March 5, 2010

Conveying Sexual Tension in Writing

I am working on a short story about two physicists working together on a night shift; there is a heightened sexual attraction between them but they can't follow it through due to social awkwardness, and instead the experiment just goes to pot. It's a farcical romantic comedy, with a strong underlying sexual tension to carry it through.

After each draft, I re-read it and asked myself (and willing victims who volunteer to read my stuff) if the tension comes through. One of the earlier drafts it didn't, so I started to think about what makes sexual tension, and how can I put that down in a story effectively. I've managed to do it before in another story told from third person, so maybe it was a perspective thing, as this one is done in first person present.

These are my theories on making the sexual tension work in a story, to really draw you into the page. Maybe the story isn't quite there yet, but I have the ideas on how to do it.

Firstly it's about physical reactions and sensations. The way the body reacts to someone you are attracted to: shortness of breath, hair standing on end, heart rate increasing, shaking, flutters in the stomach. The main thing noticed in sexual attraction are your own physical sensations, how lust affects the body's responses. But it takes two for some sexy tension, and you can't see the heart beat of the other person or see if their stomach tingles, so the next ingredient is body language.

Body language says a lot about what we think and feel. When we are attracted to someone else, we pay a lot of attention to their body and motions. We become uber observant. So, I not only made my character be very aware of her own sensations, but also aware of the other character's body language, and inferring what his intentions are from it.

Thirdly, words. What the character's say to each other and how they say it tells us a lot about the situation, and dialogue is a good device to create tension. Effective dialogue shows us a lot. Dialogue, beats and gestures in a scene can be used effectively in a scene to up the tension, not only sexual tension.

Finally, an especially useful device if you are going for first person: emotions and fantasies. A way I managed to really get the sexual tension through was to throw my character's sexual fantasies during inappropriate moments. This is not only realistic, but making the character yearn and desire something helps the story go on and gives us tension because they want something so badly.

Writing sexual tension is fun! What other devices do you think would work?

March 4, 2010

Bavarian Road Trip, and Why it Doesn't Work

The last three posts dealt with an excerpt of my work. As I said before: this was not my best stuff, in fact it's probably the worst thing I've written recently. While writing it, I was aware something wasn't right with it. While working on many different projects, this was my least favourite.

The first problem with BVRT is that the story doesn't go anywhere; this might be due it being an anecdotal story. One of the biggest pitfalls in writing from real life is that I get some kind of invisible blocker which makes it hard for me to change fact into fiction. I changed the characters names and descriptions and embellished a few events and details, but in general the story was pretty much the same. Real life is great for inspiration, but one needs to recognise when real life is just not that interesting written down on paper/screen. The story's conclusion ended on a point which was lacklustre, and made it hard to discern to readers if it was a short story, novel excerpt or whatever.

Secondly: there are too many different characters. In real life there were five of us, in the story I combined two characters so was left with four - the ideal number would be three. In a novel it can work having significant cast, but in the context of a short story any more than three characters over-saturates it. From a character perspective, it would have been better to combine the two Russians, taking the dominant traits from each one. Initially, the character of Jens was also two people, but I combined them  because I noticed that five was certainly too much!

Thirdly, it's too long. The ideal length for a short story is around 2000-4000 words, this one clocks in at about 6000+; so it could do with a lot of the details being cut out and such. Short stories are supposed to be tight and compact, where every detail or action should bear some relevance to the plot line. In this case, I could afford to drop a lot.

Also this has no theme. A general theme running through the story would help to give it some structure and point to it  - right now it's about four people who go to Oktoberfest and one guy gets lost. There is no merit to the story.

The truth is, it could be re-written. It would need a heavy re-write: structure the plot in a way that gives a firm conclusion, cut out one character, cut down the irrelevant details, add in a theme and change the title. But, I don't feel passionate about it. I wrote it because I was dry with ideas, so decided if I could make something readable from a stupid anecdote I like to tell at parties. Alas, I think my lack of interest shows. Although I did edit it line by line, trying to structure the best sentences I possibly could, and the actual writing and style in this  - in general, I am happy with. So from that perspective it was a good exercise. I also think the characterisations and descriptions were good, just the plot failed, and no plot pretty much fails the piece.

