Adding Suspense Through Fine Tuning

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Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

 

Here, you’ll see a slight rearranging of who knows what, which makes you now see Doug in a slightly different light.

 


Chapter 8, “FINAL”

 

My wife had never been so happy to be leaving a winery.

Me, either.

Mallory arrived with the replacement van, and had already made arrangements to get us back into the hotel we had checked out of that same morning. It was now time to get a bite to eat, and to get some sleep before planning our next move. We were supposed to see more of Virginia wine country – but I wasn’t sure I wanted any more wineries or any more of Virginia.

I also didn’t want to ruin things for Mallory. She sat at the tiny table by the window, sifting through her brochures, but her mind seemed elsewhere.

She knew that if she even mentioned leaving to me, I’d pack up the van and start driving in the middle of the night.

“What a week we are having, huh?” I asked, attempting to lighten the mood. Sophie had drifted off the sleep watching cartoons. The only light in the room was the flicker from the TV. I picked up the remote and switched it to Sports Center. “Hey, how about some wine? I think we’ve earned it.”

“Pfft.” Mallory tossed her brochures into the center of the table and sat back in the chair, folding her arms. “I know we have.”

I could probably guess what was on her mind, but it was better for her to bring it out on her own schedule. She sighed, pushing back from the table and moving to the bed, undressing as she went.

“Okay, madam sommelier. What did we buy that’s any good?”

Mallory commenced to verbally scrolling through her purchases out loud, trying to decide on a proper vintage for an after dinner sleep inducer. I dug around for a clean t-shirt to sleep in.

“Anything but that!” Mallory whispered intensely, seeing the Hillside Winery shirt in my hands.

“Yeah…” I laid it aside and sat down next to her on the bed. “I guess I already have enough souvenirs from that place.” She was already under the sheets but a glass of wine would still sound good to her. Better than good. Necessary.

I took a deep breath. “Let’s open the champagne.”

“Champagne?” Her eyes widened. “What the hell are we celebrating?”

“We’re alive.” I found the bottle and started undoing the foil over the cork. “We are alive and healthy and safe. That is worth celebrating.”

“This trip as been a complete disaster.”

I picked up two plastic cups from the sink area and unpeeled them from their cellophane wrappers. They were better than nothing. Placing a hand towel over the champagne bottle, I liberated the cork with a muffled pop. “This trip has been a disaster, and we are alive to complain about it.” I handed her one of the thin, flimsy hotel cups. “That’s worth celebrating.”

We sipped our champagne, considering our different assessments of the situation, then we both spoke at once.

“You go first,” I said.

Mallory’s shoulders slumped and she rested the cup in her lap. “I’m ready to go home. I’ve had enough of this trip and I don’t see the next few days being any different.”

I was ready to agree, but held myself back. “We could do that. We could get up bright and early tomorrow and drive straight through to home. We’d be there by, say, 8pm at the latest.”

I took another sip. Mallory waited for the “or” that she knew was coming, and the alternate plan.

But I had no alternate plan to consider. “Honestly, I’m ready to get the hell out of Virginia.” I chuckled. “Screw this place!”

We laughed together, relieving the tension for a few minutes as we sipped expensive champagne from cheap plastic hotel cups.

“We still have the rest of the week off.” I sat on the back of the chair, being careful not to spill my wine. “We can goof off in the garden, maybe go to Sea World…”

“We have our annual passes to Busch Gardens…”

“And that would all be fine, you know? Sophie would love that. Heck, I’d enjoy that. So if you wanted to, we could go home and do that, but we could also stop and see a few more places—some of the special places that you’ve already mapped out—and maybe have the best of both worlds.” I sat down on the bed again. “You know, kind of salvage the trip? Only if you want to. Then head straight home.”

Mallory sighed, her eyes alight in the glow of ESPN highlights. Only the past few days of the trip had been bad. We’d gotten some rain, and Sophie was sniffling with what might turn into a head cold, but the big downer was the wreck at the winery. Losing the car and how afraid Mallory had been that her husband and child had been killed. Living with that very real fear, that heartfelt possibility, even for the few minutes, had changed her attitude for the whole trip.

“Well.” I watched the tiny bubbles lift off from the bottom of my glass and make a wobbly path to the surface where they popped silently. “I think years from now, the car wreck won’t be the part of this trip that we remember. People tend to remember the good things.”

I didn’t really believe that. People seemed more likely to look past small inconveniences, not a near death experience, but I hoped I was right.

Mallory bit her nails and stared at the TV, crossing and uncrossing her legs under the sheets. Maybe heading straight home was the best thing, the medicine she needed.

“I want to ask you something.” She turned to me. “Do you really believe were lucky today? Because I don’t see it!”

I rubbed my chin in the near dark, nodding. “I do. What happened today was tragic, it really was. We all got a good scare. But in the end, here we are, unhurt, whole, healthy . . .”

