Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 


Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.

False Crime

Photo courtesy Emile Guillemot, unsplash.com

Before I get rolling let me say that I hope that you are all checking out Debbie Burke’s always informative and entertaining “True Crime Thursday”  feature which appears (by amazing coincidence on the last Thursday) of each month on TKZ. I am giving away the punchline here with my own “Fake Crime” post, which will not be a regular feature. I just could not pass this story up, however. It is amusing, cautionary, and interesting. I hope you find it worth your time. 

This past week police officers in my city responded to a “robbery in progress” call at a local car wash. The establishment in question is one of those semi-automated establishments usually found on the out lots of busy shopping centers. The reporting party was a distraught male who said that, while preparing to get his car washed, a pair of despicable cads had robbed him at knifepoint of his wedding ring. 

We have a wonderful police department in my city. Here is but one example: when my older son was a wee lad his bicycle was stolen. A police officer 1) came out to the house to take a report and 2) subsequently recovered (!) the bike.  They take all reports seriously, even ones that, um, might not pass the smell test. The fragrances in the case of this robbery included Eau de whystealaman’sweddingringwhentheycouldhavetakenhis wholecar perfum. However, the officers dutifully conducted a thorough investigation. This included taking a report from the complainant,  putting crime scene tape up around the carwash, and reviewing surveillance camera footage of the area during the time period when the alleged incident took place. 

The surveillance images told the tale. The complainant’s star turn showed him driving up to the car wash area, sitting in his car for several minutes, and then calling someone. The time of the phone call coincided with the time of his 911 call to the police department. The gentleman, when confronted with this evidence, ultimately admitted that he had staged the whole thing because he had lost his wedding ring and didn’t want to admit it to his wife. Wink wink. One might be forgiven for concluding that it is ordinarily difficult for someone, particularly a man, to lose a wedding ring while they are out and about if said ring remains on one’s finger. We will not presume to hazard a guess as to why he might have taken it off. He is already in enough trouble. Trouble, you say? Why, yes. I live in a city which actually prosecutes those who file false police reports. Our friend accordingly had to explain to his wife not only that he lost his ring but also that he filed a false police report to cover up that he had lost the ring. Oh, the humanity! The icing on this manure cake is that he later reported, somewhat sheepishly, that he had found the ring after all. It was not reported where he found it but my guess would be that it was discovered somewhere it should not have been. 

I found the story somewhat but not entirely amusing. It took two officers off of the grid to investigate what was an intentional goat fling. The car wash was shut down for several hours, inconveniencing potential patrons and keeping the owner from making the daily nut needed not only to meet fixed costs and but also to hopefully turn a profit for the day. It may not be a total laugh but it is a cautionary tale. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Burp (or worse) in public and you’ve got a gaggle of ten-year-olds recording audio-visual of you from seven different points of view and then uploading it to YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. That’s not good. “Character” used to be defined as behaving well when no one is around to see it.  We’re running out of those places. I went out to mow my lawn yesterday and didn’t mention it to anyone. When I got back in the house there was an ad on my phone asking if I was tired of mowing the lawn and suggesting I call a local lawn service. I was told that my cellphone probably heard my lawn mower going, noted my absence of cellphone/online activity, and figured out what I was doing. I wonder if it would send me an ad for scuba diving equipment if I threw it in a reservoir. In any event, be careful of what you do. Anywhere. 

Photo courtesy Siarhi Horbach, unsplash.com

To leave things on a totally unrelated “up” note…were you aware that there is something called a “motion activated bed light” being marketed. The idea is that if you are sleeping in a dark room and get out of bed a soft but very visible light appears and keeps you from stubbing your toe, stepping the residue of cat accidents, etc. You can find out more about the item here. I will confess to wondering if perhaps it might provide an unexpected light show under certain other circumstances but will leave that to the more fortunate of you out there to determine. 

Have a great weekend and Fourth of July…and thank you for yet again stopping by. 


True Crime Thursday – Could a Parrot Testify?


Debbie Burke


Hannah Dickens-Unsplash


In 1958, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a story where a chatty parrot’s “testimony” helped solve a murder. It became an episode of the Perry Mason TV show entitled “The Case of the Perjured Parrot,” teleplay by Marian B. Cockrell.


A real-life crime in 2015 gave a starring role to another talking parrot.

An African Grey parrot named Bud might have witnessed the murder of his owner and repeated what were perhaps the last words of the dying victim.

