Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Imagine a woman sitting on her porch, reading a letter. Across a bed of bright petunias, she is being watched, but we do not see the watcher.
Who is this woman? Who wrote the letter, and what is in it? How does she react to its contents? Does she smile, laugh, sigh, weep, shake her head, nod, shrug?
Who is watching her? A man? A woman? Why is he or she watching the woman? Is the watcher a police detective? A mobster? A stalker? A secret protector? Does he or she mean the woman harm or good?
The answers to these questions (which will suggest additional questions) depends on the genre of the story that one is writing. Is it an action-adventure story? A detective or mystery story? Espionage? Fantasy? Romance? Science fiction? Western?
If it’s a horror story, the watcher could be either a predator or a protector. If a predator, it could be an alien (extraterrestrial), an animal, a demon, a ghost, a madman, a vampire, a werewolf, a witch, a zombie, or some other kind of monster, human or otherwise. Depending upon what kind of menace the watcher is, he, she (or it) may or many not respond to the woman’s reading of the letter and to her reaction to its contents.
Were I developing a plot about such a situation, I would opt to make the threat a human one or an intelligent entity, at least, because such an antagonist could respond to the situation, including the woman’s reaction to the letter, and if she is going to be described as reading and reacting to a letter, it would be seem desirable to the make the most of the emotional and dramatic potential of such a scene. Otherwise, why have her read a letter at all? She could just as easily be watched while she waters the flowers, takes a walk, or does any of a hundred other things. Therefore, my watcher must be one of the following: an alien, a demon, a madman, a vampire, or a witch (or, possibly, a ghost). Eliminated would be the animal, the werewolf, the zombie and any type of subhuman monster.
If, on the other hand, the watcher was the woman’s secret protector (secret because, if she know of him, he wouldn’t have to observe her from hiding), he (or she) would have to have a motive that seems feasible to readers. His or her role may or may not be related to the monstrous antagonist. If it is related, perhaps the protective character is a government agent, a demon hunter, a psychiatrist, a vampire slayer, a clergyman, or a ghost hunter or psychic. Obviously, if such were the case, this character would be present to protect the woman from the monster. Perhaps the protector’s awareness that the woman is due to receive a letter from a particular correspondent is the reason that he or she is watching the woman. Maybe the protector wants to see how the woman reacts to the letter’s contents (which, of course, implies that he or she is him- or herself aware of these contents).
The letter’s contents could be the device that links the three characters: the woman, the protector, and the antagonist. Does it announce the protector’s mission (to protect the woman) from a threatening entity (the antagonist)? Does it explain the true situation of which the woman is to play an integral part, a fact of which, until her reading of the letter, she has been unaware? Does the letter warn the woman of the monster that threatens her or will begin to threaten her, if it has not done so before? Could the woman be subject to a post-hypnotic command expressed in the letter she reads?
Why does the antagonist want to abduct or kill the woman? What is the antagonist’s motive for doing so? Is the villain acting alone or as part of a group?
The woman’s role in the situation must not be forgotten. In fact, it is likely that either she or the protective character is the story’s protagonist (unless there is no monster and the watcher is him- or herself the narrative’s antagonist). Was she expecting the letter she now reads or did it come to her out of the blue, as it were? Is the letter from a friend, a family member, an acquaintance, or a stranger? What does the letter say? Why does she react to its contents in the way that she does? Is her reaction appropriate or inappropriate to the news, and why? What else does the reader need to know about her? Is she single? Married? Separated? Divorced? Widowed? Does she work? Is she between jobs (“redundant,” as the British say)? Is she retired or independently wealthy? What predicament is she in? (She must be in some sort of predicament, of course, either now or very soon, for, as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren point out in Understanding Fiction, “no conflict, no story.”)
Of course, the basic situation with which we started--that of a woman’s sitting on her porch, reading a letter while, across a bed of bright petunias, she is being watched by an unseen watcher--could be developed in several ways besides the one I set forth as an example, and the story would, as a result, develop differently in each case, but, by linking the woman, the antagonist, and the watchful protector through the letter, we attain coherence among the characters, which establishes both a sense of narrative logic and believability, or a sense of verisimilitude, as writers and critics--mostly critics--are fond of saying.