Showing and Telling for Thanksgiving


Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! That said, I have to say that it is extremely inconsiderate of Abraham Lincoln to have scheduled a time-consuming national holiday near the closing stretch of everyone’s NaNoWriMo effort (I mean, the nerve!).  I do, however, have an entertaining suggestion to get you back on your creative track after you have finished dinner. It is also a very basic but extremely well done example of showing instead of telling.

Show, not tell. How often we hear those three words. We often find ourselves telling instead of showing, however, during our writing. It’s understandable because more it’s easier to write “Jack is tall” as opposed to “Jack was easy to spot. To say he looked like Gulliver among a roomful of Lilliputians would be an exaggeration, but not by much”  is harder, but it reads better and begins to set up the locale of your story. That isn’t the post-Thanksgiving creative jumper and example I was talking about, however; no, that would be a film titled Kristy, a slasher film for folks who don’t like slasher films.

Kristy is a very low budget holiday horror film (currently streaming on Netflix) that gets its money’s worth out of every production dime it spent.  The film stars Haley Bennett, who is currently prominently featured in the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train. If I were pitching the idea for Kristy I would call it “Die Hard goes to school.” The premise is fairly basic. A young woman named Justine unexpectedly finds herself alone on her small, rural college campus (but for a couple of  policemen) over the Thanksgiving holiday when she is unexpectedly pursued with great malice and bad intent by a group of masked individuals who insist on calling her “Kristy.” It’s a slow boil for the first half or so of the film, as we watch Justine bid her friends farewell and  go through the paces of studying, getting dinner from a vending machine, doing laundry, and some other mundane things. That first half is also the most important part of the movie, because we learn about Justine. I could tell you, but Kristy SHOWS you what she is studying and what one of her extracurricular activities is (two things that become very important during the second half of the film). Examples abound. The body language between Justine and Aaron, her boyfriend, during the short course of their post, pre-holiday boombah shows two people who aren’t quite on the same page of their relationship without a word being mentioned. Justine conveys compassion, courtesy, and angst with a sentence or a look; the long camera shots up the (initially) quiet and secluded dormitory corridors, with room doors cheerfully decorated create an atmosphere of solitude and loneliness. By the time that Justine attracts the attention of a group of murderous sleazoids when she makes a trip to a local convenience store we pretty much know that she is not the daughter of an Army Ranger who taught her everything she knew.  That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything about defending herself. She just needs to apply what she knows to the matter of defending herself…if she can. If you pay attention to the first half of the movie, you’ll know what she can do, if the creeps don’t get her first.

Yes, there is violence during Kristy, but it’s not gratuitous (well, not entirely). While I wouldn’t let the youngsters watch it I wouldn’t let them watch Old Yeller, either. Kristy has a happier ending. Oh, and if you hate movies where a guy comes in and saves the damsel in distress you will absolutely love Kristy. The reason that I mention it here, however, is that it’s instructive in showing rather than telling, and entertaining too. The reason that I mention it now is that…well, it’s a Thanksgiving  holiday movie with a warm ending. Heh heh heh.

Again, Happy Thanksgiving, whether you take my recommendation or otherwise. Your turn now. What was your best or worst Thanksgiving? My best was in 2006 when my granddaughter was born. My worst was in 1994 when I set my kitchen on fire making dinner. You? And if you have had a Thanksgiving holiday like Justine, please share.

Reader Friday: Do You Find Zen In Your Writing?

img_1311Let’s turn our thoughts today to the subject of happiness and finding inner peace. What’s your go-to method for achieving balance and harmony in life? Does the discipline of writing help you stay balanced and impact your mood in a positive way, or is it more like a daily chore?

And if you need some inspiration along those lines, please enjoy Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing”.

Setting the Stage for Suspense – First Page Critique: Staying Alive

Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane


A brave anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of their WIP – STAYING ALIVE. Read and enjoy. Catch you on the flip side for my feedback & your constructive criticism in comments.


The Dobbs Hotel wasn’t much to look at, a cheap dump really, but if you were going to kill someone, it was the perfect spot.

Nestled down a dark side street in one of Miami’s rougher areas, about a half-block off Northwest Seventh Street, it was little more than a flop — not even good enough for whores and their johns — surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. Just what Jimmy Quintana needed for this job.

He and Raúl pulled up in front. No other cars in sight. A dim streetlamp down on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel were the only sources of light, and they weren’t much. The moon was blacked out by low clouds moving in from the Keys, assuring a late-night rain. They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby.

Wilfredo was in room ten, according to the snitch. The men tiptoed up the sagging stairs to the second story, where room ten greeted them right away. Jimmy took up position by the wall nearest the doorknob and motioned Raúl to the opposite side of the door. They drew their guns. Jimmy turned the knob slowly and soundlessly.


