In pulp, my general rule is that the story catches you right from the start.
One way to do this is by something called: “the promise”.
My promise: Something is about to happen
You are promising the reader something is about to happen. “And it has to do with XYZ”.
In a murder mystery, the general promise is: the murder will be solved, or at least attempted to be solved.
When the attempt is the key element, we promise the reader that the way that attempt is made is going to be exiting.
Peaks and valleys
In this model, pulp fiction is considered mass-market fiction. The first goal is to sell. A lot. To do that, the stories have to engage from page one. They are like snacks. You buy, you consume, you enjoy the kick.
When such disposable media does not satisfy, the buyer will probably be less inclined to buy the next edition, leading to a (slow) drop in sales. So the trick is to build stories that continue to give you impulses. New promises.
Very roughly speaking, there are three types of arcs in pulp fiction:
- The promise of the genre – “This is a sf story with spaceships and adventure!” “This is erotic literature!” “A Western!”
- The promise of the story – “A man gets abandoned on a lonely moon!” “Sex! More sex!” “Horses and stolen cattle and gun fights!”
- Cliff hangers – “His oxigen slowly run out…” “She opened the door where her lover was waiting…” “Billy the Killer had him cornered…”
The promise of the genre is like a list of ingredients. “This story contains at leas X amount of A, B and C”. It will help select out of a wide range of available material.
The promise of the story is what you find when you browse through the first pages and when you read the short summary on the back (if there is one).
Cliff hangers are usually at the end of each chapter.
To make them more effective, you start building up during the chapter, beginning with a situation and a mini-promise of upcoming trouble. Then, you start introducing more and more trouble. You start to sketch the factors that will build the final scene in the chapter where the protagonist (or a side-character) ends up in a dire situation.
Usually there are at least three things going on:
- The direct threat – Hanging on the edge of the cliff
- A long arch problem – He really needs to be at location “B” otherwise character “C” gets in big trouble
- A bridge or short arch threat – Something is approaching or about to happen that will be the bridge to the next chapter (the rock is starting to crumble, his arms are getting tired)
The bridge is what makes the reader want to continue to the next chapter, instead of putting down the book and do something else. Cleverly done, cliffhangers + bridges will hook your reader until the very last page. And beyond that if it is a series.
Simple cliffhangers and bridges are the threat of death and/or injury and some kind of position in which a character gets cornered and stuck and needs to get out of this situation. It is immediate and primal. you do not need much words or build-up to get your reader to understand the urgency.
Another one is the promise of sex. Both hook automatically into our core wiring (fear and sex drive).
More hard-to-write cliffhangers are the ones where death or injury are not the threat and sex is not the promise.
In literature, sales is not the primary drive. Where pulp-literature is successful when they reach sales of over 100.000 copies, expectations of literature is lower. 5.000 to 10.000 in an English speaking market is already quite a good score.
The mechanics are different as well. The focus of literature is (in many cases) on character development and a shift in perception. For instance: “A” believes “B” at the beginning, but goes through several things during the story and shifts towards “C” in the end. Somewhere in the story there is a turnaround. And then some kind of revelation.
What should differentiate literature from pulp (which can use the exact same mechanisms) is the depth and believability of the events and choices. Where pulp can be grand and swooping with crashing space ships and gun-slinging and people getting wounded and killed, literature tries to stay closer to a possible reality. “Would a person really do that?”
The build-up to the promise of awesome stuff to come can also be longer. Pulp (in most cases) puts this down in the first pages. In literature, it can easily last 20 to 60 pages before you get any clue where the fucking story is heading to. (Aha! So the mother of the main character has cancer and he is an asshole. The main conflict here is that he is the only person capable of resolving the deep grief that she failed as a mother so she can die in peace)
The down slope
Every story has down slopes. When the peak has reached, you unwind the story. In most cases, the scenes become more quiet, more mundane. In most cases it is unavoidable. The moment two characters talk, the moment you describe an environment, the story is on a down slope, leading to become boring if you do not introduce another peak moment.