Anyway, it was also a good example of knowing when to drop something. Most things can be re-written, and in principle I could salvage something good in this. The real question is - do I want to? I know the answer, and the answer is no.

March 2, 2010

Sample: Bavarian Road Trip - part 3

Final instalment of my short story about Oktoberfest. Discussion still to come.


“Here we are.” Jens said. The building in front of us emanated the air of historic Germany, with its carved medieval arches and oak beams. A true Bavarian tavern, not a synthetic tent constructed in the muddy wastelands. I preferred it, less tourist-trap and more authentic Munich. Most importantly - taverns serve beer. I discovered that Hofbrauhaus played host to events marked by Nazi Germany; a sordid past that leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste now, yet during Oktoberfest I found the place deceptively charming.
The music of the Bavarian Oompa band invaded my ears with brass tubas, trumpets and the drunken incoherent singing of Bavarian songs as tourists hummed along, knowing neither the songs nor the German language. It proved to be a mission in finding a place to accommodate our needs, with most of the halls and rooms already full. We wondered the tavern looping on repeat until a vacancy presented itself in the large banqueting hall. We sat down to the accompanying wooden benches at a large oak table. Finally we could imbibe more beer. The cloned Oktoberfest waitress came to our table - another big breasted blonde with strong, meaty arms.
A traffic of people came and went, yet the medium of crowds did not lessen. Many tourists lite came, drank and took photos before going back to their luxury hotels - people who don't understand the ideology of festival, coming only to collect experiences and boast “been there, done that” to their unworldly friends.
The light in the sky went out and the darkness shoved the next act of the evening onto the stage; the hardcore transitioned from mildly tipsy to intoxicated. We shared the company of the Volkswagen office in Berlin who were in Munich for a bonding trip. They loved Ivan. His big mouth and acquired wit amused them. They clinked mugs together and they cried.
“I love Russia,” one of the men said, “I love Russian people, and I love you man.” he said to Ivan.
“Oh yes, I love you too. Lets be best friends man.” Ivan said; I wasn't sure if it was sarcasm.
“Jesus.” Jens rolled his eyes as he muttered under his breath. “Ivan's drinking from this morning is obviously catching up with him. Either that or the hardcore Russian can't hold his drink.”
“I know I can't.” I slurred. I held up the half litre of Hefeweissen. “I'm being a good girl, I switched to half litres two hours ago.”
“Why on Earth do you want to do that?” Ivan said, overhearing the last part of the sentence.
“Well someone has to get us home.” I defended.
Ivan scoffed. “More like you just want to save the embarrassment of us carrying you back.”
A huge roaring cheer contaminated our tables. Ivan's new best friend was up on the table gyrating. The crowd cheered him on. An Italian on the next table, in solidarity also mounted the table to dance. The Berliner unbuttoned his shirt, unashamed, he revealed his pasty chest. The cacophony of “Viva Colonia” sung by a choir of drunks filled the hall as moderation disappeared with the last beer. The Italian who danced on the other table mirrored the Berliner's striptease. They flung their shirts at the crowd who enthusiastically cheered on or scoffed in disgust. Either way the noise echoed.
The tavern security intervened when the two men reached the fly of their trousers. Our two strippers too intoxicated to know better reacted with hostility when the guards handed their shirts back to them.
“Vaffanculo!” The Italian shouted. He threw the shirt to the guard as a form of protest. A frown marred the guard's face. He forcibly grabbed the Italian by the arm and dragged him off the table. He hit the floor hard, but he retained the mobility to jump up to punch the guard. His companions leaped to restrain the violent drunk. The guard's eyes were serious as he expelled the group with a single hand gesture; the Italians understood and vacated the premises taking their feuding friend with them. The guards turned to the Berliner who took the shirt compliantly with a small and embarrassed smile; without further conflict the German stripper left with his friends.
The mob cheered and booed, though within minutes they all forgot the events with an alcoholics amnesia with next beer.
Yuri sat and drank. His face was devoid of expression. The way he lifted his beer to and from his lips followed a mechanical line of a forklift truck. Ivan, although proud of his Russian ability to hold his drink started to squint and slur; Yuri said nothing, his hand was steady and his features fixed in place, fooling sobriety. He took a bored sigh.
“I go to toilet.” Yuri said. He excused himself from the bench, the world swayed around the upright Yuri.