He knocked on the door, a couple of light, unthreatening taps. No answer. More taps, more silence. He wiped sweat from his eyelids.

He nodded to Raúl, who pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt. Inserting them into the lock, Raúl skillfully twisted them and jiggled them until he heard a soft click. He withdrew the picks and shoved the door open.


The strength of this submission is the way the author sets the stage for suspense and sticks with the action, without unnecessary back story dump to slow the pace. There is a lot to like about this, but here are my comments:

1.) FIRST LINE – The first line needs to grab the reader more. It has the word “you” in it, which reads like omniscient POV. To eliminate the “you” and keep the voice in Jimmy’s head, I would suggest the line be changed to:

The Dobbs Hotel looked like an unmade bed with lice, but Jimmy Quintanilla knew it was the perfect place to kill someone.

I’m sure you can tweak this into something better, but you get the idea. Place this thought into Jimmy’s head and make it more direct with a bit of his attitude. It will make the reader curious from the start. Plus the words “cheap dump” are cliche.

2.) PICK POV PER SCENE & STAY WITH IT – In the following sentences, the author jumps back into omniscient by using the word “they” to describe both Jimmy & Raul. I tend to like picking one POV per scene, usually the person with the most to lose, or the character telling the story.

BEFORE – is the sentence ‘as is.’ AFTER – is Jimmy’s POV with more focus on his state of mind and what he has to lose, with added tension and mystery as to what is about to take place.

I also added more details like the type of vehicle he drove and his weapon, and I changed word choices like “affixing” which doesn’t sound like a word Jimmy would have in his head and “semi-automatic pistols” which sounds stilted. I also tried to imagine what would be in Jimmy’s head as he stared at Raul. “Cementing the bond” and “validating the act” seemed like a stretch for something Jimmy would assume is in Raul’s head. I thought Jimmy would wonder if he could truly trust Raul and hoped he could.

One POV per scene is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s good to try something and understand it, before you disregard it entirely. You might discover something important if you stay open to new things.

BEFORE – They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

AFTER – Sitting behind the wheel of his parked SUV, Jimmy racked the slide of his Glock 19 and chambered a round. As he attached his suppressor, he cleared his mind and let go of his last shred of conscience. His fingers worked from muscle memory as he watched the street. When he looked over at Raul, the man stared back with a grave look in his eyes. Jimmy would cross a line with Raul that few men did and forge a bond of secrecy. Raul would hold his life in his hands. Jimmy hoped he could trust him. Without a word, he opened the vehicle door and embraced the muggy heat of Miami.

3.) USE THE SENSES TO SHAPE SETTING – I like adding the senses to any scene to trigger memories in the reader and make the scene real. I would like to see and hear more about the streets of Miami once Jimmy gets out of his car, or he could have his windows rolled down to let the atmosphere in as he rolls onto the street. That could enhance the paragraph starting with – ‘Nestled down a dark side street…’ if Jimmy can see and hear and smell what is happening through his life’s experience and his POV.

This author does a great job with painting a scene. Here are some examples I liked:

A.) …surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. (This gives a face to the neighborhood that is memorable.)

B.) Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby. (I’ve been to this hotel. I can see the worn furnishings and smell the embedded smoke. Well done.)


I would definitely read on. This is an enticing crime fiction read, right up my alley. The author’s voice paints a great picture in word choice. A few things could be tightened or strengthened to punch up the voice, but there is a lot to like about this submission.


1.) What do you think, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What suggestions do you have?


In the Eyes of the DeadBook Birthday! $1.99 ebook
FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria holy man and his secret believers. (31,000 words)

What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

One of my very favorite crowd-source exercises to throw out in a writing workshop is “Name the Man, the Restaurant, the Gas Station, and the Dog.” I make a long list of nouns and we have a free-for-all naming names. Usually I offer qualifiers like, “the preacher shouting on the street corner,” or “the only bar in town,” or “a vegetarian restaurant,” or “a dog owned by a pair of retired missionaries.” You get the idea. It’s an exercise that gets people talking, thinking, and laughing. But it’s also a great reminder of how important names are in fiction.

The right character and place names go a long way to create a universe. It doesn’t matter where on earth The Overlook Hotel is located: the immediate image is that of a hotel teetering on the edge of vast, dangerous space. East Egg and West Egg are two halves of a whole—the old rich and the nouveau riche, forever separated. The image is very simple, implying that the names were determined far back in history; East Egg is old and settled, West Egg is the place where the newly-arrived have to create their own society, just as the American western frontier was settled. Faulkner’s stories would not be the same if they were all set in Jefferson or Bedford County. Yoknapatawpha County is a name not easily forgotten.

