How to bring a dead story alive


Can a dead story be brought alive?

I wrote a story as part of a writing course with the OU recently. (Found on http://www.futurelearn.com website.) Even before I’d submitted it, I felt it was not quite ‘there’. This is an attempt to bring it alive. Is it possible I wonder?

This is the setting and I wanted to show that I had come from Spain on holiday and was boarding a plane where I met a man who intrigued me. I hadn’t put in the background that mattered – my brother had suffered from post traumatic-stress disorder but I had not recognized it. I had thought he was fine and felt guilty that I had signed to say he had suffered in the war and was different. In this story I’d hoped to show that after many years, my guilt was baseless, the man I met was showing the same symptoms as my brother.

Opening of the story
‘Spain had been glorious – sun, sand and sangria every day, so I was feeling very relaxed.’

That all right. I’ll keep the opening. However, the next bit needs changing.

‘ hopeful that I would meet someone interesting on the 2-hour flight home.

Instead of this, I need something to start to build up the tension, like:.

‘I’d had time to forget the guilt that had gnawed at my insides after signing that paper. My brother had always been edgy but I wasn’t convinced that he’d become worse after his last stint in Afghanistan, but I’d signed anyway. For a few glorious weeks I’d managed to forget, but now, now I was heading home, the feeling of shame and guilt would haunt me again.’

The next section in the original story was:
‘When I arrived early at the gate, I found a seat and took out my Kindle. It was going to be a long wait to board the plane, but I was certain not to miss it. I glanced at the check-in desk.’

I think I can delete this.

I want to keep the following however (with a few changes):

‘A lone figure was already standing at the head of the queue. There’s always someone, I muttered to myself. They just have to be first on the plane. With seating allocated already, what’s the point? The man was standing almost to attention, leaning slightly forward as if to start the boarding by force of will.
I pressed the button on my Kindle. Drat. It needed charging. I would just have to talk to the person next to me, whether they wanted it or not.’

Changed to:

‘When I arrived early at the gate, a lone figure was already standing at the head of the queue. There’s always someone, I muttered to myself. They just have to be first on the plane. With seating allocated already, what’s the point? The man was standing almost to attention, leaning slightly forward as if to start the boarding by force of will.
I pressed the button on my Kindle. Drat. It needed charging. I would just have to talk to the person next to me.’

This introduces the main character and his nervousness I hope is conveyed in the way he waits to board the plane.

The next paragraph:
‘When the boarding finally started, some ten minutes late, I struggled onto the plane, dragging my case behind me and pulled it towards my seat next to the window. The man already sitting in the adjoining seat, leapt to his feet. As he quickly took my case and lifted it up for me, I noticed that it was the same man who had been waiting at the front to the queue. I smiled my appreciation for helping me and sat down.’

What to do about it?
It still lacks tension and it tells too much. Let’s change it to:

‘When I finally boarded the plane I saw that the same man was sitting next to my seat.’
This shortens it and leaves me more space to put in the psychological bits – i.e. my thoughts and feelings as we speak.

the next bit:

‘He was young, with attractive, smooth features and a tan as if he, too, had been out in the sunshine. He looked muscular, alert, as if nothing would escape his attention. His features held an air of wisdom, and experience in spite of his youth. I was intrigued. He was the sort of guy I always fell for and I always fell for rogues, so I was on my guard.’

The description is OK – although introducing the idea of him being attractive and mentioning the men I used to fall for heads this story into the area of romance which was not originally intended. So let’s leave out the romance.

‘He was young, with a tan as if he, too, had been out in the sunshine although the taut jaw and fixed expression suggested he had not been on holiday. He sat alert, as if nothing would escape his attention. Did he have another agenda? A cold chill ran down my spine. Was I sitting next to a terrorist? I glanced quickly at his muscular frame, but there were no suspicious signs of hidden packages.

The next bit:

‘When we were finally settled, remembering the catastrophe with my Kindle, I leaned forward slightly and asked.
‘Have you been on holiday?’’

