Which true crime novel shook you to the core? And why?
If you don’t read true crime, then substitute the fictionalization of a real crime.
Which true crime novel shook you to the core? And why?
If you don’t read true crime, then substitute the fictionalization of a real crime.
Today’s true crime is personal. My adopted mother, Ruth, was a victim of elder fraud.
Estimates of losses from elder fraud range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion per year. That’s billion with a B. Every single year.
After doing considerable research into elder fraud, I was shocked to discover dirty, little-known secrets about indifferent banks, lack of prosecution, and impotent enforcement.
Here’s what happened to my mother:
Ruth, a widow, was fiercely independent and insisted on living alone in her own home in San Diego. After a medical crisis in 2016, Ellie (biological daughter) and I (adopted daughter) tried to convince Ruth to move in with one of us—Ellie in L.A. or me in Montana–or to have another relative live with her. Ruth flatly refused but finally consented to a visiting caregiver three times a week.
For several years, Ruth’s older sister had been taken care of by a woman named “Jane,” (not her real name for reasons that will soon become clear). The sister’s adult children vouched for Jane. The situation seemed ideal since Jane was already familiar with the family and could drive our mother to visit her sister.
Fast forward to 2017 when a catastrophic stroke left Ruth unable to speak or swallow. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego to care for her.
While we were there, Ruth’s credit card bills arrived in the mail…showing balances of more than $15,000 for items Ruth clearly not had charged.
Ellie called Jane and asked about the charges. Jane broke down and admitted she had been using Ruth’s credit cards. She had also been intercepting mail so Ellie would not find out about the bogus charges. After their distressing phone conversation, Jane sent numerous apologetic texts, promising to pay back the money.
But more evidence of fraud kept turning up, like:
Months before, Jane had changed the address for the cable TV, redirecting the service to Jane’s own home, and set up auto-pay from Ruth’s checking account to pay for it.
While we were at the hospital, a neighbor saw Jane snooping in Ruth’s mailbox, evidently trying to intercept more bills.
Jane had written checks to herself for large amounts of cash that Ruth had signed.
We notified Ruth’s local bank. They closed the checking account and turned the case over to their fraud department.
Ellie called Discover and they immediately froze Ruth’s account. They provided photocopies for the past year and we quickly identified many bogus charges Jane had made.
Now for the first dirty little secret: Your bank may not protect you from theft.
Ruth also had accounts and a VISA at a different Big-Name Bank. Ellie and I visited the branch to report the fraud. We explained Ruth was in the hospital and Ellie brought a copy of her power of attorney giving her authority on the accounts.
A bank officer told us the account could not be frozen nor would they provide copies of suspicious charges…until after Big-Name Bank’s legal department reviewed Ellie’s POA, which could take ten business days.
The POA was simple and straightforward. Because of this mindless policy, the bank left the account wide open to more bogus charges. For the time being, all we could do was destroy the card and pray Jane didn’t have a duplicate.
Next, we called the police. Two detectives from the elder fraud division interviewed us. They copied the texts where Jane admitted the theft. We gave them paperwork showing the bogus charges from Discover and from the local bank where the auto-pay accounts had been compromised. They agreed the evidence was more than enough to recommend prosecution of Jane.
Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday. At the funeral, we heard the first hints of suspicion from the children of Ruth’s sister (who had died a few months earlier). The sister’s jewelry was missing and other money had mysteriously disappeared while Jane was caring for the sister.
Meanwhile, Jane had apparently fled to Arizona.
People don’t like to talk about fraud. They don’t want to accuse someone without proof. They’re embarrassed they didn’t catch on sooner. They feel foolish. Therefore, fraudsters have free rein to continue their crimes.
Ellie and I returned to Big-Name Bank where the POA was supposedly under review by their legal department. We were told that, since Ruth had died, the POA was no longer valid and they refused to help, even though Ellie was executor. Fortunately no additional charges had been made.
We then followed up with the police detective. He said he’d tried to interview Ruth but couldn’t locate her because she’d been moved from the hospital to hospice. Not that an interview would have helped—she couldn’t talk and was comatose.
Then came the biggest shock of all.
The detective said that, since Ruth had died, the case against Jane would not be prosecuted because the victim could not testify. The text messages where Jane confessed the theft plus the paper evidence of fraud were not enough.
Thanks to Discover and the local bank that acted quickly, Ruth didn’t suffer a significant loss. Discover reversed all charges. They were responsible about protecting their customer who’d been a crime victim. I feel bad they had to write off thousands of dollars.
However, my heart doesn’t break for the loss incurred by Big-Name Bank that refused to freeze Ruth’s VISA.
