad situation (in Thelma’s case, a vassal state in her relationship; in Janine’s case, her overweight condition.) But, until that moment when it reaches the level of being the most important problem in her life—a problem that she can’t ignore another minute until it’s resolved—it’s only a bad situation and not a story problem.

The scene above--taken directly from the shooting script—would be written a bit differently as a scene in a novel. Remember, the only things that can be in a screenplay are what can be seen or heard.* A novel has an additional advantage—we can get inside the character’s mind.

*(Not entirely true, as this script shows. Even though many screenwriting books tell us this—that the only things in a script are what can be seen and heard, the astute screenwriter also knows that someone important—a human being who can make a decision whether to buy it or not—will be reading it. So, even though you’re not supposed to put anything but visuals and aurals into a screenplay, a smart screenwriter also supplies little asides that make it a more entertaining read. In the portion of the script above, for instance, that’s represented by the “He exudes confidence for reasons that never become apparent. He likes to think of himself as a real lady-killer.” (This is his thought and technically shouldn't be in a screenplay) and the “wrylies” (sweetly and coyly) wouldn’t be there in a screenplay where the screenwriter followed all the so-called “rules” of screenwriting. But they would be if the writer was a smart writer and wanted to sell the script…

The same scene written as a scene in a novel would show Thelma’s thoughts when Darryl dismisses her. In a film, that has to be shown.

In a movie, we “get” what’s just happened by seeing it. In T&L we “see” the little “click” that goes on in Thelma’s eyes, and, almost immediately afterward, we see her first action to resolve the problem. Her action? She doesn’t ask for permission. That’s it. The entire story that follows emanates directly from this inciting incident. If she’d asked for permission, he would have denied her. It’s their history. (As a note, many people think the inciting incident is when Louise shoots Thelma’s would-be rapist. Not at all. That’s simply the “point of no return.” They wouldn’t have even arrived at the rape attempt and shooting scene if Thelma had asked Darryl’s permission.

The surface problem evolves and mutates and changes, but it has to begin with the inciting incident. This is what you must have in your story.

There are two things you can do to make what you have here work, (student's name). One, rewrite your inciting incident statement so that it is an inciting incident. Second, write that scene. Actually, you can use what you’ve begun here. One possibility is to have them go to the beach, spread the blanket, unpack the basket, etc. and then change the last two lines of what you have here. Like this:

“I hope you don’t mind that we have a picnic,” he says. “A…” he hesitates, “…healthy picnic.” He shines me a weak smile.

And then, show us her reaction via her thoughts and actions. Like this, perhaps:

            I could only stare at him. So this was where my life had led me. Go on a weight-watcher’s picnic, eat some carrot sticks… and get my marriage proposal.
            Wonderful. This has to rank as the most romantic moment of my life. Julia Roberts, eat your heart out.
            “Sorry, Claude,” I say, once I can get my mouth to work. “Why don’t you take me back home. I think I left my carton of Chunky Chocolate out on the counter. I wouldn’t want it to melt.”

And then go on to develop her understanding more deeply of her story problem. What’s at stake for her and give her second action to resolve it. Show the depths of her despair and make it a truly big deal to her, one that she’s not going to let go of until it’s resolved. In this example, her first action is to do what she just did. The above is a small, dramatic moment and it keeps with your self-depreciating and very likable voice for her and take on herself and life, yet clearly shows a realization of her problem. Something like this is going to get the reader solidly in her corner and want to see what she does.

The other thing to watch is what you indicated might happen—that some Prince Charming does come along. That’s fine, but just make sure he comes along as a result of something she’s done to try to resolve her problem and not just appearing as an act of fate or coincidence.

You’re not very far off from achieving a great opening, (student). Hope this helps!

Blue skies,


In my classroom... Well, it is online...


Monday, June 14, 2010

Hang in there!

Hi folks,
Sorry I haven't posted in a few days, but I started teaching a new class for Phoenix College and finished up a class for Writer's Digest in the past week, and I've been covered up with that along with work for private clients I work with on their novels.

I'm preparing a post to hopefully ascertain the level of interest in a workshop/retreat I'm planning on having next summer. I need to make sure I have top guest presenters available for it as well as top agents, but as soon as I get the details sorted out, I'll post information here on it.

Thanks for being patient!