Lame. Let’s try simply.

I must engage him in conversation; take his mind off whatever was worrying him. I leaned forward slightly and asked.
‘Have you been on holiday?’’

The next bit:

‘Yes, I’ve been to Benidorm. I’d never been there before,’ His voice was strong and deep, and he spoke quickly, directly, without hesitation. ‘I was there for a week.
‘Were you in an apartment or hotel?’’

My comment: This is too simple. He just tells his story and I simply ask a question. There’s no depth.
Let’s try:

He coughed nervously ‘Yes, I’ve been to Benidorm.’ His voice was strained as if each word needed a great deal of strength to produce.
His tension was getting to me. Holding a conversation with this man was going to be difficult.
‘Were you in an apartment or hotel? I asked. Please God he’d stayed in an apartment so we had something in common to talk about.’’

The next bit:

‘The stewardess slammed a door shut. My chair shook as his whole body flinched.
He frowned as if concentrating very hard. ‘The hotel was nice but the view wasn’t so good.’
He pulled something out of his pocket. I leaned forward expectantly, but he only glanced at it and put it straight back.
I cleared my throat. ‘You went alone?’
He grimaced. ‘Yes alone. I would’ve loved to have taken my daughters.’
This time he put his hand in the other jacket pocket and pulled out a photo of two healthy young teenage girls.
‘Beautiful’ I said with sincerity. ‘

My comment:
I worry which door the stewardess had slammed – this is the first time she is mentioned. I should introduce her into the scene more naturally. Some of this section I’d like to keep but I think I need to shorten it, make it more compact and to the point to enhance the tension. He didn’t really need to pull something out of his pocket and not do anything with it This bit of writing doesn’t go anywhere, so why include it?

Let’s try changing it to:

‘Before he could answer, the stewardess offered us magazines. We declined. As she handed one to the person opposite, she dropped it. My companion flinched. ‘An apartment? I prompted.
‘No’, he snapped. ‘a hotel’ He pushed his hands along his legs to remove the sweat that had been building up.
‘Oh’ He was just like my brother, one word answers. I’d have to try open-ended questions. ‘What was the hotel like?’
He frowned as if concentrating very hard. ‘The hotel was nice but the view wasn’t so good.’
I cleared my throat. ‘You went alone?’
‘Yes alone.’
This was getting painful. Find out about the family, I remember someone telling me once. They can usually help in hijack situations. ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking, but do you have family? Perhaps they could have gone with you.’
‘I would’ve loved to have taken my daughters.’ He said quickly. He tapped his shirt pocket and pulled out a photo of two healthy young teenage girls.
‘Beautiful’ I said with sincerity.

Next bit’

‘His voice darkened. ‘My ex holds them very close to her.’
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why, but I decided it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Fortunately, he did not need prompting.
‘I still love my wife,’ his said his, voice breaking up with emotion. ‘It’s been five years since we split up.’
‘It must be hard,’ I murmured sympathetically. What could I say?
He clasped and unclasped his hands on his lap and kept glancing at the stewardesses. One of them looked at him, whispered in the ear of the other stewardess, and walked towards the cabin door.
‘Er’ I started, ‘What’s your job?’
‘I don’t have a job. I retired early.’
‘What did you do before you retired?’
‘Oh I was in the army, stationed in Ireland.’
He pulled his tray down. The stewardesses were coming with the food trolley.
By now my mind was whirling.
‘Tea or coffee?’ the stewardesses had arrived.
‘A coffee for me please.’ I said, pulling my tray down.
‘And one for me, too.’ he echoed.
‘Are you together?’ the blond stewardess asked.
‘Good heavens no!’ I snapped, ‘I must be twice his age’ then blushed. He looked sternly straight ahead.
We paid separately. He dropped some coins on the floor and deftly retrieved them.’

My comment. At last a bit of darkness here, but it needs compacting – I need to leave out the age bit, it’s irrelevant.