After that account was finally closed, Big-Name Bank then tried to claim Ruth’s estate owed them more than $5000, despite irrefutable proof the charges were fraudulent. The lawyer for the estate finally convinced them it would be a cold day in hell before they collected a cent.
What lessons did we learn?
First, it’s hard to prevent predators from taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Be aware and suspicious of allowing outsiders access to a loved one, even if their references seem valid.
Second, no one is immune. Ellie works for a superior court judge whose own brother was victimized.
Third, encourage your family member to share their financial dealings with a trusted relative or friend. Understandably, many seniors resist because they fear they’ll lose control of their money. Too often, sadly, they instead lose control to a smooth-talking fraudster.
Fourth, glaring loopholes in the law allow scammers to slip through and move on to their next victim.
Fifth, there are no easy solutions.
If Ruth had consented to live with Ellie or me, would this have happened? No.
But if we had insisted on imposing our good intentions on her, we would have disrespected our mother’s proud, independent spirit. We loved her too much to do that.
We thought we were making her life safer and easier by hiring a caregiver. Instead, we inadvertently opened the door to the henhouse for the fox.
How do you respect the rights and autonomy of loved ones while protecting them from those who would take advantage?
I don’t know. Dammit, I wish I did.
Life imitates art. More than a year before my mother’s incident, I had been writing Stalking Midas, the second book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.
After this experience, I rewrote parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate some hard lessons learned. Although the story is fiction and very different from Ruth’s, I hope readers will find truths within the book to protect themselves and their family.
Justice never caught up with Jane. Her successes with Ruth and Ruth’s sister probably emboldened her to victimize others. That makes me sick.
However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page……
And I did!
I’m happy to announce the launch of my new suspense thriller, Stalking Midas.
Charming con artist Cassandra Maza has cornered her prey, Moe Rosenbaum, an addled millionaire with nine cats, until investigator Tawny Lindholm disrupts the scam. Tawny suspects elder fraud and won’t stop digging until she finds the truth.
Cassandra can’t allow that. She’s killed before and each time it’s easier. Tawny will be next.
Especially for TKZ readers, I’m giving away a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be selected at random from comments on today’s post.
For discussion: Have you or a loved one been a victim of elder fraud? What lesson did you learn?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since my first novel was traditionally published in 2007, it’s that a writer needs to be flexible and amenable to change if they want to be successful. My definition of success? I’m still here. Readers still read my stories–often paying for them–and I still write them.
ISABELLA MOON was first published by Ballantine Books, and was/is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. It’s about a woman living in hiding from an abusive husband, and she’s contacted by the ghost of a child who went missing two years earlier. Why am I so attached to my first novel? I wonder if I would even think about it much if the ebook revolution hadn’t happened. Without ebooks, I doubt I would have bothered to republish it once the rights reverted to me. Just think of all the books that (often deservedly) are lost to time because they were published in paper–paper that wasn’t acid-free. The existence of non-expiring digital content, combined with easy access to book resellers, means that pretty much any book can now stay alive a long, long time.
But tastes change. Markets change. And there are always potential new readers to attract. I confess I’m often guilty of picking up a book because I’m drawn to its cover. Thus I feel compelled to update the covers of the few books I re-publish myself.
Cover 1, Ballantine: Hardcover (2007)
This is a beautiful cover. If I’d been a more experienced writer, I might have pushed to have it look a bit edgier. It has a mysterious, dreamlike, feminine, rather timeless vibe. Yet the book has several horror elements.
Cover 2: Trade Paperback, Ballantine (2008)
I love the fuzziness of the title, particularly since the book is a ghost story. The size of trade paperbacks appeals to me.
Covers 3 and 4: Hardcover, Trade paper (export edition) William Heinemann, UK (2008)
The yellow color in this photo is a bit deceiving. It’s actually more of a pale cream, with a glimmering, matte sheen to it. It’s truly stunning, and thematically dead-on.
Cover 5: Ebook, Gallowstree Publishing (2011) (My publishing company, freelance designer)
Looking back on this one makes me go Hmmmm. It definitely has more of a horror vibe, and is certainly unsettling. The adult protagonist is obviously in danger.
Cover 6: Ebook, Gallowstree Press (2015?), freelance designer
This is the most literal cover: Ghostly font, ghost, photo of moon. Not sure why it’s basically 3 colors. I think it would make a terrific paperback.
Covers 7 and 8, Gallowstree Press, my designs
I’m going to experiment with two covers for this next update that’s coming in a week or two. One cover has a mystery feel to it, and the other that of a dark thriller. I’m considering adding a horror short story to the edition with the flower cover to differentiate it at the retailers. We’ll see how that works.
