Pass the Palpitations, Please!

What sucks us into a story? Fabulously exotic locations? Not always. Some of the most powerful stories take place in recognizable – even simplistic – places. Characters? Obviously we are drawn to people we can relate to, whether it's the quirky Holly Golightly ("Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote) or the ultimately psychotic Mort Rainey ("Secret Window" by Stephen King). We love the suave and debonair James Bond or the bravely chivalrous King Arthur Pendragon. We shiver at the sinister, sexy Count Dracula or the sympathetic – yet frightening – Frankenstein or Wolfman. We frown at the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge, and rejoice when he reforms, feeling our Christmas spirit soar. We quiver as the shadow of the mysterious Boo Radley falls across the wooden porch, and our palms grow sweaty as we urge Scout and Jem to run. ("To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee)

Yes, we remember those unforgettable people, many of whom become as comfortable as old friends. Never-changing, they make the same mistakes every time we read the book or see the movie they inhabit. But why do we remember them? Return to visit them over and over? I believe it has to do with the emotions these characters evoke. If you are a fan of mysteries or thrillers, I'm sure you've had to wipe sweaty palms as the book reaches its conclusion. And I know of several guys who purposely took their girlfriends to see "Jaws" – just because the girls were prone to screaming and burying their faces in those strong shoulders. Don't you just want to scream at the screen: "Get out of the water, you idiots!" The old adrenaline pumps, the heart races … and we love it!

We love stories that suck us in and hit us squarely in the good old emotional bread-basket. I watched Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" last night. I've seen it many times over the years, but I still sit with riveted eyes, muttering to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedrin), "Don't go up the stairs. Don't open the door. Has all that peroxide gone to your brain cells? Don't you at least suspect there are birds in that attic room? Go back downstairs and stay put!" But she opens the door, the birds attack through the hole in the ceiling, and she's knocked senseless.

And how about the last segment of the Star Wars saga? We all know that Anakin Skywalker is going to turn to the "Dark Side". We've known it since 1970 when Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke that Darth Vader used to be his apprentice. We've known since Darth Vader spoke the immortal line: "I am your father." in the second installment. Yet how many people shook their heads during the last movie and whispered, "Don't do it, Anakin. Don't give in. Don't believe the emperor." Come on, let's see a show of hands. I'll admit I still scold him when I watch the DVD – as if I can convince the character to change his course of action!

Why do we become so engrossed in movies or books? Because they touch our emotions. Alfred Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense. He took normal, everyday John Does and made us walk beside them for two hours at a time. We saw events through their eyes, felt their terror, and experienced their anger, their fears, their phobias, and desires. This was especially true in "Vertigo". My palms grew sweaty, (yes, I am afraid of heights too…) my heart pounded as Jimmy Stewart's character, John Ferguson, climbed the rickety stairs to save his beloved Madeline, and I cringed right along with him as vertigo hit. Mr. Hitchcock surely knew which buttons to push with his chill-seeking, adrenaline-addicted, heart-thumping audiences! In the featurette, "Obsessed with Vertigo", the narrator, Roddy McDowell said: "The master of suspense always liked to show the audience a familiar setting, and then introduce an unexpected twist of malice." Martin Scorsese said: "Over the years, I kept being drawn and drawn to the picture like being drawn into a whirlpool of obsession. A very, very beautiful, comfortable, almost nightmarish obsession…" The movie "Vertigo" is one of Hitchcock's most emotional roller coasters. Screenwriter Samuel Taylor spent a year working on the script with Hitchcock. He had this to say about it: "In those first talks, we decided that the more emotion there was in the man, (Jimmy Stewart as John Ferguson) the stronger the picture would be. And he found without even thinking about it, that he was making a picture that went much deeper than most of his pictures, just because the basic story – not the plot, but the basic story – had a true human emotion. This obsession of a man who, for the first time in his life, had fallen deeply in love." Pat Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock's daughter, also spoke about "Vertigo": "I think Jimmy personified for my father 'every man', so that when people went to see a picture, they could put themselves in Jimmy's place. And especially in "Vertigo". He wanted audiences to identify with Jimmy, which is what everybody did."

