Story as striptease

Despite being opposites–stories are additive; striptease is subtractive–one can still draw parallels. An ecdysiast (look it up) teases her (or his) audience by making them wonder how much farther she/he will go. Successful genre fiction does much the same thing, but it’s a question of what comes next, rather than what come off next.

17497765_ml-cutoutImagine a toddler waddling into your kitchen. She does that half stumble/half walk that propels all such kids, and she’s heading straight toward the stove. On the front burner rests a pan full of boiling water. It makes merry sounds, hissing and sizzling as water bubbles over the side and onto the burner. A steam cloud floats above it all. You’re standing at the front door watching the older kids play in the yard, and you momentarily forget the toddler. You don’t see her reaching up, directly over her head, to grab the handle of that pan. It’s so shiny and close. So… tempting. Her pudgy little fingers stretch up and up, closer and closer. All she has to do is stand on her tippy toes. And then….

20170218_105644On the next street over, a little spotted puppy–maybe eight or nine months old–races around at top speed, his little legs churning as he tries to catch the ball two boys toss back and forth. One of them is distracted just as he makes his throw, and the ball floats awkwardly, bounces off the curb and dribbles into the middle of the street. The ball doesn’t care about the pizza delivery guy zipping down the road. The driver is late; the pizza’s getting cold, and his boss becomes a total jerk whenever customers complain, and that’s a sure bet this time. He can’t find the house. Of course, that’s when the puppy races from the safety of the yard into the street. And then….

Despite only being in business a few months, young Gus has made great progress as an entrepreneur. His commercial painting business really took off when he cut his prices for work on multi-story buildings. Though he had to make do with crappy, used equipment, he’d soon be able to buy all new stuff. He’d also be able to afford insurance for his wife and three little kids. At this stage, cutting corners was just part of the process, exactly like hurrying to finish a job quicker than promised. That, more than anything, explained why Gus failed to notice the fraying ropes in his hanging scaffold. Sure, it was old and covered in paint drips from a thousand jobs, but he only needed it to last for one more: an ancient, ten-story building. He had just climbed in and begun lowering the scaffold from the roof when….

While the stripper removes a layer at a time, the storyteller adds one. But their goals are the same: keep the reader’s attention. The storyteller, however, has a gigantic advantage as the ending can vary drastically; the reader doesn’t want predictability. The stripper’s audience wants only the one posible outcome.

24-screenIt’s fairly easy to generate tension in a story, and readers not only expect it, they look forward to it. Consider the success of TV shows like “24” which first aired on the Fox network in 2001 and continued for eight seasons and 192 episodes. Viewers raved about it, and some, like my bride, watched it religiously even though she could never sit down except during commercial breaks. By the time it ended each week, she was worn out. The tension had been jacked up so high and so well, it took her a while just to settle down.

Imagine your readers doing the same thing! It requires some planning, but you don’t need to be a modern day Machiavelli or channel Torquemada to do it. You just have to be aware of the opportunities that pop up naturally in the telling of a tale. If your protagonist hasn’t tripped over a wheelbarrow yet, then give some thought to how you might best put such a thing in his way.

The thing to remember about all this is that it only works if you leave the reader hanging for a scene or two (or more). If, at the end of your scene, you have the toddler fall over without grabbing the pan of hot water, the tension instantly ends. There’s no need to read further. [Yawn] “Okay, Mildred, I’m turning out the light now.”

Ditto for the dog in the street or the guy on the scaffold–or any such scenario you construct. It helps if you have more than one point of view character so that switching to an alternative person and/or place is so easy it becomes second nature.

BUT, you must wrap up all these minor issues before you get to the end of the book. Leaving readers hanging at that point can work against you. It may be tempting to cast your tension net beyond the covers of your epic, but I’ve found you’re just as likely to anger a reader as you are to lure him to run out and buy your sequel. There are other techniques for that, and I’ll explore them in a future post.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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