About Kathryn Lilley

A crime writer, former journalist, and author of IMBA-bestselling mystery series, The Fat City Mysteries. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two neurotic cats. http://www.kathrynlilley.com/

Tips for Deepening the POV in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Most of today’s popular fiction is written in first-person POV (I) or third-person limited point of view (he, she), both of which show us the story mainly from inside the character’s head and body. These narrative techniques engage readers much more emotionally than the more distant third-person omniscient, which was popular in previous centuries.

Current popular fiction, although a long way from the old omniscient style, still employs a variety of narrative distances, depending on the genre, the target readership, and the writer’s own comfort level. There is a whole spectrum when it comes to narrative distance, from plot-driven military or action-adventure novels and historical sagas at one end to character-driven romantic suspense and romance at the other.

Today’s post focuses on close or intimate narrative distance – how to engage readers emotionally, bond them with your character, and draw them deep into your story, so they can’t put it down. And how to avoid interrupting as the author, which some readers might even find akin to “mansplaining.” See a great post here on TKZ by bestselling thriller writer, Robert Dugoni, “Hey, Butt Out! I’m Reading Here!

Most female readers (and apparently females make up about 70% of readers of novels) prefer to identify closely with the main character. The reading experience is more satisfying when we connect emotionally with the protagonist, worrying about them and rooting for them.

What is third-person limited POV? As Dan Brown says, “limited or ‘close’ third point of view (a narrative that adheres to a single character) … gives you the ability to be inside a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can give readers a deeper experience of character and scene, and is the most common way to use point of view.”

(For an introduction to point of view in fiction, especially deep point of view or close third-person POV, see my articles here on TKZ: POV 101, POV 102, and POV 103)

From third-person limited, you can decide to go even deeper, into close third person or deep point of view to create an immersive experience where readers are more emotionally invested, feeling like participants rather than observers.

As David Mamet says, “Deep point of view is a way of writing fiction in third-person limited that silences the narrative voice and takes the reader directly into a character’s mind…. Deep POV creates a deeper connection between readers and characters.”

In deep POV, the author writes as the character instead of about him. The character and his world come to life for us as we vicariously share his experiences and feel his struggles, pain, triumphs, and disappointments.

As editor and author Beth Hill says, “deep POV…is a way of pairing third-person POV with a close narrative distance. It’s a way of creating the intimacy of first-person narration with a third-person point of view.” (And without all those I – I – I’s.)

Depending on your personal style, you could decide to write in a deeper, more subjective third-person point of view for a whole novel or story or reserve this closer technique for more critical or intimate scenes.

Assuming you write in third person and want to engage your readers more and immerse them in your story world, here are some tips for getting deeper into the psyche of your character, starting with more general tips and working down to fine-tuning.

~ First, decide whose scene it is.

Most of the scenes will be from the viewpoint of your protagonist. We know what your lead character is thinking and feeling, as we’re in their head and body. But we only know the feelings and reactions of the others by what the POV character perceives – by their words, actions, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.

But sometimes you’ll want to write a scene from the point of view of another character. If you choose to use multiple POVs, make sure you only go into the head of important characters such as the love interest, someone close to the MC, or the antagonist. But as readers, we are (or should be) bonded to your MC, so it’s best to show more scenes from the viewpoint of your protagonist than all the others combined – about 70% is optional to keep readers satisfied.

How do you decide whose POV a scene will be told through? Ask yourself these questions: Who has the most at stake in that scene, the most to lose? Which character is invested the most in what’s going on? Who will be most affected by the events of the scene and change the most by the end of the scene?

~ When starting a new scene or chapter, start with the name of the POV character.

The first name a reader sees is the person they assume is the viewpoint character, the one they’re following for that scene. And don’t open a scene or chapter with “he” or “she” – that’s too vague and confusing. Readers want to know right away whose head we’re in, so name the viewpoint character right in the very first sentence.

~ Avoid head-hopping.  Get into that character’s head and body and stay there for the whole scene (or most of it).

Don’t suddenly jump into the thoughts or internal reactions of others, and try to avoid stepping back into authorial (omniscient) POV, where you’re surveying the whole scene from afar.

Stick to the general guideline of one POV per scene. Viewpoint shifts within a scene can be jolting, disorienting, and annoying if not done consciously and with care. (On the other hand, when expertly executed, they can work. Nora Roberts has definitely mastered this difficult technique.)

Become that person for the scene. Are they anxious? Cold? Tired? Uncomfortable? Annoyed? Scared? Elated? We should be able to only see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel what they do. Don’t include any details they wouldn’t be aware of.

~ Refer to the POV character in the most informal way, as he would think of himself.

