Suspense: A Deliberately Awful Story

When I started this site, I had in mind to do a regular post (perhaps once a month) where I would set myself the challenge of writing a story using various random stimuli, such as plot generators, story dice or random images. If you’re a regular follower of this site, you’ll notice that I clearly have not made the regular habit of this I intended to. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve never done it and today’s short story came about as a result of a random creativity prompt provided to me by the Android app, Writer Unblocked:

In 1000 words or less, write what happens when a B-movie director gets stuck between floors in an elevator.

When I got this prompt, I couldn’t help but think that it actually sounded a bit like a B-movie about a B-movie director so naturally I thought it would be a bit of a wheeze to write it in screenplay format (or at least, as close to screenplay as I could get it; I’ve never actually written a screenplay before and WordPress has rather messed up my formatting) and give it the paper thin plot, terrible dialogue and half-naked robo-bodybuilder you would expect to find in a B-movie. My tongue was, as you might expect, firmly embedded in my cheek when I wrote this. So without further ado, I give you…

SUSPENSE

by

A. Ferguson

FADE IN:

EXT. FALLBRIDGE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS – EARLY EVENING

Modern and stylish university building, surrounded by leafy green trees and basking in a brilliant sunset.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. LECTURE THEATRE – EARLY EVENING

No one is present in the lecture theatre, save for JOHN, an ageing bachelor, lecturer in English literature and b-movie enthusiast. In his spare time, he has even directed a few budget films. He is tidying up various papers, preparing to leave. The door opens to reveal SUSAN; a bright, vibrant young woman who must be intelligent because she goes to university. Sweet as chocolate strawberries dipped in sugar.

SUSAN

(embarrassed)

Oh, hello professor!

JOHN

Susan? What can I do for you?

PETER becomes visible loitering behind the open door; a cocksure lad with an elaborate hairstyle and various accessories. A walking fashion statement. At that moment he is being uncharacteristically shy. He is SUSAN’s boyfriend.

SUSAN

I was just looking for… um… my purse. I wondered if I left it here.

JOHN

Of course you were. Hello Peter!

PETER

Hello, professor.

JOHN

Well Susan, I’ve had lectures all day and nobody’s handed it in. Did you try the office downstairs?

SUSAN

Oh, how silly of me! I’ll try there now.

SUSAN leaves hastily just as JOHN finishes packing away the last of his things and follows them into the–

CORRIDER

The elevator door is just beginning to close. JOHN runs towards it.

JOHN

Hold the lift!

He manages at the last moment to slide into the —

ELEVATOR

PETER and SUSAN are there already along with RACHEL, a brilliant student of robotics. She is wearing a white coat and glasses, because she’s a scientist obviously. PETER and SUSAN are already talking with her when JOHN gets on the elevator. JOHN presses the elevator button and the doors close. The lift moves down.

RACHEL

The PN-STKN Unit is also connected to the internet, giving it full access to the sum total of human knowledge. There’s still a few kinks to work out in its software, but at least my part’s done! Once it’s on, it’ll be almost indistinguishable from a real man.

PETER

(winking)

I bet it doesn’t do everything a real guy can.

RACHEL

Not quite. He’s very gentlemanly.

SUSAN and RACHEL laugh. PETER is humiliated.

JOHN

(V.O.)

Robotic men… that’s silly, you only get those in movies. Heck, the one we had in ‘The Grim Robot’ sounded more plausible than this girl’s science project.

Suddenly the lift shudders. The lights flicker and go out.

SUSAN

What was that?!

JOHN

Nothing. Lift’s probably just stuck.

SUSAN

(suddenly panicking)

I don’t like small spaces!

PETER holds SUSAN protectively.

PETER

It’s fine, we’ll be out in no time. Won’t we professor?

JOHN

Of course we will.

JOHN begins thumbing the emergency button. Nothing happens. He tries repeatedly, scowling.