Blue skies,

Monday, June 7, 2010


Hi folks,
Just found out author Kristina McBride gave my book, Hooked  a shout-out during an interview posted recently on Chuck Sambuchino's blog at (listed on the right under my web and blog spots). Kristine's blog is also posted there. She's got a very exciting book that's just hitting the bookshelves. Be sure and grab a copy of The Tension of Opposites!

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Hi folks,
Thought it might be a good time to return to basic stuff today. Hope you enjoy and get some value out of this!

©Leslie Edgerton

            The entire purpose of fiction is to transport the reader into almost a “dream-like state”, to where he or she “suspends their disbelief.” There are many techniques a writer can use to achieve this goal and we will be discussing a few of those that should be helpful.
            The use of details in a story is a very powerful means of inducing that dream. Let’s take a real-life example of how details convince others. Let’s assume there is a man, unemployed for six months, whose wife has been carping at him (justifiably) to get a job, but he hasn’t actually looked for months. However, he wants to convince her he’s trying his best to secure employment. On Monday, he has promised her he will go down to the unemployment office and see what they have. Monday evening, when she returns from her own job she asks him if he went as promised. It may go something like this:

            “Did you go to the unemployment office today like you promised?” Mary asked, her eyebrows raising and her tone skeptical.
            “Of course I did. I was there bright and early. They just didn’t have anything I was qualified for. At least I made the effort.”
            “Right,” she said. “I believe you, Tony. I really do.” There was pure sarcasm in her voice. Leaving the room to go upstairs and change her work clothes, she spat out one word as she went up the stairs. “Liar!”

            Now, this is a passable scene (barely) but the man doesn’t convince his wife and he certainly doesn’t convince the reader. Now, imagine the same situation but structured a little differently:

            “Did you go to the unemployment office today like you promised?” Mary said, her tone skeptical.
            “Yeah,” Tony said. “Not that it did much good. They didn’t have a single job I was qualified for. Something weird happened, though. There was a lady just in front of me in line and she was nine months pregnant. Just as she got to the window, she started screaming and yelling and collapsed to the floor. People came running from everywhere and somebody called 911 and guess what! She had her damn baby right there! I couldn’t believe it! It was a boy. She was wearing this blue dress and when the blood got on it, it was the weirdest thing. Instead of turning it red, it turned it black. Anyway, it screwed everything up. I bet it was another half hour before they all settled down and I got to see a clerk. Not that it did any good. You’da thought maybe that would have brought me good luck, since I got to jump a place in line, but there wasn’t even one single, solitary job I could do. Unless I lied and told them I could handle heavy equipment. I thought about even doing that--lie--but I knew they’d figure it out as soon as I crawled up on that caterpillar seat that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. How was your day? A little less traumatic, I hope?”

