Thursday, January 29, 2015


Why the suspense?


            In Part One of this tale, the reader was left stranded in the night with three young campers in the cab of an old, broken-down pickup truck, which is stalled precariously on the edge of a deep mountain ravine.  Sniffing around outside the truck is a large creature of some kind that cannot be determined in the thick darkness of the moonless night.  While the campers have firearms back in the open bed of the pickup, they have no guns with them in the cab where they cower, hiding from the dark creature.
            Of course, the tale doesn’t end there.  The story is just getting started.  The scene has been set and hopefully the reader’s expectations have been prepared for a journey with these young campers into the unknown.  The reader knows the best part of the story is yet to come.  The campers must conquer or be conquered.  It is the expectation that the campers will find a way to conquer that keeps the reader reading.  The reader should now be gladly on board and excited for the ride--hungry for the rest of the story.  Oh, the beauty of suspense!
            Suspense is like an unsatisfied hunger that keeps the reader reading until the end of the story, where the hunger will be satisfied.  In the best stories, where the reader identifies with the main character, the reader relishes both the hunger, while it lasts, as well as the eventual satisfaction of that hunger at the end of the story.  And, sweet is the satisfaction of a hard-fought winning battle and a tale well ended.  After carefully building suspense, be sure to resolve it thoroughly.  A cardinal rule of storytelling is:  Do not gloss over the ending!
            Especially in young-adult literature, when the reader has bonded with the protagonist, the young reader will expect that no matter how great the odds against success, the protagonist will find a way to succeed.  Of course, the protagonist must win by pluck, not luck, and even a twist ending must not be a random win.
            A decision to resolve the suspense of the central plot with the protagonist’s ultimate failure is not satisfying to younger readers, and it is a sure strategy for permanently driving such readers away.  While frustration and failure are an important part of act two, the reader is looking for success by the end of act three.  A young reader wants to be immersed in a world of new beginnings and exciting transitions, a world where anything is possible and hope is a guiding star.  A world of despair, overwhelmed by failed dreams and missed opportunities, is for an older, more jaded audience—and it has few fans even there.
            Literary suspense is the result of proper plot development, and a writer has many tools to use in developing a storyline that will capture the reader’s imagination and carry her along towards an anticipated salvation or destruction.  Tools like point of view can put the reader in a character’s mind, building an empathetic bond.  Repetition of seemingly innocent facts can build tension.  Foreshadowing creates curiosity, and the list goes on.  Make the reader hungry for more information, and then slowly, carefully feed and starve the reader as the tale unfolds.
            In our current tale of three hapless campers, facing a live predator, we want to know literally who will feed and who will starve?

