TKZ Words of Wisdom – Guest Post – Dale Ivan Smith

Please join Dale in discussing posts he has selected from the archives, as I recuperate from cataract surgery.


In my guest TZK words of wisdom this Saturday, we jump into the archives to find tips on surprising the reader, knowing when to kill a character, and the power of the shadow story. Feel free to comment and engage other readers on any, or all, of these topics.


Surprises can be powerful things – they can draw a reader into a book in a way that is (I think) often more powerful than a mere plot twist or a shocking ending. They can take the form of an unsuspected insight into a character, a happy coincidence, or just the details of a world created that transports the reader’s imagination. The element of surprise is however much harder to achieve than suspense or the power to shock and I think (in terms of craft) it requires:

  • An appreciation of language – the beauty of a turn of phrase that can delight as well as surprise should never be underestimated.
  • An understanding of the nuances of the human condition – many of the best surprises occur only because an author has a grasp of the full idiosyncrasies of characters (both real and imagined).
  • An ability to create parallel worlds full of quirks and charms that allow a reader to suspend disbelief.
  • And, finally, the bravery required to take a book into rough uncharted waters…

Claire Langley-Hawthorne– October 12, 2009


The Kill Bell

That malicious peeling noise that lets me know, as I’m drafting my latest book, that it’s time to drop a body.

That’s how it sounds to me, anyway. Maybe yours sounds different, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in having one. As a mystery/thriller writer, I know I have to kill, early and often. And since you’re on this blog – it is called The Kill Zone, for goodness sakes – you probably know it, too. Lord knows, no one here is writing cozies. I’m betting the Kill Zone authors alone traffic in more blood than your average Red Cross chapter.

But how much do we spill? And how do we know when the time is right?

That’s what the kill bell is for. I’ve come to value it, to know to listen for it, and even to anticipate it. It’s that little friend that tells me things have gotten a little too comfortable for the reader and I need to shake things up.

It’s not like it happens in predictable intervals – and thank goodness, since it would get a little too cookie-cutter if you whacked someone every 10,000 words. I can sometimes go 40,000 words without slashing so much as a single throat. Then I shoot someone and I think I’m okay for a while but, ding-a-ling, there’s the bell again. And, even if it’s a mere 2,000 words later, I’m puncturing someone’s temple with a nail gun.

I suspect every writer’s kill bell is set to a slightly different frequency, which is why we all write different books. The important thing is to respect it and, when you hear it ringing, to act. Even when it’s not clear how. –Brad Parks– March 10, 2012


The Shadow Story

Simply put, the shadow story is what is taking place away from the scene you are writing. It’s what the other characters are doing “off screen.” By giving thought to the shadows, even minimally, you greatly expand your store of plot material.

Shadows Inside the Lead

You can also delve into the shadows and secrets of your Lead. Maybe you’ve done this already, by giving your Lead a backstory and answering key questions about her life (education, hopes, fears, lost loves, etc.)

But every now and then, in the middle of the writing, pause to come up with something going on inside the Lead that she is not even aware of. Try what I call “the opposite exercise”: The Lead, in a scene, has a specific want or need (if she doesn’t, you need to get her one fast, or cut that scene!) Now, pause and ask: what if your Lead wanted something the exact opposite of this want or need? What would that be? List some possibilities. Choose one of those. Ask: Why would she want that? How could it mess with her head?

Then look for ways to manifest this inner shadow in some of your scenes.

Or imagine your Lead doing something that is the opposite of what the reader or, more importantly, you would expect in that scene. What sort of shadow (secret) made her do that?

Just by asking these sorts of questions, you deepen your Lead and add interesting crosscurrents to the plot.

That’s the power of the shadow story. –James Scott Bell– April 12, 2015


Any tips on how to surprise the reader?

How do you decide when to kill a character?

Do you spend time thinking of the shadow story in your own fiction?

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About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

22 thoughts on “TKZ Words of Wisdom – Guest Post – Dale Ivan Smith

  1. Thanks, Dale, for stepping in, and speedy recovery to Steve. Good selections, especially for those of us who haven’t spent time digging through the archives.
    For further discussion:
    At the risk of getting kicked out of TKZ, I take exception to Brad Parks’ article (not to the author, but to the content). Even if this blog is The Kill Zone, I don’t think you need multiple dead bodies to make a good mystery. In fact, sometimes I wonder why there aren’t more books dealing with ‘non-murder’ crimes. There certainly are enough of them, and they’d make good puzzles. Or do readers insist on a corpse. Or three?
    There’s the “when you’re stuck throw in another body” guideline, but given I write a lot of romantic suspense and have an 11 book covert-ops series, my books don’t stack bodies like cordwood. (And, for the record, former TKZ contributor, Nancy Cohen, DOES write cozies.)

