Behind the Scenes of "Shaken, Not Stirred"
Author's Notes
By Wulf Moon
So you want to learn a magic trick? The sleight of hand a magician does to make the audience believe they just saw a miracle that could not occur in their natural world. Well, that's what a good story is. Magic. Flourish your hands properly, pronounce the words of the incantation accurately, and you can levitate not only your assistant, but your audience as well. And not just over the stage. True magicians like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert were able to launch their audience across worlds, over galaxies, even...beyond constellations.  
You sure you want to learn the steps to this one? Once a magician shows how it's done, the trick is never quite the same...
Okay, you're still here. You did read it first? Right. Now don't say I didn't warn you.
In the Beginning
In the beginning there was the void. Into the void came the spark. From the spark ignited the idea that became strands of matter that wound together and coalesced into a story. But first, there was the void. 
Scot Noel asked me to write a story for the new DreamForge Anvil magazine. I told my buddy and fellow Writers of the Future winner Steve Pantazis about the commission, and that I hadn't decided what to write yet. He tossed out an idea. "How about a hobbyist who uses the energy spun off of black holes to create small worlds as charitable contributions to the lesser fortunate interstellar races of the universe. Will the Blackhole Audit Committee shut him down or will he get to keep creating?"
There was the spark. That would have been a good story, but that was Steve's story. But what about a committee, black holes, and audits? How about a board of directors responsible for keeping all the matter in the universe balanced out? I had been itching for years to write a story about ascendant beings that could travel the universe at the speed of thought. They would be extremely rare, because intelligent life is rare —present company excluded, of course— and they would be the pinnacle of their species. Ascendants! What if the universe provided these ascendent beings, one for each intelligent race, to represent and protect them? Go bigger. What if each had dominion over a constellation? Boom! Now how, in dealing with godlike beings, do I make one of them vulnerable? Threatened? In danger of losing not only her life, but the very people she had arisen from to protect?
And that's how I made Cassiopeia. Call her Cassie, less formal, easier for readers to identify with. Let's make her the new kid on the block compared to her peers on the board. Insecurity. Now create a dominant power figure to face off against to amplify her vulnerability. Now make him bent on stripping everything from her while pretending to be her friend and mentor. Powerful opposing force. This is one of the Super Secrets in my upcoming books on the craft of writing. The basics are this: create a sympathetic character that readers can identify with, and then open your story with them already deep behind the eight ball. You have instant tension because your heroine is already in trouble. If your reader senses grave danger, they can't help but read on, because they will want to find out if this person they've become attached to is going to make it. Set your stakes high enough, and the reader's pulse will pound, wondering if someone like Cassie will live or die. Go bigger! How about making the reader worry if someone like sweet Cassie and the human race will live or die? Are the stakes high enough? What is the price of failure? I ramped up the problem so high in this story, the fate of the universe really does hang in the balance.   
And that's how you hold a reader's attention. Sympathetic hero. High stakes. Powerful opposing force. Impossible odds. As The Return of the King scriptwriters had Gimli say when the company planned an assault on The Black Gate: "Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?"
Remember that. That's the secret of a powerful page-turner.
The Opening Scene  
So I have my ascendant being named Cassie. How do I tell my audience she's unique from the average female human? I open with her soaring across the galactic ether, absorbing a little power here and there for vanity's sake. This is worldbuilding, but in the same stroke I'm banking on the fact most readers will identify with the line 'a girl has to dress for success.' In the opening paragraph, I reveal her concern for the people she represents in her territory, and that the balance of power is delicate. The problem escalates in the second paragraph, as you discover Cassie serves on a board of power-hungry fat cat ascendants. In the third paragraph, you discover these board members are not only powerful, but they're also breaking the law. Cassie is in the process of deciding what she must do about it. Fourth paragraph, she's decided. Cassie, the new kid, is going to screw up her courage and call out these violations at the next board meeting. Why? The lives of her sentients on the third planet from Sol depended on it.
High stakes? You bet! In just a few paragraphs, I make you care about this young ascendant lady by giving you reasons to identify with her. She's new on the job. She's discovered the ascendants on the board are corrupt overlords. She cares deeply about the people she serves. And she has hero material within her— she's decided to take the bull by the horns and speak up against those more powerful than her, and call them out on their unlawful practices. Cassie is likeable character.
And then, things get worse. Cassie is heading to a luncheon with the chairman of the board, and she suspects he's been draining power from her. Worse, he's supposed to be her mentor, but he's violating the mentor/apprentice relationship. This is a hot topic in our culture right now, and I intentionally push these buttons to get you emotionally invested by having the chairman flirt with her, speak condescendingly, put his hand on her thigh, and even launch veiled threats in Cassie's direction. To top it all off, Cassie gets placed in a compromising situation where she is forced to make a dirty deal in order to get the important needs of her people even considered by the board. 
At the end of the opening scene, Cassie has a choice. She can go on being the subservient apprentice, or she can choose to enter what is in effect a high stakes poker game where everything she cares about is placed on the line. I stood Cassie at the threshold and had her choose to play the board of directors' dangerous poker game. To enter the journey. All in a little over five double-spaced pages on my manuscript while building a unique science fiction universe with rules you could buy in to.
That's a magic trick.  