Emotions. They nail us with thrills, terror, excitement, sentiment… the entire gamut of the human experience. Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is another Jimmy Stewart classic. We see a house-bound man with a broken leg who watches his neighbors from his apartment window. When it appears that perhaps the man across the courtyard has killed his wife, Jimmy's character steps up his surveillance, even to the point of involving the exquisite Grace Kelly in his obsession. I watched that one last night too, and cringed as she snooped around this potentially dangerous man's apartment. I found myself muttering, "Get out of there! He's coming back! Get out NOW!" Oh yes, our emotions get us every time. That was the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock. He knew how to evoke emotion in his audience. For almost 40 years, he thrilled and chilled us with stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Stephen King employs the same techniques for this generation. From vampires to psychotic murderers to killer cars, he knows how to keep us on the edge of our seats. We empathized with John Coffey as he sat on death row and performed miracles big and small. And perhaps you shed a tear, as I did, when John sat in the electric chair that ended his life. (The Green Mile) We felt sorry for Mort Rainey, whose wife had left him for another man, and who becomes the target of a psychotic hick who claims plagiarism – right up to the moment we find out that Mort himself is the villain! (Secret Window)

We can find the perfect setting, and describe it so colorfully that people can feel the wind on their faces, feel the streets beneath their feet. And we can inhabit our stories with characters so quirky and real, they practically speak for themselves. But until we tap into the emotions we want our readers to feel, we're missing the humanity – the heart – of our stories. Find the heart --- and you'll captivate generations to come.


The Future's Not What it Used to Be

In an episode in the old Babylon 5 TV series a space ship from the 21st century is found drifting in space with only several passengers in stasis. However, only one is still alive. As she begins to adjust to a world of hyperspace travel, interstellar war, and alien cultures, G'kar, a Narn and a rather gloomy guy at this point in the series, comes up to her and says, "Beware, the future's not what it used to be."

As one who was born in the middle of the 20th century and grew up with the image of the 21st century as a magical time when we would have flying cars, wrist watch TVs, robot maids and weekly business trips to the moon and Mars, I have to admit that I agree with G'kar. The future didn't turn out quite like we thought.

Some things did come to pass. We might not have gotten wristwatch TV's, but we have button sized TV cameras and we carry a phone, music recorder, and web browser in a shirt pocket or purse. On the other hand, space is still the abode of a privileged few and only a couple of years ago did a private individual fly a private space ship into space.

So, what can we learn as writers of speculative fiction from the surprises that the 21st Century dropped on us. I think the lesson is one about change. When it comes to change when writing our stories of the future we have to consider three things:

1. Some things change rapidly
2. Some things change slowly
3. Some things don't change at all

Some things change rapidly

Technology changes most rapidly. Just 25 years ago I bought my first computer. It was a TRS-80 Color Computer. It had a big 4k bytes of memory. My PDA has about 50,000 times that. The World Wide Web didn't even exist 20 years ago, now few homes in industrialized countries don't have internet access.

As science fiction writers, we tend to love this Gee Whiz factor of change. One thing we must never forget, though, stories are not about gadgets, they are about people. Some writers become obsessed with telling every detail of the design of the hyperspace drive and then drop in a crew of stereotyped characters (loveable rogue, stunning female scientist/princess/warrior, pure as snow adventurer, wise-cracking robot, etc.) to pilot the ship through a predictable plot. And they wonder why their stories don't get published. People will forgive naive science if the characters connect with them.

Ride the change, but always ride it with some interesting characters and your reader will want to ride along.

Some things change slowly

I am often amused when I see cities of the future set in the later 21st century which are totally alien in appearance. It's as if someone went through and bulldozed the town. I don't doubt that most of the Victorian mansions I grew up with in my hometown of Eureka will still be standing 50 or 75 years from now. I doubt that they will tear down the Empire State Building, the TransAmerica Tower, or the Eiffel Tower to make way for postmodern glass towers.

You can make a reader feel at home if you can take a bit of home with you into the future. Remembering again, Babylon 5, security chief Garibaldi watched Daffy Duck and Road Runner cartoons. To think that they would survive into the 23rd century may stretch credulity, but then we still watch the buffoonery of the Barber of Seville and the comedies of Shakespeare were the sit-coms of his day. The pop culture of one era becomes the classical heritage of the next.

