New Writing Technique: “The Rectal Thunderbolt”
One moment I slept restfully.
The next moment, I about peed the bed.
Last night, a rather, mmm, let’s go with obstreperous storm came tumbling through our airspace. It leveled a demonic slash of lightning at the skies, immediately followed by a booming blast that felt like a man formed of crackling electricity reached into my chest and punched my heart.
I lurched up.
My wife wasn’t in bed next to me. Had the lightning stolen her?
I didn’t know what had happened. Were we being attacked by lightning monsters? Thunderbeasts? Had the whole world gone to hell while I’d slept for — *checks the alarm clock* — less than two hours?
I was dizzy. I was dazed.
My wife, it turns out, had heard a few earlier thunderous expulsions and had gone to check on our one dog, the Belgian Shepherd. For some bizarre reason, when he reached the age of 10 he became a total pussy. Where once lightning and thunder did not concern him, now it freaks his shit out. If the bedroom door is open (and last night it was not due to our premature insertion of… the air conditioner, get your mind out of the gutter), this dog will wander up to your side of the bed and thrust his face into yours and simply pant. Then he’ll pace again. And lay down. And get up. And pace. And pant.
Meanwhile, our little taco terrier is downstairs sleeping the sleep of the peaceful dead.
So, the wife had gone to check on the dog, leaving me to awaken alone, confused, voiding my bladder all over our nice new sheets.
Afterward, I had time to think.
Because I was awake. Like, awake-awake. Wide, roving eyes scanning the darkness. Heart beating loud. Brain a nest of thought-bees.
And then it occurred to me, “Hey, sometimes that pants-shitting boom is a good thing.” Not good when you’re trying to get a restful sleep, no, but good when you’re writing a story.
Sometimes you need to drop the hammer. Sometimes you need to blow shit up. There comes a time in some manuscripts when you need to take one of Zeus’ thunderbolts and jam it up the reader’s ass.
In Empire Strikes Back, the whole third act is pretty much exactly this — Luke. What? Hand? Cut off! Vader, father? Han, taken? R2D2 and C3P0, lovers? (Wait. Maybe that last part is just in my slash-fic.)
In The Wire, well, shit, the second-to-last episode of the third season a major axe falls, and it was for me completely awful and awesome (aweful, awfulsome?) at the same time.
Allan Guthrie’s Slammer has not just one of these, but several jaw-dropping moments throughout.
Look at the Buffy episode, “The Body,” about Buffy’s Mom.
These moments are great. Why are they great? Readers are always trying to stay ahead of the writer. I don’t know that readers mean to do this, but they are. Readers are often quite experienced. They’ve seen the patterns before. They know the plots. They know how these things go. (Heck, if you’re like me, you watch a movie’s trailer and you start to piece the whole damn thing together without meaning to. I’m amazed at how often trailers give away critical pieces of story and plot.)
Ah, but you shove a lightning bolt in through the out door and — wham. You turn the story hard. You give it an about-face. You prove to the audience that you cannot be predicted, you cannot be contained.
The ability to surprise and disturb and delight in big ways can help you out as a storyteller.
Take the puzzle you’re putting together and break it apart suddenly, throwing all the pieces in the air, and damnit if you don’t have the reader’s attention right away.
Two ways to do this, I figure.
One, plan for it. This is the best way, obviously–you know straightaway that you’re building to this big boom, this jaw-dropping turnaround, and you write organically to that point.
Two, decide to do it on-the-fly. Yes, I pimp the notion of planning and outlining, and I’ll continue to do that until I pass out from exhaustion. But as I say, the conditions on the ground are sometimes different from the ones for which you plan, and you need to make a call with the intel you have. So there you are, writing your little story, and everything feels stale, stagnant, samey. Well, hell. Pause for a moment. Consider the ramifications of blowing it all up. What that means will be individual to each story (nuke ‘em from orbit! kill a main character! holy crap, they’ve been aliens this whole time!), but try it out. Swirl it around your mind-mouth, see how it hits your synaptic taste buds. It might work. It might feel right. It might be just the thing this story needs to shake up the reader and shake up your experience with the tale, too.
Obviously, this isn’t a One Size Fits All solution.
Further, you have to be careful with this. You do it too often, you’re Joss Whedon. And maybe your story doesn’t call for it. And if you make the wrong choice, suddenly the reader feels betrayed. You have to feel it out. Is this that kind of story? Can you get away with it? My wife’s the type who can feel betrayed if this goes the wrong way. That episode of The Wire I’m talking about? She wasn’t sure she wanted to keep on watching. She’s okay with it now, and me, I dug it. But you drop the hammer, you throw the thunderbolt, and you can make an enemy of the audience instead of a friend.
Still. It can be a good way to shake up a story. You might want to jostle the reader, keep him from sleeping, make him gasp and cry out and piss the bed.
Remember: the best storytellers are the ones you can’t trust.
When you’re looking the other way, they’re shoving a thunderbolt straight up your bunghole.