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            “Man, that thing is big!”  Jay pointed out in a hoarse whisper.
            All three of us were now peeking carefully over the dashboard at the big, black shadow in the night, sniffing around the dying red embers of our bonfire.
            “Hugh, do you still have some firecrackers in your pocket?” I asked quietly.
            “Yes,” he said, nodding his head in the dark.
            “Open your side-vent window and drop a lighted firecracker out there.”
View of Panamint Mountains
as seen from the Slate Range
            Without a word, Jay fished out his box of matches.  He and Hugh had been lighting firecrackers all day and had the process down to a science.  Hugh held a firecracker down close to the floor, trying to minimize the glow of the burning match that would be seen from outside.  When Jay had lit the fuse, Hugh slipped it through the window vent, dropping it to the ground.
            All the while, I was watching the prowling, black pillar of darkness in front of the truck.  As soon as Jay had struck the match, the thing turned to stare back at the truck, seeming to stare directly at me in the cab.  A couple seconds later, the firecracker sounded with a bright flash and a satisfyingly loud bang that echoed off the mountain.
            Instantly, the black shadow sprang away from the truck and disappeared into the night, bounding up the trail into the mountains.  After listening to silence for a minute, I said, “Throw a few more firecrackers out there to make sure that thing is not sneaking back towards the truck.”
            Immediately, Hugh and Jay went to work tossing a series of lighted firecrackers out the side-vent window.  Again, the bright flashes and loud bangs were satisfying.
            Bravely rolling down my window about a foot, I stuck my hand out with the flashlight.  Clicking it on, I shined the light up the trail in the direction the shadow had run, and then down along both sides as far as my light would reach in each direction, looking for any movement or for a pair of light-reflecting eyes watching my flashlight.
            Seeing nothing and feeling bolder, I quickly stepped out my door, and reaching into the back of the truck, I handed rifles and ammo into the cab to Jay and Hugh before jumping back in to shut my door and roll up my window.  Once we had all loaded our guns, I had Hugh reach out his window, shining his light up the trail again and from side to side.
            Finally, I stepped out my door and began shooting up the trail into the darkness.  I wanted that black shadow to know we were not toothless, and as I listened to the ping of the bullets that ricocheted off the rocks up the mountainside, I hoped the creature was getting the message.
            It wasn’t long before we heard the coyotes start up yelping and howling again.  Apparently, they were no longer nervous, but we were.  We decided to stay close to the truck during the night.  Jay chose to sleep in the cab with the windows rolled down just a crack.  Hugh and I spread out our sleeping bags in the back bed of the truck, but we did more tossing and turning than sleeping.  Thinking it couldn’t hurt; we periodically tossed out a lighted firecracker.  If we heard a noise nearby, one of us would sit up to shoot into the darkness.
            During the night, Hugh and I decided that the big black shadow must have been a mountain lion, but it was the biggest mountain lion we had ever seen.
            It was a long, miserable night, but it gave me time to think.  With the first light of dawn, I gathered up the random tools that Jay’s dad had left lying around in the back of the truck.  Before long, I had the dashboard off so I could look down behind the cab’s console panel.  There it was—a foot-long piece of melted wire that had shorted out against the truck’s interior frame.
            Next, I went to work removing one of the rear taillights, where I cut out a length of heavy-duty wire long enough to replace the fried piece of wire behind the console.  After twisting the replacement wire into place, I turned the ignition key.  With the first try, the truck started right up!  Everything worked now, except the rear taillight of course.
Available Housing
A Fixer-Upper
            Just an hour earlier, we had been racking our brains trying to figure out how to get home, or at least how to signal for help, but suddenly none of that mattered any more.  We had survived the first night.  The danger had passed, and we were only the second day into our weeklong camping trip.  Nobody was interested in going home at this point—there were still too many unexplored canyons ahead of us.  Who knew what we might yet discover.
           We were ready for the adventure to continue, and it did.  We didn’t see any more large shadow creatures, and the truck didn’t break down again, but we had great adventures throughout the week with all kinds of interesting findings and happenings, but that’s a longer story for another day.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Why the suspense?


