10.24.2017

Too Far from Friends

In a world where face-to-face communication has been supplemented by contacts through texts, emails, and social media sites, it is not surprising that these modern forms have become increasingly prevalent in fiction. When you stop to think about it, written messages of any type are perfect tools for a writer. A FB post or tweet can convey creepiness or enthusiasm by turns. An email continues the age-old epistolary tradition. A text can add a feeling of urgency.

I have edited novels in which such messaging contributes a great deal of tension. For instance, the gap between a Hollywood star and a stalker was reduced in one book via a series of threatening or bizarre messages. The disturbance caused by remote communication operates on the same principle as the violation of privacy that a person experiences when his home is burglarized. No one is supposed to be allowed in that space. Even better, from a suspense point of view, a book reader is used to being shocked by words written down.

Yet if you are going to step up any form of pressure, the villain had better show up in person. Think about it this way. A child is not just bullied on social media; she also has to show up in school every day. So you need to plot out your story in such a way that what started off as remote becomes intensified by personal encounters. In other words, a series of menacing texts can work as an early-book device—as a preliminary phase of intimidation. Yet you need to move on to more gripping forms of fear in later stages.

If the plot premise involves stalking, let’s say, the desire of the predator to “touch” his victim means you can put increasing obstacles in his way. Police protection is the first mechanism that comes to mind, although a large and/or armed friend would serve the purpose as well. What happens as a result is a heightened struggle around those contacts.  The more the stalker’s desire is thwarted, the more crazy he becomes about fulfilling his desire. That means your story is following a progression from low-level to intense. That’s what you want out of any novel.

Exercise: Messages are treated by book designers as extracts, or indented text. That makes them pop off the page visually at the reader. Review the narrative text surrounding the message. Would some of it be more alarming if you plucked it out of the text and placed it in the extract? Experiment with different pieces and see if you can ratchet up emotion simply by the format in which the material appears on the page.

“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”
—Mickey Spillane

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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