She folded her arms.

“I have to look at what did happen. When things happen around you and not actually to you, you have to believe that you’re lucky.” I leaned over to her, putting my face near hers and kissing her softly. “That truck nearly killed four people. I watched it all, like it was happening in slow motion.” I glanced at Sophie to make sure she was asleep. “That lady should have been killed. She is feeling horrible right now but she is lucky to be alive.”

I drew a deep breath. “Now, I’ve asked myself whether we were lucky or not. Here’s how I know we were.” I set my cup down. “Our daughter is never hungry. Never. It’s all we can do to get her to eat. So it surprised me when acted up in the winery today at lunch time. Maybe she was hungry, maybe she was bored and wanted attention, I don’t know. But as soon as we started making our way out to the van to have a picnic, she didn’t want to go.”

I leaned into my wife’s line of sight. “I know if we had gone out to the van like we planned, she and I would have been sitting between the two cars having a picnic. That’s what was in my mind, to sit on the cooler between the cars and watch DVDs through the open van door. That’s what I had planned. If we had gone when I wanted to go, that’s where we would have been when that old man got into his truck.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We would have been killed.”

It was not often that I would let myself be so dramatic. I let the words hang in the air for a moment, trying to decide how to explain what happened next.

“The reason we didn’t go out right away, the reason we aren’t in a hospital or a morgue right now, is because our sweet little princess over there threw a freaking tantrum. So I stopped to look at t-shirts and knickknacks, to distract her. It was only for a few minutes, but . . .”

Tears welled up in my wife’s eyes.

I swallowed hard. “Those few extra moments, that would have been about the amount of time I would have needed to get the cooler out of the car and set up shop. When that truck squealed its wheels, there never would have been enough time to get out of the way. In the hours that passed while we were waiting for you up in that meeting room, I had a chance to play it all back. There was nowhere to go. Look at that lady who was hit—she was facing the pickup truck and saw it coming. She still couldn’t get out of the way. Neither could her boyfriend.”

By now, I was reliving the moment in my mind, the words catching in my throat. “ I might have survived, but she . . .”

My voice grew thin, trailing off, thinking the unthinkable. I swallowed again and refocused, blinking tears out of my eyes. “And why weren’t we killed? Because our kid had to look at stupid t-shirts.” I wiped my nose. “The funny ones. She asked me what they said, so I read them to her. That was the difference between having our daughter alive right now and . . . not.”

Tears fell from my eyes as I strained to keep my voice even. “So, yeah, I believe we were pretty damned lucky today.”

Mallory closed her eyes and leaned her head back, shining streaks flowing down her cheeks. I didn’t usually feel as deeply about things as she did, but this was different. We sat for a moment, in the quiet hotel room, with only the flickering light of the TV to read each other’s faces.

“I wish I could see it that way.” Mallory sniffled. “But this isn’t the first time things like this have happened.”

“Don’t connect things that aren’t connected,” I said. “Don’t do that.”

“Things like this keep happening! What if they are connected?”

I stood up and walked toward the door. I felt a sudden urge to vent some restless energy.

Mallory aimed her words to my back. “There was the car fire last year where you guys were almost killed, and there was the whole NICU thing the year before. Now this, a maniac who almost kills you both in a parking lot. Doug, there’s something wrong about all of this!”

I opened my mouth to speak but had no words. My heart thumped in my chest. “Don’t—”

Mallory pounded the mattress, sobbing. “Am I supposed to sit here and believe that every year, some horrible thing happens that almost kills our daughter, but not worry about it? At the same time of year? Every year?” She flung her empty cup across the room. “Stop pretending this is all just a bunch of damned coincidences!”

 


Original Chapter 8, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

My wife had never been so happy to be leaving a winery.

 

Me, either.

 

Michele arrived with the replacement van, and had already made arrangements to get us back into the hotel we had checked out of that same morning. It was now time to get a bite to eat, and to get some sleep before planning our next move.

 

What had started out as a nice road trip for my niece’s wedding had evolved into a near tragedy for us, and a full-on tragedy for some others. Instead of spending several days relaxing and touring Virginia wineries, our trip now had the aura of tension and anxiety.

 

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see any more wineries. I was ready to head back home to Florida, but I didn’t want to ruin things for Michele.

 

Meanwhile, she was thinking the same thing. She knew that if she even mentioned leaving to me, I’d pack up the van and start driving in the middle of the night. So she held her powder while she tried to make up her own mind first.

 

“What a week we are having, huh?” I asked, attempting to lighten the mood. Savvy had drifted off the sleep watching cartoons. The only light in the room was the flicker from the TV. I picked up the remote and switched it to Sports Center.

 

“Hey, how about some wine?” I asked Michele. “I think we’ve earned it.”