            See the difference? In the first example, whether Tony was speaking the truth or not it didn’t matter - Mary didn’t believe him and we don’t either. In the second example, by use of detail to embellish his story, it would be difficult not to believe Tony. There’s a pregnant lady - she’s the one in front of him - she’s wearing a blue dress that turns black where the blood spotted it - and so on and so on. By the use of details, he has turned a weak lie into a story that would be hard to disbelieve.
            Tony also used something else to suspend his wife’s disbelief. He used tension. What could have been a tenser situation than what he was describing! Tension keeps the reader turning the pages and overlooking the fact he or she knew when beginning the story - that it was fiction and therefore a lie.
            James Frey, in his book How To Write A Damn Good Novel, II informs that the fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. He goes on to say that “the power of suggestion is the operant tool of the ad man, the con man, the propagandist, the priest, the hypnotist, and, yes, the fiction writer.” That’s exactly what we are doing when we write fiction--we’re running a con game. We’re lying to readers. The trick is to get them (the reader) to believe the lie.
            Besides the use of details and creating tension, the writer must provide for the reader an emotional involvement. This is done by creating sympathy, identification, and empathy for the protagonist. Once we care, on some level, about the character the story is about, we will suspend our disbelief and keep on reading.
            Sympathy for a character is created in a number of ways. Sympathy does not necessarily mean admiration, which Frey points out. He offers the character of Jake LaMotta in the film Raging Bull for an example. LaMotta beats his wife, seduces underage girls, has a horrible temper, suffers from paranoia and speaks in grunts. He is a total savage. Yet the LaMotta character in the movie gets enormous audience sympathy. Why? Because, at the start of the movie, LaMotta is living in ignorance, degradation and poverty and so the audience feels sorry for him, and therefore will follow him on the screen through his story, regardless of the fact that he is a brutish lout in almost all respects.
            Sympathy is how a reader gains emotional access to a story and without it there is no involvement and the reader will put down the book or story.
            Second, the reader must identify with the character. This happens when the reader is not only sympathetic with the character’s situation but also applauds his or her goals and wants the character to achieve them. Frey again gives some very good examples:
            In Jaws, the reader supports Brody’s goal to destroy the shark.
            In The Red Badge of Courage, the reader supports Henry’s desire to prove to himself he isn’t a coward.
            In Gone With The Wind, the reader supports Scarlett’s desire to get her plantation back after it is destroyed by Yankees. (I can relate to that, being a Southerner!)
            The way to achieve identification is to give the main character goals and desires that the reader will view as desirable him- or herself.
            The third technique in achieving emotional involvement for the reader is empathy. Empathy is an even more powerful emotion than sympathy. A husband suffering birth pains along with his wife is an example of empathy. Empathy is simply the reader putting himself in the shoes of the character. One way to do this is to use the power of suggestion. Use details to suggest what it is like to be the character and experience what he or she is experiencing. Using my own story “My Idea of a Good Thing” in Monday's Meal, Raye is not a particularly admirable character--she’s addicted to alcohol, for example. It would have created little empathy if I had just drawn her as this weak-willed person who just can’t say no to a drink--but when you show the reader what her struggle is like, then most people can identify with her on some level and will then gain empathy. For instance, most people aren’t alcoholics, but most of us have fallen prey to some form of addiction. Maybe it’s cigarettes, maybe it’s chocolates, maybe it’s always falling for the wrong man or woman. There are lots of examples. By using details of the internal struggle, the reader can identify with their own private struggles. Reaching for a bottle of Stoli may evoke images within the reader of reaching for the pack of Marlboros or that pint of Haagen-Daz Chocolate-Chocolate Chip in the supermarket.
            Once you have established sympathy, identification and empathy for your character, you’ve created a strong emotional bond between that character and the readers. One final step is needed to bring the reader into that hypnotic state of suspended disbelief, called the plenary state in hypnosis. We are striving for the same effect.
            Inner conflict.
            This is the key to transporting the reader. It’s the storm that rages inside the characters heart, mind and soul. In literary fiction we have an advantage over media like film in showing inner conflict. In films this conflict can be shown only in exterior ways. In the written word and in plays, we have more tools since we can actually go into the character’s minds and we can use dialogue more abundantly than one can in movies. Too much dialogue in movies usually results in a kind of “talking heads” kind of production, but entire books have been successfully written almost entirely in dialogue. And what is a stage play without dialogue!
            To create inner conflict we need to show the character’s guilt, doubts, misgivings and remorse and we need to show the character struggling with decisions. There have to be decisions to be made to achieve the goal of the character and they can’t be easy decisions. Nothing that is black and white. The best literature is shaded gray. There should be pros and cons to each decision on the way to goal-achievement, and whatever is gained should be with some loss. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, ultimately gains her beloved Tara, but at the cost of two men who loved her and for whom she had love, albeit with bad timing. She gains the thing that is most important to her but in the process loses something almost equally valuable. This is the stuff of literature.
            Frey again gives an excellent way to think of inner conflict. He suggests thinking of it as a battle between two voices within the character: one of reason, the other of passion--or of two conflicting passions. Within the character him or herself rages a protagonist and an antagonist.
            Again, using my own story, Raye has a voice inside telling her she must stop drinking or die and another voice convincing her that if she does quit the booze, she will lose her soul or at least that which makes her an artist and therefore human. Which is preferable? To live physically and die emotionally or to do the reverse? In a perfect, happy-ending, fairy-tale kind of story, she could have both. She could dry out and find she plays even better than before, but that isn’t real life (at least not Raye’s “real life”).

Try this: Pick a story you especially like (you can use the one you’re writing now, if you choose), and see if you can pick out how the author has created sympathy, identification and empathy for the main character. Then, identify the internal crisis in the protagonist’s mind. This is only for your own use - not to be shared with the rest of us and is designed to have you look at stories in their bare essence. Basically, you will be looking for what the character wants and why did you (reader) care enough to keep reading to see if the goal was achieved.
            It's important that the author create this in the beginning of her story - empathy, sympathy and/or identification for the central character. Else why should the reader continue?
            Answer: He/She won't…