Use the POV character’s name at the beginning of scenes, then only when needed for clarity. If we’re in Daniel’s head, he’s not thinking of himself as “Dr. Daniel Norton.” He’s thinking of himself as Daniel or Dan or Danny. When you introduce a new POV character for the first time, you can use their full name and title for clarity if you wish (or just slip it in later), but then switch immediately to what they would call themselves or what most people in their everyday world call them. Most of the time, just “he” or “she” is even better. How often do we think of ourselves using our names? Not often.

~ Don’t describe the POV character’s facial expressions or body language as an outside observer would see them.

Unless she’s looking in a mirror, your character can’t see what her face looks like at any given moment, so avoid phrases like “She blushed beet red.” Instead, say something like, “Her cheeks burned” or “She felt her face flush.” Instead of “Her face went white,” say “She felt the blood drain from her face.”

Or if we’re in a guy’s point of view and he’s angry, don’t say “His brow furrowed and he scowled.” Instead, show his anger from the inside (irate thoughts, clenched teeth), or show him gripping something or aware that his hands have tightened into fists, or whatever.

~ Don’t describe other characters in a way that the POV character wouldn’t. For example, don’t give a detailed description from head to toe of a character the POV character is looking at and already knows very well, like a family member.

~ Refer to other characters by the name the POV character uses for them.

If we’re in Susan’s point of view and her mother walks in, don’t say “The door opened, and Mrs. Wilson walked in, wearing a frayed blue coat.” Say something like, “The door opened, and Mom hurried in, pulling off her old coat.”

~ Show their inner thoughts and reactions often.

To bring the character to life, we need to see how she’s reacting to what’s going on, how she’s feeling about the people around her. Use a mix of indirect and direct thoughts. Short, direct, emphatic thought-reactions, often in italics, help reveal the character’s true feelings and increase intimacy with the readers. For example, What? Or No way. Or What a jerk! Instead of: “They’d been set up” (narration), use: We were set up. (The character’s actual thoughts.) For more on this, see “Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy.”

Indirect thought: He wondered where she was.

Direct thought: Where is she? Or: Where the hell is she, anyway?

~ Frequently show the POV character’s sensory reactions to their environment, other characters, and what’s happening.

Use as many of the five senses as is appropriate to get us into the skin of the character. Also show fatigue, fear, nervousness, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc. That way, readers are drawn in and feel they “are” the character. They worry about the character and are fully engaged.

~ Describe locations and other characters as the POV character perceives them.

Filter descriptions of the setting or other people through the attitudes, opinions, preferences, and sensory reactions of the viewpoint character, using their unique voice and speaking style. Don’t step back and describe the environment, another character, or a room in factual, neutral language. And don’t describe details that character wouldn’t notice or care about.

~ Use only words and phrases that character would use.

If your character is an old prospector, don’t use sophisticated language when describing what he’s perceiving around him or what he’s deciding to do next. Use his natural wording in both his dialogue and his thoughts – and all the narration, too, as those are his observations.

~ Don’t suddenly have a character knowing something just because the readers know it.

If you’re using third-person multiple POV, it’s very effective to sometimes go into the head of another character, maybe the love interest or the villain, in their own scene, without the protagonist present. We readers know this other character by name, but the viewpoint character may not even know they exist. Later, we’re in a scene in the POV of the main character when the secondary character appears to them for the first time. It’s easy to slip up and use that character’s name (or other details about him), since we know it so well, before the protagonist knows it. Watch out for this subtle mistake creeping into your story.

~ Don’t show things the character can’t perceive.

Don’t show something going on behind the character’s back or in another room or location. Similarly, don’t show what’s happening around them when they’re sleeping or unconscious. Instead, show what they’re perceiving as they wake up, or you could leave a line space and start a new scene in the POV of someone else. Avoid slipping into all-seeing, all-knowing, omniscient point of view.

Keep the narration in the POV character’s voice.

In deep point of view, not only should the dialogue be in the character’s voice and style, but the narration should too, as that’s really the character’s thoughts and observations. For more on this, see my post, “Tips for Creating an Authentic, Engaging Voice.”

~ Don’t butt in as the author to explain things to the readers, outside of the character’s viewpoint.

   Avoid lengthy “info dumps.” Instead, reveal any necessary info in brief form though the character’s POV or as a lively question-and-answer dialogue, with some attitude and tension to spice things up.

   Avoid author asides, like “Little did he realize that…” or “If only she had known…”. If the character can’t perceive it at that moment, don’t write it. You can always show danger the protagonist isn’t aware of when you’re in the POV of the villain or other character.

~ Use more action beats instead of dialogue tags.

Instead of: “Why do you think that?” she asked, crossing her arms.

Use: “Why do you think that? She crossed her arms.