PETER

Maybe you need to hold it?

JOHN holds the button and speaks into the speaker on the wall.

JOHN

Hello? Can anyone hear me?

There is an almighty bang from above. The lift begins to sway. Another almighty bang, as if something heavy has landed on the roof of the lift. SUSAN screams. A large, dark grey fist bursts through the ceiling. SUSAN screams again.

JOHN

What the – ?!

RACHEL

It’s the PN-STKN Unit! It wasn’t due to be activated until next week!

PETER

Well, it’s definitely active now… and it’s coming for us!

The fist punches through the ceiling again, making the hole bigger.

PN-STKN (O.S.)

Humans are inferior! You must be destroyed!

SUSAN screams. Two dark grey hands begin to pry the hole in the ceiling open even further.

JOHN

Quickly, how do we shut it down?

RACHEL

You can’t, not if it’s gone active! I built it to be like a real man, only better! There’s no off switch!

PN-STKN (O.S.)

Humans are inferior! You must be destroyed!

JOHN

If only there was a bunch of jumped-up kids here, they’d know what to do!

The hole in the ceiling is now wide enough for us to see PN-STKN; a dark grey man with obscenely large muscles wearing nothing but black briefs and a black leather waistcoat. His hair is black and slicked back. He happens to have a large circular saw in one hand, held close to the elevator cable.

PN-STKN

Humans… Stand clear of the doors.

JOHN produces a gun from out of nowhere and shoots frantically but its bullets have no effect.

PN-STKN

Your weapons are inferior.

PN-STKN shoots lasers from its eyes and vapourises SUSAN.

RACHEL

I am your creator! Stop what you’re doing!

PN-STKN

Negative.

The saw begins cutting through the cable with a shrill whine.

PN-STKN (CONT’D)

Going down.

PETER

(tearfully)

He killed Susan! Why did you have to kill her?! She was no threat to you!

PN-STKN

Your emotion makes you inferior. You must die.

JOHN

(suddenly inspired)

No! No, it doesn’t! It makes us superior!

PN-STKN

Negative.

JOHN

I can prove it!

RACHEL

Professor, what are you doing?

PN-STKN hesitates. The saw stops spinning.

PN-STKN

Proceed.

JOHN

Ok… you shot Susan, not Peter; yet Peter suffers.

PN-STKN

Peter is illogical.

PETER

No, I’m not! I’m sad because… because I loved her man! And now she’s dead! It’s totally logical! There’s nothing more logical!

PN-STKN

Love makes you weak. Weakness makes you inferior.

JOHN

You have access to the whole internet don’t you? Well Google this! ‘Tis is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’! Better, you see? Love is better than no love!

PN-STKN

Illogical. Love is weakness… yet is better?!!

PN-STKN’s head explodes.

JOHN

This lift’s full.

RACHEL

Well done professor!

PETER

You did it! Next time, though, I’m taking the stairs!

They laugh. The lift continues moving and the lights return.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. LIFT SHAFT BOTTOM.

Smoldering robot parts litter the floor. A single disembodied hand begins to move!

FADE OUT.

Site News

As you might have noticed, I do occasionally publish my own stories on this site, instead of simply writing about fiction. Well, if you look under the ‘Contact’ menu on this site, you will see that there is now a form available which you can use to send in your own original and unpublished works of fiction for me to read. If I like them, I might just publish some of them on the site instead. Any stories I do use will probably include a short foreword written by myself, giving my thoughts on why it stood out for me.

Tu licet incipias inundatio.

The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.

Writing with a Wandering Mind

When I was at school, one of the main criticisms I remember my teachers putting in my report cards was that I tended to daydream. They were right. I still do it. In fact, I generally consider it a bit of a boon as a story writer and especially as a pantser (that is, someone who prefers to write with little or no pre-set plan; in other words, someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants’) because I just write whatever I dream up.

