Swain Story Outline: Getting the Story Started

Here we are with part two of the Swain outline. Again, if you haven’t picked up this book, do so. It’s life changing as a writer. The outline here won’t make much sense unless you’ve read Swains chapter on outlining a story. In this section, we’ll discuss how to start off a story and the various ways you can open a story. That dreaded first sentence or first scene. They’re always rough. But Swain has some ideas to get you started.

If you missed the first segment, you can click back here.

Remember, everything is about The Big Picture, Desire vs. Danger. The Focal Character needs to struggle for a goal, even at the start.

 

  • Get the Story Started (The Beginning)
    • Where to open?
        1. Start with trouble
          1. Existing Situation
            1. This is the normal world (the state of affairs your focal character functions in)
          2. Enter Change
            1. Some new element makes the normal state of affairs different
            2. Something good can upset the normal world just as much as something bad
          3. Affected Character
            1. The affected character will most likely be the focal character
          4. Consequences
            1. The change must trigger continuing consequences (a chain reaction)
            2. The focal character must respond to the change, brining unanticipated results
            3. The consequence must be intolerable to the focal character (anything he/she finds too upsetting to ignore)
    • Where to start
          1. Start the story as close to the change as possible.

  • How to open
    • Uniqueness
          1. Call attention to the unique situation and make the reader wonder
            1. Examples
              1. She was the only artificial woman in the world. 
              2. He couldn’t sleep that night. 
              3. It was a different sort of town. 
              4. “It’s this week or never,” Susan said.
    • The Unanticipated 
          1. Something unanticipated to intrigue readers
            1. Examples
              1. The beautiful woman who has insectile eyes
              2. The book in Grandma’s parlor with ways to commit murder
              3. The hero starts by claiming that he/she is an idiot
    • Deviation from Routine 
          1. The focal character does something different on this day. Make your reader wonder why.
            1. Examples
              1. Instead of getting off the elevator at the normal floor, he/she gets off two floors higher and walks back down. 
              2. Instead of entering the house through the front door, the focal character goes around to the back
    • A Change About to Take Place
          1. Show an unusual event that anticipates change to come. The reader will wonder why.
            1. Examples
              1. The focal character’s lawyer calls
              2. A girl winks at a boy while sitting next to her boyfriend
              3. The sound of galloping hoofbeats coming closer and closer.
    • Inordinate Attention to the Commonplace
        1. Describe a common object with tremendous, painstaking detail. The reader will read on to find out why.
          1. A doorknob
          2. A grandmother’s gnarled hands
          3. The shabbiness of a run down house
          4. A little girl peering out from behind her bubble gum

 

The examples for different types of opening are great. For me, it’s like a pool of ideas to dive into.

Write on.

Tim Kane

Away in a Manger: A Christmas Tale of Terror

There is a place, so dominated by nativity scenes, that the you often feel like the tiny figurines are watching you. I am tormented by this idea. Irrational fear or no, it haunts me.

My best friend’s house, the one I visited all throughout childhood, is just such a place. Every other month of the year, it’s a typical suburban home. But come December, the nativities creep out. Figurines, pillows, throw blankets, ornaments, you name it. One year we counted over 100 in just one room. So you can imagine what this did to my fertile imagination. Yes, that’s right, straight to horror.

I wondered what would happen if they came to life one night. Would these ceramic figurines be benevolent, or out for blood? What followed was a delve into Christmas terror. And I wasn’t alone in my horrific machinations. The folks at Grinning Skull Press also share a penchant for the creepy at Xmas. I’m happy to say that “Away in a Manger” appears in the 2019 edition of Deathleham. The proceeds of this publication go to charity, so please download or purchase a copy to support the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

And my apologies to the wonderful family, so bedecked with nativities. You should know better than to feed my imagination.

Tim Kane

Swain Story Outline: The Killer Elevator Pitch

I’ve known about Dwight Swain’s work for forever. How could I not? Everywhere I turn I bump into the Goal, Conflict, Disaster model or Motivation-Reaction Units. The man knows how to explain good fiction. But when I hunkered down to finally read his book (Techniques of the Selling Writer) I was amazing no one has touted his outstanding story outline technique. All I ever see for story structure out there is the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey. Which is great in it’s own right. But more often than not, I write a story that doesn’t quite fit the Hero Journey model and then I’m left stranded.

So what I offer to present here is a multi-post look at how to outline your story (novel, short story, screenplay, whatever) using Swain’s sixth chapter, Beginning, Middle, and End. Note, this certainly doesn’t replace the reading the book. You really should pick it up. The way Swain delves into just why certain techniques work and don’t work is worth the purchase.

