Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Boiling A Frog

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 25, 2015

With notable exceptions, just about any story that hopes to produce a powerful impact must build to a climax that strains everyday credulity. An astronaut makes it back safely from Mars, a seventy-year-old male intern saves a hip young female CEO, an outcast high school girl named Carrie immolates her tormenters with her telekinetic powers.

Sean Young as a replicant in "Blade Runner." Do we buy in or not?

Sean Young as a replicant in “Blade Runner.” Do we buy in or not?

But how do you, the writer, get there?

How do you take your readers to that thermonuclear climax without overtaxing their willing suspension of disbelief?

We talked about one way a few weeks ago in a post called “Truth Truth Truth Fiction.” Here are two others.

  1. The Frog in Boiling Water method.

In this technique, we escalate the pushing of the envelope so gradually and by such subtle increments that the reader either doesn’t realize what’s happening or does realize but, moment by moment, agrees to go along.

Just for fun, let’s make up an example out of thin air …

Chapter One: A nice young family moves into a house in the suburbs of Boston.

“Okay,” says the reader, “I believe that.” (Why not? There’s nothing yet that remotely strains credulity.)

In Chapter Two, every event remains equally plausible—the leaves on the sugar maples turning color, trick-or-treaters making their rounds on Halloween, the mulling of cider, the bobbing for apples. Except for one moment, as the young parents are carving a Jack-o’-lantern, when their four-year-old daughter thinks she hears a tiny voice cry out, “Ouch!” from the pumpkin. Mom and Dad calm their child, dismissing their daughter’s fright as the product of a little girl’s overactive imagination.

The reader thinks, “Okay, I’m not sure where this is going … but I’ll buy in, at least for this chapter.”

From Chapter Three onward, each scene and sequence asks the reader to accept a reality that is getting a teeny bit scarier and a smidgen more Stephen King-esque. The reader is the frog in the pot. With each chapter the temperature of the water rises oh-so-imperceptibly, until …

By the time we hit Chapter Twenty-Two, you the writer can have the earth cracking open and Satan shaking hands with Santa Claus and the reader will accept it.

That’s the Boiling A Frog Method.

  1. The Throw the Reader into the Deep End Without Ceremony and Without Warning method.

From the first sentence or first frame of film, you the writer deliver such an outrageous mind-bending premise that you confront the reader with the choice of buy in or drop out.

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

“Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase—a being virtually identical to a human—known as a Replicant.”

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … “

This technique forces the reader to make a decision in the first five seconds of exposure to the premise. Is she on the bus or off? Of course the reader wants to be on. That’s why she bought the book or went to the movie.

She says to herself, “Okay, the guy wakes up as a cockroach … I accept that.”

You, the writer, are off to the races.

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

7 Responses to “Boiling A Frog”

  1. November 25, 2015 at 6:37 am

    “cracking open and Satan shaking hands with Santa Claus…”

    Dibs on that story idea!

    This was a great post. I find I try to give away too much in Act 1 and need to just spread out the information a bit more! Thanks, Steve.

  2. Mary Doyle
    November 25, 2015 at 7:20 am

    This post is a good reminder to me that I need to dole out information gradually. I definitely fall into the “boil a frog” camp. Thanks!

  3. November 25, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Sometimes it seems like the water can be brought to a boil rather quickly – I’m thinking of the book “Life fo Pi.” Or maybe that was kind of a “truth truth truth fiction” approach? In retrospect the whole scenario seems preposterous, but in any given scene it seems like only one thing more is incredible.

  4. November 25, 2015 at 11:00 am

    In all these cases, it’s not just the method, but the execution thereof. We can imagine an opening sequence (in case two) where the reader or viewer does not buy in because the opening either does not challenge or does not resonate. In the examples cited, the premise does one or both. Similarly, in method one, the increment itself has to be just right or the reader or viewer will notice the temperature being raised and jump out. So how is as important as what. Or vice versa.

    Thanks, Steve.

  5. Marvin Waschke
    November 25, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    I have to think there is yet another method for convincing readers to believe the impossible.

    The author can build a situation where the reader is so sympathetic to a protagonist, or hates an antagonist so intensely that the reader profoundly hopes that the protagonist or antagonist can perform a supernormal feat or be saved in a supernormal way.

    Vin Diesel jumping a car between buildings brought this to mind. I haven’t seen the movie, but I can easily imagine a reader who is delighted to see a mortal hero’s mastery over automobiles extended to perform an otherwise impossible feat. The reader believes in the feat because he wants so badly for the mighty Vin to prevail.

  6. Patrick Maher
    November 25, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    Don’t know why this occurred to me here – but it plays on the edges of brain plasticity and seemed to demand an airing – I think in response to left brain – right brain thinking.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/

  7. TJ
    November 26, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    My recent favorite opening comes from Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves”: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”