We know it’s her talking because we immediately see her doing something.

~ For deeper point of view, try to avoid phrases like “she heard,” “he saw,” “she noticed,” etc.

Since we’re in the character’s head, we know she’s the one who’s hearing and seeing what is being described. Just go directly to what she’s perceiving.

He saw the man staring at his wounds. =>  The man stared at his wounds.

~ Similarly, use “he wondered,” “she thought,” “he believed,” and “she felt” sparingly. Without those filter words, we’re even closer in to the character’s psyche. Go straight to their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

For example, here’s a progression to a closer, deeper point of view:

She thought he was an idiot. –> He seemed like a bit of an idiot. –> What an idiot!

The last is a direct, internal thought or thought-reaction, often expressed in italics if it’s brief and emphatic.

Third-person limited POV:

As she hurried along the dark, deserted street, she heard footsteps approaching behind her, getting closer. She wondered if they’d finally found her.

Deep POV:

She hurried along the dark, deserted street. Footsteps approached behind her, getting closer. Could that be them?

“she heard” and “She wondered” are not necessary and create a bit of a psychic distance.

Do a search for all those describing words, like saw, heard, felt, knew, wondered, noticed, and thought, and explore ways to express the sounds, sights, thoughts, and feelings more directly.

My third writing guide, Captivate Your Readers, is full of practical tips, with examples, for deepening the point of view in your fiction and drawing readers in more emotionally.

Readers and writers: Do you have any more tips for deepening point of view in fiction? Or maybe some good before-and-after examples? Please leave them in the comments below.  (If you prefer a more distant POV, let’s leave that discussion for another time.) Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website: https://www.jodierenner.com/, Blog, Resources for Writers, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.  

+17

A Single Word Can Change the Tone

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

In your WIP, are you inadvertently tossing in a word here and there that jolts the readers out of your story or gives an incongruous impression?

Once you’ve completed a first or second draft of your story (or your muse is taking a break), now’s the time to go back and reread each scene carefully. Does every word you’ve chosen contribute to creating the overall tone and mood you’re going for in that scene? Or are some of your word choices unintentionally detracting from the impression you want readers to take away?

Is it possible you may have unconsciously inserted the odd “cheery” word into a tense scene in your story? Or a relaxed-sounding word in a scene where the character is stressed or in a hurry? Or maybe your teenager or blue-collar worker sounds too articulate? I’ve seen examples of these quite often in the fiction I’ve edited over the years.

For example, the heroine and hero are running through the woods, pursued by bad guys intent on killing them. The debut author, thinking it’s a good idea to describe the setting, uses words like “leaves dancing in the light” and “birds chirping” and “babbling brook.” These light-hearted, cheerful words detract from the desperation she’s trying to convey as the young couple races frantically to escape their pursuers. In this situation, it would be better to use more ominous words, perhaps crows cawing, a wolf howling, water crashing over rapids, or thunder cracking.

Read through each of your scenes and make sure every word you use to describe the setting, the people, and their actions, words, and thoughts contributes to create the impression you’re going for in that scene, rather than undermining your intentions.

DESCRIBING YOUR SETTING:

Here’s an example, slightly disguised, from my editing. It’s supposed to be a tense, scary moment, but the author has, without thinking about the impact, inserted relaxed, even joyful imagery that counteracts and weakens the apprehensive mood he is trying to convey (my bolding).

He locked the door behind him, his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue. He took a furtive glance out the window. No one there, so far. Despite the cold, a warming shaft of morning sunlight filtered through the stained curtain, and languid dust particles slow-danced in its beam.

What had he gotten himself into? They would certainly be on to him now—it was only a matter of time before they found him. He looked out again through the thin curtain. Sunbeams were filtering through the branches of an old tree outside the window, the shriveled shapes of the leaves dancing in the breeze, playing gleefully with the light. He swore he saw movement on the ground outside—a figure.

Some of the wording in the two paragraphs above is excellent, like “his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue” and the phrases “furtive glance,” “stained curtain” and “shriveled shapes of the leaves.” But the boldfaced words and phrases, warming, languid, slow-danced, sunbeams, dancing in the breeze, and playing gleefully with the light weaken the imagery and tone because they’re too happy and carefree for the intended ominous mood. Perhaps the writer, caught up in describing the view outside in a literary, “writerly” way, momentarily forgot he was going for frightened.  

Check to be sure every detail of your imagery enhances the overall mood and tone of the situation.

Here’s another example where the description of the setting detracts from the power of the scene and doesn’t match how the character would or should be feeling at that moment.

The protagonist has just had a shock at the end of the last chapter, where she’s discovered her colleague murdered. This is the beginning of the next chapter, a jump of a few days.