- Dialogs – Dialogs are not action. In most cases they are there to reveal something. This does not mean that you cannot write peak moments purely based in dialogs.
- Descriptions – Descriptions are there to give a wider view of the story world itself. People, objects, scenes. In most cases not really exiting as the purpose is to show stuff.
- Fillers – Fillers are moments in the story where nothing much of interest happens. The main purpose is to bridge one moment with another so that the development of the story has a logical flow. For instance: a car ride. Or a meal. This does not mean that fillers do not add to the story. They do. For instance by enriching the mental picture you have about a situation, the world, a character and so on.
Down slopes are a fact of fiction. No need to avoid them. You need to make descriptions. You need to work to a new cliffhanger. You need the story to settle down a bit. You need to give the main characters in your story some time to breathe.
No down slope at all: the run
Some stories are like a cascade of events. One peak follows another. Down slopes are hardly happening. There is hardly any moment of rest for the main characters. This is for instance mostly used in stories where one of the characters is on the run. Each corner can harbor yet another threat. Each next moment can be the last.
This is an art on its own. To keep this up, you need to continue to trigger some very basic wiring in the reader: fear, lust, longing, the want for action. I think one of the reasons “people on the run” is successful in this is because it combines continuous action (running, moving, being on the move) with danger and fear (stuff falling down, aggression, wild water, dangers). Both are very easy to link to those primal programs we have hardwired in our brain.
It is easy to associate to. You run. You are in danger.
It can be translated to other forms as well. (How do you make something exciting? Apply the “running person/urgency” type of energy in the writing.)
Promise and delivery
When you promise something in a story, you also have to deliver.
When you look at negative critiques, the main critical griefs with a story are:
- Boring – No build up, no excitement. Boring ideas, boring promise (“The characters will eat a banana, do nothing, have boring conversations about work and then go home!”) Like a flat-line, like a continuous downslope
- Unbelievable – Characters and situations are not properly intruduced and do things and have emotions that do not add up to what is shown before in the story. (“The protagonist is a quantum-physicist, sexy playboy millionaire who can run 100 meters in 8 seconds and sharp-shoot targets 1 kilometer away at the same time! Because he is really smart!”)
- Unclear – “What does the writer want?” “What is this story about?” There is no promise made at all. The story simply happens and there is no main theme or element. If you would have to summarize the story in three sentences, there is nothing you can really tell about.
- Not delivering – Certain threads are started “We have to solve this problem!” and not finished: “we drank a tea and smiled”. Where did the problem go? Did it solve itself? Did someone else solve it? What the fuck?
For literature, the promise – in general – is a bit harder to sell than for pulp. Pulp – by definition – likes the grand ideas. A lot of exclamation marks. A clear situation. (“Man gets stuck in elevator with zombies! Has to get out!”)
Literature is a bit more subtle and strives to avoid cliches. (“Man gets stuck in elevator on his way to job interview! Has a nervous breakdown! Lot of unsolved things from the past!” is for instance too cliche due to use of “nervous breakdown” as a shortcut.)
So when you try and pitch a literary story, it usually gets to this:
Man gets stuck in elevator on his way to job interview. As time passes he is thrown back more and more into reminiscences about his present and past. How did he get here? Is this what he had intended to do when he was a boy?
The conflict is more subtle as well. (“Zombies!” “A dying relative!” “Only he can save the world!”)
He looks back at the choices that brought him where he is now, debts (“separation from his wife!” “closet homosexuality!” “vampires ate his dog and are now after him!”) and about to lose his house. Does he really have no other choice?
Where pulp can dive deep into cliche, literature needs subtlety (so all things between brackets are not done)
From a pulp-perspective, most literature is boring. Like: “what happened today?” “Nothing much.”
Writing on the verge
When you are writing on the verge of pulp and literature, there is one thing that is really in conflict: the type of promise.
