Terrible Trouble and Other Important Stuff

By James N. Frey

This article was originally published in the German magazine TextArt: Magazin für Kreatives Schreiben (The magazine for creative writers) in a question/answer column.

A reader asks:

In your books, you write a lot about plotting, about building characters and stories. What can you teach me about the storytelling en detail? I heard about narration, about scenes and dialogue, about sequels and so on, but when I´m writing a story, I don't know how to use these things. My teachers told me to be concise and they said "use telling details!" So I write scenes, dialogues and descriptions to take the reader into the story. But then, the story becomes very long, and I need three or four scenes before the first conflict comes. When instead I use narration to get to the conflict faster, my writing becomes pale, boring, and superficial. What is the mystery about using narration and scene writing in the right mix?

A fellow creative writing teacher once said to me, "did you ever notices that beginning writers always really start a short story on page 7 and a novel on page 53?"

I told him I wasn't sure it was always exactly 7 and 53 pages, but I knew what he was getting at. Beginning writers do have a problem getting their stories going.

That's because the beginning writers falsely believe they have to "set the stage" and "inform the reader about past events" before getting on with the story. Some call these stage setting openings "narrative sludge,” others, "throat clearing", which refers to the bad habit of clumsy public speakers who must first "clear their throat" with coughs and snorts and so on before getting on with their speech.

One reason for this all this throat clearing in fiction writing is because beginning writers don't trust their readers to wait for the scene setting to come after the conflicts are underway. But old pros know you can trust them. Readers are patient, they will wait to find out the heroine is a redhead and her mother was a Parisian, that her sister died in a car crash and that she’s allergic to pumpkin seeds. An old pro knows the reader loves to discover the past as the future unfolds in the story; it’s one of the delights of reading fiction.

Here is a throat clearing type of opening:

Jason Edson worked in the shipping department at Hillside Mills in Centerville, Ohio. He was 28, married, had two children, a boy of six, a girl of 10. He was tall and slender and had dark brown eyes. His mother was half Mexican, a great beauty in her youth, and a devote Catholic. His father was of English decent from the Boston area, a welder by trade, and a good and decent man. Jason was not a great student in school, but he loved to play baseball and dreamed of becoming a New York Yankee someday, but he hurt his elbow in a bicycle accident when he was eleven and was never good at baseball after that. He took up the French horn in high school, but lost interest in it when he saw he’d never be really good at it.

The shipping department where Jason worked was one huge room, the size of a football field. The mill employed a hundred men in the shipping department alone. The ceiling was made of glass, so there was always a sort of yellowish glow in the daytime as the sunlight poured in through the dusty windows. There were great bolts of cloth in rolls which needed to be tied into bundles and shipped in huge orders and loaded onto trucks, which pulled into the docking bays every evening to be loaded for the next morning...

Okay, pretty dull, eh? Reading the warning label on pack of smokes would be more exciting.

It's really very easy to break yourself of this throat clearing habit, all you need to do is put a character (can be your hero or another character) in TERRIBLE TROUBLE from the very first line.

Let's see what happens when we put our rather dull hero into TERRIBLE TROUBLE.

When Jason Edson arrived to work at the mill one rainy tuesday morning, he found a note on his locker to report to the forman immediately. Jason at first thought he might be getting a promotion to shift supervisor, God knows he deserved it, he'd been putting in overtime without pay, double checking every order so there was never a mistake, never staying home sick even once when he had a bad tooth that felt like his head would explode.

Thinking he was about to be promoted, he raced off to to the forman’s office. The shipping department was one huge room, the size of a football field. The mill employed a hundred men in the shipping department alone. The ceiling was made of glass, so there was always a sort of yellowish glow in the daytime as the sunlight poured in through the dusty glass. There were great bolts of cloth in rolls which needed to be tied into bundles and shipped in huge orders and loaded onto trucks, which pulled into the docking bays every evening to be loaded for the next morning.

When Jason burst through the door to the forman's office, he knew immediately this was not about a promotion. The forman, old Mr. Jenkle, was seated at this desk, a stern, accusing look on his face. There were two sheriff's deputies standing on either side of the desk glaring at Jason.

"We've got you, Edson," Mr. Jenkle said. "We know what you've been up to."

"You'd better tell us who's in it with you," one of the sheriff's said. "We might put a good word in with the judge if you do."

Jason shook his head, he hadn't the faintest idea what they were talking about. He rubbed his elbow. Whenever he was anxious, an old bicycle injury kicked up--the injury that had ruined his dreams of becoming a New York Yankee.

The foreman said they wanted to see his locker.

