Homegrown Thrill Rides

Homegrown Thrill Rides: A checklist for suspense, what is the domestic thriller,  and tips on writing one.

As a now retired librarian turned full-time fiction writer, diving into the vast Kill Zone archives for three nuggets of wisdom is the perfect role for me here at KZB. It gives me the opportunity to share so many insightful posts on craft, publishing, and much more. For today’s post, I want to take a look on creating “homegrown thrill rides.” It begins with a sampling from a checklist on how to create suspense and tension for the reader, a necessary ingredient in any thrill ride. We then turn to excerpts from a pair of posts on the domestic thriller: defining it, and a few of the key factors to consider in writing one.

Please weigh in with your own thoughts. I have included a few questions as prompts for comments after the excerpts. Date links are provided to the full posts which can provide further fuel for thought and discussion.

Experiment with these devices to increase suspense and intrigue:

__ Sprinkle in some foreshadowing – drop subtle advance hints and innuendos about critical plot points or events.

__ Withhold information – use delay tactics, interruptions at critical points.

__ Stretch out critical scenes – milk them for all they’re worth.

Surprise or shock your readers:

__ Add in a few unexpected twists. Put a big one in the middle and another big one at the end.

__ Use surprise revelations from time to time – reveal character secrets and other critical information the reader has been dying to know.

__ Have your main character experience at least one epiphany – a sudden significant realization that changes everything for them. Try putting one in the middle and one near the end.

__ Write in some reversals of feelings, attitudes, expectations, and outcomes.

Keep adding more tension. Increase the troubles of your protagonist by using these plot devices:

__ Ticking clocks – every second counts.

__ Obstacles, hindrances – keep challenging your hero or heroine.

__ Chases – your protagonist is chasing or being chased.

__ Threats or hints of more possible danger ahead.

__ Traps and restrictions – your character becomes somehow trapped and must use all their resources to get out of the situation.

Create a memorable, satisfying ending.

Design a big showdown scene, an extremely close battle between the hero/heroine and the villain.

__ Write in a surprise twist at the end.

__ Leave your readers satisfied – the hero wins by a hair, the main story question/conflict is resolved.

–Jodie Renner, June 12, 2013 

 

I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

–James Scott Bell, May 6, 2018

 

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

–Jordan Dane, January 3, 2019

***

  1. How do you go about creating suspense in your fiction?
  2. Do you read domestic thrillers? Write them?
  3. What tips or advice do you have?

 

First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.

~~~

An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.

~~~

Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!

 ~~~

 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?

~~~

 

When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

Amazon sales link

 

Timing and Punchlines

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Allan Warren, Creative Commons license

 

 

I use the cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a joke, I smoke as long as they laugh and when they stop laughing I take the cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke. – George Burns

 

 

 