Mary gazed at the brightening horizon, immersing herself in the beauty of the rising sun. She watched as the dawn’s rays danced across the waves. Mary adored this time of day when the hustle and bustle had not yet started, and she could enjoy watching the waves wash in and listening to the seagulls overhead. It was one of the many reasons she loved this area so much.

Since the murder of Teresa three days ago, Mary had been in a state of turmoil. Teresa’s death had changed everything. Gruesome images continually flickered through her mind like an unending motion picture. She could think of nothing else and was racked by guilt.

To me, the two paragraphs seem contradictory in mood. If she’s racked by guilt and can think of nothing else, how can she enjoy the sunrise so much?

Be sure to choose words that fit the mood you’re trying to convey.

THOUGHTS, IMPRESSIONS, & IMAGERY:

Here’s another example of a tense, life-threatening scene whose power and tension have been inadvertently eroded by almost comical imagery.

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

He took to the floor on all fours and, panicking, scrabbled around aimlessly, searching his addled mind for a direction, a goal. He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. Loping ape-like across the office floor, he tried to keep his body below the level of the desks—he had seen them do it in the movies, so it was good enough for him. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

 

The words “addled” and “loping ape-like” seem too light and humorous for the life-or-death scene. Even the bit about seeing it in the movies, so it was good enough for him seems too light-hearted – this could be the last moments of this guy’s life if he doesn’t find a way to avoid the bullets!

Here’s the same scene, rewritten to capture the desperate mood:

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

What the—? He dropped to the floor and, panicking, searching his frenzied mind for a direction, a goal. Get out of here! He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. At a low crouch, he set out across the open office, dodging from one desk to another. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

Another example with imagery that’s fresh and creative, but does it actually fit the moment?

A truck came barreling toward them. He wrenched the wheel to the right, and they passed the truck, missing it by inches. Mud splattered onto the windshield, and the wipers smeared it like chocolate ice cream.

I think the chocolate ice cream imagery, although clever, is too positive and playful for the tense, scary moment.

A cliched phrase that doesn’t fit:

The frightening story cut too close to home for Diane. Just the possibility of it happening to her family scared her silly.

My comment to the writer: The word “silly” detracts from your intention to show her nervousness and fear. I’d express this with a less “silly” word. (and less of a cliché).

ACTIONS: The character’s body language and actions need to match the situation.

Don’t have someone “strolling” when they’re worried. Have them “pacing” instead. Similarly, when they’re arguing, don’t have them leaning back in their chair – have them hunched forward, or pointing a finger.

As they entered the police station, a tall, balding man with a goatee and an expensive suit shuffled down the hall towards them. As he passed, he handed a card to Wilson. “I want to see my client now, alone.”

My comment to the author: “I wouldn’t have a high-priced, confident lawyer shuffling. Save that verb for elderly or sick people, or a prisoner with chains.”

Another example of a verb that doesn’t fit the situation:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

“Sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or “stumbled” back to his office.

Another example: A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:

He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.

My comment to the writer was: The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Another example:

At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

“Squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

How is your character moving?

Is he strolling, trudging, striding, tiptoeing, stomping, shuffling, meandering, staggering, lurching, sauntering, tramping, slinking, mincing, strutting, pacing, sashaying, marching, or slogging along? Each word paints a very different picture of the state of the character and the situation.

For lots of specific suggestions for choosing just the right verb for the situation, see my post “It’s All in the Verbs” from a few years back here on TKZ. And read the comments there for more great suggestions.

And for specific lists of effective, evocative verbs for various situations, check out my post on my own blog, “People in Motion — Vary Those Verbs!

Make sure every single word fits the scene and enhances the mood.

Even one incompatible word can jolt the reader or dilute the power of a scene.

Can you pick out the word below that deflates the moment?

The guard drew in a shuddering breath as if to cry out. He half-coughed and half-gasped, then started to scream again, this time with enthusiasm. Brad covered the man’s mouth and knocked his gun to the ground.

Rather than screaming “with enthusiasm,” I’d use “in desperation or “in terror” or something like that. The choice of “with enthusiasm” evokes positive, cheery connotations.

Here’s another example of just one word jolting us out of the mood:

They broke the lock on the warehouse and looked around. “Let’s check the big freezers in the back.” He strode over and opened the freezer door. The smell of frozen flesh and blood smacked him in the face. An emaciated, naked man stared at him with lifeless eyes, frozen like a popsicle.

Yes, it’s that word at the end. I imagine the writer was searching for a good word for “frozen like” but “popsicle” is an unfortunate choice as it evokes an image that’s way too upbeat for the situation. Best to look for a more somber or horrific simile (maybe “like a pale slab of beef”).