There are so many incredible character names in classic fiction: Sam Spade; Ichabod Crane; Humbert Humbert; Major Major Major Major; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Miss Haveshim; Bathsheba Everdene (could Katniss Everdeen be far behind?); Nick and Nora Charles; Ebeneezer Scrooge. (I culled several of these names from this list, but there are surely many more similar lists out there.) I’ll leave it to you to decide how these names work within their stories.

Every writer has to develop their own system for naming things. Research is critical. If you think you’ve come up with a great name, do a web search for it. It’s surprising how often I discover I’ve accidentally used the name of someone semi-famous. (In my first novel, my editor made me change a name because it was too similar to Liev Schreiber.)

Here are a few names I chose to use in my third novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Frankenstein story, and why I chose them. I envisioned the novel as a kind of folk tale, and so I let my selections be very broad. I wasn’t worried about naming against type for effect. It’s a rural story, a kind of contemporary mountain fantasy.

Devil’s Oven is the name of the Kentucky mountain where the story takes place. The name had to be archaic and threatening, with a sense of mystery about it. The supernatural is not just suggested, but implied. And the oven part implies that things are created and tempered there over long periods of time.

Ivy Luttrell is the seamstress who not only makes clothes and does alterations for people in the area, but also finds the half-buried, dismembered body of a man on Devil’s Oven and sews him back together. (I know. But it works, I promise.) I liked the delicacy of the name, Ivy. Ivy the character is quiet and attractive and moves slowly but precisely. Ivy the plant winds itself over and through things, just like thread, and before you know it, it has touched everything. The last name, Luttrell, was a bit of a construct. The writer Daniel Woodrell is a friend of mine, and I liked the –rell ending. Luttrell has an antique, Appalachian sound to me. I have no idea if it sounds that way to anyone else.

Thora Luttrell is Ivy’s half-sister and is fifteen years older. Thora is large and plain and has a lot of health problems. She worked for many years at the DMV. I wanted her to have an old-fashioned, but very simple and unadorned name.

Bud Tucker is one of three men who are central to the story. Bud owns a trucking company, as well as a strip club in town. He’s a straightforward guy who works hard to hide his sensitivity. He wears his hair short and worries about intimidating people with his size. His father is Olney Tucker, a self-made coal baron. Olney’s name is pure country. Bud’s opposite is Dwight Yarbro, the squirrely guy who has come to the mountains because he no longer wants to deal with mid-level crime and criminals in the city. In his job as the strip club’s manager, he wears funky, elaborate cowboy shirts (I probably made a Dwight Yoakam connection here), and aviator glasses that make him look a bit like 1970s Elvis.

When I looked back at Devil’s Oven for location names, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get more creative than House of Waffles for a waffle house. But then, it does sound a bit against type. A bit pretentious. I only wish I had called it Twyla’s House of Waffles, or Junior’s House of Waffles.

Bud’s strip club is called The Twilight Club. I liked that the name sounds quaint, as strip clubs go. Bud is not a vulgar man, and even though he has opened a strip club, he doesn’t want it to be tacky.

The man that Ivy sews back together is a handsome devil named Anthony. She knows this because it is tattooed on his broad torso. And, yes, he has Mob connections. Sometimes you just go with the stereotype.

Choosing names involves a lot of research and a little magic. Here’s a link to a random name generator, which is a particular kind of magic. I’ve played with it some, but have found it works best for ancillary characters. You have to let it throw up a lot of possibilities if you already have the character sketched out in your head.

I prefer to target names a bit more closely. Here’s my list of qualities in descending order of consideration (always subject to change).



–Character’s age

–Physical appearance

–Time period


–Family traditions

–Social class and cultural traditions

–Cultural ethnicity


Very occasionally a character will present herself with a first name, but rarely with a second. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites. But the true gold is on the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade for the past 140 or so years.

Names go in and out of fashion, and you can get a feel for what will work as you go through the lists. I’ve also spent time looking at old English documents online, seeking out historical names. Let me make this easy for you: John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were very popular for a long, long time..

Social norms change constantly, and it’s important to make sure your characters reflect the world they live in. Pick up any number of pre-WWII novels and you’re liable to find yourself in a minefield of racial and cultural insensitivity.

You can, of course, name your characters and setting anything you like. You are in control, and if a name sounds right to you, you are certainly within your rights to use it. But tread carefully. Keep in mind that no given reader will share your exact cultural background and values, and if you give a character a name that evokes an unpleasant event or stereotype—and the use of it is not a relevant subject in the story—you’ll alienate readers, and rightfully so. That is, if your story even makes it into print. I’m not talking about political correctness, but common sense. If you want to engage readers, you have to meet them at least halfway.

A name carries a lot of weight. If it’s done right, and subtly, it will instantly telegraph important information about the character or location, or even the story’s tone. Sometimes I feel like I’m running a computer program of names in my head, checking possibilities against all the variables. Because I want each name and place to come out exactly right. Don’t make the reader think twice.