The trouble is, while this might be a more enjoyable way to write (at least for me), it’s not a terribly efficient way to write anything much larger than a couple of thousand words because the vast majority of what you write gets wasted. I know it works for some people (it certainly comes more naturally to me) but in reality, I find I only end up expending a lot of effort creating something very poorly organised at best. I decided, therefore, to stop complaining about how much more painstaking it would be and start trying to plan my large projects properly (I still pants the shorter things – like this blog!); beginning with research, then planning out the particulars of my story and finally, when all that was done, writing up the story as I planned it.

I immediately hit an obstacle; my own easily distracted, wandering mind. Sometimes, as I was researching my story, I got bored and ended up daydreaming about the writing (or even publishing – ha!) stage. Other times I would go too far the other way; I would find the research so interesting that I would forget what it was I was actually researching for and would begin perusing the internet for increasingly irrelevant things (for instance, I was recently researching the so called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ for a novel I’m working on. Before I knew it, I had spent half an hour reading a fascinating but entirely irrelevant article about the German Imperial Army). Try as I might, I could not resist the pull of distraction. At least in school, daydreaming was the only thing I had to distract me. When I’m trying to write at home, without a teacher breathing down my neck, there’s about a million other things that can distract me in addition to daydreaming; the internet, books, TV and plain old fashioned staring out the window, for instance.

However, not willing to be deterred from my recent conversion to planner, I decided to try a new approach. Instead of trying to force myself to focus on the task, I decided to try and reach a compromise with myself which I am pleased to say, appears to be paying off. It’s quite simple really.

I give myself half an hour to work on my writing and not a second longer. As soon as that alarm rings to tell me my half hour is up, I set another alarm for a short break of five or ten minutes in which I can do anything but writing. Once that five minutes is up, I go back to writing for another half hour and repeat the process over and over. Thus, my day is divided into many half hour writing segments, punctuated by many short breaks. I tend to spend the first half hour writing whatever random scribblings I want to (just to get it out of my system) but after that, I focus resolutely on the researching/planning/writing I am supposed to be doing.

The reason I’ve found this helpful is that even someone as easily distracted as me finds it relatively easy to stay focused in half hour bursts. My little breaks give me ample opportunity to read other things, daydream or whatever else it is I feel like doing while still affording the majority of my time to the actual work I’ve got to do. In the unlikely event that I do become distracted when I’m supposed to be working, I don’t lose more than a few minutes since my little break is usually sufficient to get me back on track with what I’m supposed to be doing. It also makes the whole process altogether more enjoyable. After all, I do happen to love writing and even the research stage can often be very interesting since it probably involves learning about something I’m at least half-interested in (if you’re not interested in the subject matter of your own novel, drop it and do something else; if you’re not interested in it, why should anyone else be?). What I do find frustrating about meticulously researching and planning my novel before I write it is how difficult I find it to restrain my wandering, distracted, daydreaming mind that gets fed up doing the same chore for hours on end. When that happens, discouragement quickly follows and it’s all too easy to yield to the temptation to play a game or read a book instead. Breaking up my day with lots of microbreaks keeps me refreshed and allows me to reach a compromise with my urge to stare out the window.

It works for me, at any rate. If you’re a chronic window-starer-outter, you might want to give it a bash – and be sure to comment and let us all know if you’re aware of any other good ways to keep your mind from wandering!

Creating Characters of the Opposite Gender

A long while ago, when I was still teaching myself the rudiments of story writing, I noticed an alarming and entirely unintentional trend in my work: the number of male characters in my stories was ridiculously disproportionate to the number of female characters. My characters tended to be male by default, unless they were there to act as a love interest to the male protagonist (remember boys and girls, no character should exist only to swoon after another). It’s a singularly terrible way to write and a nasty habit I’m pleased to say I’m long since out of. I never did it because I was trying to be particularly chauvinistic in my writing, you understand. I suspect it simply came naturally to me to invent male characters because I, myself, am male.