Between Vellum, and Canva, and many other helpful sites, it’s shockingly easy to make changes to all of my owned content. And, really, I have little to lose by making those changes. As these last two are for ebooks exclusively, my goal has been to make them great thumbnails. I would love to sell ISABELLA MOON in my own print-on-demand versions, but there are PLENTY of hard and softcover versions available out in the world. No need to add to the world’s post-consumer paper glut.
Why the wide selection of cover styles? ISABELLA MOON is one of those stories that crosses genre boundaries: thriller, crime, gothic, horror, mystery. It’s tough to classify. I’ve always felt that the original cover, though beautiful, put it off on the wrong foot in the market. There’s strong language, sex, and plenty of violence between the covers. The reviews are polarized, so I had to stop reading them.
Of course, I should’ve done all this revamping well before my most recent novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, was published back in February. There’s lots to do: update the excerpts in the backs of the books. Update the blurbs, and add my most recent four books to the interior bibliography. Oh, and update my author photo. Though I wouldn’t mind being eternally forty-five.
Note: The images in the two latest covers came from Istock. I will have to purchase extended licenses to use them as part of salable content.
TKZers–tell me all your cover successes and woes. And ask me anything!
Today’s first page critique takes us out on the high seas. Please enjoy the following then we’ll discuss.
Ocean Effect: No land, no law.
You just can’t control some things when you live and work aboard a 260-foot private superyacht. Like being summoned near midnight to make coffee for the captain. But I was the chef, on call 24/7. Not an ideal job, but it kept me out of the public eye – and out of jail.
On my way to the galley I traced the teak spiral stair case railing, varnished to a high shine that cost more than my yearly salary to maintain. Built for people with names like Astor, I couldn’t let myself go too gaga over the Kathleen’s luxury. I was just glad land was far behind us after picking up the yacht owner’s son, Jonathan, and his friends in Newport. Now I could stop looking over my shoulder, keep my fear in check. Fear of being back there after more than a year on the run, fear of being connected to my old life as Penelope McKenna, assistant DA.
I was just stubborn enough to stay the course, eyes on my goal. That stubbornness had gotten me into trouble as a kid, but was my saving grace as an adult. Give me a goal and I’m laser-focused. Like life at sea: a steep learning curve but so worth it to get away. So yeah, I’d take orders. I’d get the captain his coffee at midnight. Gladly.
I opened the large walk-in freezer for the special coffee beans I kept just for Cap. As my eyes adjusted to the flickering fluorescent light, I saw a large heap on the floor against the far wall. I never put anything on the floor – who’d been in my galley? I stepped in but my brain wouldn’t process what it saw. A man? What? Laying on his side with his back to me, the galley’s super-sharp ice pick buried up to its handle in his back. A small circular blood stain on his untucked white oxford shirt looked like an unfortunate bulls-eye.
Any sense of control I had disintegrated. Flee. Now. The same impulse I’d had a year ago; it was automatic. But there was nowhere to flee to. We were more than 350 miles offshore, no land – or law – in sight.
I took another step forward. Be cool, McKenna. I reached for a wrist pulse and the head lolled to the side. Whoa. Jonathan! The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my recent promotion to head chef. Shock filled my ears with white noise. I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.
The Brave Author opens this story with a boatload of intrigue (sorry, couldn’t help it!). A former assistant DA, Penelope McKenna, is on the run because of unspecified events in her past that could land her in jail. She’s working as a chef aboard a luxury mega-yacht and finds her employer’s son, Jonathan, in the galley with an ice pick in his back. She’s 350 miles from land, stuck on a boat with a murderer and presumably she’ll be blamed while the real killer is free to wreak havoc.
That’s a walloping start.
Brave Author, you’ve hit the mark with many important big-picture issues.
Character: you hint at McKenna’s trouble in her backstory without slowing the forward momentum. Well done.
Setting: The glitz and glamour of a luxury yacht captures reader attention. Plus, a ship at sea is a scary, remote location where potential victims are trapped with the killer. A killer who can’t escape is especially dangerous.
Crime: a murder on page one begins the story with a bang.
Now let’s fine-tune.
Time period: Without a specific reference, I assume this is contemporary, which made the reference to “Astor” sound dated. Wealthy John Jacob Astor IV perished in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic so maybe this is subtle foreshadowing but it distracted me.
Title: Ocean Effect: no land, no law implies a ship at sea is at the mercy of the lawless. However, the punctuation and lack of capital letters make the intent vague and unclear. See if you can come up with a punchier title.