So here we go…

Swain must have been very aware of Hollywood as he wrote, because he starts with a technique to create the killer elevator pitch. You know, you have a minute while riding the elevator up and you want to pitch your book. Boom. Swain has it down to two sentences. A lot of this feeds off his Goal, Conflict, Disaster technique.

My goal here is to create an outline where I could plug in the detail of whatever story I’m working on and get the notes and ideas of Swain without having to dig back through the book each time. That being said, I’ll often use shorthand and reference ideas he puts forth in the chapter. So yeah, reading the book will help you a ton.

The Big Picture: Desire vs. Danger — The Focal Character’s attempt  to attain or (retain) something.

  1. Line Up the Story Elements
    1. Focal Character
      1. How does he/she fights back against the threatening danger?
    2. Situation
      1. What forces trouble the focal character?
    3. Objective
      1. What is the focal character’s goal or desire?
      2. Whether he/she succeeds or fails, the focal character must strive for this goal
    4. Opponent
      1. What or Who stands in the way of your focal character’s objective?
    5. Disaster
      1. What utterly awful thing will threaten your focal character at the climax?
    6. TWO SENTENCE essential story
      1. Sentence 1: A statement of character, situation, and objective.
        1. When humans grow to twelve-foot height, John Storm tries to find out why.
      2. Sentence 2: A question with the opponent and disaster.
        1. But can he defeat the traitor in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?
      3. Your reader reads for emotion, with no great desire to think.

The 5 steps he outlines are essential to writing your two-sentence elevator pitch. I gave one of his examples, but he goes on for several pages with more. I just wanted one as an example to guide me when I write.

I hope this helps.

Write on.

Tim Kane

The Deadlock Between Survivor and Monster

My story, Deadlock, has just been published by Ripples in Space. I originally wrote this for a contest titled “Monsters in Space” but by the time I was ready to send it in, the window closed (I didn’t miss the deadline so much as they filled up early). Here was my dilemma, I needed to use a classic monster (vampire, zombie, mummy, etc) to chase some poor schleps in space. As I chewed this over in my mind, I kept circling back to Alien and how the Xenomorph terrorizes Ripley. Of course I don’t use a Xenomorph, but there is a classic Hollywood monster involved. I decided to pick a realistic space monster (no Jason in Space for me) because I thought I might need to send it out to other venues (which, in fact, I did).

The key to this story is the standoff, the deadlock, between the monster and the final girl. Neither can kill each other because… Well, that’s the twist, right. I can’t spoil that. But if you like classic monsters, and certainly if you dig Alien, check it out. (Scroll down the page and look for Tim Kane or Deadlock).

Tim Kane

New Stories Published (or soon to be)

I’m very excited to announce that three new stories will see publication. The first, “Pardon Me, but I Believe the World is About to End” is already live over at Drunk Gekko. This was inspired by reading Terry Pratchett and the recent Catherynne M. Valente novel, Space Opera. Its a bit absurd and not my typical style. It involves the end of the world and fig newtons. In that order. Click over to read it now.

I have a Xmas story coming out with Deathlehem around, well, Christmas. “Away in a Manger” deals with a house filled with nativity scenes that come to life to attack their inhabitants. (See, this is more my style). I wrote this story about eight years ago, on Xmas Eve. So glad it will finally see publication (there are not a lot of horror related Xmas markets out there, but there should be).

Finally I am proud to publish “Maggots from Heaven”, a steampunk short horror in the vein of Hammer films and Victorian gothic. This story has seen so many revisions over the years and only the core science concepts remain intact. The question: what if you could capture a bit of the human soul. But instead of it being all glorious and majestic, your soul is simply little bits of ethereal maggots. Or to be more precise, the maggots come to nibble on your soul (the same way the real life fly larva feast on dead flesh). This will be printed in the anthology Fearrington Road (short stories in a Lovecraftian / Steam Punk / Diesel Punk vein).

Looking forward to posting more upcoming publications.

Tim Kane

 

How to Write Creepy Scenes to Make Your Readers Squirm

Most writers who delve into horror hit the prose with a bag of clichés and heavy handed stage props—swirling fog, glowing eyes, wicked laughs. Don’t get me wrong, camp can be great (if it’s intentional). However, a more subtle approach can work wonders.

Add Details One by One

Use disturbing details or reversals when describing your scenes. Each one, taken by itself, does little, but in combination, they imbue the reader with unease. Consider Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol. Here an unnamed narrator just inhabited a weather station on a deserted island.

Just then, I heard a pleasing sound far off. It was more or less like a heard of goats trotting in the distance. At first, I confused it with the pattering of rain; the sound of heavy and distinct drops. I got up and looked out of the closest window. It wasn’t raining. The full moon stained the ocean’s surface in a violet hue. The light bathed the driftwood lying on the beach. It was easy to imagine them as body parts, dismembered and immobile. The whole thing brought to mind a petrified forest. But it wasn’t raining.