            School was out!  Summer vacation had come at last.  My younger brother, Hugh, and I itched for adventure, and we recruited Jay Bell to borrow his dad’s old pickup truck and come with us.  We could drive hundreds of miles in almost any direction out of Trona, California, and not cross a paved road, much less meet another human being.  This time we decided to explore the Panamint and Argus Mountain Ranges and told our parents we would be camping for a week.
Looking North from Trona
Panamint Mountains in the distance
From Searles Valley to Panamint Valley to Death Valley, the terrain is rugged with mountain trails climbing thousands of feet above sea level into regions of permanent snow and valley trails dropping hundreds of feet below sea level into arid desert that rarely sees a drop of rain.  Roads and trails were often washed out, overgrown with sage brush, and barely usable.  But, they were the only way to get to the old mining sites and ghost towns.  Not all the old sites showed up on our maps, and we were always excited to stumble across a new find.
            The morning of our departure, packing was quick and easy--we threw all the big stuff into the truck’s open bed behind the cab.  This wasn’t our first time camping, and we packed our usual:  lots of easy foods, like Hostess fruit pies, nuts and jerky, a couple ten-gallon water jugs, a shovel and ax, our sheath knives, firecrackers and matches, guns with lots of ammo, sleeping bags, and TP.  Sun-protection gear for the day and cold-weather clothes for the night were essential.  In early June, mornings in the Mojave Desert heat up fast after the sun comes up, but nights get cold quickly once the sun goes down.
We always tossed in lots of extra batteries for our flashlights, hoping to spend as much time as possible exploring old, abandoned mines that we found along the way.  We also brought along a backup can of gasoline in addition to topping off the gas tank.  In the 1960s gas was cheap, but we had to make our gas last all week.  And, of course, this was B.C. (before cellular phones).  It was normal for us to be out of touch with our parents until we got back.  We were always camping, and they figured we knew what we were doing.  We didn’t think to tell them where we were going--and they didn’t ask.  Mom just waved and said, “Don’t get hurt.”
            The first day out, we drove north into the mountains, getting as far away from civilization as possible.  Though the desert seems desolate on the surface, we saw lots of wildlife.  Vultures, hawks and eagles filled the sky.  Besides the ever present scorpions, tarantulas and snakes, ground squirrels and jackrabbits bolted from clumps of scrub as we passed, and a scraggly coyote appeared in the distance, watching us warily.  We knew mountain lions prowled the high country, but they were usually too smart to show themselves.  The sky was clear; the air was fresh and clean; life was good; and we didn’t have a care in the world.  This was our kingdom, and we were the unchallenged rulers.
            After a long day exploring unfamiliar roads and trails, we realized the sun had disappeared over the mountain tops.  Night was imminent, and in the fast-dying daylight, we needed to pick a campsite safe from wildlife and weather before darkness engulfed us.  As we drove up a deep mountain ravine, just coming up onto the embankment, loud popping noises suddenly rang out under the dashboard.  The cab filled with smoke.  The dashboard lights blinked out and the engine died.  Turning the key off, I put the truck in park, and tried to restart the engine.  Nothing happened--nothing at all.  The starter didn’t even click.  The truck’s electrical systems were totally dead.
            Silently, we sat in the deepening gloom, surrounded by acrid smoke from the electrical flash fire.  Winding down the window to air out the cab, Hugh leaned out to look behind us.  “I don’t think this is a very good place to park.”
            The truck perched perilously on the edge of the ravine and straddled a well-used wildlife trail—the one we had followed up out of the wash.
            Looking back and forth from Hugh to me, Jay asked, “Did anyone think to tell our parents where we were going?”
            When Hugh didn’t answer, I said, “No, but it doesn’t matter since we told them we were camping for a week.  No one will think to worry about us until we’ve been gone for more than a week.”
            Hugh leaned back and closed his eyes.  “It will take a week to hike back to that last paved road we crossed.”  He let out a long, weary sigh.
            Jay nodded.  “And another week, if we’re lucky, before anyone drives by.”
            “And,” I added, “unless we figure out how to carry one of those big water jugs, all our water will be back here with the truck.  I didn’t see any signs of wet springs along the way.”
            With daylight almost gone, we decided to get out and look around while we could still see.  Things didn’t look good.  A wide web of small gullies fed down from above into the large ravine, on the edge of which our truck was precariously stalled.  If it rained higher up in the mountains, we could lose our truck in a flash flood.  Also, all the wildlife trails coming down the mountain merged into the wide path going under our truck and on down the deep ravine.
            Our truck had become a road block for any local critters passing through in the night.  The mountain grade was too steep for us to push the truck up the hill off the trail and away from the ravine.  Rolling the truck back down the hill would put it deeper in the ravine and in greater danger from flashfloods.  Like it or not, our truck had to stay stuck right where it was.
            Once the deep blackness of a moonless night was upon us, we hauled out the flashlights.  Scouring the area, we piled what dry sticks and dead brush we could find on the trail several yards up the slope in front of the truck.  As Hugh got a fire burning, we heard the yelping and howling of a coyote pack in one of the higher gullies.  We hadn’t brought firewood with us, and there wasn’t much dead wood in the area.  Our small bonfire wouldn’t last long.  Without a fire, the coyotes would soon be down to see who was trespassing in their territory.
            Suddenly, we heard the sound of larger rocks cascading down the side of the ravine not far downhill behind the truck.  Something big was climbing up the wildlife trail toward the truck, and it was making a lot of noise as if it didn’t care who knew it was coming.  Quickly, we climbed back into the cab, rolling up windows, locking doors, turning out flashlights, and slumping down in our seats--as if it wouldn’t be able to see us, if we couldn’t see it.
Checking around, I realized all the guns were back in the open truck bed, not in the cab with us.  Outside, everything had gone quiet.  Even the coyotes had stopped howling.  After holding my breath for an eternity, I slowly lifted my head to peek out the driver’s side window, just in time to see a dark shadow on four legs glide out of sight around to the front of the truck.  Lifting my head slightly higher to look forward through the windshield, I saw our bonfire had died down to glowing embers, blowing in the gentle wind.
As I watched, the dark shadow slid out slowly away from the truck toward the bonfire, blocking my view of the embers, but still not revealing any detail of what it was.  If only I could turn on the truck’s headlights to see what was out there!  For a second, I considered shining my flashlight through the window, but knew if I turned on my flashlight in the cab, the windows would reflect light back at me, and whatever was out there would see us all sitting in the cab.
We should have prepared for predators, I thought, but it’s too late now.  We’re sitting ducks, unarmed and trapped!

<>  To be continued !  <>