Strike with Lightning – Using Turning Points to Engage Your Readers

Twelve days in the desert, and I did not know how much farther I had to go. My horses were dead, my waterskins were empty, and my legs shook with every step. The string of mountains I had been following were dwindling, but I found refuge from the sun’s gaze in a cluster of sand-worn boulders.

Before me, the land wavered in the heat. Not a soul in sight. No plants, nor birds. I would have killed for any sign of life. Even a snake would’ve been welcome. Instead, I got a dust devil.

Wind swept down from the mountains, tangling itself up in the heat, until the two were locked in a kind of combat, spinning and throwing each other around, picking up dust, until there was a tower of sand rolling and revolving across the empty dance floor of the desert. The dust devil crackled with energy, and electric tongues licked out from the gathering sand.

Wind tugged on the buttons of my shirt and pulled on my hair. If I wasn’t so exhausted, I would’ve stood up. I could hear the energy crackling, I could feel it in my skin as the dust devil whipped closer to my shelter.

A sound lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. The lightning laughed.

Inside of the dust devil, spinning like a leaf in a whirlpool, was a man, naked as the day, laughing from the bottom of his lungs. The crackling energy from the dust devil pressed against me, the wind flattened me against a rock, and I had to shield my eyes.

When I opened my eyes I saw the man, standing in front of me, hands on his hips, with a thin strip of hide covering his nethers. Barely covering. Thick cords of muscle bulged on his thighs, his calves, his arms. His skin was as grey as the mountains.

“Writer!” he shouted, even though he was standing over me, “You have summoned me!”

“I did?”

“You are given three wishes,” Every word from his lips seemed to echo over the land, and every pause was followed by a whipping of the wind, “I warn you, I do not play games.”

“Water. Please. And shade.”

“Then I think you should dig a hole, Writer. It looks like rain.”

He threw back his head, and laughed until the muscles on his stomach looked like they might burst. His laughter echoed up the mountains, and, almost as if in reply, there was a boom.

Thunder.

While we watched shadows gather in the mountains, he asked me what else I would wish for.

“Make it good. Make it something you have always wanted.”

I dug into my pack, pulled out a piece of jerky, and ripped it in half. I handed half to the naked man, trying not to stare at his musculature.

“If I ask you who you are, does that count as my last wish?”

He howled with laughter, as if he had never heard anything funnier than that question.

I took that as a yes. Sweat trickled down my face, and my boots were stifling, like ovens. But the air had changed, and a cool breeze swept down from the mountains. The clouds were pregnant with rain.

I licked my lips, “I am the Writer. But I have much to learn. My characters are strong, my ideas are unique, but my stories always seem to drag on. Teach me to make my writing more engaging.”

A noise like wind blowing through a valley whooshed out from his mouth. The laughter was gone, but something else danced behind his eyes.

“Please!” I fell to my knees, my hands in the sand. My tongue was heavy in the dryness of my mouth.

“What is the most exciting part of a story?”

“Is this a riddle? I’m not good at riddles.” Something wet fell on the back of my head.

“No!” He boomed, “It is obvious: the most exciting part of a story is structure.”

I did not think I had heard him right.

“Yes, Writer. Take heed of the storm. Watch as it washes over the desert, and I will explain it to you.”

Black clouds fell from the mountains until I was sitting in their shade. Next to me, the naked man stretched out his arms, as if he was welcoming a long-forsaken brother, beckoning the clouds to come closer. I thought I heard a tzt tzt sound coming from his skin, which seemed to grow blue in the stormy shadows.

“Writer, the storm is your story. The looming darkness drives the plot forward, it pushes your characters, because if they do not run, they will be caught in the storm.”

Something rumbled, and at first I thought the naked man was growling. The rumble grew louder until I could feel it in the rock I was leaning against. I sat up in time to see, through the rain, the flash.

“The lightning, Writer, are the moments of surprise in a story. They frighten you, they excite you, they turn the course of the storm one way, and then the other. They happen so quickly, you are never ready for them. But you know they are coming, because-”

And here he paused in his speech, as he waited for the tympanic roll of thunder.

“So,” I shouted over the pouring rain, “These turning points, these surprises, should they be as random as lightning?”

Crack. A bolt of light split the ground between my open legs.