Voice: Attorneys are skilled at laying out a situation in a logical fashion to make their case. Although the Brave Author packs a lot of information in one page, the way McKenna conveyed details felt a little jerky and disjointed.
The paragraph about McKenna’s stubbornness and laser-focus stopped the action cold. At this point, the reader wants to know why she is on the run and doesn’t yet care about the trouble she got into as a child. It also felt like a clunky device for the author to say, “Here are some of McKenna’s character traits.” A better method is to incorporate her personality into the action. Rather than tell the reader she’s stubborn, show it.
McKenna’s internal reactions are italicized for emphasis. However, three times in one page was a bit much. Flee. Now. and Be cool, McKenna are fine but suggest you delete Whoa!
White noise is a good description of that dizzy, plugged-ear feeling one feels from shock. But try a more concise, active sentence structure: White noise filled my ears.
Here are a few suggestions to smooth out the flow and get rid of extra words:
When you work as a chef aboard a 260-foot private superyacht, a call to make coffee at midnight for the captain means right now. As I climbed from my comfy berth, I reminded myself this job kept me out of the public eye and out of jail. Yeah, I’d gladly get Cap’s coffee 24/7.
The varnished teak rail slid like silk under my hand as I clipped down the spiral staircase to the galley, trying not to go too gaga over the Kathleen’s luxury.
[Early that morning,] we’d picked up the yacht owner’s son, Jonathan, and his friends in Newport [Beach?]. I relaxed now that land was far behind us. I could stop looking over my shoulder and keep my fear in check. Fear of being back [in LA?] after more than a year on the run, fear of being connected to my old life as Penelope McKenna, assistant DA.
In the galley, I opened the large walk-in freezer for the special coffee beans I kept just for Cap. In the flickering fluorescent light, a large heap lay on the floor against the far wall. I never left anything on the floor – who’d been in my galley?
When my eyes adjusted, I saw the heap was a man, lying on his side, his back to me.
With an ice pick buried up to the handle between his shoulder blades.
A small circular blood stain on his untucked white oxford shirt looked like a bulls-eye.
The same automatic impulse I’d felt a year ago resurfaced. But there was nowhere to flee to. We were more than 350 miles offshore, no land – or law – in sight.
Be cool, McKenna.
I stooped to grasp his wrist to feel for a pulse. His head lolled to the side.
Jonathan! The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my recent promotion to head chef.
My ears filled with white noise. I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But, if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.
Brave Author, your instincts about when to enter the story are solid. You chose a glamorous yet remote location that offers plenty of potential danger. You introduce a main character who has an intriguing secret that makes the reader curious. Then she immediately steps deep into trouble, compelling the reader to turn the page.
After you do a little bit of smoothing and cutting, this first page will work very well.
TKZers: Are you eager for page 2? Do you have suggestions for the Brave Author?
A few weeks ago I reached out to my fellow bloggers about freelance editor recommendations and, although I got some great names and assistance (thanks!), it made me realize just how little I know about the process of hiring an independent editor to help with the development and revision of a novel. Up till now I have relied on my beta readers and my agent to get feedback during the drafting/revision process prior to submission, so I faced a bit of a dilemma when my agent and I realized that additional changes were still needed to one of my novels but that both of us were now too close to the material to know the best way to proceed. An independent editor seemed the obvious solution – but, after my agent lucked out with her contacts (all of which were over committed already), I said I’d try and identify additional options. It was at this point that I realized just how little I knew about the process…and how hard it was to identify the ‘right fit’ when it came to freelance editorial services. Not only did many seem super expensive, few I initially identified seemed to really align with what I needed. This was where I appreciated getting personal recommendations (again, thanks!) but hiring an editor still seems like a daunting task (especially given the potential fees involved!)…so I thought, why not open it to the TKZ community to see what their experiences have been…:)
So for all of you TKZers who have used independent editors, I’d appreciate honest answers and feedback to the following questions:
Thanks in anticipation for all your advice and shared experiences (and recommendations too if you have them!).
Today’s post comes courtesy of a first-page critique. Here we go:
Tobias Martel walked from the sidewalk to the back door of an older, one-story house that screamed for basic repairs. One block east of South King Street in the historic district of Leesburg, Virginia, the run-down state of the property, which faced the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail, violated all the stereotypes of the richest county in the United States. Overgrown bushes and trees provided some needed cover for his operation, safe from the passing cyclists and runners on the W&OD trail.
The targets that lived in the house used the back door exclusively because the gravel driveway led right to it. The front and back doors were the newest parts of the house, along with the locks. Both were secured with Kwikset double cylinder locks, a grade 1 lock requiring a key to open from both inside and outside the home. It was designed to keep out a large majority of burglars, criminals, and thieves.