In May, 2015, Glenna Duram shot her husband Martin five times, killing him in their Sand Lake, Michigan home. She then turned the gun on herself, causing a non-fatal head wound. She recovered and was charged with Martin’s murder.

Pet parrot Bud was apparently present during the crime. Afterwards, family members say Bud mimicked Martin’s voice and said, “Don’t f**king shoot!”

According to Martin’s mother, “That bird picks up everything and anything, and it’s got the filthiest mouth around.”

During Glenna’s trial, the prosecutor attempted to include Bud’s words in court but that request was denied. Even without the parrot’s testimony, there was enough evidence to find Glenna guilty of murder. She was sentenced to life in prison in August, 2017.

Here’s a video of Bud.

TKZers, what do you think? Is Bud a convincing witness?

First Page Critique: The List


Image from GoDaddy


Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.



Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.


Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have for our Brave Author?

DIY Massage for Writers

By Debbie Burke


As authors, our “sit” muscles work overtime. No wonder they ache and cramp. 

When I start earning six figures from my novels, first thing I plan to do is hire a full-time massage therapist to undo the kinks in my body from writing.

Unfortunately…I foresee a long wait before that happens.

In the meantime, I found a helpful DIY tool to counteract “writer’s slump” caused by too much time sitting hunched over a computer.

The foam roller.

This device is inexpensive, has no moving parts, and doesn’t take up much space. By simply rolling on it, you can get a deep massage from the pressure of your body weight. Two doctors I talked to use a roller themselves.

Caution #1: consult your medical provider to be sure foam roller exercise is safe for your condition.

Caution #2: Do NOT use the roller directly on joints.

Caution #3: Using the foam roller requires getting down on the floor…then eventually getting back up again! Some of my parts are not original factory equipment, so exercises on the floor require planning.

Twice a week, I attend a foam roller class at the gym. Expert instructor Amy Lavin graciously agreed to demonstrate a few exercises.

Amy adds caution #4: Always remember to breathe.

Back Exercises: 

On a mat on the floor, lie lengthwise on the roller. Your head and the entire length of your spine rest on the roller. Let your arms relax at your sides. Gravity pulls your shoulders toward the floor. The stretch across your chest should feel good, not painful.

My doctor said simply lying in this position on the roller for 10 or 15 minutes every day is beneficial for the spine, even if you don’t go through the routine that follows.

  • While lying lengthwise on the roller, gently roll back and forth a couple of inches on either side of your spine. Your core muscles tighten to maintain balance and keep you from falling off. Strengthening the core also helps support your back.
  • Still lying lengthwise on the roller, extend your arms out from your sides, palms up, forming a T. Let your shoulder blades sink toward the floor to wrap around the roller, increasing the stretch through the chest. When you begin, your elbows may not be able to touch the floor. But, after several minutes, muscles should relax and allow your elbows to rest comfortably on the floor. This position also straightens posture.
  • Raise your arms in a Y over your head. That lengthens the spine and increases the stretch for your back. Take several deep breaths.
  • Slowly move your arms as if you’re making snow angels for several repetitions. Then reverse directions for more repetitions.


  • Raise both arms straight up toward the ceiling. Move your arms back and forth in a scissors motion. One arm goes above your head, the other down to your side, then reverse. Repeat for a minute.


  • Raise both arms above your chest and bend the elbows. Keeping the elbows bent, slowly lower the arms to the floor, rest for several beats, then raise arms so they crisscross over your chest. Continue raising and lowering the bent arms for at least a minute. When you begin this movement, your elbows may not be able to touch the floor but, as you repeat, muscles should loosen enough that your elbows can rest on the floor.


Exercises for “sit muscles”:

  • Glutes: Sit on the roller and roll back and forth. The weight of your body presses the roller deep into your glutes. Roll on one cheek for a minute or more. Then switch to the other cheek. I find at times there is a hard knot like a round rock in the center of each cheek. Roll over that knot several times in a circular motion. Reverse and roll in the opposite direction.



  • Hamstrings: Roll from the glutes down the backs of the thighs to the knees and back up. This massages the hamstrings. Repeat for 30 seconds to a minute.




  • The iliotibial (IT) band is a tendon that runs down the side of the leg from hip to tibia. It can flare up from too much sitting.

Lie on your side, propping yourself up with one elbow. Position the roller horizontally under your hip. Slowly roll from hip down almost to the knee. Stop before the knee joint and do not roll on the joint. Roll up and down the side of your thigh for several minutes. Repeat on the opposite side.