The night dragged on, many drank beer and many pissed beer. It was the natural cycle of life in Oktoberfest.
I noticed the hands on my watch pointed to three.
“Can we go home now?” I said. Being awake for over twenty-two hours plus the influence of beer held a severe grasp on me.
“Good idea.” Jens said, he yawned. “We have to drive back tomorrow and I need sleep.”
Ivan slumped over the table with his arms crossed. He lifted his head and looked around the tavern; he sat up in a jerk.
“Where the fuck is Yuri?” he said.
I looked around our table. Yuri was not there. I last remembered him going to the bathroom, but some how none of us noticed him return, or rather not return.
“Shit.” Ivan slurred and put down his beer, the piss-coloured liquid swished inside the wobbled glass when it hit the table. “I'll go and see if he passed out in the toilet.” Ivan stumbled off.
He came back with his eyes wide open and his mouth frowning down.
“You guys I can't find Yuri.” he said.
“What do you mean you can't find him?” Jens said. He leaned on his elbow for support. “He can't have gone far, he has to be here.”
“I'm telling you guys he's not in the toilet, I looked round the entire tavern and I haven't seen him, hell I even asked the fucking security guy if he saw him.”
“And, what did he say?” I said.
“That they are best friends and brought a house in Swizerland together – what do you think? He laughed at me, the amount of people who pass through this place today is uncountable.” he brushed his black hair back. Jens propped himself up.
“So What do we do?” he asked. “Does he have a handy on him?”
“Nope.” Ivan said. “He's just visiting from Moscow, so of course he doesn't have a German phone, the idiot didn't bring his Russian one either.”
“Does he have one of our numbers?” I said.
Ivan shook his head.
“Jesus!” Jens exclaimed. “He doesn't speak German, he barely speaks English, he doesn't know where we are staying and he doesn't have our numbers. Well that's just great, What do you propose we do?”
“Ah he'll be fine!” Ivan said with a dismissive hand gesture. “Yuri's Moscow – born and bred, he's a tough bastard, he has tonnes of money on him, so he'll be fine. It's his damn fault he walked off in the first place.”
Jens and I look at each other, we probably thought the same thing. We looked back at Ivan with a bemused look.
“What?” Ivan said. He stepped back and put his hands out in a defensive gesture. “Yuri is perfectly capable of looking after himself. He disappeared around eleven, at...” he looked at his watch “three am I highly doubt he is coming back.”
“Ivan has a point.” I said to Jens. “If he's gone then he isn't coming back. Staying here all night wont help.”
“Fine.” Jens shrugged. “We might as well go back to the apartment and get some sleep. Yuri walked off, then Yuri can take care of himself - I don't care. He is not my problem.”
Yuri left us. He had to deal with his own consequences.

The car was more spacious on the journey back to the relief of every aching muscle in my body. The light of dim clouded skies even scattered with drops of rain hurt my eyes. The car bumped along the road, Ivan groaned in the back as he lay down trying to sleep. We no longer carried the crate of beer and we missed a Russian so I sat in the front in first class luxury. Jens' face was grim, his mouth turned down and his lines highlighted his age.
“How long have we been on the road for?” Ivan groaned waking up. Stretching his limbs as far as he could in that cramped back seat.
“Two hours.” Jens said, his voice matched his somber expression.
Ivan took his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose; he scrunched his eyes and felt in his pocket for his cell phone.
“You know, I think I'm gonna try to call the lab, maybe Yuri turned up there.” he said sitting up.
I grunted and hit my head against the window again. The cold glass against my forehead soothed the impending headache. The road shone from the rain and the wind-screen wipers bat against the transparent front window. Jens drove on with a scowl.
Ivan took the phone out and punched in the numbers with a loud tap forcing the sticky keys; he put the phone to his ear. My hangover did not appreciate the loud Russian shouting of Ivan on the phone. Fortunately, most of the dialogue came via a dim voice from the other end sprinkled with occasional bouts of laughter from Ivan. Jens and I darted looks of curiosity between us, a mutual anticipation to know the meaning behind the strange language of untranslated words. Twenty minutes later Ivan hung up. I turned round and faced the back with wide eyes; Ivan still laughed.
“So?” I asked. “What happened?”