Note: Today’s discussion concerns later drafts when you rewrite, edit, and polish. It doesn’t apply to first drafts where the main job is to get the story down. 

~~~

I love the great old comedians like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx. They not only knew WHAT to say to make the audience laugh, they knew WHEN to say it. They were masters at timing.

Johnny Carson freely admitted, when he was starting out, he blatantly copied Jack Benny—the gestures (elbow in hand, hand on cheek), the pauses, the deadpan stares.

These guys knew how to tell a joke: introduction, buildup, suspenseful pauses, more buildup, and, at last, the climax of the joke known as the punchline.

According to Masterclass.com:

Where Did the Punchline Originate?

Punchlines in jokes can be traced back a long way, but the term “punchline” first came onto the scene in the early twentieth century. While it is usually attributed to the British humor magazine Punch, the term itself was first used by a Wisconsin newspaper, The Racine Journal News, in 1912, when a review of a play described a “punch in every line.”

The New York Times talked about “punch lines” the following year. “Punchline” then gained traction and usage in reference to performances and finally appeared in the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 1921.

 

Classic comedians can teach authors a lot. After all, what are jokes but tightly compressed stories that have a beginning, middle, and end?

Both comedians and authors introduce a situation, one or more characters, and a problem. Events unfold. Certain key clues are withheld. Suspense builds. At the end comes the Big Reveal—the PUNCHLINE in a joke or the CLIMAX in a novel.

As authors, we are concerned with macro issues: plot, character development and story arc.

Today, though, let’s focus instead on micro issues. By this, I mean individual sentences, paragraphs, and scenes with special attention to word order and timing.

In How to Write a Mystery (an excellent book I reviewed recently), Hank Phillippi Ryan writes:

…Even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. 

Think of a paragraph like a joke. Although the content doesn’t have to be funny, the delivery is similar. It needs an introduction, building action and suspense, then a mini-climax that propels the reader into the next paragraph.

One paragraph leads to the next, with more building action and suspense, then another mini-climax.

Put a bunch of paragraphs together and they become a scene.

Combine a bunch of scenes and they turn into a chapter.

Stack up those chapters and you eventually have a book.

Let’s examine sentences since they are the building blocks on which the entire story rests. If you start with solid sentences, you’re more likely to create good paragraphs, scenes, and chapters.

What makes a good sentence?

Clarity. The meaning should be understandable on the first read.

Direct and active;

Has a purpose in the story;

Concise.

What shouldn’t be in a sentence? 

Description for description’s sake;

Pointless thinking or musing by a character;

Excess verbiage or fluff.

Confusing elements;

Long, overly-complicated, or convoluted phrasing.

When you rewrite, examine each sentence, word by word.

When you read it aloud, does it flow smoothly? Are there places where you stumble?

Is there a stronger verb or noun you can use?

Are there filler words you can cut without changing the meaning?

Consider the order of the words in the following example:

Ed plopped on the couch and popped the top on a beer that he’d just bought when he drove to the liquor store. He’d been arguing with Mary all morning. She claimed he was drinking too much.

Meh.

Hard to follow because the events are out of chronological order. The “punchline” is buried. Nothing pulls the reader into the next scene.

The argument about drinking too much is actually the first event that starts a chain reaction. Ed and Mary argue. He drives to the liquor store, buys beer, comes home, and starts drinking to thumb his nose at Mary’s concerns.

If this example were a joke, the punchline is buried near the beginning.

The paragraph ends with a whimper, not a bang.

 Rewrite:

Ed was fed up with the constant arguments. Why did Mary keep trying to control him? He stormed out the door, drove to the liquor store, and bought a twelve-pack of Rainier. Back at home, he plopped on the couch. When Mary entered the living room, he grabbed a can. “Hey, honey, listen to this.” He popped the top.

The same information is conveyed. However, the sentences are shorter; the chronological order is rearranged for clarity; the punchline is at the end.

The punchline also serves as a mini-cliffhanger hinting their argument is about to escalate.

The reader turns the page to find out what happens next.

Ideally, each paragraph is part of a 250 to 300-page chain reaction that continuously builds to the ultimate explosion of the story climax.

Our goal as writers is to make the strongest dramatic impact on the reader. By carefully rearranging words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, you build suspense and impel the reader to turn the page.  

My first drafts are full of long, convoluted sentences and thick, dense paragraphs. Events happen out of order and don’t make much sense, except to me.

All right, sometimes they don’t make sense, even to me!

That’s because I write things in the order that they occur to me. A clue or line of dialogue pops into my mind. I write it down quick before I forget it. That means many words and phrases are in the wrong place.

Of all the tech advances since the dawn of word processing, cut-and-paste is my favorite. It makes editing and polishing far easier than the old-fashioned scissors and tape method. It allows quick and easy rearrangement of words and sentences.

While editing, the writer discovers:

The snappy comeback on page 23 works better in the dialogue on page 12.

The description of the grungy no-tell motel needs to be moved from page 64 back to page 33 when the motel is first shown.

The revelation about the cause of the hero’s scar should be delayed to the midpoint to increase reader curiosity.

As you polish later drafts, consider what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it at any given moment in the story.

In mysteries, we direct suspicion at different characters. We plant clues that don’t seem to have meaning until later chapters.

We mislead the reader with red herrings (although it’s important to play fair or the reader will get angry at being duped).

A revelation unexpectedly pivots the plot in a different direction the reader didn’t expect, resulting in a surprise.

The following video appeared in a previous post. It’s worth watching again because it’s a terrific example of suspense building, perfect timing, and a punchline that delivers a wallop. 

Good timing results in the greatest dramatic impact on the reader.

For old-time comedians (and good contemporary ones like Dan Yashinsky), timing is crucial.

The same is true with storytelling.