Martel was none of the above.
He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. His wrestling days in high school and college gave him a rugged physique that made it hard to shed any more weight. The gray hair, which had peeked through fifteen years ago, quickly accelerated because of the shock according to the doctors. It now covered his entire head, with just glimpses of his former color still visible. He kept his hair trimmed, never going more than four weeks between haircuts. Martel hated that shaggy look. Complimenting his mane of grey was a close beard. More like a five o’clock shadow. It made it easy to change up his looks or grow it back fast when needed.
Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Besides easy identification, he never saw anything socially redeeming about sticking ink under your skin. His only visible identifier was a four-inch scar on his left arm, starting below his thumb and working its way at a jagged angle towards his elbow. It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife. Martel had made sure the man had understood the consequences. He was dead certain this mistake wouldn’t happen again.
In three months, Martel would turn 48. He wondered if this was it—if this was how life would be until it was over. He had thought many times about taking the end date into his own hands. Stopping this perpetual madness before it overwhelmed his nightly thoughts. He argued with himself whether to stay in the game or not. The only issue would be how he exited —his terms or someone else’s.
JSB: Here’s what we have: the kernel of a good opening—an assassin about to do his thing. That would make a gripping scene. The problem is we don’t have a scene. We have description from a disembodied voice (i.e., the author’s).
So rather than going line by line, I’m first going to advise the author to re-write the entire opening chapter using no description at all. That’s what I said. Do this as a discipline to force yourself to write the action of the scene. Don’t put in any backstory, either (e.g., It was the byproduct of an unfortunate decision made by a man with a knife…)
Once you’ve done the re-write, then you can go back and marble in some descriptive elements, but only what is necessary for the reader to envision the scene. I’ll also allow you three sentences of backstory, which you can use together or spread out over the first 10k words.
But the big issue I want to talk about is this pesky thing called “author voice.” It means that as we are reading, we get the vibe that the author is telling us things in his or her own words. (Note: obviously we are discussing Third Person POV.)
It’s often subtle, but the way to tell is when the narration doesn’t seem like anything the character himself would say. A few examples:
Martel was none of the above. That’s the author telling us something, because it’s not what Martel would ever think about himself—at least not in those words.
He was a fraction over six feet and weighed in at 220 pounds. Again, not how Martel would think of himself.
Martel had eschewed any kind of tattoos. Would Martel ever use the word eschewed? I think not.
The reason this is so important is that readers crave intimacy with characters. When the author sticks his voice into the proceedings, that intimacy is diluted, if not lost altogether.
That’s why I advise a “powerhouse secret” that is simple to understand, but requires care and craft to pull off. Once you get it on the page, however, it will return massive dividends in reader engagement. Here it is:
Put all narrative in a form that sounds like the character would think or say it.
In other words, everything on the page should seem to be filtered through whoever the viewpoint character is. It should feel like this:
To illustrate, let’s compare a couple of passages.
Ernest Stickley put down his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing the men around him talking and trying to sound like they were from the mean streets. He also thought it was a mistake to have made that call to Rainy. If the call had been about having a drink sometime, that would have been fine. But he shouldn’t have promised him anything.
Stickley soaped his hands from the dispenser and washed up. Then he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked pale and a bit solemn. In fact, he looked like someone else. He looked like the man he had been before that trouble in Jackson, Tennessee. Back then he had a hard look that helped him stand up to people.
There’s nothing distinctive in this narration. It’s a dry, objective recitation of facts.
Now let’s look at how Elmore Leonard did it in his novel Stick:
Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying man all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.
Stick washed his hands with the fragrant pink soap that came out of the dispenser, washed them good and stared into the clear mirror at his features. Pale, solemn. Who was that? Like looking at someone else. Back in another life before Jackson he could narrow his eyes at his reflection––hard-boned but not bad looking––and say, “That’s it? That’s all you got?”
It’s obvious how much better this is. It is Stick’s voice we hear, his attitudes, his musings. It pulls us further into his character, rather than keeping us at arm’s length.
That’s what I want to see in this piece, author. So for your final exercise, after you’ve given us a scene with action, rewrite it in FIRST Person POV. This will force you to write in Martel’s voice.
Then…convert it back into Third Person!
Here’s what’s going to happen: when you re-read your chapter and compare it to what you have here, you will utter the word Wow.
You have the TKZ guarantee.
Two quick notes before I go. First (because this drives me bonkers) there is a difference between complimenting and complementing. You should have used the latter.