What are your tricks for finding the perfect character and place names? What are some of your favorite names in fiction?


Laura Benedict’s latest novel is the suspense thriller, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel.

On Copy Editors, Jockstraps
and Other Cosmic Questions


Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear. — Patricia Fuller 

By PJ Parrish

Copy editors, bless ‘em. Good ones are hard to find and hard ones are even better to find.

Over the course of thirteen books, numerous short stories, magazine articles, and a 25-year stint in newspapers, I’ve had my share of copy editors — good, bad and indifferent. I was even one myself for a brief time, until I realized I was better at seeing the forest instead of the trees, so gave that up for becoming a dance critic.  But I have a deep and abiding respect for great copy editors. They have saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

When we signed with Thomas and Mercer for our most recent book, I was wary. Was the quality of editing for this Amazon imprint going to be as a good as we were used to from the “traditional” New York houses?  Turns out it was better…four, count ’em four…different copy editors went over our manuscript and each brought a special talent to the project and improved our book. One fellow had lived most his life in San Francisco so he was able to double-check all our locations and landmarks there. Another woman had once been a dancer so she honed in on every detail of our heroine’s arts background.

Working with them made me remember one of my first copy editors, who was so good that I still remember with fondness — Wendy the Word Wonk.  Her name really was Wendy. I tacked on the rest out of deepest respect for her talents because I really love folks who really love words.

But before I tell you about Wendy, let’s back up a moment. Here is one major truism I have learned about publishing: When you write a book, you have only five chances to not end up looking like the world’s biggest fool:

  1. Write the best book you can.
  2. Rewrite that book how ever many times it takes to cleanse it of all the cretinous prose, dumb mistakes and smelly cheese.
  3. Have a great line editor who makes you go back and de-cheese it some more. Even if you have to hire one yourself. Especially if you have to hire one yourself.
  4. Luck into getting a great copy editor, who has your back. Or again, hire one.
  5. And finally, read your galleys carefully.  And if you are self-publishing, I’d even go so far as to print out your final manuscript justified and formatted to look like a real book, then treat it like a galley and find your mistakes. There is something about looking at your book in this final form that makes the sly mistakes and typos jump out in high relief.

Obviously, no. 1 is most important. For all practical purposes, your only real last best chance is No. 4. The copy editor. She is the last gas station on Highway 95 between Las Vegas and Searchlight. He is the last butt in the car ashtray after you’ve just gotten off a four-hour flight. She is the one who tells you your skirt is caught in your pantyhose when you walk out of the bathroom. He is the one who tells you when to zip your fly or button your mouth.

When you get to the galley stage, it is too late. The copy editor is all that stands between you and the abyss of hackdom and reviewers on Amazon who cackle that you don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

So, back to Wendy the Word Wonk and her unheralded ilk (I think that’s the right word…where’s Wendy when I need her?)

Wendy corrected our lays and lies without being smug. Because she is a fellow Michigander, she knew the difference between Mackinaw and Mackinac. She respected our idiomatic dialogue. She double-checked our use of foreign languages without being snide. (When I was writing romance, I had a British editor who scribbled in the margin of my manuscript: “Considering this author’s lack of command in English, I don’t think we should trust her French.”)

Not only did Wendy help us keep our dates, ages and eye colors straight, she raised a couple plot questions we hadn’t thought much about, which technically wasn’t her job, but that of the line editor. Once we did think about her polite but pointed questions, we went back in for a final critical rewrite that made the plot stronger.

But copy editors being the eccentric souls they are, Wendy did bring up some questions that we — or any other writers in their wildest dreams — would never expect to encounter. Like…

Is underwear plural or singular?

Here is the paragraph from our book as we wrote it:

Last night, she had washed out her underwear in her room and put them on the heating unit to dry, but they had fallen off during the night and were still wet.

This was her suggested version:

Last night, she had washed out her underwear in her room and put it on the heating unit to dry, but it had fallen off during the night and was still wet.

This set us thinking…

In almost every Thesaurus reference to underwear, there is an ‘S’ added to the word — shorts, long johns, panties, drawers, bikinis, undies, woolies, bloomers, flannels, thermals, skivvies, boxers. Despite the fact the clothing in question is, indeed, a single piece of fabric.

Is it because panties have two holes for two extremities that we perceive it to be plural?

“She picked up her panties and put them on.”
“He took off his boxers and tossed them to the bed.”

This sounds right to us because this is how people think. But that leads us to an even more perplexing question: How come a bra, another single-piece item, which also holds two separate body parts, becomes an IT when we think of it in every day usage? Or what about a jock strap, which is similar but, technically speaking, holds three body parts?

“She took her bra off and laid them on the bed.”
“He took off his jockstrap and flung them into the corner.”

Whoa, what kind of image does that put in a reader’s head?