“You think this is random?” the naked man raged.

Thunder boomed so loud I had to cover my ears.

“Writer, this is not play. This is art. You must craft these bolts of energy ahead of time, or you must be ready to channel them without hesitation!” In demonstration, blue streaks zig-zagged across his outstretched arm, and from the tip of his finger, a jet of white erupted.

“Every bolt is another unexpected person. Another unexpected event. Every bolt is the most interesting thing that could happen at that instant to keep your reader electrified.”

Sparks flew from the corners of his eyes and the ends of his smile and I was afraid that if he held in his laughter, he would explode.

“Tell, me, writer, what happens in the gaps between the thunder and the lightning?”

All of the hairs on my body were standing now, I could feel his energy flowing in my veins, “I don’t know. The rain?”

“Like the rain, your readers will not remember every word of your story. But they will remember the changes, the thunder and the lightning. You must make your strikes count!”

A bolt of lightning flashed between the naked man and I, blinding me. By the time my vision cleared, he was gone.

The storm thundered away, over the desert, but all I heard was laughter.

 

Thank you for reading! I hope you found something useful in this week’s post.

Lately, I’ve been watching television shows and marking down every time the plot took an unexpected turn. It’s pretty easy to see how other writers are setting up jokes, or raising tension for a dramatic downturn when you’re paying attention to structure.

If you try this yourself, you might be surprised how many turning points writers shove into their stories.

 

Writing Challenge: Throw some obstacles in your protagonist’s path. Unravel their plans, turn them around, try to fit in as many lightning bolts as you can. You won’t know what’s interesting until you’ve tried it.


Please, feel free to comment, like, and follow the blog. All feedback is welcome. Send me a link to your turning points!

Image courtesy of Anthony Quintano via Flickr

8 thoughts on “Strike with Lightning – Using Turning Points to Engage Your Readers

  1. Such a wonderful analogy you demonstrated. As a writer, I struggle with capturing those moments. Especially with short stories when you have not as much room as novels to hook your readers and keep them on the edge of your seats. If I had someone like the genie you described in my circle of writer friends, I would ask the same questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the kind comments, G.R. I always appreciate others’ thoughts.

      I think we all wish the same thing, but you and I are lucky – we can make up our own genies. You might be surprised how much I learn from writing these pieces!

      Like

  2. “I would have killed for any sign of life.” laughed at this – nice.

    Also – great description of the dust devil… wind & heat locked in combat etc… I’ll have to borrow this description sometime!

    🙂

    I agree with your point too – the structure is critical, and as a plotter it’s something I focus on. Plotting out your structure in advance allows you to hit those three acts, set up those critical junctures and shocks (your lightning) and allows you to carefully place some parts I call ‘sweet moments’ – little callbacks, foreshadowing, tie ins etc that bring a depth to a story.

    That said, Ive had a complete structured novel plan for months and months, and I’ve found it a real challenge to sit down and type. I’ve got 80 pages of structure (scene by scene) and 5000 words of writing…

    This is pure procrastination – a problem I’ve struggled with forever. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how to overcome this!

    Cheers
    KT

    Liked by 1 person

    1. KT, every time you talk, I have so many things I want to say to you.

      1. Thank you, always, thank you for the comments and compliments. They do an ego good.

      2. Your commentary about sweet moments had me thinking. This is a little off-topic, but do you find yourself premeditating these sweet little moments? Or do they crop up, at random, as you are writing?

      For me, these sweet moments are products of inspiration that arise organically as I carve through whatever I’m writing. Or, if I’m thinking about a story all the time, I’ll get one of these sweet moments at random.

      3. From what I’ve studied on this topic (and I’m no master, but I have studied), to become a novelist – a real novelist, with multiple multiple books under your belt (regardless of whether or not get paid to write them) – there is one KEY.

      I will tell you, what this KEY is, in the NEXT BLOG POST.

      No, I’m kidding. There are probably a bunch of keys, more than three janitors combined. A good place to start, though, is to just start writing it.

      A better place to start is to STOP CARING SO MUCH, and just write it because you love writing it. This is your first novel? You’re going to write it and rewrite it a bunch of times. And guess what? It will fail. There’s a tiny percent chance that it will do great, but most likely, this is the one nobody reads.