 

“I know we have,” she replied.

 

“What do we have that’s any good?” I queried, knowing it would start her to talking. I needed to know what was on her mind. Her body language suggested something was, and I probably knew what. But it was better for her to bring it out on her own schedule.

 

While she scrolled through her purchases out loud, trying to decide on a proper vintage for an after dinner sleep inducer, I dug around for a clean t-shirt to sleep in.

 

“Anything but that!” Michele whispered intensely, seeing the Hillside Winery shirt in my hands.

 

“Yeah…” I laid it aside and sat down next to her on the bed. “I guess I already have enough souvenirs from that place.” She was already under the sheets but a glass of wine still sounded good to her.

 

Better than good. Necessary.

 

“Let’s open the champagne,” I offered, changing the subject.

 

“Champagne? Why?” Michele asked. “What are we celebrating?”

 

“We’re alive.” I said.

 

I found the bottle and started undoing the foil over the cork. “We are alive and healthy and safe. That is worth celebrating.”

 

“This trip as been a disaster,” replied Michele.

 

I went over to the sink area to find some plastic cups. It was better than nothing. There was a muffled pop as I liberated the champagne’s cork the bottle. Then I walked over to the bed.

 

“This trip has been a disaster, and we are alive to complain about it.” I handed her one of the thin, flimsy hotel cups. “That’s worth celebrating.”

 

We sipped our champagne, considering our different assessments of the situation. Then we both spoke at once.

 

“You go first,” I said.

 

Michele took a breath. “I’m ready to go home. I’ve had enough of this trip and I don’t see the next few days being any different.”

 

I was ready to agree, but held myself back. “We could do that,” I said, contemplating. “We could get up bright and early tomorrow and drive straight through to home. We’d be there by, say, 8pm at the latest.”

 

I took another sip. Michele waited for the “or” that she knew was coming, and the alternate plan.

 

“Honestly, I’m ready to get the hell out of Virginia!” I laughed. I had no alternate plan to consider. “Screw this place!”

 

We laughed together, relieving the tension for a few minutes as we sipped from our plastic cups.

 

“We still have the rest of the week off,” I remembered. “We can goof off in the garden, maybe go to Sea World…”

 

“We have our passes,” Michele chimed in quietly. “We could go to Busch Gardens…”

 

“And that would all be fine, you know?” I mused. “I would enjoy that just fine. So if you wanted to, we could go home and do that, but we could also stop and see a few more places – some of the special places that you’ve already mapped out – and maybe have the best of both worlds.”

 

I sat down on the bed again. “You know, kind of salvage the trip – only if you want to – and then head straight home.”

 

Michele sat in bed, thinking. The trip had been disaster, but only the past few days. There had been some rain and Savvy might be catching a cold, but the big downer was the wreck at the winery and how afraid she had been that her husband and baby had been killed. Living with that very real fear, that heartfelt possibility, even for the few minutes, had changed her attitude for the whole trip.

 

“I think,” I went on, “that years from now, the car wreck won’t be the part of this trip that we remember. People tend to remember the good things.”

 

I let her mull that over for a moment, for her benefit as well as my own.

 

Neither of us really believed it, but we both hoped I was right.

 

I saw the look on Michele’s face. She was stressed. Maybe heading straight home was the best thing, the medicine she needed.

 

She turned to me. “I want to ask you something.”

 

“Do you really believe were lucky today? Because I don’t see it!”

 

I was a little taken aback by that.

 

“I do,” I said. “What happened today was tragic, it really was. We all got a good scare. But in the end, here we are, unhurt, whole, healthy…

 

“I have to look at what did happen, not what could have happened. There’s a time and a place for the ‘what if’ questions, like in business you can look at a decision and ask, ‘what if we do this’ and ‘what if we don’t do this?’ But when things happen suddenly in life, when things happen around you and not actually to you, you have to believe that you’re lucky.”

 

I leaned over to her, putting my face near hers and kissing her softly. “I know what I saw. That truck nearly killed four people. I saw that. I saw it happen. It was like slow motion, the way it went down. The truck just screeched its wheels and shot at them like a rocket.” I looked over at Savvy to make sure she was asleep. “That lady should have been killed. The way she was thrown into the air, smashed by the two cars, pinned under our van… She is feeling horrible right now but she is lucky to be alive.”

 

I drew a deep breath. “Now, I’ve asked myself whether we were lucky or not. Here’s how I know we were.” I set my cup down.

 

“Our daughter is never hungry. Never. You and I both know it’s all we can do to get her to eat. So it surprised me when she said she was hungry this morning in the winery. Maybe she was hungry, maybe she was bored and wanted attention, I don’t know. But as soon as we started making our way out to the van to have a picnic, to watch DVDs and start to give her the attention she wanted and entertain her, she didn’t want to go.”