The Journey
In the next scene, we come to the board meeting where Cassie is not going to let herself be pushed around anymore. The needs of her people demand that she figures out how to play the board members' game and find an advantage for her cause. We see more of how power is grabbed up, how deals are made under the table, and the moment of test comes to Cassie: will she vote with the chairman in an ends justifies the means moment? She feels she has no choice, makes her stand, and casts her vote to break a tie. Once again, the chairman has manipulated matters to his favor. New girl Cassie has grown in this scene —it's the first time she's figured out how the game is played— but she doesn't like what she's done. She is left with a haunting feeling of regret.
Shame flooded through her. If she truly had ascended, why did she feel so low?
Ever felt like that yourself? Ever wish you could take back a decision that might have benefited you but hurt someone else? I'm betting you have, and I'm betting you're emotionally invested enough in Cassie's feelings to read the next scene to find out how she's going to deal with it. That's called an emotional hook. I placed it at the end of the scene to weight it with drama and gravity. In my freelance editing business, I see too many writers failing to end their scenes dramatically. You get to the end of a powerful scene, and it's something like, "Tired from the long day, Cassie went to bed." That doesn't make me want to read on, it makes me want to go to bed! 
A scene is like a mini story— it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Make the endings on your scenes good endings. Give your readers drama, an unanswered question, a cliffhanger that forces them to read the next scene to find out what happens to their dear Cassie. Don't have your protagonist yawn and wander off the stage. 
Because that's exactly what your readers will do as well. 
In the next scene, a thousand years have passed and the next board meeting approaches. Cassie has calculated the results of her vote, and discovers she has made a terrible mistake: the additional mass the chairman picked up will give him the necessary gravitational force to destroy her. What is more, he is shifting mass in her direction to quicken the pace. Her galaxies and star systems and her people she has been fighting to protect are doomed.
Things get worse. To create escalating tension that rachets inexorably toward the do-or-die climax, even when your heroine appears to succeed, her actions must make things worse. Now, as a result of her deal, Cassie has a bigger problem on her hands. And she realizes even if the chairman keeps his word and gets her request placed on the board's agenda, Hydra will have worked out a deal to get it shot down. He's not going to help her; he's coming for her.
What's a girl to do? She comes up with a dangerous gambit, and she'll need to gain an ally to pull it off. Who does she choose? The one that might appear least likely to help— Cetus, the CFO that's taken a hankering to the eldritch Cthulhu mythos. But he's the guy that does the books, and if Cassie has guessed properly, the secret books, too. She figures he's either going to see the personal benefits of her plan, or he's going to scramble her ascendant brains. High stakes. 
I also get to have some fun bringing details of Segue 2 back in that we saw in the opening scene. It's all researched, all of it has basis in astrophysics and astronomy. Please, go look it up and see how much about Segue 2 that I was able to weave into this tale. Everything in short stories should have a purpose, and when you add in real world details, it enhances the fiction and makes it feel real.
The scene ends with Cassie making her final appeal. Will Cetus back her when she plays her hand? We don't know. He's an unlikely ally, her gambit is just as dangerous for him as it is for her, and he could easily turn her in to curry favor with the chairman. The stakes are high, the outcome uncertain. And that's exactly where I want the curtain to fall. The questions compel the reader to find out what will happen next. 
Shall we? After you.
The Climax
We come to the event everything in this tale has been ratcheting up toward. The do-or-die climax. New girl Cassie has been pitted against a mighty adversary with power and experience far beyond her own. She's had to grow up quickly, and she's had to face the fact that she can't beat Chairman Hydra on her own. She's also played a dangerous gambit by sending the board's secret ledgers to Theta's accountants. A royal audit from Theta can cost one dearly, depending on how the chips may fall.
Cassie banks on one fact about the board members she has stated from the very beginning: Density made one dense. And greedy. CFO Cetus has seen the advantages to himself, has made certain who the royal auditors will be staying with, and Chairman Hydra will be sufficiently weakened so as to no longer pose a threat to Cassie. Even cold and calculating Cetus gives her a nod of respect for her ingenuity, which is why I had him use her full name. "See you at the next board meeting, Cassiopeia."
But wait! There's more!
The Denouement
A story doesn't end at the climax. It's not fulfilling. Readers need a bit of validation that the heroine accomplished what she set out to achieve, grew from the experience, and will ride out for the cause of truth and justice once again should duty call. High ho, Silver! Life goes on. The wheel of time goes round and round. But my favorite is this: And they all lived happily ever after. Why? Because it's been hardwired into us since we were kids, since our parents were kids, since our grandparents and great great grandparents were kids, all the way back into time immemorial. The story has ended, but it's not really over. And the world will be a better place, a happier place, because of what our heroine has done.
So what's the pretty bow I wrap the package of my story up with? Cassie contemplates the loose ends. Perhaps Cetus played her, as he readily admits he's next in line for the chairman's throne. Cassie weighs it out and decides it doesn't matter, because she got what she desired— security for her realm and her people. And then, to show you she's no longer naive new girl Cassie from the opening of the story? She calls up a colleague and invites him to join her for drinks. This is a more confident Cassie, and we smile as we see not only that her life goes on, it's better, and she's the one asking the guy out for drinks.
Martinis actually. Which is where our story began.
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Shaken, Not Stirred © 2021 Wulf Moon