    • Good morning, Terry. Glad you found the selections worthwhile. Your exception to the kill bell is well taken. Murder is considered the ultimate crime, and thus carries the greatest weight with characters and readers. At the same time, over-using it can dilute it’s effect in my opinion. I agree about crimes involving something other than murder making good puzzles. Thanks so much for weighing in.

    • I believe several of the authors on article rotation now write cozies or softer mysteries so bodies aren’t always dropping. I read several mystery series that have moved away from murder. The Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton is about living human puzzles with maybe a missing something thrown in. The heroine is a snoop in a small British village. The books remain on the bestseller lists so the fans have stayed.

  2. Great post, and selections from the archives, Dale.

    Claire’s words of wisdom on surprise were excellent. Since I write YA fantasy adventures, I’m always looking for an unexpected twist to take the plot in a different direction or to create a cliffhanger.

    Interesting post by Brad Parks on the Kill Bell. Since my YA fantasies are more “cozy,” I don’t kill many characters. But, I’m not above disabling them or sending them off to their own universe where they may well be executed.

    And Jim’s post on the Shadow Story is a great reminder. I use the shadow story of the antagonist. I need to think more about the shadow story of the protagonist.

    Thanks for doing this post, Dale. I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    • Thanks, Steve for inviting me to guest post today in your stead. Hope your recovery continues a good clip.

      I don’t kill many characters either, not as a cozy writer, or even as an urban fantasy one. Not easily at any rate. Jim’s shadow story technique has helped me so many times.

      Thanks for your comments. Hope you have a wonderful weekend, too.

  3. I’m not a massive fan of offing characters because you are too lazy to make a plot more complex. I can spot that in a mystery, and it annoys me. My romantic suspense novels are more about emotional McGuffins like kidnapped kids than murder, but death is always a threat.

  4. Good selections, Dale. Hope you’re doing well, Steve!

    Surprises? Aristotle said it best: the ending must be “surprising yet inevitable.”

    That also applies to surprises throughout the story. They can’t come out of left field w/o a reason. The reason may be temporarily hidden but will eventually be revealed.

    As the author, if I don’t see the twist coming, I figure the reader will also be surprised.

    As far as when to kill characters, in my books, I rarely drop a body on the first page. I prefer to light a fuse that burns through the story until it’s time for the explosion. That often is the midpoint. The rest deals with the chain reaction of catastrophe following the death.

    The riskiest move I ever tried was (spoiler alert) killing the antagonist midway through EYES IN THE SKY. He was such a bad dude that he left plenty of disasters behind for the main characters to grapple with. That carried the rest of the story. In fact, his mischief has long-ranging consequences that also play out in two later books.

    The shadow story is what drives the main plot. What goes on behind the scenes provides the motive for murder.

    In mysteries, the shadow story is invisible to the reader until the very end when it’s revealed.

    In suspense, the reader knows more than the protagonist does, a la Hitchcock. The tension comes from uncertainty about when and how the villain will strike.

    Best wishes, Steve. I hope you are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel!

    • Insightful comments, Debbie. I love that risky move you pulled in “EYES THROUGH THE SKY” and how you were able leverage it. You deftly contrasted of the shadow story and it’s role in mystery with suspense, and how it really comes down to what the reader knows vs what the protagonist does.

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  5. Great post, Dale! Thanks, Steve, for guesting him, and a prayer for you . . . uneventful recovery, please.

    Jim, I love your comments about the shadow story.

    It brought to mind those times when something wakes me in the middle of the night and I get up and tiptoe around our house, looking for anything amiss.

    Sometimes, especially when the moon is bright and there’s a breeze outside, the pine, poplar, and maple trees in our yard throw shadows through the windows. I’ve even gone outside in the dead of night to make sure it’s just trees. (My husband sleeps through all of this, but I do take the large German Shepherd with me…)

    I need some trees in my WIP. Maybe my MC will find something or someone out there that’s not a tree . . . 🙂

  6. Great choices from the archives, Dale. Thank you for covering for Steve.

    Steve, I hope your surgery went well and you will have quick and complete healing.

    I like Jim’s “shadow story” concept. I have a couple of characters in my WIP who have some backstory that I’m not revealing at the beginning. I think readers will be curious about their behavior.

    I also like Claire’s encouragement to have “the bravery required to take a book into rough uncharted waters…” I want each of my books to be a new experiment, and I have to keep reminding myself not to be afraid.

    As for Brad’s statement “Lord knows, no one here is writing cozies.” I hope Brad will drop by TKZ soon and take a look at what’s going on now.

  7. Re “the human condition”…

    The TRUE human condition, or world we live in, is the history of human madness mainly thanks to the 2 married pink elephants in the room and has never been on clearer display than with the deliberate global Covid Scam atrocity — see “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon”” …

    “2 weeks to flatten the curve has turned into…3 shots to feed your family!” — Unknown

    ““We’re all in this together” is a tribal maxim. Even there, it’s a con, because the tribal leaders use it to enforce loyalty and submission. … The unity of compliance.” — Jon Rappoport, Investigative Journalist

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