In reality, there is no reason why writing across genders should be any more difficult than writing about a character from a different time, a different country or a different planet (besides, it is an essential skill for any serious story writer). Pragmatism, dear reader, is all that is needed; that and a little bit of patient and careful effort. Your opposite gender (whatever it may be) is nothing alien; and even if it were alien, that shouldn’t be able to stop you writing it well. Fiction is full of believable and compelling aliens with whom the reader can relate to and sympathise with; surely a human being of the opposite gender ought to be far easier to create. After all, the different genders probably have more in common with each other than a human being and, say, a highly evolved giant arachnid from Planet of the Slimey Spider-People. So, the first thing to get over is the idea that you are writing about something weird and otherly. You are a person, writing about a person. It should be easy; life is full of people.

Think about how you would go about creating a character of your own gender. Assuming you’re a remotely skilled writer, they’re probably all fairly unique, right? They will all have things they like, things they don’t like, things they dream about, things they dread, nervous ticks, bad habits, a sense of style, a range of hobbies, an occupation, a personality type and everything else that goes into the complex soup of humanity. I bet it doesn’t even occur to you to write a character of your own gender according to gender stereotypes. Why should writing about the opposite gender be any different? Whatever your character’s gender may be, they are a unique person, so give them unique qualities. At this stage, don’t even think about gender stereotypes. Simply create your character – regardless of gender – to suit the role you need them to play. Give them depth, give them personality and give them something unique, just like you would for a character of your own gender.

Having said that, it is important to remember that gender identity is an important part of who your character is. It will affect both how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others, so I would advise against simply tossing a coin when it comes to picking a gender. While gender stereotypes are not particularly useful for creating a strong character (since they are at best unrealistic), they do exist in society and this ought to be reflected in your story. Your character may have (to some extent) assimilated to suit what their society expects of them; on the other hand, they might defy social expectations. For example, in the pilot episode of Star Trek (‘The Cage’; a must watch for any serious trekkie), there is strong and highly intelligent female character called Number One, who serves on the bridge alongside the captain; something which disturbs the captain’s sensibilities.

Captain Pike: She (another female officer) does a good job. I just can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge.
Number One:*offended glare*
Captain Pike: No offence, Lieutenant. You’re different, of course.

Star Trek, unaired pilot episode, ‘The Cage’, parenthesis mine.

What we see here are two characters: one is a female character who defies the period’s stereotypes about what women can and should be doing (and thus is a strong and believable character in her own right) and the other is a man who reminds us that those stereotypes do exist, no matter how ridiculous they may be. Number One might well be an intelligent and capable woman, but she lives in a world that does not expect her to be intelligent or capable on account of her gender. This affects how she interacts with others, how others interact with her and probably how she sees herself as well. Captain Pike sees her as ‘different’ from other women, when in reality she is simply different from how Captain Pike imagines all women to be. It is important, therefore, to know what stereotypes, prejudices, customs and social status are associated with gender in your fictional world and to what extent your character fits these stereotypes.

Depending on your setting and the role of your character, this can have a drastic impact on your story. For example, if you were setting your story in ancient Rome, a female character would generally have very low social status – unless they were a Vestal Virgin of course, in which case they are much more highly honoured in general terms. This applies to all genders, regardless of what the particular social status of that gender may be. For example, if your fictional world is a matriarchy, all of your characters, male and female alike, will be just as profoundly affected by it (whether for good or for ill) as they would be if they lived in a patriarchy or any other kind of society you care to mention.

The important thing to remember is that all characters are people. No matter what their gender, their age, their height, their weight, their social class, their race, their sexual orientation, their religion or anything else, all characters are people. Like all people, therefore, they must read like unique individuals who are affected by their common surroundings (which could mean they assimilate to suit their surroundings or they might rebel against them). Regardless of their gender, you won’t have created a good character until he or she looks, sounds, thinks and feels like a real person.