What do you promise your reader? What do you deliver? Bending more to pulp, the promise can be huge and still enjoyable. The characters themselves define the quality of the story. So a Zombie-holocaust story can become interesting and even literature when the story becomes about real characters, real choices and real situations (with zombies).
When you are on the other side: of literature, avoiding the cliche, focusing on the characters themselves, the big promise is a bit different. (“She changes her mind!”) The bag of tricks is different as well. (“Coming from a war-zone, she finally finds rest and love, but the memories are still hunting her. Is she able to deal with this?”)
I find myself playing things down constantly, for instance. The thrills lie in other areas.
I checked Cristiane F just now (“A memoir! Girl becomes drug addict and child prostitute at young age!”, to give one example. How do you deal with these kind of topics? Where do you do research? (In the case of Cristiane F, the writers were journalists and the story came from interviews) How do you keep it readable? What makes it interesting? What keeps it interesting? Is there an overarching story-arc? Do we have a clear beginning? (“She gets addicted, but her mother loves her!”) Do we have a clear end? (“She gets out of rehab! Her mother finally sees her again after 5 years of the occasional phone calls and constant fear for her death! Tears!”)
It is easy to lose your readers when you want to be realistic. Things tend to become repetitive. Or are simply not swooping enough. Or to become boring when the story is too one-sided. When the character does not develop, or when you do not get the reasons why there is no development.
The main problem within literature is this: real people are boring. They will not do a lot of stuff a fictional character would. They do not look like movie stars. Their friends are usually boring as well. The ones who are not boring (Action! Adventure!) are usually boring in other places (repetition! No real life! No real purpose!)
Life itself does not follow a clear plan. In most cases it is messy. Dreams are followed. Dreams fail. You start at A, moving to B, but then C happens and D is the end result. Looking back,
Really interesting people are very rare. People who are witty, non-repetitive, exploring, reflecting. Literature that makes interesting people are usually glorifying. For instance: write a novel about Amy Winehouse. Or Jim Morrisson. Do it without glorification to the point where she dies. Probably she was quite boring in real life. When you try to be real, that boring-ness has to be there. Probably she was insecure over her own work. Every day. It has to be there when you are true to the story.
Even the most exiting people are really boring when you do not edit their lives, leave out those parts. Add some others. Mix it. The more you do this to make a story exiting, the more you are moving towards pulp fiction, where everything is fake and made up to make things more exiting.
The middle of the road on Literary Pulp
I try to walk the middle of the road in this. This means most stories happen where the action is not. In most cases the characters are a little big larger then life, the situations brushed up, but everything and all is still human and fallible.
What I find most difficult is to define the main arc. The main promise that appeals to the literary side (“things happen and people learn stuff about themselves and others”) and still respects the Pulp-side (“Invasion! Battle!”).
How to do this?
- Take some grand theme – War! Invasion! Grand theft!
- Make things happen in the periphery – Before! After! During, but in some insignificant place!
- Focus on the characters – Who are they? What do they like? How do they deal with this? What is their point of view? What is their very own story apart from that big thing?
- Use contradictions and differences of opinion – Like: “Monday I love him, Tuesday I hate him”. And: “Ha ha ha,” she said, “not funny at all.” And: “You might see it that way, but I think John is right, not you.”
- Make the character fallible, especially when larger than life – “She was a great hero!” but also shat her pants each morning from fear to do things wrong. He might be great at one thing, but not at all. Who is the team? What enables the character to achieve the goals? What went before the success? Who had to be convinced? How?
- Divert the attention from the center – People get bored looking at the same thing all the time. Instead, divert the attention. The “awesomeness/suckness” of someone is more believable when it is shown and then hardly referenced to at all, something running in the background until that moment it really matters.
- Balance – I guess the bottom line is balance. Big stuff with small stuff. Love with hate, that kind of stuff.
The challenge is now to find those main promises in my own work and be happy with it.