Now our particular problem maybe have come from Wendy’s perception that our character had washed both pieces of her underwear, not just her panties. And referring to a set as IT may have been more appropriate, even though we still prefer THEM.

In the end, that’s what we opted for and Wendy let us win that battle. But here at the Kill Zone, we are here to serve your writing needs. And since we writers do love our rules, we leave you with this:

The Crime Writer’s Rules About Underwear

  1. Clothing with two sleeves or arm holes are an It.
  2. Clothing meant to hold two pieces of the anatomy are an It.
  3. Clothing designed for three (or more appendages) are an It.
  4. Clothing with two legs or leg holes are a Them.

Except, of course, for a girdle, which is an It. We think. But that’s only a problem for you historical writers out there, thank goodness.

The “Arrival” of a Mini-Clinic in Storytelling

By Larry Brooks

The film Arrival, starring Amy Adams as an off-the-charts brilliant but melancholy linguist with military intelligence chops, was released to theaters this weekend to stellar reviews and decent a box office.

Why, as novelists, should we care?

To state the obvious, we are storytellers. Which means we have a soft spot for good stories, period. That and the fact that critics actually liked it better than audiences is telling (93 to 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes)… this is one smart story with strings that don’t necessarily all tie up nicely at the end.

It is my contention (one of many) that as authors working deeply in genre-driven storytelling (as opposed to, say, Goldfinch or something by Jonathan Franzen, both of which/whom are scary wonderful, but not exactly ideal models for what we’re up to), we can learn a lot about storytelling from quality films in our chosen genre.

Especially when it bends the laws of story physics and lives to play another day.

The Arrival is a virtual buffet of learning in this regard.

The film is technically science fiction (very cool hovering alien spaceships occupied by creatures that look like a cross between an octopus and a circus elephant), but so much more. Before we dig in here, check out the trailer, which certainly doesn’t model the precise linear structure of the film, while absolutely selling it as a conceptual proposition.

Great stories often show up that way in trailers. Sell the concept, close the deal with the premise.

While risking bumping up against a spoiler here, let me say that the ending is a polarizing proposition.

You’ll either love it, or be confused to an extent you can’t quite recommend it. A writer’s ending, rather than from the desk of some Hollywood suit. It’s truly trippy, to say the least, and while in retrospect is cleverly and abundantly foreshadowed (within the trailer, as well), I dare say you won’t see it coming. And when it lands in your lap it’ll stir what may perhaps be a deeply buried agenda as a writer—to speculate on the true nature of things in our world. Indeed, in our universe.

While there is indeed a bona fide genre out there called speculative fiction, closer thought reveals that almost all fiction is speculative in nature, which sort of blurs the lines on the playing field of whatever genre we are working within.

This being one of the things this film models for us.

Two other key aspects of craft are modeled in the film, as well.

First: the power of a killer concept.

This film is nothing if not off-the-charts conceptual (a visual feast, at that), while remaining one of the more character-driven and achingly emotional films you’ll ever see in this or any other genre.

So I guess just mashed two facets of craft together (precisely what the film itself does)… encouraging us to think big where concept is concerned… while showing us how deeply characterized a high concept story can and should be.

The other—you knew I’d land on this one—is story structure.

The trailer is nearly all about the concept, while foreshadowing the rest of the premise as an afterthought (because, as you know, it’s not a story until something goes wrong… or as Jim Bell quoted to us not long ago, until someone shows up with a gun).

But unlike some trailers (all of which, by the way, almost without exception, show The First Plot Point of the story somewhere within; trailers become one of the fastest tools writers can use to cement their understanding of this essential story milestone), the moment when something goes wrong doesn’t show until the 2:02 mark.

Literally, that’s when someone with a gun shows up.

In this story, though, it happens at the midpoint of the movie, not the First Plot Point. And yet, it colors within the lines of both in terms of the principles that define them.

This is liberating while perhaps slightly fogging for writers who have learned the FPP as the moment when something goes wrong, thus launching the hero down the core dramatic tunnel of the story (everything prior to that moment being a setup for it).

In Arrival, fully half the movie is a setup for what turns out to be the Key Inciting Incident… which again is, quite literally in a normal sense, when something goes wrong. At the midpoint, in this story. Watch the trailer again, and note how everything changes at the 2:02 mark. The setup, as conceptual and compelling as it is, suddenly becomes dramatic, because everyone is now in danger. Before that, they were only worried about being in danger.

The core dramatic story (when bad guys come into play) starts right there… when the guns show up.

Just to be clear, the film does deliver a true and accurately placed First Plot Point (also in the trailer, at the 1:02 mark) following the first-quartile setup narrative. This is when Amy and her crew actually venture into the spaceship for the first time.

Everything is different from that point on—the narrative shifts into a new, more dramatic context—which is the purest mission of that particular story milestone (the FPP).