Second (from the shameless self-promotion dept.) I’ve written an entire book on the crucial subject of Voice.
Comments are welcome.
By Mark Alpert
I’m halfway through reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. What a strange novel! It starts with a completely inexplicable event — some unknown object crashes into the moon and causes it to break up into seven pieces, which then collide with one another and fracture into an untold number of shards. A substantial portion of this debris is then drawn toward Earth. The human race has only two years to prepare for the Hard Rain, a worsening storm of meteorite strikes that will make the planet’s surface uninhabitable. Governments around the world begin assembling heavy-lift rockets and lofting hundreds of spacecraft into orbit. The survivors of planetary destruction cling to life in the Cloud Ark, a swarm of orbital modules surrounding the International Space Station.
It’s a great premise for a thriller. The Cloud Ark is vulnerable to strikes from pieces of moon debris, which tear through the orbiting spacecraft. The “Arkies” have to figure out how to make their space colony sustainable for the long term, because the Earth’s surface will remain molten for thousands of years. And conflicts arise very quickly among the survivors as strong-willing contenders battle for control of the colony.
Coincidentally, this has been a great week for sky-watching. A waxing moon was flanked by Saturn to the left and Jupiter to the right. A few nights ago I took the telescope down to the lakeshore (we’re on vacation in northern Michigan) and we gazed upon Saturn’s rings and the Galilean satellites. We spotted a few Perseid meteors too, making it easier to imagine the Hard Rain.
Do you ever get so caught up in a story that you can practically see it happening all around you? That’s a sure sign that the novel is a good one!
My own apocalyptic novel, THE COMING STORM, is featured in the latest issue of the digital magazine NatureVolve. Check it out here.
You’ve just been arrested for murdering your neighbor in the exact same way as the victim died in the last thriller you read.
How did your neighbor die?
Extra points question!
When the police search your computer, what will they find in your search history that will strengthen their case against you?
Conflict is EVERYTHING in writing a fictional story. As they say–no conflict, no story. An example might be the difference between describing what happened in your average day (blow by tedious blow) versus sharing the same story but with a driving conflict that smacked you in the face and you had to deal with an escalating problem. A life altering conflict–such as a weird neighbor moving next door or the water that supplies your city suddenly turns into poison.
Conflict Needs Obstacles – Readers love reading about a good fight or a conflict they can relate to, especially if the conflict escalates or there is a sense of urgency to it. Conflict isn’t just about two people fighting or a man or woman against a villain. It’s about throwing obstacles in the way of your main character(s). Make them worthy of a starring role by testing them throughout the story. Conflict needs to be substantial with enough threat to drive the action, to see what the characters will do.
Conflict Won’t Mean Much Without Empathy – It’s key to get the reader engaged in your story through empathy. Conflict wouldn’t mean much if your characters don’t earn sympathy from the reader. Readers will lose interest in unlikable characters. It’s hard to be in the head of someone the reader can’t stand or a character with no redeeming qualities.
Conflict can be Boosted by your Cast of Characters – What do other characters in your story think of your protagonist? Even a dark anti-hero can give the reader a good impression if a child loves him or a dog follows him everywhere. The people in the life of your hero/heroine can shed light on who they are and make them easier to relate to. Who has their loyalty and why? A cast of well-placed/well-thought-out characters can be strategic to support the protagonist in a conflict.
Conflict Needs Higher or Escalating Stakes – Conflict shouldn’t be something that two people can simply sit down and talk about to fix. Resolution should be hard and challenging. Try pitting two characters against each other who both have admirable opposing goals. Add major roadblocks that escalate based upon each character’s actions. The story should get complicated by their choices and they should pay a consequential price for what they do.
The essence of most conflicts can be in the list below. If you have others to suggest, please list them in your comments.
Classic examples of well-told stories with major conflict are: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Robinson Crusoe, Schindler’s list, Animal Farm, 1984, Moby Dick, The Help, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
1.) Person against Person – A conflict between two people or one person against a group. Typically the opposition or villain is the alter-ego of the hero/heroine. This opposite nature allows you to explore the internal weaknesses of your hero/heroine. Don’t waste an opportunity to cross over conflicts with friction that adds tension, but you don’t have to hit your reader over the head with your cleverness. If done right, readers will get it. (See Person Against Self.) For an example of person against person, try any Die Hard movie where Bruce Willis is against ANY arch nemesis.
2.) Person Against Society – A conflict that confronts the law, major institutions, society & culture, or government. It’s David against Goliath, a struggle that feels daunting and is all the more celebrated when the little guy finds a way to win–or more crushing when the hero/heroine must give in. The Help or the Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale are good examples of an oppressive society, culture, or the law.