When my IT band gets grumpy (which is often), this rolling may be painful. Be careful and stop if you feel it’s too much. Relief comes later.

  • Hip flexors: Lie on your stomach with the roller positioned under your hips. Shift your weight slightly to one side so the hip flexor (the crease between your thigh and pelvis) is on the roller. Roll back and forth over the hip flexor for 30 seconds to one minute. Switch to other hip and repeat.
  • Quadriceps: Lie on your stomach and use your elbows to hold your chest off the mat. Position the roller horizontally under your quadriceps (fronts of your thighs). Roll up and down from top of thigh to just above the knee. Do not roll on the knee joint. Be careful—this pressure on your quads may be painful at first. As you repeat the exercise over time, the pain should lessen.

A big THANK YOU to Amy Lavin for demonstrating a DIY massage!


How about you, TKZers?

Have you tried a foam roller? Did it work for you? 

Do you have a favorite exercise to help “writer’s slump”? 


Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)

Today we have a guest post from Joanna Campbell Slan on the challenges of incorporating an animal character in a mystery novel. I hope all our TKZers will join me in welcoming Joanna and chiming in with your experiences (if any) on crafting an animal as a character in your mystery or thriller. Also all purchases of Summer Snoops go to a great cause – raising money for dogs in need!

Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)

By Joanna Campbell Slan

Writing an animal character is tricky. You don’t want to get too sappy, you don’t want to turn off non-pet people, and you shouldn’t rely on the animal to be a deus ex machina, a mystery that’s literally solved by God’s intervention. As one author in a box set with 14 authors, I wanted my puzzle to involve the dog in a realistic way, but I always wanted to use the animal’s limitations to exploit tension in my story. I didn’t want to take the easy way out and let the dog in my story be a simple sidekick. That would feel like a cop out.

The break came when a friend visited with her Golden Retriever, Mally. The big yellow dog carries around a stuffed toy in her mouth all the time. In fact, she’ll only turn loose of her toy to eat or drink. Wherever Mally goes, the toy goes, too.

So how could I use that synergy to best advantage in my story?

I considered the very nature of a dog toy. Okay, that sounds silly, but it’s not. Only by thinking carefully about our subjects can we be authentic. Details. It’s all about details. Those tiny bits of minutia encourage our readers to trust us and to give themselves over to a satisfying reading experience. So what was there to observe carefully about a dog’s toy?

Well, firstly, there’s the nature of the toy itself. In Mally’s case, it’s always a stuffed toy with fake fur. She isn’t interested in balls or sticks.

Secondly, there’s the challenge of confiscating a toy that’s been in a dog’s mouth. Some dogs are “toy aggressive.” They get all humpy when another creature tries to take their toy. In fact, at Paws 4 Play, the local doggy day care, they’ve found that the only safe toy for a group of dogs is a tennis ball. Anything else, and the dogs are liable to fight over their plaything.

Third, dog toys are usually gross. Really gross. In fact, one study by the National Safety Foundation revealed that pet toys are one of the ten germiest spots in the house. Toys are known to be a source of coliform bacteria (including Staph bacteria), yeast, and mold. Only a committed (or soon to be committed) dog lover would handle a yucky, soggy, stuffed toy.

And fourth, a dog toy is destined to be destroyed. My dog Jax loves to rip up his toys. He’ll growl menacingly as he shakes his toys in mock play. Then he’ll grab a stuffed arm, leg, neck or tail and toss the hapless stuffed creature around. As a result, I’m often left with odd parts. (One morning I woke up to a bed strewn with stuffed monkey parts. It was…creepy.) Being the thrifty person I am, I sew these stray parts back together to make Franken-toys. At the very least, I sew up the open seams that dribble stuffing all around the house.

Taken all together, those observations gave me a lot of good ideas. What if someone used a pet toy as a place to hide something of value? What if the toy as a sort of ersatz safe deposit box? That was the break-through idea that became the nucleus of my story.

Here are a couple of links for the book:

The universal book link: https://www.summersnoops.com/?fbclid=IwAR2ZRDaIZO8MixYXdqUX9MtZo-FoCfOY8-d6lo2Dw_bD6ToN9dy5cDYu-HI   And a shortened link: http://bit.ly/2TCQ3si


Writing In Medias Res

by James Scott Bell

If you regularly read books and articles on the craft of fiction you’ll often come across the term in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” (As opposed to writing in puris naturalibus, or “stark naked,” about which I have no advice.)

