A universal formula for the perfect story doesn’t exist. If it did, we’d all be billionaires with a library full of bestsellers apiece—or, perhaps, no one would. But there are critical elements that we must include to give our stories what they need. J. B. Manas’s post a few weeks ago broke several successful thrillers down into three key ingredients. Robert Mangeot’s blog this week continues the conversation on story mechanics with an ambitious single-engine approach.
Some would call it a bold claim, condensing millennia of storytelling power and purpose into a single word. Seriously, one lousy word for why some stories get retold around the campfire and on the page while others… well, not so much? Yes, only the too-bold would go bumper sticker on so rich a history, which is why I’m too-boldly saying the word rhymes with conch.
As in honking. A Big Honking Moment, separating the great and memorable stories from the merely good.
Hang on a second. I don’t mean a story must end in a shoot-out or go purple with melodrama. In fact, the best BHMs may be understated, even fleeting. I mean a pitch-perfect moment, where the lens flips inward and something is lost or gained, and every element that came before gels into a wallop of truth.
Here’s a test: read start-to-finish a few stories by acknowledged masters. Somewhere at or near the end of each piece, I promise, will be a resonant burst the author has driven us toward. With Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”, it is Holmes asking for a photo of Irene Adler, knowing she has bested him. In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the insane narrator’s dementia finally hounds him into revealing the corpse. Other BHMs might be uplifting, bleak, funny, lyrical, brutal. A whiplash twist or the doom we’ve seen coming from Jump Street.
Which should not confuse a story’s BHM with its climax. Smarter people than I—say, those that don’t use big and honking as terms of literary analysis—define a climax as the height of action. Action, as in when the struggle against external forces is most intense. Our heroine or hero will win or lose that struggle, and from thence comes the internal. Consequences. Knowledge. Newfound strength or sudden regret. If the climax is the height of action, the BHM that follows is the height of resonance.
Take Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. To oversimplify genius, it is the story of an unlikeable grandmother who manipulates a family road trip into the one she prefers. Her conflicting duplicity and jumbled sense of personal goodness leads to a really unfortunate decision of country lane and a life-but-mostly-death situation. The slam-bang climax, 22 of 23 pages in, is the grandmother’s murder. The BHM slithers into the last few paragraphs, where her killer, the Misfit, then holds forth on life. Without O’Connor grounding things there, her painstaking build-up floats away disconnected, and the murder loses its intended point about morality and moral codes. Too smart for that, O’Connor constructed a moment so honking that it crackles sixty years after first publication.
If a BHM makes or breaks a memorable story, how does one honk up a manuscript? A few lessons learned the hard way:
1. Be intentional.
I’ve come to think of short stories as ending delivery mechanisms. A BHM at the close turns a solid piece into a fiction cruise missile armed with a major warhead. Simply being conscious of a BHM’s potential in the planning stages makes finding one more likely.
2. More is not more.
If one BHM makes a great story, then two or three must be awesomeness itself, right? Wrong. A story has its natural lifts, but only one of them can be the highest. That’s the one to focus on; too much honking risks imbalance and over-emotional noise.
3. Stop the clock.
The BHM marks when the main conflict and character shifts are over. There may be further events to resolve or consolidate things, but after the BHM, a story is all about the finish.
4. Thread it through.
BHMs may arrive by inspiration, but ultimately they are built through sentence-by-sentence lead-up, from the opening passage. The BHM ties up every narrative and character thread that came before into a unified whole. It’s not too bold to guess any loose threads are darlings, and like any darlings, they need to meet your Inner Misfit.
So, if you’re interested in pumping up your storytelling, do what the best storytellers have done for millennia: honk. Bring us a big and honking moment of truth. Make it anything from the subtlest whisper to the hardest hammer blow, anything that delivers the relatable jolt we other folks around the fire came to hear—and to hold onto.
Robert Mangeot lives in Nashville and is the current chapter Vice President for Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee. His short fiction appears in various anthologies and journals, including Lowestoft Chronicle, Murder Under the Oaks, Mysterical-E, and Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War. His work has won contests sponsored by the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild, On the Premises, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. His third story for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hits newsstands March 2016. Learn more about his writing and his wandering the snack food aisles. Find more of his work at www.robertmangeot.com.
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.)
And be sure to check out our new book, Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded, an anthology of original short stories by New York Times bestselling authors and newbies alike.
*Killer Nashville is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. If you purchase a book from the links on this page, Amazon will give Killer Nashville a small percentage of the total sale. Killer Nashville receives zero compensation (other than sometimes the book to review) from publishers who have been selected for the Book of the Day.