Except, in this case, the FPP simply escalates the tension without introducing the core dramatic element of the story (which is usually an expectation of the FPP… just not in this film). That contextual shift (danger danger danger) happens at the midpoint, when (spoiler warning, that is in the trailer, very clearly so, in fact) the military steps in and tries to hijack Amy’s higher purpose and turn the whole thing into an existential global emergency.

Here’s the great news for structure cynics and advocates alike:

The whole storytelling enchilada remains a flexible, author-driven proposition.

Yes, you still should seek to change and escalate your story with a First Plot Point that lands somewhere before yet near the first qaurtile turn (page count or running time, same standard for both)…

… but you don’t necessary need to clarify the presence of an antagonist (hint at it, at least, yes, absolutely). You can continue to escalate tension and foreshadowing until the midpoint, relying (as this film does) on the power of your evolving concept.

Then bring out the guns.

The midpoint, used this way, would be absolutely the last exit ramp for the story to take that requisite turn into more focused dramatic lane, via the introduction of the core dramatic arc (antagonist/conflict-driven; in this story, there is virtually no conflict in play at all for our hero until the midpoint, other than a paranoid military handler and, of course, those twelve massive scone-like spaceships literally hanging around).

My hope is that this alone—trailer and explanation—helps expand your grasp of story structure at the level of principle. Seeing it in play is always the best way to wrap you head around it…

… so here you go. Head to multiplex with notepad and timer in hand. Because The Arrival is a story clinic that just might blow your writerly mind as it expands it.


Click HERE for information about my soon-to-be released “hardcore training for serious authors.” Freebie and discounts, too.

Two Often Overlooked Reasons For Writing Short Stories

by James Scott Bell


I love a good short story. When done right, it can lay you out emotionally, delight you, scare you, make you think, or some combination of the above. All in under 7,000 words.

Some of my best reading experiences have been short stories. Off the top of my head I see:

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway.

“The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw.

“Chapter and Verse” by Jeffery Deaver.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.

All the stories in My Name is Aram by William Saroyan.

“The Ledge” by Stephen King.

When I was in college, I got into a workshop with one of the masters of the short story, Raymond Carver. What I learned was this: I couldn’t write like him. Or Hemingway. Or Saroyan. And I could not figure out the craft of the story. I was discouraged. I wish I’d known what Ray Bradbury was about to say in his Paris Review interview: “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?”

A couple of decades later I became a published novelist. Short stories remained elusive to me. But I still wanted to write them. Eventually, I went looking for some sort of key to the craft of short story writing. It took me a long time, but I finally found it.

how-to-write-short-stories-coverNaturally I had to write a book about it.

This book covers my theory of this “master key,” and goes on to suggest strategies for using short stories to help you with your long-term career goals. The book also has five complete stories for your analysis, including the aforementioned “Chapter and Verse” (with the kind permission of Mr. Deaver).

Today I want to talk about two often overlooked reasons for writing the occasional short story. The first reason is, simply, that they’re fun. Lawrence Block, one of the grand masters of crime fiction––short and long––says in The Liar’s Companion: A Field Guide for Fiction Writers:

I figured short stories would be fun. They always are. I think I probably enjoy them more than novels. When they go well, they provide almost immediate gratification. When they go horribly hopelessly wrong, so what? To discard a failed short story is to throw away the work of a handful of hours, perhaps a couple of days. In a short story I can try new things, play with new styles, and take unaccustomed risks. They’re fun.

Why should you sometimes write just for fun? I’m glad you asked:

  • Because “fun is the best thing to have.” – Arthur Bach
  • Taking a break from longer work to have fun refreshes your writer’s mind

Now, “fun” does not mean you’re just writing fluff. Far from it. Which leads me to the second overlooked reason for writing short stories: to deepen your intensity. Once again, Bradbury:

[T]he problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

Writing a short story this way sharpens your ability to concentrate, and also teaches you to bring intensity to the writing of scenes. Since scenes are the building blocks of your novels, that’s all to the good for your overall craft toolbox.

And so I have launched How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career. The e-version may be found here:


Amazon International Stores



A print version is available via Amazon or Barnes & Noble

In last week’s post, I asked you about books that may have brought solace to you at a point in your life. Can you think of a short story that had a similar impact? Was it memorable in other ways? Who is your favorite short story writer?

And have you tried your hand at the short story? What’s been the result?

First Page Critique

Today, another brave author has stepped into the TKZ spotlight with this untitled First Page critique. Thank you, author, for your courage. We all learn from critiques. I certainly do.
“No Title” is mostly set in Tripoli, Libya. Read it first. My comments are below.  — Elaine Viets

tripoli_0001NO TITLE


March 1972 Brooklyn, New York

Lilah stood with her twin, Daniel, under the big black umbrella, fat rivulets of rain dripping off its sides. She barely heard the words of the minister as he said the final prayers committing the remains of her parents to the ground, but the smell of damp dug-over earth on that wet spring morning would stay with her all her life as a reminder of the end of her childhood. Walking unsteadily to the graves with a fistful of dirt, Lilah fell as her knees buckled, and an arm caught her around the shoulders.