Many times the context in which in medias res is used is the all-important opening chapter. As you all well know, here at TKZ we’re big on helping writers get out of the gate grabbingly (I love making up words. And BTW, you can study past examples here.)

My own formulation of in medias res is act first, explain later. You don’t need a lot of exposition up front. Most authors, knowing their story world and characters’ backgrounds, think the reader also has to have a bunch of that info from the get-go in order to be fully engaged. Wrong. Readers will happily wait a long time for those essentials if what’s happening in front of them is tense, exciting, compelling, mysterious, active, or otherwise interesting.

Here’s an example from one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, A Purple Place For Dying. The opening paragraph:

She took the corner too fast, and it was definitely not much of a road. She drifted it through the corner on the gravel, with one hell of a drop at our left, and then there was a big rock slide where the road should have been. She stomped hard and the drift turned into a rough sideways skid, and I hunched low expecting the white Alpine to trip and roll. But we skidded all the way to the rock and stopped with inches to spare and a great big three feet between the rear end and the drop-off. The skid had killed the engine.

That’s in medias res. We have some unanswered questions: Who is She? Why is she driving so fast on a gravel road when death is just a few feet to the left? What is McGee doing in that car?

Do you want to read on to find out? I do.

“What a stinking nuisance,” Mona Yeoman said.

Okay, at least now we have a name.

The cooling car made tinkling sounds. A noisy bird laughed at us. A lizard sped through the broken rock.

“End of the line?”

“Goodness, no. We can walk it from here. It’s a half-mile, I guess. I haven’t been up here in ever so long.”

“How about my gear?”

“It didn’t seem to me you had very much. I guess you might as well bring it along, Mr. McGee. Perhaps you might be able to roll enough of this rock over the edge so you can get the jeep by. Or I can send some men to do it.”

“If we’re going to keep this as quiet as possible, I better give it a try.”

Still more questions. What’s this about a jeep? Why does she have the ability to send “some men”? Most of all, why do they have to keep things as quiet as possible?

It is not until the bottom of page two that MacDonald begins to fill in some blanks:

She had met me at noon at an airport fifty miles away, quite a distance from her home base. She said she had a place I could stay, a very hidden place, and we could do all our talking after we got there. Ever since meeting her I had been trying to figure her out.

So have we! Which is the point. MacDonald dangles little bits for us to chew on, just enough to whet our appetite for more. Which is why we keep reading.

Try this: Make a copy of your opening chapter and strikethrough all exposition and backstory. Cut any necessary descriptions to one line. See if that edited scene doesn’t move better. If you feel you need some essential exposition or backstory, limit yourself to three sentences, either all at once or spaced out.

Also: Try pretending Chapter Two is your opening chapter. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In media res can also be used in any chapter opening, to quicken the pace. Simply give us the action before you give us the setting.

Suppose we have a scene in a judge’s chambers between a young lawyer from Dewey, Cheatham & Howe and an angry judge. Let’s use first-person, with the lawyer as the POV character.

The next morning I was in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covering one wall. Judge Crotchetti was standing behind his swivel chair. On the wall above him, an oil-on-canvas Oliver Wendell Holmes glared at me.

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

To quicken the pace, go in media res by leading with the action (note: dialogue is a form of action):

“I won’t have that in my courtroom!” Judge Crotchetti said, slapping the back of his chair. “Do you understand me, counsel?”

“Clearly,” I said, and smiled.

“Young man, are you trying to show contempt for this court?”

“No, Your Honor. I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

It was Monday morning and we were in Judge Crotchetti’s chambers. It had two leather chairs in front of an immaculate mahogany desk…

When revising, take special notice of the opening paragraphs of each chapter in your book. Do you tend to open the same way? Go for variety. Open with some form of action. Move description further down the page. Get a little more medias into your res.

Have you ever thought about in medias res? Do you strive for variety in your chapter openings?

Is It Good to Open with a Dead Guy?

Jordan Dane


After I saw the blog title to P J Parrish’s excellent post this week (Is it Good to Open with a Bad Guy), it sparked an idea for my post today. Can a story that begins with a dead guy be worthwhile if they’re only on the page for a short scene? How can an author make a scene like that count? Or should they? How much effort should you put into one scene and a dead guy?

An author can choose to make any death be about the dead body and the unlucky stiff who finds it, or the detectives who seek justice, or the families left behind. The body can be for shock value, or be a twist in the plot of a sagging middle, but when should a victim be more?

Bottom Line – For every scene you choose to write, make every character count.