Read these short passages and see if you can pick out the single word in each that contradicts the desired mood and tone.

  1. As the realization of what had happened hit her, Linda gasped and dropped to her knees, a myriad of twirling thoughts bombarding her mind.
  2. Could Greg have sold him out, led him here into a trap? Tony fixed his friend with an intense stare brimming with disappointment and betrayal.
  3. In the interrogation room, the accused man’s stiff, jaunty movements, drumming fingers, and constant glances around made Derek wonder if he was on something.
  4. The car spun on an invisible axis then crashed into a light post. Steve’s head bounced off the window, and his headache blossomed anew.

Words that don’t fit:

  1. “twirling” seems too light-hearted in this situation, like a dancer or a baton twirling. Maybe “whirling” or “swirling.”
  2. “brimming” is too cheery, too positive. Maybe just “his voice filled with disappointment…”
  3. “blossomed” seems too positive for a headache caused by a crack on the head during a car accident. Maybe just something like “intensified” or rewrite the phrase.

Your turn:

Rewrite any of these sentences with a more apt verb and any other tweaks you’d like to add:

  1. The big man walked into the… 
  2. The little girls danced around the room.
  3. The rabbit/squirrel/deer ran off.
  4. She looked at him, hands on hips. “What?”
  5. The crowd moved along the sidewalk.
  6. The pickpocket ran down the street.

Or feel free to make up one of your own. Have fun!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

+13

Concrete Tips for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue to Any Story

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

Are you in the process of writing a novel? Maybe a thriller or other popular fiction that you hope will grab readers and really sell? Besides a great character and a fascinating plot, you’ll also need some tried-and-true fiction-writing techniques to take your story up a level or three.

To keep readers engaged and eagerly turning the pages, all genres of fiction, not just thrillers, need tension and intrigue – and a certain amount of suspense. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension, intrigue, and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting, page-turner.

Here are some techniques for engaging your readers and keeping them riveted: 

~ First, create a protagonist that readers will care about, and give him some worries and secrets. Make your hero or heroine intriguing and complex, clever and resourceful. But not perfect – make them vulnerable too, with an Achilles heel and some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. In most cases, you want your protagonist to be likeable too, or at least have some endearing traits to make readers worry about her and root for her. If readers can’t identify with or bond with your character, it’s pretty hard to make them care what happens to her. Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

~ Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character right from the opening paragraph. Show his thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations, worries, and physical and sensory reactions in every scene. Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View.

~ Show your hero or heroine in action in the first paragraphs. Rather than opening with description, background info, or your character alone musing, it’s best to jumpstart your story with your lead interacting with someone else who matters to them, preferably with a bit of discord and tension. And show his/her inner thoughts and emotional reactions, maybe some frustration or anxiety.  Act First, Explain Later.

~ Give your character a problem to solve right from the get-go. It can be minor, but creating an early conflict that throws your lead off-balance will make your readers worry about him. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. This is so important and a common weakness for new fiction writers. Hold off on critical information. Hint at a traumatic or life-changing event early on, then reveal fragments of info about it little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering and worrying.

~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in lengthy descriptions, backstory, or exposition. Keep the action and interactions moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis, through dialogue or flashbacks – not as the author/narrator interrupting the scene to explain things to the readers. See my blog post Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character! 

~ Introduce a significant, meaningful story problem. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major challenge, dilemma, goal, or threat within the first ten chapters, a big one that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an overarching sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:

“Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time?”

~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time as they’re happening, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your main character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t explain as the author or narrator – stay in the character’s viewpoint. And don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene after it happened. Instead, show that scene as it’s unfolding or as a flashback. Of course, briefly narrate or “tell” transition scenes. Tips for showing instead of telling.

~ Make use of compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening him. Show his reactions to his environment, including what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, even tasting, and also any discomfort – is he hot, cold, tired, stressed, hungry, thirsty, afraid? Is sweat pouring down his back? Are his feet sore? These details bring him to life for the readers, who feel that hunger, thirst, fatigue, or discomfort too. 

~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your viewpoint character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc. Show these in real time for greater impact.

~ Insert some conflict/tension and a change into every scene. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective or goal (agenda), but she encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is thwarted in her efforts to reach her goal. By the end of the chapter or scene, she or circumstances have changed.

~ Put tension on every page. Every page needs some tension, even if it’s just doubt, questioning, disbelief, disagreement, suspicion, or resentment simmering below the surface.

~ Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and intriguing.

~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.

~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.

If you’re writing a thriller or other suspense fiction, ratchet up the tension and conflict even more with these techniques: 

~ Create a cunning antagonist. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him or her a serious force to be reckoned with! See my post here on TKZ, Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist.

