Haven’t read Prompt 20: Dead of the Night yet? There you go.
I don’t know about you lovely people, but, for me, getting to number 20 in this project is an accomplishment in itself. I used to have many ideas and wanted to do so many things but never followed through. Sometimes I started something and lose touch with it one or two weeks in.
On 501 Prompts, I’m working since late September 2019. I’m pretty sure I stick with the project because I really enjoy writing these stories and feel like I’m improving a lot because of it. And you stopping by, reading what I’m doing, leaving your feedback, that’s the cherry on top. In case you’ve missed it, a friend took up my first prompt and run with it for his story. That’s just a whole nother ice-cream sundae for me to enjoy.
Naturally, I wanted Prompt 20 to be something special. And, of course, that expectation made the process near impossible for me to handle.
I decided to take up an exercise from a creative writing class on Skillshare for the prompt. It’s a class on how to create tension and suspense in your stories. I’ve never consciously thought about these aspects, and it was exciting to learn more about it and try it out myself.
The exercise pretty much gave the entire setup for the story. A person is waking up in the middle of the night without knowing why. A strange sound comes from downstairs. They find a phone in the kitchen that isn’t theirs. From there, I had to decide how to continue. The specific task was to continue this pattern of giving an answer that, in turn, leads to another bigger question.
My specific difficulty was that I couldn’t decide which direction to go with it. One idea leaned towards a crime thriller-like story. Another to a more absurd comedic approach. Neither of those felt like the right fit for me.
I don’t read crime stories because I have a very gentle soul, and somehow these things startle me too much. I was afraid of overloading the challenge on this prompt and wanted to go with a more familiar genre. So I settled for a vague horror concept. Yes, I wrote these sentences in that order. You’ve read it right.
I kept thinking and thinking. As a result, I ended up stuck in my own head and made a mess of my whole schedule. By Sunday, I usually want to have the story written and edited for posting it on Tuesday. This time around, I hadn’t even started the first draft. Overthinking is the enemy, I can tell you that much.
Sunday night, I had to force myself to sit down and write that thing finally. The first draft was one of the most painful and horrible ones I have done in a while. Also, it had no ending at that point. I had to make an extra shift while editing to finish the story.
So, let’s take a closer look at the structure and the ideas behind it.
As I already mentioned, the exercise wanted me to construct a question the answer to which would lead to another question. Something like that:
What is that noise? It’s a phone but whose is it?
So my thinking went something like this:
It’s their missing partner’s phone, but how did it get there?
She’s back, but where has she been?
She was murdered by her partner.
It’s about keeping the reader’s attention to what’s happening. Bit by bit, you feed your story to them, and only by the end, they know the bigger picture. I believe a good story doesn’t tell the whole picture and leaves room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
By doing so, you need to know where you want to end up. Consequently, my plan started with the last reveal: the narrator has killed their wife and gotten away with it.
But now she’s back. Is she a ghost? A zombie? Or just an imagination of the narrator’s repressed guilt? I left that unclear intentionally because, personally, I’m not too fond of it when a story feeds me too many details.
To make the concept work, I had to work with temporary blindness. The narrator knows what happened to their wife, but it would have been a whole different story if I let them lead with that information. I had to unravel it bit by bit slowly and only by the end it’s revealed that she was killed and the narrator is the murderer.
If you follow me on Twitter, you might have picked up that I don’t like how the story turned out. Maybe I could have done better with the setup and the concept, but I wanted to stay inside the framework I have set for these prompts. It was a good exercise that challenged me on different levels. So maybe it was just right for what I’m trying to accomplish with my prompts.
Have you spent some time thinking about tension in your stories? How do you approach that topic?
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