 

I went on. “I know if we had gone out to the van like we planned, she and I would have been sitting there, between the two cars, having a picnic, sitting on the cooler between the cars, and watching DVDs through the open van door. If we had gone when I wanted to go, that’s where we would have been when that old man got into his truck.”

 

“We would have been killed.”

 

It was not often that I would let myself be so dramatic. I let the words hang in the air for a moment, trying to decide how to explain what happened next.

 

“The reason we didn’t go out right away, the reason we aren’t in a hospital or a morgue right now, is because our little girl over there got distracted. We were on our way across the lobby when she got all flustered in a tantrum. So I stopped to look at t-shirts and knickknacks, to distract her. But it was just for a few minutes. Then I went back over to you and told you again that we were finally going out to the car.”

 

I hesitated. “I don’t know why I felt like you needed an update, but that’s what we did. And those few extra moments, that would have been about the amount of time I would have needed to get the cooler out of the car, grab a cheese stick, and sit down to watch a DVD. With her on my lap, maybe. Sitting right between the two cars on a beautiful day…”

 

“When that truck squealed its wheels, I might have ignored it or maybe I would have turned to look at what the noise was, but there never would have been enough time to get out of the way.”

 

“There definitely wouldn’t have been time to get both of us out of the way.”

 

“In the hours that passed while we waited up in that meeting room, I had a chance to play it all back. What would I have done? What would there have been time for?”

 

“There was no time. It was a split-second thing, and I might have stood up with her, or tried to get out of the way, but there was nowhere to go. Look at that lady who was hit – she was facing the pickup truck and saw it coming; she still couldn’t get out of the way. Neither could her boyfriend.”

 

By now, I was reliving the moment in my mind, getting choked up as the words painted the scene. “I believe…” I cleared my throat. “that we would have been killed. But we weren’t. I might have survived, but she…”

 

My voice grew thin, trailing off, thinking the unthinkable. I swallowed hard and refocused.

 

“And why weren’t we killed? Because our kid had to look at stupid t-shirts. The funny ones. She asked me what they said, so I read them to her. That, and going back to talk to you, was the difference between having our daughter alive right now and… not.”

 

I swallowed again, trying to keep my voice even. “So, yeah, I believe we were pretty damned lucky today.”

 

Michele closed her eyes and leaned her head back, blinking away the tears that had been streaming down her cheeks as I spoke. I didn’t usually feel as deeply about things as she did, but this was different. We sat for a moment, in the nearly dark hotel room, with only the flickering light of the TV to read each other’s faces.

 

“I wish I could see it that way,” Michele said finally, “but this isn’t the first time things like this have happened.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“She’s not even three years old and there have already been some other things like this! She almost got killed today! You both did! And it’s not the first time!”

 

“Don’t connect things that aren’t connected,” I said. “Don’t do that.”

 

“Things like this keep happening! What if they are connected?”

 

I stood up and walked toward the door. I felt a sudden urge to vent some restless energy.

 

Michele said her words to my back. “There was the car fire last year where you guys were almost killed, and there was the whole NICU thing the year before. Now this; a maniac who almost kills you two in a parking lot. There’s something wrong with all of this!”

 

I opened my mouth to speak but she cut me off.

 

“Am I supposed to sit here and believe that every year, some horrible thing happens that almost kills our daughter, but not worry about that? At the same time of year? Every year? That can’t be a coincidence!”

 

“It can’t be,” she pleaded.


ANALYSIS

By rearranging Mallory’s dialogue at the end, we see she (and we) have bigger worries. Doug seems to have been in denial about stuff. 

Readers may feel a bit cheated that they didn’t know about the prior two incidents, but if we are floating along mainly from Doug’s POV, he’s not putting them together. Also, if he’s in denial, he’s not gonna. That might put Sophie in danger.

Hopefully, readers don’t feel cheated and turn the page to learn more.

You can, too. Tomorrow.

Meanwhile, see how we eliminated dialogue tags and added some subtle emotions, letting the dialogue carry this scene? We also trimmed stuff we already knew – since we already knew it – and might trim even more out of Doug’s speech, or build more emotion into it, for him or for Mallory.

Now:

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Let me have your comments. The next chapter will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

 

 

5 thoughts on “Adding Suspense Through Fine Tuning

  1. As I read the final, I felt as though I were watching a movie about the life of people for whom I cared. I could see the room, the child sleeping, the tee shirt from the winery, along with Doug and Mallory as they were trying to get their plans together. Yes, there was some curiosity sparked when bits and pieces of the past were surfacing, however, that only made me want to keep going, to know more and to figure it out. In spite of the fact that you are using this as a tutorial and giving us prompts along the way, wee spoiler alerts, I am still fully engaged by the story. So, to quote Bob Seger… “turn the page”

    Liked by 1 person

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