Yuri found himself wondering lonely city streets. The flashing digits on his watch told him it was three in the morning. He could not remember where he was or how he got there. He looked at dark buildings finding it hard to decipher their architectural characteristics. He walked around hoping to find his memory lost somewhere in a back street. While Yuri searched for clues, he noticed the Latin - not Cyrillic- lettering on shop signs, posters and street names. He knew English, but it wasn't English and it certainly wasn't Russian. He realised the first simple fact – he was not in Moscow. Yuri thought hard for an answer to his questions - When did he leave Moscow? How did he leave Moscow? Where the fuck am I? Intoxication lingered in the bitter taste of stale saliva, a good night wasted in lost memories.
He looked at the unfamiliar language for more clues found between the umlauts and the queer “B”s which coiled like “S”s; he matched features to the language: German. But which German speaking country? Germany? Austria? Switzerland? He remembered then an experiment scheduled in Darmstadt for the end of October. The date on his watch agreed with his hypothesis, he at least knew which country he was in. He checked his front pocket finding a bunch of fifty euro notes crammed in like used handkerchiefs.
He swayed into a main road. Seeing a taxi parked outside a Kebab shop, Yuri ran across the tarmac careful not to trip again on his stumbling legs. He opened the door of the taxi and scrambled in the back. The cab driver turned with a furrowed bushy brows and his mouth dripped with the yogurt sauce from his kebab. Yuri released an awkward grin, realising he can't speak German he opened and closed his mouth like a fish.
“Wixhausen, Wixhausen,” Yuri eventually said. He leaned forward and thrust a fifty euro note in the taxi driver's hand. The cabbie shook his head; his eyes and mouth wide open.
“Waß?” he said in a strong Turkish accent.
“Wixhausen, Wixhausen... bitte.” Yuri repeated, proud for remembering the German word for please. But the taxi driver's face enhanced his look of horror with his eyeballs protruding further out their sockets in the certainty he did not mishear. Wixhausen is a real village located in the suburbs of Darmstadt, but harbours another more sordid meaning as phonetically it translates to “Wank town”. The taxi driver's lips tightened. He got out of the car and walked to the back, wrenching the rusted handle with a jerk he opened the door. He looked Yuri in the eye, those beady eyes filled with a mix of fear and hostility. He swung his arm away from the car violently gestured for Yuri to get out the car. Yuri blinked and took out another fifty euro bill. The taxi driver looked at the hundred euros with a snarl of disgust, throwing the money back in Yuri's childlike face. He shouted a mixture of German and Turkish profanities while dancing on the spot in a frustrated fury. Yuri blinked again. He looked at the notes and counted his money, he took out the rest of the crumpled bills from his pocket and handed over everything he had - taxis must be expensive in Germany. The cabbie's face flushed scarlet. He growled like a pig pulling Yuri out of the car, Yuri clung to the sides and knocked his arm against the rim of the door. He stumbled up the side of the car bracing himself for a punch but the taxi driver only stuffed the money back into Yuri's coat pocket before pushing him into the middle of the road. Yuri lips turned down and his round eyes widened; he turned back and watched the taxi driver jump into the front of the car and speed off. The tires screeched on the damp road.
Yuri slumped down onto the curbside. He leaned against the cold concrete he wondered if he mispronounced please in German. The sweaty fumes of meat from the kebab shop cut through the chilly night with warm promises. His stomach still swimming in beer pulled at him like an alcoholic to an off-license. He walked into the neon lit shop jumping at the loud blaring buzzer attached to the door. Yuri found himself greeted by the leather faced proprietor standing behind the counter, with pinprick holes for eyes set in yellowish white sockets. Yuri shifted from one foot to the other nervously and pointed to the first picture on the menu. He said nothing, just pointed. After the taxi driver he was too scared to even say please. The owner looked at the picture and mumbled something in confirmation, Yuri just nodded. He held his finger out again pointing to the picture, he repeated the number in Russian, English and with his hands. The man nodded and turned to scrape the waxy turnstile of meat.