3.) Person Against Self – A conflict that’s internal where a person struggles with physical weaknesses, prejudices, self-doubt, or personality flaws they must overcome. I would argue that even if you HAVE a main conflict, this should be another facet to your story. Giving a character a weakness or flaw to overcome can make the overarching conflict stronger by testing them. Schindler’s List is a great example of a story where the protagonist must confront his own beliefs and practices to do the right thing.
4.) Person Against God/Religion or Fate – A conflict between a person and their faith, their God, or Free Will versus destiny. This category might feel similar to a conflict of a person with Self or Society, but I like to isolate this conflict because religion and the idea of Free Will vs fate is a compelling one. (I’ve woven this thread through many of my books because it intrigues me.) With Death being the narrator in The Book Thief, it can be an example of how fate played a hand in the character’s lives or how God views the struggles of mankind–friend or foe or bystander.
5.) Person Against Nature – A conflict of a protagonist against the forces of nature (from weather to terrain to battling against the animal kingdom). Nature could also mean the embodiment of one formidable creature, as in Moby Dick, or a species such as in The Birds by Hitchcock.
6.) Person Against the Supernatural – A conflict with the supernatural realm. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is an example of a Supernatural conflict. An example of crossing over conflicts is to combine the supernatural obstacle with your protagonist’s views on God or Fate or them battling elements within themselves (Person Against Self). Many people have the belief that the Supernatural ties to the afterlife. The religious aspects complicate the story, but they can be damned compelling.
7.) Person Against Science/Technology – A conflict between a person/humanity against Science or Technology. It’s a given that people generally are skeptical of innovations. Why not make them fearful of them? Create a diabolical villain who creates a technology that is harmful or dangerous for humanity, or discovers a way to rule or manipulate mankind with a new Science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would fit in this conflict element.
1.) What conflict on this list applies to your present project? Explain how.
2.) When you think about books you’ve read with memorable conflict, what books come to mind and why?
By PJ Parrish
Good morning crime dogs. We have a new submission from a fellow writer to go over today that had me thinking about the movies Aliens and Blue Velvet. I’ll be back in a flash with my input. Please chime in with helpful hints, encouragement, and insights.
Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, twenty-four hours a day – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.
The house he parked across from was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a small yard, the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The sun was heavy and bright, blanketing the street in a searing white light. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door, raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw no movement through the glass. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere.
He rapped his knuckles on the door.No answer. He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing. He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. The screen on the face of it instantly lit up, snapping to life. On it was a computer rendered map of the neighborhood he was in. A flashing green dot represented exactly where he was standing. Another dot, this one flashing red, appeared on screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor.
We’re back. This one really left me flummoxed. On first read, it’s not bad. We identify what I am guessing is a main character, maybe the putative protag, and we can tell what is happening, except for a couple lapses. A man is casing out a tidy home in a nice neighborhood. He has a Glock G22, which is the most common service pistol for cops, so I’m guessing he’s a good guy. But beyond this, I am lost. And worse, I am not sure I care about what is going on here.
Here’s my problem: The writer spent a lot of precious words describing things and using wasteful sentence construction when he or she could have been building some tension and dribbling in some choice backstory details so we get a sense of who this guy Carter is. But, you say, there’s a man with a gun over there! Not enough. Especially in today’s hard-to-crack crime fiction market. A guy sitting in a car casing a building has been done and done and done. And the problem is complicated by the fact that what this guy is, and what he is there for, is hazy. Now, I hear you — we don’t WANT or even NEED to know every detail of the action in the first couple pages. But we have to have enough telling details to be intrigued.
And here’s a thing about description of your setting. If you are going to use it in your opening two or three pages, make it mean something. USE the setting to enhance mood and create tension. I think the writer was going for the juxtaposing of the neighborhood’s NORMALCY with the ABNORMALITY of lurking danger (either from Carter or whoever is inside that house). But it doesn’t quite come across.
This made me remember the brilliant opening of David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet. As the old song plays on, Lynch gives us lovely images of suburban life — rose gardens, picket fences, kids coming home from school, a man watering his lawn. Then…the man is bitten by something and falls. Lynch then takes the camera below the flowers, underneath the green grass and shows us these horrible insects eating each other alive. What lies beneath…
We need to be in Carter’s thoughts more. Why is the street deserted in broad daylight? Someone obviously just mowed their lawn, so why can’t we have some human beings in sight? Maybe Carter could be looking around this nice little neighborhood, watching a kid bounce a basketball, or an old lady walking her terrier. Or maybe the guy mowing his lawn stops and the sudden quiet SAYS SOMETHING about the mood. Maybe the lawn mower’s growl mimics the noise in Carter’s head and then when it cuts out, he hears this deafening silence that SAYS SOMETHING about his mood? See what I am asking for here, dear writer? Make your setting work harder. It isn’t just there — it has to say something.
