Dont Drop Alligators Through the Transom

Disasters-those bad twists that end scenes with an unhappy answer to the scene question -often are very bad indeed. But sometimes the use of the word "disaster" confuses a new writer, and she thinks any kind of really bad thing will work at the end of a scene.

It is said that somebody once provided a "disaster" at the end of a detective-client scene by literally dropping an alligator through the transom.

In the fabled detective yarn, there sat our Sam Spade clone, interviewing his beautiful client in his grubby office. His goal, clearly stated, was to learn the name of the man who had threatened her life. Thus the scene question clearly was: Would he discover the identity of the man?

At the end of the scene, according to legend, the writer realized she needed a disaster. So kerplop\ over the transom of the detective's office door came a live alligator, wetly hitting the floor beside the desk and opening wide in a decidedly nasty mood.

The development was pretty stupid in that story. Why? Because it didn't answer the scene question.

The question, remember, was, "Will Sam learn the identity of the man threatening his client?" The alligator had nothing to do with that question.

If so, the disaster had to answer that question. The answer could not be, in effect, "Gosh, I don't know about that, but an alligator just fell through the office door transom. "

That's the worst kind of cheating, the sorriest kind of writing.

Don't do it. You'll give all of us fiction writers a bad name.

Figure out what the scene question is. Then devise a setback, negative answer for the end of the scene, one that is bad news, logical but unanticipated, but which answers the question asked.

In the case of the mythical scene and question just presented, it's hard to imagine how an alligator could provide an honest disaster. But it's easy to think of some disasters that would have worked.

The answer simply could have been: "No, Sam never got an answer. "

Better yet, the answer could have been: 'Yes, Sam finally got the answer, but when the client identified her threatener, it turned out to be Sam's dearest friend. "

Or it might even have been: "No, Sam never got his answer, but his persistence so angered his client that she fired him on the spot, storming out of his office and leaving him never to know -or have the income he needed from her fee. "

It isn't always easy to figure out the logical but unanticipated disaster. You can do it, though. You must, if you're going to play fair with your readers and keep your story moving forward with tension and suspense.

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