How to use the Intruder to create drama in your story.

©2010 by Jack Remick and Robert J Ray

The intruder is your key to instant drama. Say you’re writing a scene where two people are talking. Your dialogue is okay – you’re following the Rules (see Dialogue) – but when your friends act out the voices, there’s no heat. No fire. No drama.  The scene is dead.

Solution – bring on the intruder. That third character. If your characters are in bed in a hotel room, the intruder could be a jealous spouse with a gun or a bellboy with champagne and caviar. The two characters and their dialogue create a closed circle, a private space, temporary but real; the intruder creates tension, because he (or she) disturbs the balance of two people alone.

A couple of examples:

Philip Marlowe the private eye is the intruder who penetrates the moneyed closed circle of Sternwood Manor (The Big Sleep).

Jane Eyre is the intruder who penetrates the closed circle of Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre).

Jay Gatsby is the intruder who penetrates the closed circle of Daisy’s East Egg mansion. Gatsby, the hero with his head lulled by romance, will penetrate that circle only once. Tomorrow, because he crossed the wrong threshold, Gatsby will be dead.

Katherine Clifton, the wife of Geoffrey the spy, penetrates two closed circles: circle number one is the tight group of desert explorers in North Africa before the war; the penetration of circle number two happens when Katherine slips her swimmer drawings into the English Patient’s book, the histories of Herodotus, which represents his own private space.

How the Intruder entered our writing: One summer Jack and I attended the writing conference at Port Townsend. We registered for a workshop. We started an early morning, pre-breakfast writing group. We were hunting for something – some insight into our writing – that would make an otherwise useless conference worthwhile. One morning there was a knock on my door. It was Jack, wild-eyed from no sleep, holding a diagram that showed an arrow penetrating a closed circle.

Intruder, he said.

What about it? I said.

It’s bigger than we thought.

At the conference, we tested the intruder in our own writing. Saw how the intruder could juice up a dramatic scene. After the conference, we tested him in our workshops, where we developed a simple formula: Character A talks to Character B and creates a closed circle. After they run on for a page, we bring on Character C, the intruder. Our writers were amazed. To see how the intruder could juice up your writing, see below: Fates of the Intruder.

Three Possible Fates for the Intruder–

The writer has three choices:

  • repel
  • expel
  • assimilate

The dramatic intensity of the scene can be measured: Expulsion is more powerful than assimilation. Assimilation is less powerful than repulsion.

The fate of the intruder determines the nature of the dramatic scenes. The goal of the writer of the dramatic scene is to draw lines that the intruder must cross. Once the intruder crosses the line his or her fate becomes the center of the dramatic episode. Repulsion of a genteel character creates sadness; unjust expulsion of a sympathetic character creates indignation; assimilation of a wicked character creates horror; expulsion of a wicked character creates satisfaction. The goal of the writer of dramatic scenes is to produce satisfaction. Indignation is anger unresolved. Horror is fear unmitigated.

Satisfaction is seeing the wicked intruder hurled into the pit.