In the stories I write, I like to give a face to the dead. If I choose to open with a victim not long for this world, I have to create a vivid glimpse into their life–a quick snapshot into who they are–enough for readers to care about them. Every word and every visual has to count.

I’m not talking about TELLING the reader who the victim is. I’m talking about SHOWING their life in vivid imagery & their voice and character traits. You only have one shot to make it memorable.

In THE LAST VICTIM, I open with the murder of Nate. My psychic FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, first “meets” Nate in a nightmare of haunting images he must decipher. As Ryker uncovers the puzzle, he must put himself into the boots of Nate to hunt his killer. Nate’s life as a young father, living on a remote island in Alaska, becomes a troubling mystery.

How could an isolated loner like Nate cross the path of a prolific serial killer known throughout the Pacific Northwest? Ryker treks into the mountains of a remote island in Alaska and as he sees more of Nate’s life, he begins to know him and grieve for his passing.

For a few reasons, I made a deliberate choice to begin THE LAST VICTIM as seen through the terrified eyes of Nate when he knows he will die. His last thoughts are of his son. I wanted the reader to care about finding this heartless killer by choosing to make the reader care about Nate.

Excerpts from THE LAST VICTIM

Beginning of the scene

The soothing murmur of an ocean ebbed through Nathan Applewhite’s mind until he felt the waves and made them real. Now as cool water lapped the sandy shore to make frothy lace at his bare feet, he looked up to a cloudless sky—the color of a robin’s egg—that stretched its reach to forever. Fragments of his senses came together. Every piece made him yearn for more. When warm skin touched his, he knew he wasn’t alone and he smiled. He held a tiny hand. His five-year old boy Tanner walked the strand of beach beside him.

The memory came to him often, but it never stayed long enough. The pain always yanked him back.


ENDING of Nate’s Life:

End of the Scene – as he’s dying

Nate blocked out the cruelty of the voice. Only one thing mattered now. As the familiar face above him blurred, it got replaced with another—the sweet smiling face of his little boy Tanner—and the rumble of a wave hitting the shore. Sunlight made Tanner squint when he looked up at him. His son let go of his hand and ran down the beach with a giggle trailing behind him.

Hey, little man. Wait up. Daddy’s coming.

With sand caked to his feet, Nathan took off running after his little boy. The two of them splashed in the waves and made shimmering diamonds with their feet. He never caught his son. Time had ticked down to its final precious seconds. He only had one way to say good-bye to Tanner. Nate watched him run and he listened to his little boy laugh until—

Pain let him go and set him free.



If you choose to write through the eyes of someone who’s dying, what must that feel like? It’s hard to do. You must face your worst fears, yet try to put death into words that will be palatable to the reader (not overly graphic) with imagery that will haunt a reader. It takes thought to craft a scene that’s hard to forget for readers, but David Morrell, author of the Rambo series, did that for me when I first read  FIRST BLOOD.

The first time I read a story with a scene written in the POV of someone killed was written by Morrell. I don’t want to give anything away, but a key character dies by a shot gun blast to the head. Morrell wrote it from the POV of the dead guy and I never forgot it.

My first attempt to try Morrell’s scene came when I wrote my first suspense book (the 2nd book I sold to HarperCollins). In an opening scene I wrote in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, my assassin dies at the hands of a worse killer. His throat is cut. I researched the medical descriptions of what this must be like. After all, there is no expert in dying who is still speaking and can share their wisdom. It’s a one-way ticket.

I had to imagine his assassin’s death and make choices. Death by exsanguination (loss of blood) might be similar enough to drowning. I researched drowning symptoms to pepper them into the action. Due to the violence in the scene, I also pictured a terrified rabbit in the jaws of a wolf, bleeding out. Would a rabbit mercifully lapse into shock and not feel what would happen? I wrote that kind of “rabbit shock” for my bad guy as he died in the arms of the man who butchered him.

At the start of the scene, the assassin wants to retire and he pictures the beach of his dreams. After he makes one last score, it turns out to be one too many. He’s hunted in the dark, in a maze of others like him. When he finally confronts his killer and his throat is cut, he drowns in his blood. As he pictures “his” beach–in shock–he sinks to the bottom of the ocean fighting for breath. It made the killing easier for readers to take, but I needed to establish how cruel the villain of the book would be, so readers would fear more for my woman cop.

I’ve found these scenes can be a challenge, but one worth taking. Below is the end of the scene in Mickey’s POV.


“You’re mine now.” The intimate whisper brushed by his ear. It shocked him. The familiarity sounded like it came from the lips of a lover. “Don’t fight me.”