~ Ratchet up the problem to a serious threat, and make it personal. Your hero or someone he cares about is personally threatened. It’s a life-or-death situation.

~ Establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing. Do this by your choice of words and tight writing.

~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.

~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the villain’s thoughts and intentions.

~ Keep hampering your hero or heroine throughout the novel to increase worry, tension, and suspense. Stir in some of these ingredients: a ticking clock, obstacles, chases, traps, restrictions, handicaps, injuries, bad luck, etc.

~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.

~ Get us into the head of the villain too. For increased anxiety and suspense, show us the thoughts and intentions of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the hero or heroine doesn’t know, things we desperately want to warn her about!

~ Use foreshadowing to incite curiosity. Tease the readers with innuendos. Drop subtle hints of troubles to come. Hint at the main character’s past secrets. What is the character worried about or afraid might happen? Capitalize on this. For more specific tips on this technique, see my TKZ article, Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing.

~ Add in some revelations and epiphanies to put a twist on things and reward readers for their interest and involvement.

~ Use cliff-hangers. Put your hero or heroine in hot water at the end of some chapters to incite reader curiosity and questions and compel them to go to the next chapter. Then maybe use a jump cut to go to a different scene, so they have to read more to find out what happened in the previous chapter.

For a list of techniques to consider when writing suspense fiction, see my Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue here on TKZ.

Then, in the Revision Stage: 

~ Amp up, condense, or delete any scenes that lag, and tighten up your writing.  Are some of your sentences and paragraphs too long? Are you inadvertently repeating words, ideas, actions, or imagery in close proximity? Go back and make sure every scene, paragraph, sentence, and word enhance the story and drive the plot forward. Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details.

Use short paragraphs and mix it up with brief narration and snappy dialogue. Vary the sentence structure and length. Use shorter sentences at tense times. More tips: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner.

~ Word choice is critical too. Vary your words. Use specific, evocative nouns, and verbs that really capture the action and add tension, rather than overused ones like “walked” and “ran.” For examples and more, see Nail it with Just the Right Word.

Have some of these techniques worked for you? Which ones do you find the most helpful in your own writing? Do you have any other tips to help new suspense fiction writers create a novel that will captivate readers, sell lots of copies, and garner great reviews? Or examples from your own work or a bestselling novel you’ve read? Let us know in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, at her Amazon Author Page, her blog Resources for Writers, and on Facebook

+16

16 Concrete Tips for Effectively Editing Your Own Fiction

by Jodie Renner, TKZ alumna, fiction editor and author of writing guides    

Are you relatively new at writing fiction? Perhaps you’ve shown your first (or latest) draft to beta readers and been told your premise, plot, and characterization are now pretty solid, but that your pacing is a bit slow and your writing style could use some amping up and polishing. Perhaps it’s overly wordy or just a bit pedestrian.

If so, take a break, then grab a coffee or some chocolate and start going through the whole story again, page by page, to search for any wordy, clunky, hackneyed, or lackluster phrasing and replace it with succinct, fresh, vibrant wording that will entice and delight your readers. The step-by-step list below will help you do a line-by-line self-edit to take your story up a notch or two.

If you want your popular fiction to captivate readers, sell well, and garner great reviews, ferret out and fix these 16 style weaknesses:

1. Meandering, wordy, or repetitive writing. Be on the constant lookout for anywhere you can cut down on wordiness. Don’t bore your readers by having characters going on and on. Avoid lengthy, neutral descriptions—today’s readers don’t have patience with them. And don’t say the same thing several times just to make sure readers got it. Look for areas you’re repeating yourself. Also, watch for “little word pileup.” Can you be more succinct and direct? For example, instead of “It would be a good thing for us to…,” just say “We should….” Here’s an example from my editing:

Before: The man was small and pudgy and he had a full dark beard that he nervously stroked with his hand.

After: The small, pudgy man nervously stroked his full dark beard.

2. Wishy-washy qualifiers that weaken your message. Do a search for words like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, etc., and delete almost all of them. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Even really and very are best avoided—it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

3. Colorless, pedestrian verbs. Do a search for overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus or use the MS Word one to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted. Do searches for walked and ran and replace many or most of them. See Ch. 21 of Fire up Your Fiction for plenty of more expressive alternatives.

4. Overuse of –ing verbs. Best to use -ed verbs instead—they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5. Too many -ly adverbs. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.” Instead of “He walked deliberately,” say “He strode.”

6. Pile-up of adjectives. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of descriptors in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Instead of “a very tall, hefty man” say “a giant”; instead of “a beautiful, huge, historic house,” say “a stately mansion.”

Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose”—melodramatic, overly “flowery” writing. For example, here’s an over-the-top description from a novel I edited many years ago, about a sports car in motion: “Every turn of the wheel, the veiled beauty of fortune shadowed him: serpentine and capricious in nature, bestowing pleasure or pain at whim, and enslaving mankind to her fancy.”

7. Telling instead of showing. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, tone, facial expressions, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she pushed her food around the plate.” Do searches for was, looked, seemed, and felt and reassess and revise.

8. Distracting dialogue tags. Stick with the basic he said and she said­ (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered.

Also, you can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead:  He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

9. Showing a reaction before the action that caused it. Make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actual actions. Describe the action first, then the reaction; the stimulus, then the response. State cause before effect. Instead of “He jumped when he heard a piercing scream,” write: “A piercing scream made him jump.”

10. Passive instead of active voice. Don’t say, “The ball was thrown by the boy.” Say “The boy threw the ball.” Start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct, personalized, active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Instead of: “Fire on them as soon as they’re spotted,” say “Fire on them as soon as you spot them.”

11. Negative constructions. Avoid double negatives as they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

12. Frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. “The assailant closed in on me, eyes blazing. Next thing I saw was his fist closing in, and then making contact.” or “Two big stacks of files were stacked on her desk.”

13. Pet words or imagery you use over and over. Is your character smiling or shrugging or squinting or swallowing or nodding or rolling her eyes or raising her eyebrows a lot? Vary the wording and imagery.

14. Formal sentences and pretentious language. To be avoided in fiction, unless it’s the dialogue of an arrogant or pretentious character. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up distracting and alienating them. Simple words are more powerful and direct, as they evoke an instant image or feeling. Pompous or unfamiliar words feel like the author is trying too hard to impress us.

“Are you excavating a subterranean channel?” asked the scholar. “No sir,” replied the farmer. “I am only digging a ditch.” – Anon

15. Characters starting to do things. Don’t have your characters begin to do something or start to do something. Just show them performing the action. Instead of “She was beginning to feel nauseous,” say “She felt nauseous.” Instead of “His head started to pound” say “His head pounded.”

16. Monotonous sentence structure:

– Don’t start sentence after sentence with “He” or “She” or their name. Rearrange the ideas for a more sophisticated feel:

Before: His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He parked in the darkness. He closed the car door carefully after him. He drew his gun. He was relieved to see no lights in the windows. He walked quietly up the path to the back door.

After: His headlights found the driveway leading to the rear of the duplex. He drove around, then parked in the darkness. Closing the car door carefully after him, he drew his gun and crept forward. As he walked quietly up the path to the back deck, he was relieved to see no lights in the windows.

– Don’t start sentence after sentence with a gerund:

Creeping to the office door, Eileen stood listening. Hearing nothing, she opened it and peeked out. Seeing no one in the hallway, she headed for the door near the entrance to the showroom. Entering the room, she turned on the light and closed the door behind her. Expecting to see a room filled with stolen artwork, Eileen was disappointed.

– Change up “and” sentences, which can seem clunky and amateurish.

Before: He was tall and thin with a long narrow face and looked exhausted.

After: Tall and thin with a long narrow face, he looked exhausted.

– Combine sentences and reword for better flow:

Before:  Ben Cross was a top-notch investigator. He was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelley walked in.

After:  Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut when Shelly walked in.

Or:  Shelly walked in the café and looked around. Ben Cross, a top-notch investigator, was at a table drinking coffee and eating a donut.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but working through these tips should definitely result in a more dynamic, engaging writing style and better pacing. For more many more tips with examples for sparking up your story and polishing your prose, check out Jodie Renner’s FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.

For lots more succinct, valuable advice for writing compelling fiction, see links to many of Jodie Renner’s top writing craft posts HERE.

Do you have any style tips to add? Please post them in the comments below. (Let’s leave advice on grammar and punctuation, and also plot, characterization, pacing, tension, intrigue, etc. for other blog posts.) Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two handy, clickable, time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; Blog – Resources for WritersFacebook, Amazon Author Page.

+7

Reader Friday: Your Most Useful Writers Confabs?

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

We’re winding our way toward the end of the year, so let’s share some of our hive wisdom. What are your favorite writer conferences for networking or making contacts? Describe the best conference you ever attended, and please tell us what made it a good experience for you.

+1

It’s Time To Share, TKZers! What Are You Working On?

A while back, a TKZer made an excellent suggestion: to give an opportunity for readers to share something about their writing and latest projects.

So, this is the day we want to hear about YOU, your WIP, and recent accomplishments! Don’t forget to include a link so that folks can find out more about your work.

C’mon, it’s time to toot your horn!

