Structuring a Novel: Part 7: Ambush and the Whisper of Death

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Structuring the Novel. The Ambush

Lesson 7

Recap:  Within the first 15 pages, you have set the hook and stated the theme. Within the first 50 pages, you have established the plot and introduced the primary characters, complete with flaws. Between pages 36 and 50, you have provided the hero and the character with a life changing moment, which will change the direction of the novel. Between pages 50 and 75, the hero determines what needs to be done and makes the definite decision and commitment to accomplish it, regardless of the odds. Beginning on page 90, you begin the secondary story and the sub-plot, introducing your cast of offbeat characters necessary to carry the storyline forward. Between pages 90 and 170, you turn the characters loose, give them a lot of wonderful things to do and conflicts to over come, and let them build the backbone of the novel. 

Just when everything calms down, settles down, and peace once again blankets the conflict in your novel, hell begins to bubble, full of toil and trouble, and threatens to break loose again. The hero doesn’t get a breather this time. Between pages 170 and 225, the hero is backed into a dead-end corner, surrounded by all sorts of menacing, frightening, uneasy, and uncomfortable predicaments, facing the fight of his or her life. It’s time to ratchet up the suspense. If you think it was bad for the hero before, you haven’t seen anything yet.

By page 170, it appears as though the hero has everything under control. He has been able to successfully outsmart and outwit the bad guys. He no longer feels compelled to keep glancing over his shoulder. He can sleep well at night. But, when his back his turned and he’s most vulnerable, those cowardly villains rise from ruin, regroup, and begin getting ready to mount another deadly charge. He’s a goner for sure this time.

Then again, depending on which direction you have twisted the plot, there is a good chance that the bad guys have managed to outwit him. He’s lost the battle, and the war appears just as lost and hopeless. He’s been shot at, hit, wounded, beaten in court, thrown out of the hotel room by his true love, arrested on a trumped up charge of cheating on his income tax, stripped of her children as an unfit mother, contemplating prostitution because she is broke and hungry, kidnapped, and left stranded in the Mojave desert for dead.

The hero has been thoroughly whipped, then brought back and whipped again.

But if the hero is beaten, then he’s not your hero. So now the hero begins re-loading and saddling up for another wild and potentially deadly attack on the forces that have knocked him down but not out. It may be a legal thriller, so the lawyer keeps digging until she finds a missing piece of evidence hidden for the past twenty years. It may be a mystery, so the detective tracks down the one-eyed doorman who witnessed the murder, fled for his own life, changed his name, and dropped out of sight. It may be a romance, and the lady realizes that her lover left her because he fears he will be placed on trial for murder and doesn’t want her to find out. It’s her duty to follow a cold trail until she finds him and lets him to know that she will stand beside him in spite of the circumstances confronting him. It may be a political thriller, and the operative begins planning and executing his escape from a Russian gulag in a frantic effort to keep the President from being assassinated. He has to. He is being framed for the impending murder in high places.

Neither the plot nor the genre matter. The villainous forces have tightened their grip on the hero. He or she is being strangled and suffocated. The doorways are locked. The lights have gone dark. She won’t answer the phone. The judge won’t listen to reason. The Mafia have a bullet with his name on it. The secret police have set their ambush. The plane has lost an engine. The automobile is headed over a cliff. The hero has been abandoned.

Evil has the upper hand, and the hero is on his own, desperately trying to crawl out of the wreckage of his life. The bad guys are closing in. He hears their footsteps as they grow nearer. They have him in their crosshairs. There is no one to help him, at least no one he can find or trust. The hero must endure and prevail, whether the confrontation is one of fear or matters of the heart.

The hero has plunged into or freed himself from one catastrophe after another. Every time it seems as though he is doomed, he has fought back and been able to survive one more time But his chances are running out.

The hero is headed for another fall.

It will be worse this time.

The hero looks ahead and discovers that there is no easy road to travel. There’s only a hard road with a dead end. If the hero had clear sailing, the book would suddenly become too boring to read.

The hero thrives on conflict. The story is all about conflict. In reality, as you write, every scene, every passage of dialogue, every chapter has to be tormented with some measure of conflict, even if you only hint at the possibility of jealousy, fear, revenge, hate, lives being torn apart, or love that is being bent and broken.

By page 225, the hero is going down for the final time, and this time it’s obvious that he or she is not getting up. The hero is adrift in the midst of despair, anguish, and peril. The barbs of defeat are digging deep into his skin.

The world may look extremely black and bleak for the hero. His or her life may be in ruin, in shambles. All hope took the last train out of town. The hero is flat of his back with the pendulum of impending death sweeping back and forth across his or her chest. In fact, at this critical juncture, you must without fail introduce the faint hint, the faint threat, the faint whisper of death.

Add something. I don’t care what it is. It may or may not have anything to do with the story, the plot, or the situation that has bogged the hero in a quagmire from which there is little chance of escape.

You must give the reader, if no one else, that foreboding and chilling whisper of death, even if it is only symbolic. The hero glances across the room and notices a flower dying in a clay pot in the window sill. A gold fish is floating on top of the aquarium. A newspaper blows down the street. The hero picks it up and finds he is holding the obituary page. A hearse drives past, and the driver eyes the hero coldly as if to say, “You’re next.” In an effort to escape gunfire echoing in the alley, the hero turns down a back street at dusk, slips past an iron gate, and finds himself or herself in a decaying churchyard cemetery. Death is everywhere. The seed is planted in the readers’ minds. Now you have them exactly where you want them.

A change begins to take place in the hero. The old world is no longer important. A past way of thinking is something that he or she can shove aside and forget. The hero’s head clears. He or she sees clearly once more, no longer shaded by guilt or fear, heartbreak or despair. Deep inside, the hero is determined to fight back and come out a winner: Beat the villains. Solve the mystery. Get a verdict of guilty or not guilty, depending on which side of the courtroom he or she is sitting. Do whatever is necessary to win back a lost love or restore a lost life.

The dark storm clouds are still hanging low. But somewhere in the last streak of lightning, the hero saw a silver lining. Some how, some way, in some manner, the hero thinks: All will be right with the world. I just need one final chance to make it happen.

His fate and the fate of the novel depends on what the hero does with that one final chance.

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  • “A change begins to take place in the hero. The old world is no longer
    important. A past way of thinking is something that he or she can shove
    aside and forget. The hero’s head clears. He or she sees clearly once
    more…”

    A very clear view of the beginning of the home stretch. Nothing is working – so you may as well pull out all the stops and go for it.

    Even when you think your first (or nth) draft is finished, this is the place to ask the question, “Is this all there is?” of your story – and find that missing piece. Excellent summary of a place where many novels fail. It is a failure of nerve on the writer’s part.

    The solution? Go for broke. I hope.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Well said, Alicia. Go for broke it is.

      • Which is what I’m trying to do! Even though I have a rough draft, it is VERY rough right at this spot – where I happen to be hung up on a couple of large rocks in a raging torrent. Love whitewater rafting!

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