Language probably is changing more slowly now than at any other time in history. Language in the past morphed into dialects and patois of various regions through isolation. But there are few places in the industrialized world that are isolated today. That means a general standardization of language. Certainly, slang and colloquialisms will appear be discarded, be changed, reappear and disappear throughout history, but the standard language, aside from terms referring to new technology has changed little in the past 100 years or more.

Spicing up the dialog with some well chosen futuristic slang helps a story, but making the language practically a code to be broken doesn't help much.

Some things never change

For the most part basic human nature doesn't change much. We all have a need for security, acceptance, love, self-expression and God's love. That won't change in 100 or 1000 years. We will continue to struggle with the desire to do well but not being able to do it. Paul had that struggle 2000 years ago and I had it this morning.

One final thing will not change. God still loves us and, to quote Bill Bright, has a wonderful plan for our lives. Whether I ever get my flying car or wristwatch TV, knowing that God's love for me never changes helps me look ahead each day with hope.


Shattering the Setting Stereotype

By Stoney M. Setzer

As most middle-school students could tell you, fiction has three major components: plot, characters, and setting. Setting, of course, refers to the time/space backdrop in which the characters act out the plot of the story.
Depending upon what genre a given story or novel falls into, we tend to expect certain sorts of settings. For example, when we think of a mystery story, we may think of police departments, locked rooms, or offices belonging to seedy private investigators. If we think of espionage stories, we usually think of exotic, faraway locales frequented by the glamorous and wealthy--the sorts of places that Joe and Jane Average will only see on TV or in books. Although these are obviously not the only places where such stories can happen, these settings are so linked with their genres that they almost become stereotypical.
Likewise, we have our own stereotypical settings in speculative fiction. Outer space, alien planets, medieval kingdoms, or creepy mansions tend to dominate most people’s ideas of spec-fic settings. Although there is nothing wrong with such oft-employed settings (depending on the needs of a given plot, I’ve used some of them myself), I’d like to take a moment to encourage everyone to consider shattering the setting stereotype.


One of the biggest influences in my writing has been that of classic Twilight Zone reruns. Several years back I tried to determine what it was about that series that made such a lasting impression upon me. I came up with a lot of possibilities: The inventive storytelling, the twist endings…and, believe it or not, the settings.
Sure, some of the episodes took place on distant planets, but most of them didn’t. The majority of them dealt with ordinary people, in ordinary settings, who have something extraordinary happen to them. A prime example is one of its most famous episodes, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the Shatner-on-a-plane episode). It took a relatively mundane setting, that of flying cross-country on an airplane, and made it unforgettable by sticking a gremlin on the wing.
Because of the setting, the viewer is left with a man-that-could-happen-to-anybody feeling.
That is exactly the sort of effect I shoot for in my stories. My plots fall squarely into the spec-fic category, but I try to set the plots in places that are familiar to average people so as to bring the events as close to home as possible. Such strategy also involves using average people as my characters, but that’s another topic for another blog.


All of us have been told at least once to write about what we know. My challenge is to write about where you know.
I have spent thirty of my thirty-three years in Griffin, GA, a town of about 25,000 people situated approximately 40 miles south of Atlanta. Although I have never called my hometown by name in my stories--and indeed, I usually have different town names in each story--Griffin and the surrounding area is what I picture. Sometimes I may be picturing one of the “mill villages” scattered throughout town, or I may envision the large research area that the University of Georgia has here if a laboratory of some sort figures into my tale. Either way, it gives me a sort of ready-made stage for my plots and characters.
Some may think that this is a “lazy” way to create a setting, but I take the opposite viewpoint. To me, it takes more creatively to tell a story about aliens or supernatural events in a small Southern town than it does to tell the same story on another planet (or even in a big city here on Earth). It forces me to be more creative, because I have to think of logical reasons why the story should happen in such a parochial place, as well as how the story can believably unfold in that setting. Really, it’s a challenge, and it carries the pay-off of hitting closer to home.
That’s my two cents’ worth. Authors, give it a shot. Try setting your next spec-fic story in your own backyard.