Reversal: The narrator thinks it’s raining, but then there’s no rain. We wonder what’s creating that pattering sound, and the not knowing makes us uneasy.

Disturbing details: The water is stained violet, a bloodlike color. This idea is cemented in the reader’s skull with the driftwood, described as dismembered limbs.

Let the Character Freak Out

Nothing creeps out a reader faster than letting the protagonist freak out. Ever wonder why there are so many screams in horror movies? It’s the same thing. As an author, you must find the written equivalent to the scream.

In Bag of Bones by Stephen King, the protagonist, Mike Noonan, begins to believe that his house is haunted. He’s in the basement and hears the sound of someone striking the insulation, but no one else is home.

…every gut and muscle of my body seemed to come unwound. My hair stood up. My eyesockets seemed to be expanding and my eyeballs contracting, as if  my head were trying to turn into a skull. Every inch of my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Something was in here with me. Very likely something dead.

King lays it on thick here. Instead of one physical reaction, he dumps the whole bucket on us. He doesn’t dazzle us with a etherial decaying corpse. We won’t even see the ghost till the final chapters. No. He tells us how Noonan feels just in the presence of the thing and that’s what creeps us out.

Another example of the character freaking out can be seen in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Now we are going to have a new noise, Eleanor thought, listening to the inside of her head; it is changing.  The pounding had stopped, as though it had proved ineffectual, and there was now a swift movement up and down the hall, as of an animal pacing back and forth with unbelievable impatience, watching first one door and then another, alert for a movement inside, and there was again the little babbling murmur which Eleanor remembered; Am I doing it? she wondered quickly, is that me? And heard the tiny laughter beyond the door, mocking her.

Here the character doubts herself and what she sees. This is essential to any horror story. When weird things happen, the character mysteries react accordingly. The stranger the situation, the stronger the reaction. And most of us would doubt our sanity in creepy situations.

Let The Reader Do the Imagining

Why should you, the author, do all the heavy lifting. Your reader’s imagination will often fill in the blanks for you. Take this example from Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

As she reached the driver’s door of the cab, which hung open with vines twisting in and out of its socket of a window, lightning flashed again, painting the whole world purple. In its glare Trisha saw something with slumped shoulders standing on the far side of the road, something with black eyes and great cocked ears like horns. Perhaps they were horns. It wasn’t human; nor did she think it was animal. It was a god. It was her god, the wasp-god, standing there in the rain.

Notice that the monster is only vaguely described. It’s called “something” twice. This lets the reader fill in the blanks. There is enough description that we at least know it’s a big hulking creature. This is the literary equivalent of when Ridley Scott only showed glimpses of the alien in Alien.

Use Strong Verbs

Finally, strong verbs will help any writer to shine, but they can also allow one character to shine over another. Take this excerpt from William Blatty’s The Exorcist.

Regan’s eyes gleamed fiercely, unblinking, as a yellowish saliva dribbled down from a corner of her mouth to her chin, to her lips stretch taut into a feral grin of bow-mouthed mockery.

“Well, well, well,” she gloated sardonically and hairs prickled up on the back of Karras’s neck at a voice that was deep and thick with menace and power. “So, it’s you … they sent you!” she continued as if pleased. “Well, we’ve nothing to fear from you at all.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Karras answered; “I’m your friend and I’d like to help you.”

“You might loosen these straps, then,” Regan croaked. She had tugged up her wrists so that now Karras noticed they were bound with a double set of leather restraining straps.

“Are the straps uncomfortable for you?”

“Extremely. They’re a nuisance. An infernal nuisance.”

The eyes glinted slyly with secret amusement.

Karras saw the scratch marks on Regan’s face; the cuts on her lips where apparently she’d bitten them. “I’m afraid you might hurt yourself, Regan,” he told her.

“I’m not Regan,” she rumbled, still with that taut and hideous grin that Karras now guessed was her permanent expression. How incongruous the braces on her teeth looked, he thought. “Oh, I see,” he said, nodding. “Well, then, maybe we should introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras. Who are you?”

“I’m the devil!”

Notice the verbs that Blatty uses with Reagan — gleamed, dribbled, gloated, croaked, rumbled. In contrast, the more calm individual in the scene, Karras, responds with simple verbs like “answered” and “saw”. The contrast allows the reader to see Reagan as disturbing.

If you want to make your readers squirm, reading only in daylight hours, shy away from the obvious gore and claptrap. Rather, take the quieter road of tiny disturbing details built up over pages and chapters. Show how your character reacts to what’s happening, and the reader will feel it too.

Tim Kane