Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ensign Expendable

by Stephanie Black

In their high school days, my brother and his friends used to make movies. One of their masterpieces was a Star Trek spoof. As an old Star Trek fan, I found their creation of a character named “Ensign Expendable" to be extremely apt. Those of you who watched the original Star Trek series will recognize Ensign Expendable. If Kirk and Spock and McCoy and some heretofore unseen crewman beamed down to explore a planet, it was easy to figure out which of those characters was going to get creamed by the alien menace du jour. Ensign Expendable served an important dramatic role by highlighting the danger facing the Enterprise folk, but leaving the main characters alive and kicking for the next episode.

Mystery/suspense novels have their own brand of tension-raising Ensign Expendables. Take, for example, the character who witnesses a crucial fact about the murder, but doesn’t realize the significance of this fact until later. Or the character who knows something incriminating, but keeps it quiet out of guilty motives that have nothing to do with the crime being investigated. At some point in the novel, the truth clicks, and EE realizes he needs to ‘fess up. So what does he do? Calls the protagonist, but always refuses to spill the beans over the phone. “I can’t talk now. Meet me tomorrow at 10:00.” At this point the savvy reader mutters immediately, “He’s doomed.” The meeting will never happen, because the bad guy—having realized the danger posed by EE—is waiting in the wings with his weapon of choice. Story tension rises—we hope against hope that somehow EE will get his information to the protagonist. Then when the killer strikes again, we’re reminded anew of how dangerous, desperate and evil this person is, and we’re grinding our teeth at this setback for the protagonist. The protagonist was about to find out something important, but now EE is dead. Setbacks for the protagonist are the stuff of which great story tension is made.

I recently created an EE in my work-in-progress, a woman who saw something on the night of the murder that she doesn’t yet realize is significant. A later event will start the wheels turning in her head. Will she get murdered before she can tell anyone what she witnessed? Probably. But maybe she’ll manage to leave a message behind. Did she write a letter she intended to give the heroine and later the heroine will find it? Does she tell someone else what she saw? Leave a sticky note on her fridge? Or a crucial photograph in her purse? I don't know. I haven’t written that far yet. Right now she’s just a cardboard character, in great need of fleshing out. She may be in the story principally to add tension by increasing the murderer's frantic efforts to conceal his/her crime, but in order to play an effective role, she needs to feel real. If the reader doesn’t care about her, why would they care if she becomes a victim?

Maybe I’ll introduce her earlier—chatting with the first murder victim. They could be friends. Okay, I like that . . . Can you tell I’m not fond of detailed outlining? I need a basic idea of where the story is going, but details don’t come until I’m actually writing. This is why my first drafts are a horrendous mess, but I like it that way. It’s freeing to write a bad first draft, knowing that the seeds of the story are sprouting and by the time I’ve revised it a bunch of times, my mom is going to love it.


At 9/26/2007 1:53 PM, Blogger Tamra Norton said...

Stephanie--I've got it!!!

Have EE leave a message behind on her fridge, written with alphabet magnets. The message has to be a bit vague, though. Perhaps a word or phrase that is only significant to the protagonist and EE. Oh, but then she needs to scramble the letters of the word up. Then she needs to make sure she always carries a tube of lipstick around with her so when she's attacked (but before she actually dies) she can draw a picture of a gallon of milk (or some other food item only found in a fridge) on her stomach before she takes her last breath. And have her wearing a white shirt. (My origional thought was to have her naked, but this IS LDS fiction. Besides, I think someone already used that idea).

Good luck! :)

At 9/26/2007 2:00 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Maybe I need to create some EEs in my stories. I've got a nasty habit of killing off my main people. :)

At 9/26/2007 5:27 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Tamra--I love it! Especially drawing a jug of milk in lipstick.

Tristi, that's a good way to keep the reader guessing!

At 9/27/2007 9:48 AM, Blogger Josi said...

I love that you're still figuring it out. I'm on page 190 of writing my first murder mystery and I don't know who dun it, yet. It's one of three people and with every scene I change it a little bit. It makes for exciting writing to try and figure it out--but I don't look forward to the rewrite.

Best of luck--I'm all for the milk jug idea. Classic EE.


Post a Comment

<< Home