No problem, Jason said, he had nothing to hide. He was a family man, he said, he had two kids, he’d never do anything criminal, he’d never risk prison...

Okay, you’ll notice that the information about the character, the scene-setting descriptions, and so on, comes as the story unfolds rather than as narrative sludge or throat clearing.

Okay, so from now on when you start a story you will put a character into TERRIBLE TROUBLE right from the start and you will make sure that the TERRIBLE TROUBLE gets even more TERRIBLE as the story unfolds. This is really the most important thing about being a story teller. Get your character into TERRIBLE TROUBLE and keep him there.

You also asked about narration. A fiction writer uses narration for two reasons. One is to inform the reader of the antecedent actions--the events that happened before the now of the story that are having an impact on the events of the story the reader is reading. The other use of narrative is to relate ongoing dramatic actions to the reader that take place over a period of time greater than would be practical in a dramatic scene.

When writing narrative, it is important to remember that all the techniques you use to make a scene gripping to the reader--conflict, inner conflict, emotion, sensuous details, character development, and so on, are also used when writing narrative.

Here’s an example of bad narrative. We’ll use Jason Edson again. Let’s say he’s run away from the cops and is now on the run:

As he drove, he thought about his wife, Ellen and how terrible this would be for her. They’d met at a dance ten years ago in high school and had dated for six years. Ellen was a good, decent person, and she worked hard with the kids and to keep a good home for him....

It’s not horrible because it’s in the context of TERRIBLE TROUBLE, but it’s really just narrative sludge. Let’s apply some of the techniques of the dramatic scene to this:

Jason slowed as he started up the side of the mountain on the rutted dirt road, here the ponderosa pines were thick on the side of the road and he rolled down the window and inhaled their fresh, clean scent. He remembered taking Ellen here on their first date, how shy she seemed holding onto the handle of the door, her eyes taking furtive glances toward him. He remembered how she made his insides feel warm, his heart beat fast. He remembered that same shyness at the Oak Barrel Motel where they went on their wedding night, how afraid she was and how they sat for an hour drinking sour wine as he stroked her golden yellow hair and kissed her neck. He remembered, too, how sweetly she looked at him when he came home from work smelling of dust and carpet chemicals and sweat, and how she always hugged him and kissed him, and how her bright blue eyes sparkled...

Okay, so the same principle applies when doing dramatic narrative for events that happen over time as the story unfolds. Beginning writers try to simply summarize the events and it reads like summary, not like good fiction. Here’s an example:

Jason stayed in the mountains all that summer, stealing food from campers, sleeping in his car, afraid to contact his wife. Summer turned into fall, and he took to stealing food from the kitchen at the ski lodge. He stole blankets and clothes, always careful not to get caught...

If we simply apply the same techniques to this that we do to scene writing, it is far more involving for the reader. Really the only difference is, time is going by faster:

Jason entered the wilderness area in late August, and for the first few days, he hid in the thick ponderosa pine groves, covering his car with their branches that he tore away from young trees with his bare hands, cutting his skin and getting sticky with sweet smelling sap.

Hunger began to gnaw at him on the third day and he began, he thought, to hallucinate. Ellen appeared before him, shaking her head--telling him what? He didn’t know. Should he give himself up? No, damn it, he hadn’t done anything, he needed time to think.

On the fourth day he stole a picnic basket full of succulent ham sandwiches and sour pickles. He was careful that no one saw him, hiding under the pine trees, crawling through the thick, damp beds of pine needles. It was becoming a game, and he was becoming good at it. He learned to take just a little, not to be missed, so they would not even know he was there.

By September the nights were growing colder and he was missing Ellen and the kids, but he dared not call. He mother was a devout Mexican Catholic and she had taught him about Hell, and she compared it to prisons, which she described as places of solitary confinement in dank cells, and horrible beatings by sadistic guards. The idea that he might be locked up in one of those terrible places sent a shudder through him.

He awoke one night with a start. He’d been dreaming of Ellen and she had no face. When he awoke, he realized the image of her in his mind was not as sharp as it used to be. He had to see her, but how?

He was certain the police were watching the house. He couldn’t take the chance, he couldn’t. He cried himself to sleep for the next several nights.

The snows came early that year, large round flakes the swirled in the strong winds and buried his car. Heavenly Gate, the ski resort opened early and he found the old log building had many old and rusty locks. He was beginning to think of himself as 'the phantom' -- the master of the game...

And you will be a master of your game, if you write dramatic narrative with all the sensuous detail, emotion, conflict, inner conflict, character development and so on that you use when you write scenes.

Hope this helps.

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]