“I’m here,” said Harry.

Part I – The beginning of always
(Remember tonight, for it is the beginning of always – Dante Alighieri)

1 November 1973
Tripoli, Libya

“Hide, Lilah! Don’t come out till they’ve left.” Her aunt shoved the sixteen-year-old towards the back stairs as hammering continued at the door below. “Hurry!”

Lilah was tearing across the second-floor gallery when the deadbolt shattered, and black-clad men rammed into the house, demanding to speak to the Sheppards. Mrs. Sheppard, Lilah’s aunt, ran down the wide curving central staircase to join her husband.

The taste of blood filled Lilah’s mouth as she bit her lip to muffle the shriek. She slid to the floor behind the pillar, back against the marble. The kitchen stairs were just a few feet away. Almost there. She clenched clammy hands on her white cotton nightgown. Her heart thumped painfully against her ribs as she waited for a chance. Pushing aside the long tendrils of dark hair that clung to her damp cheek, she ran, bent double, to crouch by the side of a chest.

Dark eyes widened as she scanned the scene below through the railings. She almost sobbed with relief when she saw Harry wasn’t there. The Sheppards’ son was her best friend. Be safe, be safe. Oh, God, be safe, Harry.

One of the intruders kicked over the ottoman in the living room, sending colorful pillows sliding across the polished wood floor. The tall lamp crashed down and sputtered, throwing the room into shadows. Blue moonlight filtered in through gauzy curtains as menacing figures continued the escalating argument.

Keeping to the darkness, she crawled on all fours towards the door to the back stairs, tripping when the folds of her nightie twisted around slim legs. Uncle Dev shook off the hands of one of the men as another swung a lethal looking cane at his head and he crumpled to the floor wordlessly. Her aunt stretched out a hand, her cry choking in her throat.

Lilah gasped, instinct yanking her to her feet. A hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off the scream, and drew her inside the door.

Elaine: What you have here is well-written and action-packed, but reads like a sketchy outline by a professional writer. You have a good idea, but you have to put meat on those bones. I suggest ditching the prologue. Prologues often raise red flags for editors. You could expand this prologue, and the same information could be used much later in the story, when we know Lilah better.
Your novel really starts in Tripoli, which you call Part I. Are you planning to have several parts? I like the quote, though I wonder if it detracts from the action. Is there a reason for the date and city? Are you going to be moving the novel to other cities and back and forth in time? If not, I’d get rid of the dateline and year. I’m guessing you are not a US writer, since standard date style is November 1, 1973.
The action in Libya gets your novel off to a rousing start, but there’s too much confusion. Readers need a clearer picture of the house to understand what’s happening. We’re told it has a “second-floor gallery,” but how tall is the house – just two stories? Three? Five? The aunt shoves 16-year-old Lilah “toward the back stairs” as “black-clad men” hammer at the door below and shatter the deadbolt. Why push Lilah toward the back stairs? Where do they go? Will they take Lilah to safety? To a hiding place? To an exit or an escape route? Are these the same stairs as the “kitchen stairs”? Please clarify.
You give us an excellent picture of Lilah. Give us more clues about the Sheppards, her aunt and uncle. How old are they? Who are they? Are they Libyans? Foreigners living in Libya? Why do they fear the intruders? Who are these men? Terrorists? Criminals? Where does the Sheppards’ wealth come from: are they merchants, or in some shady business like arms dealing, human trafficking or drugs?
This is an excellent description of the invaders destroying the house: “One of the intruders kicked over the ottoman in the living room, sending colorful pillows sliding across the polished wood floor. The tall lamp crashed down and sputtered, throwing the room into shadows. Blue moonlight filtered in through gauzy curtains as menacing figures continued the escalating argument.”
However, this sentence stopped me: “Uncle Dev shook off the hands of one of the men as another swung a lethal looking cane at his head and he crumpled to the floor wordlessly. Her aunt stretched out a hand, her cry choking in her throat.”
Where is Uncle Dev? Still downstairs? Then help us out by adding “Downstairs at the doorway,” or something similar. That phrase “lethal looking cane” was another stopping point. Can a cane look lethal? Who is wielding it – is the attacker an old man or a young one? Did he take the cane away from Uncle Dev? If we can’t see the attackers’ faces, tell us what they’re like: are they muscular? Wiry and whippet thin? Slight but deadly?
The section ends on a suspenseful note. You have the beginnings of a good opening here. Answer these questions and you’ll be on your way to giving readers a first-rate yarn. Hope you’ll keep writing. I’d like to see where this novel goes.

viets-brainstorm-smallLast month, Brain Storm was #1 in hardboiled mystery books and #1 in hardboiled Kindle books on Amazon. Win an autographed copy of my first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. Click on Contests at

Let’s Talk Bullets

By John Gilstrap

I know I promised last post that I would talk about dialogue this week, but I got distracted and had a hard time taming the post.  Next time.