Let’s try:

‘His voice darkened. ‘My ex holds them very close to her.’
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why, but I decided it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Fortunately, he did not need prompting.
‘I still love my wife,’ his said his, voice breaking up with emotion. ‘It’s been five years since we split up.’
‘It must be hard,’ I murmured sympathetically. What could I say?
He clasped and unclasped his hands on his lap and kept glancing at the stewardesses. One of them looked at him, whispered in the ear of the other stewardess, and walked towards the cabin door.
‘Er’ I had to keep him occupied, ‘What’s your job?’
‘I don’t have a job. I retired early.’
‘What did you do before you retired?’I could feel a droplet of sweat fall down my forehead. I brushed it away.
‘Oh I was in the army, stationed in Ireland.’
It figured. He, if anyone would know how to secret a bomb. Was he planning to get his revenge on this plane, now? My lips were dry. He pulled his tray down. The stewardesses were coming with the food trolley.
‘Tea or coffee?’ the stewardesses had arrived.
‘Water please’ I said, pulling my tray down.
‘Coffee for me, please.’ he clipped.
As he paid for his drink he dropped some coins on the floor. Watching him closely, I took in a sharp breath. Was it going to happen now? But, glancing around him, he picked up the coins and shoved them in his pocket.

The next bit:

We were silent for a few moments while we sipped our drinks. I had time to reflect. I had a niggling feeling that he reminded me of someone. One of my ex-rogue boyfriends perhaps? Tony, the salesman, the con-artist? There was something about the eyebrows that was similar. I cringed. Tony’s chilling words rattled around my brain in a loud repetitive echo. It was more the icy tone than the words of dismissal that had upset me. No, definitely not Tony. If nothing else, Tony had always been calm and collected, never nervous. My neighbour’s high cheekbones and the suggestion of a dimple at the corners of his mouth reminded me of James, the librarian. Was this who he reminded me of? No, again, James was always unfazed – even on that day in the kitchen when I told him we were finished. His tranquil features were starkly lit up in the neon light as he came for a final hug.’

My comment:
Do we really need reference to past boyfriends, especially now I’ve decided to leave out the romance bit? I think not, although I need to make clear that he reminds me of someone who I can’t think of at the moment. Perhaps this would work better if his mannerisms remind me of other people in my life and then finally my brother.

Let’s change it to:
‘We were silent for a few moments while we sipped our drinks. I had time to reflect. I had a niggling feeling that he reminded me of someone. There was something about the way he sat, his jerky movements and the constant feeling that he had something else, something very serious on his mind. Was it my father, who was always thinking of work while we tried to talk to him? No, I was sure it wasn’t him. There was something about the eyebrows that I had seen before. They were thin and long and almost met in the middle. I suddenly remembered my rather gruff Headmaster at school, his tall frame looming over us in the assembly hall. I had spent most assemblies staring at his eyebrows wondering if they would meet one day. But the mannerisms very different, Mr Dodgson stood tall and still, there was nothing nervous about him. It was my neighbour’s mannerisms that reminded me; they reminded me of someone I knew, someone who had been very close to me. It was my neighbour’s sudden movements, the jerky conversation, the feeling that he had something else on his mind that were very like -. Then it struck me. I suddenly knew who he reminded me of.’