For an instant, Mickey relaxed long enough to hope—maybe all this had been a mistake. Then he felt a sudden jerk.

Pain…searing pain!

Icy steel plunged into his throat, severing cartilage in its wake. A metallic taste filled his mouth. Its warmth sucked into his lungs, drowning him. Powerless, Mickey resisted the blackness with the only redemption possible. He imagined high tide with him adrift. He struggled for air, bobbing beneath the ocean surface. The sun and blue sky warped with a swirling eddy. Mercifully, sounds of surf rolling to shore clouded the fear when his body convulsed. Dizziness and a numbing chill finally seized him. The pounding of his heart drained his ability to move at all.

A muffled gurgle dominated his senses—until there was nothing.


Even if your victim is on the page as a soon-to-be dead guy, you have a choice to show the reader who they are. Make them real or keep them as a cardboard stiff and a prop. If you paint a vivid enough picture of their life, you can show how they will be missed by their family or even how they touched the life of the cop who must investigate their death. It’s an opportunity to show violence in a different way and to thread the victim’s humanity throughout your story. It can also show the heroic qualities of your detective or your main character(s). Done right, you can make the reader feel their loss in different ways. Your story becomes more emotional.


Use the victim’s POV to plant mystery elements & red herrings for the reader to decipher. A victim’s death can serve to showcase clues on the identity of the killer (did he or she know their killer) OR the victim can be an unreliable narrator for the author to plant misdirection clues for the reader to stumble over. Milk that death scene for all its worth.


If you’re squeamish about killing a victim and showing the reader what that feels like, you can opt out. You don’t have to stay in their POV. You can write up until the moment they die, in a dramatic adrenaline rush. Or if you switch from inside their head at the last second, you can change POVs to someone who is with them, forced to watch them die. That can milk the emotions of a scene as well.


A victim is leaving many people and memories behind. If you choose to make that unimportant–where they are only a corpse for the coroner to autopsy–you’ve missed out on an opportunity for emotion. All people who die leave something or someone behind – a wake where their life had been. If you make it important for your story, it will open your reader’s eyes to you as an author and it will showcase your character’s humanity.

In Mickey’s case in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, I wanted to show his cocky attitude when he believed as a killer that he was invincible, but there is always someone worse. Mickey’s death paved the way for my villain to hit the stage.

In Nate’s case in THE LAST VICTIM, his son mattered most to him. Even in death, his boy is the only thought he had. It gave him peace. I wanted the reader–and my character, Ryker–to miss him.

Below is an excerpt that shows how I kept writing Nate into the story, long after he died. In this scene, my FBI profiler is hiking to a remote cabin in the mountains of an isolated island in Alaska where Nate lived. He’s there to understand Nate’s life to know how he crossed paths with a prolific serial killer.


I listened to the hypnotic sounds of the forest and let the subtle noises close in. A light breeze jostled the treetops and birds flitted in the branches over my head. My boots made soft thuds on the decomposing sod under my feet. Nature had a palpable and soothing rhythm.

Nathan Applewhite had been where I stood now and I knew why he would’ve chosen to make his home on the island. There was a soul quenching refuge I sensed in my bones. I knew Applewhite must’ve felt the same. Perhaps like Henry David Thoreau, Nathan had sought the nurturing solitude of the woods because he ‘wished to live deliberately’ and get the most of his life.

Nate had chosen a quiet, simple life. The fact he was dead now—after being tortured and murdered—struck a harsh blow in me. It was an odd feeling to miss someone I’d never met, but the more I saw of Nate’s life, the greater I sensed the wake of his absence. Violent death was never fair. The haunting words of David Richard Berkowitz, Son of Sam, seeped from my brain.

I didn’t want to hurt them. I only wanted to kill them.


1.) Have you written a scene in the POV of a dying person? What challenges did you have?

2.) What authors have written scenes you will never forget and why did they stick with you? Your examples don’t have to be death scenes. (With my books in boxes from my last move, I am without examples for my posts and am forced to use MY books. Sorry about that.) 

The Last Victim

When a young hunting guide from a remote island in Alaska is found brutally murdered, his naked body is discovered in the Cascade Mountains outside Seattle—the shocking pinnacle to a grisly Totem of body parts. Nathan Applewhite is the fourteenth victim of a cunning serial killer who targets and stalks young men.

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and his team investigate and find no reason for Nate to have mysteriously vanished from his isolated home. But Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone—not even his own team—that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath, alone.