Posters of Turkish tourism were decorated the shop, old yellowed fliers flaked off the walls promoting local businesses. The same word word stood out though; found on all fliers, business cards, and even the kebab menus. The footer of the address contained the word “München”. The man placed Yuri's doner on the counter. Still looking at the business card, Yuri put some coins down on the counter and placed the card besides it pointing to the word.
“ München?” Yuri asked. The man blinked with long lashed eyes.
“Ja?” he said.
“München?” Yuri tapped his finger again to the word.
“Waren sind in München,” the Turk said. “Munich” he pointed to the ground. “Munich – München.” his fingers traced an arc towards the street. “This Munich” he stuttered in English.
“Not Darmstadt?” Yuri said, optimistic at recognising some English.
“No Darmstadt, Munich.” the man said.
Yuri took the kebab with him into the street; he bit into the concoction of reconstituted meat and yogurt sauce. He thought - How the fuck did I get to Munich? I only realised I'm in Germany half an hour ago! Darmstadt he could accept, but Munich? He sat down on a bench, his stomach thanked him for the food, his taste-buds didn't. He thought hard, defragmenting old memories. He remembered the lab. He remembered going to Darmstadt, or more specifically Wixhausen. He remembered working with Ivan and the conversation about a road-trip. A road-trip to Oktoberfest.
The power went back on in his head and left only with only a few damaged fuses the black out was finally over. He remembered the road trip; driving down from Darmstadt, the drinking in the tent and the tavern. He looked at his watch – four am – no point trying the tavern, it would be closed.
He remembered the apartment; they had gone to Jens' sister's place to drop off their bags in the morning before the festival, an open spaced apartment in an old building with an wrought iron balcony. He got up with a new purpose to find the apartment his friends stayed in. He looked at the street, should he take right or left? It didn't matter, he had no idea where he was going anyway, he now relied on pure luck to get him there so he turned left and started walking.
When the sun was dim on the horizon and a mist came down from the mountains he reached the cold part of the morning; the warmth of the beer had worn off. But Yuri was tough, he was Russian – he survived his military service in Siberia, for him this was summer. But he craved a warm, comfy bed to sleep in and a glass of water to wash the stale taste of beer from his mouth. The city was illuminated by grey light on its grey stones by six in the morning. He recognised the centre realising he had come back in full boomerang.
The edifice of the Hauptbahnhof offered an appealing temptation. He could go back to Darmstadt. He had money, he could get on a train and be home by midday. He felt torn about leaving his friends behind but by now it was too late. Inside he looked around the imposing structure of rectangular steel pillars, and he trembled at the thought of administrative procedures since he didn't know how to buy a ticket, or how to even ask for one. He was still afraid to say please in German for fear of getting kicked out, he wanted an alternative. He had money on him, and there was always the option on getting on a train to Darmstadt and paying the guard money if he needed to. A train presented itself with Frankfurt as the destination, due to stop in Darmstadt. He ran to the platform and got on the sleek, white ICE train. Yuri found a comfortable empty seat in a dark corner on the train, he slipped into it and fell unconscious. When he woke up, he arrived in Darmstadt. Yuri had crossed half of Germany for free.

“Stupid asshole doesn't remember what happened between the time he left the table and when he realised he wasn't in Moscow.” Ivan said.
“I find that impossible to believe, he seemed sober.” I said.
“Oh Russian's don't get drunk like normal people.” Ivan said. “We can take a lot but there is no transition, you can flip between stone cold sober to utterly wasted. That, my friends, is what happened to Yuri.”
“Bastard.” Jens said.
“Why do you say that?”
“He's back in Darmstadt and I have to drive this piece of shit another three hours, in the rain no less.”
“I'm not complaining.” I said. “I'm not being squished against the window for five hours. Means I can pass out in luxurious comfort.”
The car ambled on down the German highway. The entire party tired, hung over and missing one Russian.