The next bit

‘I cleared my throat. ‘If you don’t mind my asking, did you have a bad experience in the army?
‘Yes’, he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. ‘I was a green jacked’ he glanced at me. ‘A foot soldier in Ireland when I was thrown onto a pavement curb by a bomb.’
He glanced at my sudden intake of breath.
He continued. ‘I keep seeing flashbacks of the bomb blast. I had two discs in my back damaged yet they wouldn’t give me the pension.’ His voice was now hard and resentful.
One of the cabin crew was standing outside the cabin door watching him very closely.
‘Why not?’ I croaked.
‘When I said to Sarg. that I needed to see the medic he told me to grow up.’ He grabbed his empty cup and snapped his tray back loudly.
I flinched. ‘That’s awful’, I tried to speak with just the right amount of sympathy.
As he fingered his empty cup, it suddenly struck me. His manner was almost exactly the same as my brother’s after he came back from Viet Nam. My brother had always been on edge, never still, never able to concentrate for any length of time.
I softened my voice. ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking, but you remind me so much of my brother. You wouldn’t be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder would you?’
He nodded.’
My comment:
This is supposed to be the grand finale, the climax when the truth will out, but it falls a bit flat. I repeat the word ‘glanced’ at the beginning, and the drama if there is any, is not continuous. I interrupt to flow of information. It certainly needs changing for I have already said who he reminded me of.

Let’s change it to:

My mother used to say that my brother was nervy because he was a ‘war baby’, so I had assumed that my brother had always been like that. However, after he came back from Afghanistan, he was even more on edge, never still, never able to concentrate for any length of time. Now I had witnessed someone else with the same symptoms.
I leaned forward. ‘If you don’t mind my asking, did you have a bad experience in the army?
‘Yes’, he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. ‘I was a green jacked’ he glanced at me. ‘A foot soldier in Ireland when I was thrown onto a pavement curb by a bomb.’
He flinched at my sudden intake of breath.
He continued. ‘I keep having flashbacks of the bomb blast.’ He paused as if reliving that hell for yet another time.
One of the cabin crew was standing outside the cabin door watching him very closely.
I softened my voice. ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking again, but you remind me so much of my brother. You wouldn’t be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder would you?’
He nodded. I suddenly realized that this was no terrorist, and that my brother had indeed changed as a result of the war. In one flash of insight, the guilt I had carried for all those years for signing that piece of paper suddenly melted away.
The FINAL VERSION
‘Spain had been glorious – sun, sand and sangria every day, so I was feeling very relaxed. I’d had time to forget the guilt that had gnawed at my insides after signing that paper. My brother had always been edgy but I wasn’t convinced that he’d become worse after his last stint in Afghanistan, but I’d signed anyway. For a few glorious weeks I’d managed to forget, but now, now I was heading home, the feeling of shame and guilt would haunt me again.
When I arrived early at the airport gate, a lone figure was already standing at the head of the queue. There’s always someone, I muttered to myself. They just have to be first on the plane. With seating allocated already, what’s the point? The man was standing almost to attention, leaning slightly forward as if to start the boarding by force of will.
I pressed the button on my Kindle. Drat. It needed charging. I would just have to talk to the person next to me. When I finally boarded the plane I saw that the same man was sitting next to my seat.
‘He was young, with a tan as if he, too, had been out in the sunshine although the taut jaw and fixed expression suggested he had not been on holiday. He sat alert, as if nothing would escape his attention. Did he have another agenda? A cold chill ran down my spine. Was I sitting next to a terrorist? I glanced quickly at his muscular frame, but there were no signs of suspicious hidden packages.
I must engage him in conversation; take his mind off whatever was thinking about. I leaned forward slightly and asked.
‘Have you been on holiday?’’
He coughed nervously ‘Yes, I’ve been to Benidorm.’ His voice was strained as if each word needed a great deal of strength to produce.
His tension was getting to me. Holding a conversation with this man was going to be difficult. ‘Were you in an apartment or hotel? I asked. Please God he’d stayed in an apartment so we had something in common to talk about.
Before he could answer, the stewardess offered us magazines. We declined. As she handed one to the person opposite, she dropped it. My companion flinched. ‘An apartment? I prompted.
‘No’, he snapped. ‘a hotel’ He pushed his hands along his legs as if to remove sweat that had been building up in the palms of his hands.
‘Oh’ He was just like my brother, one word answers. I’d have to try open-ended questions. ‘What was the hotel like?’
He frowned as if concentrating very hard. ‘The hotel was nice but the view wasn’t so good.’
I cleared my throat. ‘You went alone?’
‘Yes alone.’
This was getting painful. Find out about the family, I remember someone telling me once. They can usually help in hijack situations. ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking, but do you have family? Perhaps they could have gone with you.’
‘I would’ve loved to have taken my daughters.’ He said quickly. He tapped his shirt pocket and pulled out a photo of two healthy young teenage girls.
‘Beautiful’ I said with sincerity.
His voice darkened. ‘My ex holds them very close to her.’
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why, but I decided it best to let sleeping dogs lie. Fortunately, he did not need prompting.
‘I still love my wife,’ his said, his voice breaking up with emotion. ‘It’s been five years since we split up.’
‘It must be hard,’ I murmured sympathetically. What could I say?
He clasped and unclasped his hands on his lap and kept glancing at the stewardesses. One of them looked at him, whispered in the ear of the other stewardess, and walked towards the cabin door.
‘Er’ I had to keep him occupied, ‘What’s your job?’
‘I don’t have a job. I retired early.’
‘What did you do before you retired?’I could feel a droplet of sweat fall down my forehead. I brushed it away.
‘Oh I was in the army, stationed in Ireland.’
It figured. He, if anyone would know how to secret a bomb. Was he planning to get his revenge on this plane, now? My lips were dry. He pulled his tray down. The stewardesses were coming with the food trolley.
‘Tea or coffee?’ the stewardesses had arrived.
‘Water please’ I said, pulling my tray down.
‘Coffee for me, please.’ he clipped.
As he paid for his drink he dropped some coins on the floor. I watched him closely. Was it going to happen now? He glanced around as he picked up the coins but nothing happened, he simply shoved them in his pocket.
We were silent for a few moments while we sipped our drinks. I had time to reflect. I had a niggling feeling that he reminded me of someone. There was something about the way he sat, his jerky movements and the constant feeling that he had something else, something very serious on his mind. Was it my father, who was always thinking of work while we tried to talk to him? No, I was sure it wasn’t him. There was something about the eyebrows that I had seen before. They were thin and long and almost met in the middle. I suddenly remembered my rather gruff Headmaster at school, his tall frame looming over us in the assembly hall. I had spent most assemblies staring at his eyebrows wondering if they would meet one day. But the mannerisms very different, Mr Dodgson stood tall and still, there was nothing nervous about him. I was sure my neighbour reminded me of someone, someone I knew, someone who had been very close to me. The sudden movements, the jerky conversation, the feeling that he had something else on his mind were very familiar. Then it struck me. I suddenly knew who he reminded me of.
My mother used to say that my brother was nervy because he was a ‘war baby’, so I had assumed that my brother had always been like that. However, after he had come back from Afghanistan, he was even more on edge, never still, never able to concentrate for any length of time. Now I had witnessed someone else with the very same symptoms.
I leaned forward. ‘If you don’t mind my asking, did you have a bad experience in the army?
‘Yes’, he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. ‘I was a green jacked’ he glanced at me. ‘A foot soldier in Ireland when I was thrown onto a pavement curb by a bomb.’
He flinched at my sudden intake of breath.
He continued. ‘I keep having flashbacks of the bomb blast.’ He paused as if reliving that hell for yet another time.
One of the cabin crew was standing outside the cabin door watching him very closely.
I softened my voice. ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking again, but you remind me so much of my brother. You wouldn’t be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder would you?’
He nodded.
In one flash of insight, the guilt I had carried for all those years for signing that piece of paper suddenly melted away. I suddenly realized that this was no terrorist, and that my brother had indeed been suffering from the same problem: post-traumatic stress disorder.
END
My comment:
This is 2oo+ words more than the allocated wordage, and yet I thought I had compacted the information.! It just goes to show that when you try to write something that evokes some interest or an emotional reaction, you need to spell it out so that your meaning is clear, but in so doing, you also need to maintain the storyline without wandering off topic.
This is still not a finished piece of work and, as always, it needs copy-editing, but I do hope it is an improvement on my first attempt.

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