When you’re really on your writing game, the words flow effortlessly from your mind’s eye to your fingers. But at other times, and especially if you’re working in a plot-driven genre, presenting the next developments in your narrative may be laborious and exacting. That may include puzzling out how to help the reader thread her way through the thicket of details that you’ve concocted while also keeping the reader’s interest and maintaining pace. Unless you’re unusually good at juggling lots of writing demands at once, that’s a process that’s not likely to come so effortlessly. So how to you get through that thicket yourself?
I’m in the process of finishing the first draft of my second thriller, and am working my way through a series of such challenges right now. By way of example, I’ve pasted in a scene in which I’m trying to take the reader through something that in principle sounds straightforward, but in practice turns out to be very complicated. My main character has been kidnapped and he’s being kept in a small, locked room occupied only by himself and a very large and well-armed guard. How will he escape? The first step in helping come up with a successful plan involves him establishing contact with the outside world without the bad guys realizing that any such thing is happening.
Explaining how he’s managing that will involve walking the reader through a number of very discrete actions as they happen, some of which are necessarily rather tedious and technical. It will also require introducing several transient characters that have never been seen before, as well as describing otherwise meaningless activities, such as people entering and leaving a room, arranging for objects to be fetched from outside the room, and describing the protagonist logging several times onto a laptop computer. Sounds perfectly dreadful and yawn-inducing, doesn’t it?
So the first question to answer is whether the plot twist I have in mind should be discarded out of hand. Unless I can make this scene and the ones that will logically need to follow add to the excitement of the book rather than tempt the reader to skip ahead, I’ve made a bad call and should take the plot somewhere else entirely.
Often the only way to answer a question like that is to give it a try and see how it comes out, and that’s what I decided to do.
The first step was to map out the actions that I thought needed to happen, eliminating as many as possible in the process, and making sure that those that remained would sound believable when described.
Next came producing a first draft of the scene from start to finish. In this step, I focused primarily on laying everything out in detail, making changes to my mental script whenever rendering my imagined plan into prose uncovered gaps or inconsistencies that needed to be addressed.
I then let the draft sit for twenty-four hours, but let my mind pick away at details that didn’t feel quite right whenever I was performing everyday tasks that left sufficient unused mental bandwidth available for such a task.
Finally, I revised the chapter, cutting back (again) on mechanical details as much as possible, introducing more humor to keep things enjoyable, giving the minor characters names to get rid of clunky designations like “the taller one,” and changing initial descriptions of the protagonist’s mental state as necessary to make the flow more even and his behavior more believable.
Before the book ever goes to print, I’ll revise the text of the whole book at least three times more, so what you see below will be further tuned, improved, and harmonized with the rest of the text as it develops. It may even be tossed out entirely. But for now, it’s good enough to be stacked next to the other chapters that have already been added to my working draft.
If you have the time, see whether you think I’ve accomplished my goals, and whether the devices I used were adequate to the task of making the chapter both understandable and enjoyable. Of course I’d be delighted to accept any suggestions or reactions that you may have, or to learn any of your own techniques for handling similar challenges.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –
Frank had exhausted his capacity to come up with any remotely feasible strategy to escape from the room in which he was now seated. There was simply not enough to work with in the small room in which he was being kept, and some of what the drab space contained did contain was problematic. For example, there was a very large and rather thuggish looking person sitting in a chair by the door, reading a tabloid newspaper. He never left the room unless an equally evolutionarily challenged guard immediately took his place. They had taken pains to be sure that their shoulder holsters were readily visible.
Then there was the fact that the room had no windows, and the door was locked from the outside, and the fact that the only objects in the room were two chairs, a table at which Frank was sitting, a cot, and a small night table. Well, Frank reflected, that wasn’t quite accurate. He should probably include the guard along with the other inanimate objects. At any rate, nothing that the room contained seemed to hold any potential to be used to assist in an escape.
Overall, the situation reminded him of the tired old one liner that ran something like this: “Well, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
So there he sat, with nothing to do except complete page after page in an elementary Sudoku book he’d found in a pile of old magazines and newspapers on the table he was now sitting at. He had also tried staring at the guard with his hands folded in front of him and a silly grin on his face, hoping to bug him, but the man simply seemed to be ignoring him. In short, Frank was going out of his mind with boredom.
But then he heard the door being unlocked, and two men entered the room, one of whom – the taller of the two – he had never seen before. That one walked up to the table, while the other, obviously the junior of the two in importance, stood slightly behind and to the side, holding a laptop in the open position. Frank decided to call them Boss Man and Robin, at least to himself. Then he noticed with surprise that the laptop Robin was carrying looked a lot like his own.
“Alright, Adversego. Time to get to work.” As the taller one spoke, the other placed the laptop on the table, and then stepped back again, arms crossed, to stand just behind and to the side of Boss Man.
“What do you mean, get to work? What do you expect me to do?”
“Not much – for now. Just open and answer your office email so no one wonders why you suddenly went dark. And don’t worry – we’ll make it really easy for you. I’ll tell you exactly what to say.”
