by Al Kalar
Gordon R. Dickson was once asked, “What makes a story tick?” Dickson, one of the more prolific authors with a fan following in the millions, answered, “The time bomb that’s set to explode on the last page.”
He was talking about the type of story that becomes a race against time. The characters must accomplish something or be somewhere before the “bomb”, which can be a good or bad thing, goes off.
The beat of the time bomb needs to be felt throughout the story. Not necessarily on every page, but the reader should not be allowed to forget that it exists and it’s the main problem faced by the characters.
Additionally, the main character isn’t going to just waltz in and defuse (or enable) the bomb. There will be many significant difficulties in her way. The obstacles should be overwhelming or seemingly impossible.
As an example, we have the well-worn plot where the bad guy has kidnapped the main character’s kid. The main character has the briefcase full of money to save his kid, but the bad guy runs him from payphone to payphone with a time constraint. Miss one call and the kid dies.
Another example: Some cataclysm is going to happen and our hero has to get to the train, plane, spaceship before its scheduled departure. But the zombies, bad guys, wolves are getting in his way and the earthquake destroyed the only bridge across the raging river.
Plotting and Characters
To make the story a real page-turner, plant the time bomb on the first page.
One way to write such a story is to plan the plot line first, then invent characters to provide the necessary action and conflict.
But don’t make the mistake of inventing plastic characters to populate the story. The protagonist must be a sympathetic character that the reader comes to care about. After all, where is the tension if the reader doesn’t care about the main character? If the reader doesn’t like the character, then his death or defeat holds no interest and the story falls flat.
During the development of the main plot, don’t let the story stagnate.
There can be smaller time bombs planted along the way. In our kidnapping tale, each race to the next pay phone is a small time bomb with obstacles and problems that need to be overcome.
Mid-story surprises will help to keep your reader’s interest. The ally who turns out to be a traitor. The supporter who wimps out at a crucial moment. An ambush that impairs the ability of the main character to reach her goal. The heroin finds out her husband is still married to his previous wife. The antagonist, who was on his way to jail, escapes. Such surprises keep the story moving and interesting.
If you’ve ever watched the old TV series 24, you have a good idea of how a 24-episode story can have many plot twists and surprises.
The two most critical sections of your story are the opening and the ending.
The ending must surprise your readers, but be believable based upon the logic of the story. You can’t have the bad guy expire because a safe gets dropped on his head unless you’ve introduced the safe that’s being hoisted and hinted at a damaged rope. The best thing is to have the bad guy defeated by the efforts of the main character, but perhaps in a surprising way.
It’s like judo. Most fighting is direct confrontation. Force against force. But in judo, you suddenly quit resisting your enemy’s force and help him along with a small redirection. He’s pushing; you suddenly pull, turn, and lift him a bit with your hip so that he flies through the air to land on his back. Your heroin can do the same sort of thing by ceasing to resist and using the antagonist’s behavior to insure his downfall.
Don’t try to emulate O. Henry. His stories depended on the final “punch line”. He was a master at this sort of thing. The “trick” ending has a very limited use. Instead, plot your story around your main characters and their conflicts. Otherwise, you’ll write an otherwise dull story with just the trick at the end.
However it’s achieved, the story ends when the time bomb goes off or is prevented from going off. The resolution must answer the major problem shown at the beginning of the story.