Plot Theory

Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gordon R. Dickson is not only a fine writer, but also one of the best story "doctors" I know. Writers take their problem stories to Gordy for advice.

He was once asked, "What makes a story tick?" His answer: "The time bomb that's set to explode on the last page."

Every story is a race against time. Something is going to happen and, whether it is good or bad, the characters and events of the story are set up to get to the time and place where that something is going to come off. Perhaps it is as simple as pointing out that the emperor's invisible new clothes are actually nonexistent. Or as complex as the super nuclear device called the doomsday machine, which literally destroys the world in Stanley Ku-brick's motion picture Dr. Strangelove.

Even in a long and complex novel, there is still that time bomb ticking away, page after page. Its beat may be muffled or slow, but it is there, chapter after chapter. In Frank Herbert's Dune, it was that ultimate moment when rain first begins to fall on the desert world of Arakis. In Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, it was the question of whether or not the Soviet submarine captain would succeed in his effort to escape his pursuers.

In a short story the time bomb must tick loudly on every page, from the opening paragraph to the end of the tale. "The game's afoot," as Sherlock Holmes says, and that race against time is especially sharp in a short story, where you must engage your reader immediately and start those pages turning.

In some stories, the time bomb can be more subtle and more complex. In Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall," it was the threat of the destruction of civilization on a planet that is always lit by its multiple suns, except for one brief night every thousand years. In Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God," a sect of Tibetan lamas are convinced that God has nine billion names, and the world will end once humankind has written them all down. They have been laboriously doing the job by hand for centuries, but now they buy a computer to finish the task within a few days. I will never forget the shiver that went up my spine when the computer finally printed out the nine billionth name.

But simple or complex, subtle or bluntly obvious, the time bomb represents a threat, and its ticking should be loud and clear on the very first page of the story. The writer must promise the reader that the story's protagonist is going to face an incredibly difficult problem, dangers that are overwhelming, enemies that are unbeatable, conflicts that will tear her apart.

In most stories the time bomb has several different aspects; the explosion promised at the end of the tale can happen at many different levels — as many, in fact, as the various levels of conflict built into the story. In "Fifteen Miles," the ticking of the time bomb is a countdown that will end with either the success or failure of Kinsman's efforts to save the priest, and the success or failure of his efforts to keep his secret to himself. Note that the protagonist cannot succeed in both efforts. The two conflicts also conflict with each other, placing the protagonist on the horns of an impossible dilemma.

Think about "Sepulcher" and "Crisis of the Month" with an eye to understanding what the time bombs are in those stories and on how many different levels they might explode.

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