“Very considerate of you, but help me out here a little bit. Why would I want to do anything you tell me to?”
“You’re not exactly in a position to negotiate, are you Adversego?” He gestured again, and this time the large guard moved forward to stand at Boss Man’s other elbow, arms crossed. They rather looked like a bad parody of a movie poster based on Marvel Comic Book characters. Frank noticed with intense annoyance that Guard Man was looking at him with a silly smile on his face.
Frank had to appreciate the logic of speaker’s point. But he wasn’t happy about doing his bidding anyway.
“Do I get to know who wants me to work for him?”
“Actually, no you don’t. And while we’re on the subject, you don’t get to ask any more questions, either. So log on to your office address and get busy with your email. And don’t get cute and go to the Lincoln site. I mean the agency site.”
That was better, Frank thought. He wasn’t quite sure where it would lead him, but simply having access to the agency’s system had to have some potential for getting some sort of covert message through. “Okay, so I’ll have to go with ‘Boss Man’ then. So tell me, Boss Man, exactly how do you expect me to log on?”
Boss Man looked annoyed. “We’ve got a WiFi connection. You’re already connected.”
“Very considerate of you again. But I can’t just dial in to a super secure government network by typing ‘please.’ I need my security token to get through the firewall.”
Boss Man turned to Robin. “Bring in everything you took when you brought him in.”
Frank looked down at his laptop and noticed that almost all of the icons had disappeared from his desktop. He wondered whether any of the seemingly deleted programs might still be recoverable. While he waited, he casually moused over the browser box. Judging by the names of the sites that displayed in the drop down list, it appeared that whoever had logged him on had rather peculiar tastes in pornography.
The door opened again, and this time Robin was carrying a plastic shopping bag. He walked over to Frank and held it open in front of him. When Frank reached in and pulled out his cellphone, Boss Man grabbed it out of his hand.
“Cut the crap, Adversego. The only games that get played in this room are ones you won’t like.”
“Have it your way then, but I thought you wanted me to log into the office? Or maybe you’ve wiped all the apps from by cellphone, too?”
Boss Man looked to Robin, and to Frank’s relief he shook his head no.
“What does an app have to do with logging on?”
“That’s where my token software is. I type in my PIN, and the app shows me a random number that gets replaced every thirty seconds with a new one. I type the number in to the log-on window and it lets me in. If I get the number wrong, it doesn’t. Simple.”
Boss Man frowned. “Okay, but we’re going to do this my way.” He pointed the phone at Frank. “Just type in your cellphone password and then stop.”
Frank did as instructed, and Boss Man looked at the phone. “Okay, what does the app look like?”
Frank told him how to recognize the icon, and after a bit of fumbling, Boss Man held the phone out to him again. “That it?”
“You’re a natural, Boss Man,” Frank said with a smile. Guard Man took a half step forward at that, but Boss Man shook his head no. Guard Man looked disappointed and stepped back, but he wasn’t smiling now. Frank decided not to push his luck, and typed in his PIN without further comment.
After a moment, the number obediently materialized. The phone was a bit far away, so he had to lean forward and squint to make the digits out. To his surprise, what he saw was a line of six zeroes. Sure, any number was as possible as any other number, but still, the odds against a perfect string of any digit astronomical.
“What’s the problem, Adversego?”
Instinctively, Frank decided not to share anything he didn’t have to. “Nothing, I just need you to hold the phone closer. It’s hard to see.”
Boss Man set the phone on the table next to Frank. “Okay, there you are. Now get typing.”
Frank took his time typing his log in address into the browser, curious to see what number would display next. He looked up just in time to see the number refresh – and be replaced by a string of zeroes once again. But that couldn’t be. What was going on? Had his account been canceled?
“I’m not going to ask you again, Adversego.” This time when the guard stepped forward Boss Man did not object.
Well, okay, Frank thought, and typed in a string of zeroes. To his astonishment, the log in worked.
“Okay, I’m in.”
“Good boy, Adversego. So now let’s get to work.” Boss Man moved to Frank’s elbow and turned the laptop halfway in his own direction so he could see as well while Robin placed the other chair next to Frank’s. “Open your email.”
Frank did as he was told, but his real attention was on his phone, waiting to see what the next number would display. This time it displayed 123456.
Frank tried not to show his elation, but he was sure that someone must be trying to communicate with him. But who? And how?
As nonchalantly as possible, he opened an email and pretended to read it, closed it, and pretended to read another while Boss Man read over his soldier. Occasionally Boss Man would dictate a short non-committal response. But all the while, Frank’s mind was racing. Someone must be trying to communicate with him. But how? For some time, the token had now been alternating between the same two sets of six digits. It had to be a code, but which one?
It had to be one that whoever was sending knew he was familiar with, and also one that he’d be likely to guess. But there were so many possible codes to use. Why would he conclude it was one over another? He tried to clear his mind in order to come up with a reason why someone would expect him to guess a particular code.