      So stop doing it for your fans. Do it for yourself. Write about something you LOVE. Write because you’re a writer, dammit, and you are writing a book.

      I’m going to assume you’ve outlined on a topic you love, but you don’t feel in love with right now.
      What is that? Fear? Do you not know your characters enough?

      Here’s the first step: When you’re doing your routine writing, write down what you think might be stopping you from writing your book.

      If it’s your characters: start writing scenes that you know won’t go in the book, using your characters. Just start playing with them.

      Then, start writing it with this thought in mind “Nobody is ever going to read this.”

      I think the point is to just start writing it.

      I am no one-eyed king, KT. I am blind, and I fear I may be trying to lead other blind, but I’m trying!

      Be sure that I will be thinking of this for a long time now. I’m about to climb back into this boat.
      Metaphors out,
      P.S.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi mate – I look forward to your next blog post and eventual book with the KEY to writing in it (for 4 easy payments of $39.99!)

        🙂

        These moments… Sometimes they are organic, you stumble across them like buried treasure when you’re digging in your garden. But sometimes they are predetermined and I add them deliberately. Its more evident in longer pieces, I’ll know the plot, the mysteries, the peaks and the reveals, and I’ll plan backwards to drop in add some hint or foreshadowing earlier in the piece.

        For example, ive got a short story (that I desperately need to get around to editing and deciding if I want to submit it somewhere) where someone is playing a trick with a severed arm (its horror story). As I was writing the scenes I had the the awful character indifferently or casually waving it around during conversation, making the hand flop around as a (hopefully dark and mildly humorous) reflection of the individual’s own movements. This then foreshadows later parts of the story and helps builds to the climax.

        The key is I *knew* that I wanted to add some foreshadowing moments in to the story, as they are exceptionally effective in horror stories. I also knew where I wanted to put them… and so I made them to fit.

        The core of my procrastination… I’ll do a proper analysis, but I really think its perfectionism. Writing 100 word stories is easy(ish) in that you can pump it out, edit, polish, even rewrite from scratch within an hour (maybe two if you’re watching TV at the same time). writing the novel, and the short story, I found myself endlessly reworking a single sentence for 30 minutes instead of simply pumping it out like I should.

        Perfection is impossible of course, and intellectually I know this. It’s different when I’m sitting at the PC though. I’ve got plans to restart this weekend though – I’ll let you know how many words I get through 🙂

        Oooh – Nice to see you back too.
        Cheers
        KT

        Like

      2. Ah, I think I understand what you mean.

        I suppose sometimes these moments arise easily enough once you’ve settled on a few themes or symbols. I think this is something I need to write about.

        How did your plans go? Did you move the wheels?

        For me, combating perfectionism is a heroic task. Some authors recommend pouring it all out, not deleting anything. Just write, write, write, write.

        I think this is terribly difficult to put into practice. It doesn’t work for me, at all.

        So the other approach is this: find a way to enjoy your writing. You’re enjoying the short fiction, because they are so freeing, they allow you to experiment, to try out different skins, different voices.

        That’s excellent. That’s more important, in my opinion, than being able to write novel after novel after novel of the same voice, the same characters.

        So, now, you need to find a way to enjoy writing a book. I suggest finding a character you think is really good (one that you can easily write actions and dialogue for), put that character in the most difficult spot imaginable, and work from there. Think about it like a game, except you are both the player and the developer. Your job is to put obstacles in their way, then figure out a way to get out of it.

        HAVE FUN. LEARN TO LOVE YOUR CHARACTER.

        Your other option is to continue this life as a tortured writer, with novels flying around your head, but never landing on the page. Agony vs. pleasure, it’s up to you.

        All this being said, there are many ways to write longer works. Find a writing group, sign up for something like NaNoWriMo, schedule out time to write. Remember that almost 100% of the words you write for the first draft will be DESTROYED by the final draft.

        Hope this helps, if only to keep you writing.

        And it’s great to be back in such good company, KT. Expect me!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Wheels slipped recently, but I’ve got a shovel to dig my way out of the mud 🙂

        Good advice- thankfully I’m still enjoying the writing process, as frustrating as I find it.

        I’ll let you know how I go in a few weeks – I’ll report back on the advancement (hopefully).

        Liked by 1 person

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