+2

First Page Critique: FIFTH FLOOR

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

Today we’re reviewing the first page of FIFTH FLOOR, submitted anonymously for critique. I’ll start the ball rolling, and then please add your suggestions for today’s brave author in the Comments.

FIFTH FLOOR

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face. An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu. After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed. The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place.

Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

My comments

We’re definitely starting off with a sense of urgency in this scene, as Andromeda becomes aware of her surroundings and tries to assess her situation.

Here’s another version, with my comments/notes in bold:

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, (Edit the number of commas used throughout this submission) echoed through the steel door.

(The references to “the smell of burning wood and flesh” didn’t get much followup after this opening, which was a bit puzzling. The flesh of the screaming woman in the next room is being burned? That would be a truly terrifying conclusion to make. And if that’s what’s happening, I’d want Andromeda to have a reaction.)

Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. (I  stumbled briefly over the transition from a woman screaming to “Andromeda found herself in a small room.” Found herself? That wording struck me as a bit vague.)

She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face. (This description is a bit intrusive, and it’s what some editors would call a “description dump”. Try to work in character description in a way that isn’t a generic “She had brown hair and green eyes” sort of thing. For tips and examples of fresh ways to work character descriptions into a scene, I suggest taking a look at DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY by Chris Roerden)

An eerie chill (Can a chill be eerie and piercing? Just wondering) pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both. (Edit this down a bit. The ‘total lack of insulation’ seems off in tone. By now, I was also looking for some followup or clarification to the mention of burning wood and flesh in the opening sentence.)

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was (attempts…were) futile; (semicolon alert) the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu. After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room. (This transition stopped me. Which bed is this referring to? The one in the metal interrogation room? This is the first moment I realized she woke up in the bed there–that should be established earlier, the first time the bed is mentioned. And “stretching” seems too relaxed a gesture for the level of tension this scene requires.)

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk (she walked, not “began to walk”) around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. (Try to pare down the number of clothing details, and work them in without calling them out so pointedly. And the use of “unoccupied “ is unnecessary—by now, we know she’s alone in the room) She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed. (tighten up the wrapping, bracing, shudder and chills a bit) The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: (To me, the reference to a military interrogation chamber suggests a certain type of background–if so, we need to get a sense of that background somewhere in this scene) there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. (Try to find wording that is stronger than “put her in this place”)

Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, (Just start with the screams. No need to say that she’s reminded) growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind (nix the “preparing her mind”) to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room (the wording’s a bit awkward here); (semicolon alert) the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even totuch the door, it receded into the floor.  (What? The door receded into the floor? Visions of Sci-Fi rise in my head) Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs. (Burning from what? The metal door and floor? I’m not getting a clear sense of cause and effect here.)

Overall

Happily, most of my previous comments fall into the category of nit picky writing edits and craft tweaks that are easily introduced. I think the scene overall has enough inherent drama and tension to engage a reader’s interest and propel this story forward.

Our thanks go to today’s writer for submitting this scene for critique! TKZ’ers, please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments.

+2

“When I Grow Up”: Things I Never Planned To Become

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

We spent Labor Day weekend in New York City, which meant I had to reacquaint myself with the sights and textures of Manhattan’s gritty streets in the sweltering heat of late summer.

Our activities revolved mostly around watching the US Open and Yankees baseball. As someone who had zero interest in spectator sports for most of her life, I’m a bit surprised by having acquired a sudden, rabid interest in baseball. Because my newfound enthusiasm for baseball far outstrips my knowledge of the game, I have a newbie’s tendency to vocalize (loudly) ill informed skepticism about Aaron Boone management decisions. This obnoxious trait leads to the occasional humiliation when his decisions turn out to be correct, leading to a Yankees win.

We spent the entire day on Saturday enjoying a close-up tour of Yankees Stadium. They let us wander around the dugout and take a quick peek at the bullpen. Later that day during the game we listened as the famed Bleacher Creatures bellowed outfielder Andrew McCutchen’s name as he made his debut in pinstripes. Per my usual, I questioned Boone’s decision to use him as the leadoff hitter in his very first game (I mean, Cutch had just traveled 3,000 miles on short notice—ever hear of jet lag, Aaron?) 

Checking out the Yankees dugout

But to his credit, Boone thrilled many hearts in Yankees fan world (a notoriously fickle lot) by getting thrown out of a game recently. Boone, who has been criticized in social media for being a bit too mellow, too nice, got suspended after storming the field to conduct a brim-to-brim confrontation with an umpire. The manager’s ejection seemed to galvanize his players, who rallied quickly to take the win.

So now I’m in the mood to read some great books about sports. The subject doesn’t have to be baseball; I’m looking for anything that captures the drama, personalities, or history of a sport. Any suggestions?

+4