But it was like the room problem all over again – he just didn’t have much to work with. So he looked for a clue in what little was available to him. If someone was trying to contact him, they must know he was in trouble. And the only way anyone would know that would be if the pocket-dialed call he tried to make to Marla while he was getting grabbed by Robin had actually reached her, and also allowed her to hear enough to tell that he was being kidnapped. He had hoped she would go to George Marchand rather than the police, and likely that must have happened, too. And Marchand had both the skills and the access to mess around with the token software.
That must be what was going on. But it still didn’t tell him what code they were using. Damn!
Then he got it. When Marla was very young, she had enjoyed playing number games with him, so he had introduced her to codes as well. And the first code he had taught her was the simplest – 1 meant A, 2 meant B, and so on. It was a bit cumbersome to use, but it was a system that a seven year old could easily handle if they had a cheat-sheet to work from.
He looked at the phone out of the corner of his eye again and saw that the cycle of two numbers looked like this: 715 209/200 000. As usual, the software was displaying each six digit sequence in two groups of three digits.
But without spaces between numbers, how was he going to be able to tell whether two digits next to each other were supposed to be on letter or two? Would “12” mean AB – the first and second letters of the alphabet – or L, the twelfth? He looked again at the first number. Should he read “715” as 7 followed by 15, or a 7 followed by 1, followed by 5? One way it would spell GAE, but the other way it spelled GO. Which was it?
“Pay attention, Adversego.”
He jerked back to attention. “Come again?”
“I said, reply and type ‘Got it’ to that one.”
Frank felt silly as well as frustrated. If he had a piece of paper and a pen – and wasn’t doing two things at once – he’d know what the message said in a matter of seconds, since he’d simply write down the letters of the alphabet in a line and then write the numbers 1 – 26 below them. But now he had to count them through mentally while remembering what the numbers being displayed were, and also figure out which numbers were meant to be single digits and which double. And he had to do that before he ran out of email, which wouldn’t be long now. He began to sweat heavily in the stale air of the small room.
He looked at the second block of three letters: 209. That was easier. The 2 couldn’t go with the 5 before it, because that would make 52 and the alphabet only had 26 letters. And 0 didn’t apply to any number, so the right way to read that triplet had to be “20 0.” That would spell “OT.”
He waited for the number to change again. To his relief, it read 200000. So all he had to figure out was whether the last letter in the message was indicated by the digit 2 or the number 20, with the rest of the zeroes being meaningless filler.
He fervently wished that Boss Man would shut up as he tried to assemble the possibilities and variations he now had in front of him, all by memory.
First he tried making as many single digit letters as possible, and got this:
7 1 5 20 9 2, or GABTIB
That was clearly nonsense.
He tried the next variation, combining the 1 and the 5 to get:
7 15 20 9 2, or GOTIB.
Dame! Nonsense again.
He reverted the 15 and changed the 2 to 20, and got:
7 1 5 20 9 20, or GABTIT
Damn! Did he get the code itself wrong? He thought there was only one variation left. That was:
7 15 20 9 20, which was GOTIT
Did that make any sense? If so, it sounded obscene.
“I said type ‘Got it,’ Adversego! Now do it!”
Of course – ‘Got it’ worked. But if that was it, what did it mean?
“Are you listening to me?”
Yes! That was it! It was a question! The sender wanted him to let them know when he had cracked the code.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m listening. You’re just boring me to death and I was day dreaming. What did you say again?”
His elation was cut short when he noticed that he had only a handful of emails left. How was he supposed to let whoever was signaling him that he now understood the code? With Boss Man looking over his shoulder he couldn’t touch the keys except to do as he was told. What else did he have to work with?
What about the token numbers? Wouldn’t they be expecting him to use the same code to reply? But how could he manufacture a need to enter a code again?
Then he had it. He was using his right to click down through his email, and his left hand was lying idle on the left side of the keyboard. He’d barely need to move his left thumb at all to reach the tiny WiFi switch on the front of his laptop.
So it was that just when he would have called up the next to last unread email in the queue, the email screen disappeared.
“What happened?” Boss Man said. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. You must have a crappy WiFi receiver. Or maybe one of your goons is hogging the bandwidth streaming porn again.” Boss Man gave his assistant a dirty look.
“We’ve got to have you log on every day. Try it again.”
Frank gave a silent sigh of relief, and secretly moved the WiFi switch back to the on position. Thankfully, the log on box was set to display asterisks rather than the actual digits he was typing, so although he made a show of looking at his phone, the number he actually typed was 255 190 – which meant “YES,” the last zero being just filler.
Like magic, the email screen leapt back into view.
Boss Man looked relieved. “Alright, so it works – good. Now shut it down again. I’ve had enough of this crap for today.”
Gratefully, Frank did as he was told. He was even more grateful when Boss Man and Robin left the room, leaving him and Guard Man alone once again. But now he was anything but bored. He had no idea – yet – how he was going to be able to widen this tiny chink of light in his prison, but somehow there had to be a way.