Three Simple Steps to a
Gripping Story

Copyright: Jill McDougall – All rights reserved

 

 

Pamela tore through the dungeon. The evil wizard was gaining on her. Up ahead was a glimmer of light. She doubled her efforts. 

“Not so fast,” growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater. 

Poor Pamela is in a bit of a pickle. Will she escape? What will the nasty wizard do if he catches her? And, more importantly, do we care? 

Probably not. (Yawn.) 

Who is this Pamela anyway? Just some girl in a sweater running fast. If the evil wizard snatches Pamela and turns her into …er, Pamcakes then so what? 

We don’t care because the writer has failed the fundamental task of character building. 

In a few short paragraphs, it’s possible to bring a character to life so intensely that the reader not only cares what happens to her, but is filled with a sense of urgency on her behalf. 

How do we achieve this?

 

1. Give the character some sense! 

Real people like you and me don’t perform actions in a vacuum. Our senses are flooded with information every second - we see, we feel, we hear, we smell and we taste. This is what makes us feel alive. 

Enliven the viewpoint character by entering their sensory world. 

Pamela tore through the dungeon. The evil wizard was gaining on her. The drumming of his boots echoed in her ears. 

Up ahead was a glimmer of light. She doubled her efforts until her breath came in great choking sobs. 

“Not so fast,” growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater.

Salt stung her eyes. 

Now the reader has an up-close-and-personal sense of Pamela’s experience. But this is still not enough. 

What is going through Pamela’s mind? Probably not Grandma’s recipe for lentil soup. 

To feel really connected, we need to hear her thoughts. 

Pamela tore through the dungeon. Her chest seemed to be on fire. The evil wizard was gaining on her. The drumming of his boots echoed in her ears. She’d never make it. 

But wait. 

Up ahead was a glimmer of light. Pamela doubled her efforts until her breath came in great choking sobs. Come on, she urged her trembling legs. 

“Not so fast,” growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater. 

Salt stung her eyes. 

 

Now the reader has become Pamela. 

The reader is running through the dungeon on trembling legs. Suddenly the reader has a stake in the outcome. 

It will be much harder for the reader to leave the story before Pamela is safe again. 

Imagine how much more power we could invoke if the entire scene was filtered through Pamela’s eyes.

 

2. Get behind the character’s eyes 

What is the setting here? A dungeon with a glimmer of light at one end. It’s not much to work with but let’s see what we can do. 

Don’t forget, the aim is to describe the setting as the character experiences it. 

Pamela pushed on - the dungeon a blur of shadowy faces behind steel bars. 

Now the reader is positioned behind Pamela’s eyes. That cranks up the reader-character bond another notch. 

And it not only paints a more vivid picture of the dungeon BUT it raises the stakes. The reader now has a chilling insight into Pamela’s cruel fate. 

 

There was something up ahead, a dusty yellow glow from … from a lantern, or a torch. No, not a lantern. Pamela blinked away tears. Yes! The light sliced across the floor in a perfect triangle. It could only mean one thing. She doubled her efforts. 

 

When we filter a scene bit by bit through the character’s experience, the action slows right down. This heightens the tension.

Since the scene is now written through Pamela’s point of view, the last line doesn’t work any more.

“Not so fast,” growled the wizard, as he tugged at her sweater.

 

Here the reader has to leap out of Pamela’s head to look ‘outside’ at the wizard pulling her sweater. It’s not something she could see from behind. So, how would Pamela experience this moment? 

“Not so fast.” The wizard’s breath was warm against her ear. Then she felt something worse. Far worse. An urgent tug on her sweater.

 

At this point, we should give the wizard a stronger presence by naming him. We need an evil name - something that twists the mouth sideways and sounds vaguely menacing. Let’s call him Eekial.

Oh, and let’s give the main character a more suitable name while we’re at it. ‘Pamela’ is a tad old-fashioned with a hint of mediocre. Since she’s our main character, it’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to encourage our readers to care about her. We need a name that has a warm, affectionate feel – something distinctive but not too common, like… Molly. 

The first draft of this scene is nearly complete. First draft? Yes, because now we have to weed out the clichés, strengthen the weaker words and search for fresh images that will give the piece a distinctive ‘voice’.

 

3. Freshen up 

There are a number of clichés and weak phrases in our piece that need attention. Let’s deal with one. 

The drumming of his boots echoed in her ears. 

This has a familiar ring, both in drumming and in ‘echoed in her ears.’ Clichés tend to dull the reader’s mind and deaden their response to your character. 

Perhaps Eekial’s boots could hammer instead of drum. Or, for a more emphatic rhythm, simply thud, thud, thud… 

And instead of the boots echoing in Molly’s ears, perhaps she could feel as if they are thudding right inside her skull?

 

Here’s the newly constructed scene.

 

Molly pushed on - the dungeon a blur of shadowy faces behind steel bars. Eekial was gaining on her. Thud… thud… thud. His boots seemed to be pounding inside her skull. She’d never make it.

But wait. 

There was something up ahead - a dusty yellow glow from…from a lantern or a torch. No, not a lantern. She blinked away tears. Yes! The light sliced across the floor in a perfect triangle. It could only mean one thing. Molly doubled her efforts until her breath came in great choking sobs. Come on, she urged her trembling legs. 

“Not so fast.” The wizard’s breath was warm against her ear. Then she felt something worse. Far worse. An urgent tug on her sweater.

Salt stung her eyes. 

Noooo! 

 

In dramatic scenes, writers aim for racing pulses, bulging eyeballs, trembling organs. 

And that’s just in the readers.

 

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© Jill McDougall 2007      http://www.jillmcdougall.com.au

Jill is the author of over a hundred books for children. Visit her website to find more writing tips.

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