Saturday, February 6, 2010


Dear Heather and Meg,

As I read Heather’s post I was reminded of a writing session she and I had at Tully’s last fall. As we took a break from our writing and sipped lattes, Heather expressed concern that not enough was happening in her story about a young girl’s journey to India, yet she could not put her finger on what was missing. Heather, it was so gratifying to read your post about the lesson on plot you took away from Marcelo in the Real World. Isn’t that the point of this, after all? In reading successful novels our goal is to understand at a craft level what this author is doing that we are not, and to take it a step further by applying what we’ve learned to our own writing. I can’t wait to see the results of this discovery in your novel!

I’m going to follow your lead, Heather, sticking to plot, and to an analysis of my own writing. In this case the problem I’ve run into is my saggy middle. Not the one that comes from too few sit-ups and too much time at a computer – I am referring to the spot in my novel-in-progress when I find myself stopping to clip my toenails, pluck my eyebrows, and check to see if there are any new dishes in need of washing. It is the point in the novel when I am bored to tears, and know that my readers will be, too. In Marcelo in the Real World there was never a time when I had a yearning to pull out the toenail clippers, tweezers or dish soap. So how does Stork accomplish that? The conclusion I’ve drawn is that he keeps me, as the reader, in a state of almost constant suspense as it is defined by Elizabeth George in her book Write Away:

that state of wanting to know what’s going to happen to the characters and how it’s going to happen to them (p 43).
Looking back at my experience reading Stork’s novel I recalled that there was never a time in Marcelo in the Real World when I didn’t find myself wondering what was going to happen. I went back and revisited the book with this in mind to see what he does to create this perpetual state of suspense, and to try and understand how I could apply his technique to my own work.

The first thing I noticed is that Stork never gives poor Marcelo a break, constantly throwing obstacles in his way. In the first chapter we are introduced to what Heather referred to as the first plot layer: Marcelo’s father wishes for his son to change schools, leaving the safety of Paterson to attend Oak Ridge, a school that is, “not for Marcelo.” Just as we are digesting what this would mean for Marcelo, Stork ups the ante: Marcelo can earn the right to go to the school of his choice provided that he succeeds at a summertime position working at his father’s law firm rather than working at a stable—the job Marcelo aches to do. Right from the start, Marcelo is faced with a painful choice.

As the story progresses Stork tosses out more stones over which Marcelo might stumble, each time deepening suspense for readers. Will Marcelo be able to manage the competitive nature of the firm and the rigors of his job? The scrutiny of assorted secretaries and partners? The dysfunctional “friendship” with Wendell? The evolving friendship with Jasmine? The disturbing fear that his father, whom he has been taught to trust implicitly, has been involved in unscrupulous practices? The story progresses and we sit at the edge of our seats watching Marcelo make choices that chip away at his chances of success, and the whole time we are wondering, what is going to happen?

It is worth taking a moment here to refer back to Heather’s post. I believe that the multiple plot lines provide more opportunity for suspense building. In Marcelo’s quest to succeed at his job and therefore go to the school of his choice, in his relationships with Jasmine and Wendell, in his quest to right the wrong that his father’s firm committed in denying compensation to an injured girl—every one of these storylines develops side-by-side, providing Stork a wide palette of hurdles for Marcelo to stumble over, and for the reader to wonder whether he will succeed.

Another way that Stork kept me interested at all times was with his gradual revelation of character and fact. We think we know Wendell, but then we REALLY get to know Wendell. The same is true of Jasmine, and Arturo. In my writing I can sometimes be like a kid with a secret—I can’t wait to introduce my readers to every single character and reveal everything about them. Stork’s slow unveiling of details served to keep me as the reader always hungry for more.

Another suspense building technique which Stork used very well was to set clocks ticking.

  • Marcelo has the duration of the summer to succeed. Tick, tick, tick.

  • Wendell imposes a time limit by when Marcelo must deliver Jasmine. Tick, tick, tick.

The result is that, as a reader, I am now left wondering not only will the character accomplish the goal, but will he accomplish it in time?

Looking back at my own saggy middle I see that the problematic scenes are ones in which nothing is happening. Past problems have been resolved. Future problems have yet to be introduced. There is no suspense.

Heather and Meg, when you see me at Tully’s you know what I’ll be working on!

StorySleuths Tip #45: Create suspense by building scenes which beg the question, “What is going to happen?”, by revealing characters and facts gradually, and by constraining the time in which your character must solve his problem.