There’s a few weird things going on that I don’t get. Carter says he has been awake for three years and eight months, 24-7. That makes no sense. Unless he’s a zombie or something, and I don’t think that’s the genre we’re dealing with here. We SEEM to be in present time (ie Glock and Dodge Charger). If Carter is some kind of machine, droid or something un-human, you have to give us a clue. Also, you say it’s the shank of the day — broad harsh sunlight — yet he thinks “The last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight.”
Now, because we don’t know what he is — cop? special ops? assassin? — it’s hard to understand some of his actions. He has some kind of special human locator device.
First off, you have to be more specific about what the heck it is. If you’re making it up, that’s cool, but make us believe it! It can’t be a mere “small rectangular device.” Carter would know exactly what it’s called, so get in his head and tell us. I was picturing that thing in the movie Aliens that showed the monsters on a tiny screen as pulsating blobs. (See photo right). Now, this technology doesn’t yet exist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in Carter’s world. You just have to make us believe it. Have him think something like, “He pulled out the Arious Motion Tracker X40. There were only three in the world that he knew of. Hell, even the military didn’t know about them yet. He flipped the switch and pointed it at the house. Immediately, a white pulsating dot came on the small green screen. No big deal. That was his own infrared shadow. But then a second red dot drifted onto the green. Carter started hard at it then looked up at the house. Someone was inside.”
And while we’re at it, why did Carter wait until he was on the porch to use this vital device? He seems to be concerned about his safety and not blowing his assignment again. (You have him thinking in the car: “He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close.”)
But here’s where you sort of lost me in the believeability. Carter is obviously experienced in whatever it is he’s doing. He has reason to suspect someone is in the house. Yet he casually walks up in board daylight, knocks on the door, peers in the window, and sees nothing. This guy would be casing this house within an inch of his life. He’d look for security cameras. He’d see if a car was in the garage. And he’d wonder if this nice suburban house, like so many today, has a doorbell with a camera to ward off mayhem. The worst thing you can do is make your hero look inept.
Now, I’d like to do some line edits for some clarity, mainly to show how you can eliminate some clutter-words. Also, dear writer, be more aware of your paragraph lengths. You have only three, each almost exactly the same length. In an action scene like this (as quiet as it is), shorter graphs can heighten tension. I’m going to add a few paragraphs to show you what I mean.
Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Not sure this is your best opening line. For one, it’s a tad cliched. Also, you need to tell us he is parked outside a house sooner. He could be in a dark alley in Newark, a dessert hovel in Iraq, a brothel in Brooklyn.
Hopefully Now, I’m not going grammar cop on you; you can use this. But why would you? It feels weak and wish-washy. I don’t think Carter is either. Try something like: Maybe, with a little luck, he wouldn’t have to fire one bullet. But he was never one to depend on luck.
He wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, Again, relief sounds weak, like he’s not experienced at carrying.
and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, Hwenty-four hours a day I just don’t get this. – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, this means nothing. the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. ???He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, He knew because it had almost cost him his life two years ago in Istanbul. Drop in a dollop of backstory please. and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.
The house he parked across from This is passive construction. Establish higher up that he is casing a house.
was a two-story semi-detached, and looked , from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a The grass in the small yard was freshly mowed. , the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The noon? sun was heavy and bright, blanketed the street in a searing white light. It would also create deep shadows, making things stand out in high relief. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door and peered in. , raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw He could see only a foyer but there was no movement. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere. Nice sensory detail but it is out of place here, where you are trying to escalate tension. Put all your description in one graph above and move on.
rapped his knuckles on the door.knocked. No answer.
He knocked again, harder
and louder. Still nothing.
He waited a few more seconds then
went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. pulled a device the size of a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. It was a ….whatever you want to call it. The screen on the face of instant tly lit up, snapping to life. with On it was a computer rendered a map and of the neighborhood he was in. a pulsating flashing green dot that showed represented exactly his position. where he was standing. Another Then a second red dot this one flashing red, moved onto the screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor. He can discover this later. Make your sentences short and staccato to mimic tension.
New graph: Someone was inside.
Okay, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. There is good material here. I just want you to work harder because I have a hunch this is a good story just off to a slow start. And Carter is a guy I want to know more about. Just make him come more alive. Because you — and he — get only one chance to make a good impression.