In this six-part series, we’re shooting for the stars by adding some great stuff into our writing.
And now …
Shoot for the Stars Tip #3: Be a Straight Shooter
When you add tension to a story, you’re providing readers with an enjoyable reading experience. But when you try to build tension by being clever, burying the lede, or keeping thinly veiled secrets from your readers, it’s annoying.
Here’s an embarrassing example from a story I wrote during my MFA about three teenaged girls at a small-town carnival. The protagonist, Melanie, sees the boy she has a crush on across the midway, and he smiles at her. He’s shaved his head since she last saw him, and Melanie thinks the new haircut makes his green eyes pop and makes him even more handsome. Her friend Susan catches her staring at the boy, teases her, and cracks an off-color joke. Melanie repeats the joke for Rita’s benefit, whispering it into her ear, and all three girls start laughing. Then:
“Melanie looked back up and at the boy, but he wasn’t looking at her anymore. He wasn’t smiling either. He elbowed his brother in the side and then leaned in and whispered something to him. The two boys walked away. He didn’t look back at Melanie. He never looked at her again.”
This is a passage from a linked short story collection. I wrote each story so that it could stand on its own, apart from the book, but so that it is more powerful in the context of the book as a whole. It could just as easily have been a chapter from a novel, written in a different point of view.
Melanie’s story takes place in 1976 and is told from Melanie’s point of view—she has a crush on a boy and thinks he likes her, too, but she is heartbroken when he suddenly and inexplicably will no longer even look at her.
This story is linked to another story that takes place in present day, told from a character named Ben’s point of view. Ben’s story is later than Melanie’s story chronologically, but it comes before Melanie’s story in the collection. Ben is a middle-aged man. At one point in his story, he remembers Melanie, a girl he had a crush on when he was a teenager, but his abusive father had just shaved his head for no good reason, just to take him down a peg, and Melanie and her friends had laughed at him—it had broken his heart.
In the quoted passage from Melanie’s story, I was trying to be clever by not naming the boys—Ben and his brother Travis. I was trying to build tension by keeping the boys’ identities a thinly veiled secret, an Easter egg for readers to find and figure out. I was burying the lede–keeping this important fact of the boys’ identities from readers. I wanted the reader to get excited when they realized who the boys were—the main characters from the earlier story.
Here is what my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg wrote in his notes: “Names? Can we get names? Obviously Travis and Ben but why bother with the secrecy? It doesn’t make sense, particularly since each story has to stand alone.”
He was right. I was being cutesy and gimmicky. Of course it was obvious to the readers who the boys were, so not identifying them by name was a cheap bid for tension. Besides, there was no reason to keep the names from readers. Doing so in no way served the story.
My linked story collection won a contest late last year, and one of the judges wrote that the book “opens like a puzzle box.” This is what I was going for in my book and with this passage. I succeeded in doing this in other areas of the book, but not here. Here, I’d taken a cheap and easy way out to try to force tension into a story. Tension that wasn’t necessary or even appropriate for this story. This is not a story about tension. It’s a story that is an emotional gut-punch—the realization for readers is not who these boys are, but that there had been a huge misunderstanding 50 years earlier that caused two young people to have their hearts broken unnecessarily.
The lesson here is to be a straight shooter with your readers. Don’t play games with them, condescend to them, or try to trick them. That isn’t tension. I can’t for the life of me find it right now, but I read something recently by George Saunders over on his Story Club that talked about something along these lines. As I recall, he talked about being simpler in our writing and more forthcoming, not trying to make each and every thing complex or fancy. I think this applies here, too. Be straight with your readers, unless it serves the story not to be. Which it sometimes does.