This week, inspired by the classic John Miller piece posted a little while ago about guns and cordite and stuff, I thought I would continue the theme with a post about bullets and their behavior.  Let’s start by recognizing that virtually everything you’ve ever seen on television regarding bullet behavior and the damage they cause is wrong.  No matter how tough a tough guy is, if he’s been shot in the leg and his leg is broken, he cannot walk on it–except maybe if it’s a fibula (ask John Wilkes Booth about that).  Remember all those heroes of our youth who were “only” shot in the shoulder, and then were back in action by the epilogue with his arm in a sling?  Well, here’s what a shoulder joint looks like:


There’s no place for a bullet to go that would not shatter a bone or three.  Not to mention the complex arrangement of blood vessels in there that are just waiting to get torn up.  Torn blood vessels bleed.  If the bleeding can’t be stopped, the victim dies.  Blood loss is the primary cause of fatalities when bullets are involved.

The Myth That Caliber Equals Stopping Power

Here’s a selection of common pistol bullets:


From left to right, the bullets are .410; .38 Police Special; .45 ACP; .40 ACP; 9mm Luger; .380 ACP; .25 ACP; .22 Long Rifle.  The ACP suffix stands for “automatic Colt pistol” because that was the first firearm to use that shell casing design.  The decimals refer to the diameter of the bullet at its widest point (and remember, the bullet is the nosecone atop the shell casing), measured in inches.  A .45, then, is 45/100 of an inch at its widest point.  You’ll also see bullets measured in millimeters.  Thank NATO for that.

And here is an assortment of rifle bullets:


From left to right: .300 WinMag (Winchester Magnum–a sniper round); 7.62mm; 5.56mm (used in M16s, AR15s; M4s); 4.6mm (used mainly by Special Forces and specialized units); .22 Long Rifle.  Without getting too deeply into gun porn, it’s important to note that two of these NATO rounds–noted by the metric measurement–have caliber equivalents: 7.62mm=.308 caliber; 5.56mm=.223 caliber.

Note, then, that both of these bullets are .22 caliber:


So, there’s more to bullet energy than caliber.  The amount of propellant and the weight of the bullet, usually measured in grains, have a lot to do with the lethality of a bullet.  The rest of the lethality equation has everything to do with shot placement.  A small bullet, properly inflicted, will do more harm than a poorly aimed big bullet.  Ronald Reagan and George Wallace were both critically wounded by that little bitty .22 long rifle round, and Bobby Kennedy was killed with one.

Kinetic Energy

Most modern bullets travel at supersonic speeds.  Since the speed of sound represents the speed at which air molecules can get out of each other’s way a bullet in flight creates a pressure wave at its nose, and because Mother Nature abhors imbalance, that positive pressure at the nose creates a negative pressure at the tail.  When a bullet hits a person, the pressures surrounding the projectile do an enormous amount of damage to surrounding tissues.

Here’s a slow motion video of a 9mm pistol bullet impacting ballistic gelatin, which is designed to simulate the consistency of human flesh:

See how that wound channel opens and snaps shut?  Imagine that all of that energy was being absorbed/inflicted on a liver.  Getting the bullet out is far from the most pressing emergency in many bullet wound cases.

Here’s a similar video showing the damage inflicted by a .308/7.62mm rifle bullet:

So, yeah.  A bigger, heavier bullet traveling at a much greater speed causes a heck of a lot more damage.  The reason you’re able to see such pronounced spiraling in that video is because the bullet is a hollow point, which is designed to open up on impact.  This is what a hollow point bullet looks like before it’s fired:


The common alternative to a hollow point is a full metal jacket, which looks like this:


While the hollow point undoubtedly inflicts more damage upon the person it hits, the true purpose of the bullet’s design is to prevent over-penetration, where a bullet intended for a bad guy would not travel through-and-through to hit the good guy standing behind him.

We talk about research quite a lot here at TKZ, and I recommend that  anyone who writes about this stuff in their stories take some time to visit your local gun store or go to a gun show.  You’ll find lots of very nice folks who love to talk about all things firearms related.  Many gun stores will let you rent a gun and fire it on their range.  If you’re not comfortable handling them, no problem.  They’ll be happy to help you out.

Just remember rules:

  1. Assume that every gun is loaded, even when you’re certain it is not;
  2. Never point the muzzle at anything you’re not wiling to destroy; and
  3. Don’t touch the trigger until you’re sure you’ve acquired your target.