Alfred Hitchcock was once asked how long a couple could reasonably be seen on a movie screen, kissing on a bed.
He replied: “As long as you want – as long as there’s a bomb under the bed.”
Portly, upper-crust curmudgeon he may have been – but he knew about story telling didn’t he? Whatever kind of fiction you are writing it’s a very important thing I’d say, that bomb under the bed.
When I think of the better writing I’ve done, the stories which work well, it’s not usually the style of the writing, the quality of the jokes, or whatever, which sets them apart – it’s something else – it’s the presence of dramatic tension – the bomb under the bed.
If you don’t have that tension in a story you are writing then the words, pretty as they might be, can lack focus.
When I’m writing fiction now I sometimes stop and ask myself where it is, that sense of jeopardy – that bomb. The form it takes varies widely depending on what you are writing of course, but in some form it’s a must.
I’m a big believer in just getting on with it when you write fiction – then improving things incrementally in the rewrites – like having a lump of clay, then sculpting it into something recognisable. But I find it helps if you have certain basic principles in mind before you start.
Recently I came across the video I’ve linked here – where the great and sadly departed novelist Kurt Vonnegut gives his recipe for great story writing. Early in his career Vonnegut made a living from writing short stories, at a time and in a place where it was possible to do such an exotic sounding thing. I found his advice on tackling the short story fascinating.