~~~

TKZers: Do you consider timing when you write? Do you have suggestions how to achieve more dramatic effect?

~~~

 

Black Friday through Cyber Monday Sale. All Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are only $.99 from November 26 through November 29.

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True Crime Thursday – Police Stop

Photo credit: dwights ghost, wikimedia creative commons

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Today’s True Crime tale is set in Detroit, dateline 2009. This three minute video chronicles a harrowing police stop with charges that include speeding, grand theft auto, and murder.

As a bonus, it offers a master class in storytelling by author Dan Yashinsky of Toronto.

Here’s Dan!

 

TKZers: Did you learn any techniques from Dan’s video to use in your own work?

~~~

 

 

Last day for introductory price of $.99 for Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff. Here’s the buy link.

My Brief Life and Tragic Death – First Page Critique  

 By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Please welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for a story entitled:

My Brief Life and Tragic Death

Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins

I met Frank and survived an assassination attempt between lunch and teatime.

I suppose it started with the whistling. I had the palace library all to myself, as usual. The hush was shattered when a boy walked in, whistling. He caught sight of me and approached. It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it. When he reached my table, he stopped whistling and stood smiling at me. It was a good smile. It invited me to smile back, which I didn’t, of course.

He was a handsome boy of about thirteen, a year older than myself, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

His smile and likability made me uncomfortable. I gave him a cold stare. “This is a library, you know.”

He looked around in pretended astonishment.

I added, “You can tell from all the books? At least, I hope you can.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Hey, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a sweet little girl named Flavia.”

I placed a bookmark and closed my book. “Are you being irritating on purpose?”

“Of course I am. How about you?”

I was taken aback. “Why?”

“Look, babe, do you know where Flavia is or not?”

“I’m Princess Flavia.”

“Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.” He stuck out his hand.

If you ignored his actual words, he was wonderfully well-spoken, especially for his age. He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends. I was a bit regretful when I said, “Princesses don’t shake hands.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I’m not a princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “But I am.”

~~~

First impressions:

Let’s start with the title: My Brief Life and Tragic Death.

It implies the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Princess Flavia, is apparently already dead. Is this fantasy? Magic realism? Is it similar to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, told by a murdered teenager watching her family deal with the repercussions of her death?

I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m intrigued.

The first line drops a provocative bomb about an assassination attempt. That definitely qualifies as a disturbance in anyone’s life. But the tone struck me as too casual and matter-of-fact. I can’t imagine a 12-year-old girl, even a self-possessed princess, being this blasé about someone trying to kill her.

Next, the scene flips back to earlier that day. Flavia is alone in the palace library when her reading is interrupted by the entrance of a whistling boy who’s looking for her. This also qualifies as a disturbance, although on a much smaller scale than an assassination attempt.

Foreshadowing and disturbances, major and minor, kick off a good start, enticing the reader into the plot. Nice job, Brave Author.

Setting and Time:

The mention of teatime suggests the locale is the British Isles, so a haircut from the California side of the gateway sounds exotic and faraway to the cloistered Flavia. Although the haircut and the gateway aren’t clearly defined yet, that’s okay. Longer descriptions could bog down the forward momentum at this point. I’m willing to wait for more explanation.

The time period isn’t defined. Physical books in a library could be contemporary but might also indicate a past before digital books. Again, I’m willing to wait to find out.

Characterizations:

Right away, Flavia’s character interests me. She sounds much older than her age. She’s alienated from people and may be lonely but won’t admit it: I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

She doesn’t react in predictable ways: His smile and likability made me uncomfortable.

And she’s irritated by her reactions, as if she can’t control her own mind: I liked him at once, which annoyed me.

The author raises questions: Why does Flavia react like this? Why does she expect herself to be detached from normal human emotions? As a princess, is she pressured to behave a certain way? Does she secretly want to rebel against those conventions?

Flavia is a character in conflict with herself. Already she’s presented enough complicated psychology to make a reader want to learn more about her. Well done.

Her observation of Frank is not superficial. Like a normal adolescent girl, she notices he is handsome but she also digs deeper, probing into his character.

Frank is brash, cocky, yet charming. She’s interested but, for some unknown reason, can’t allow herself to like him.

Brave author, in a very few lines, you’ve skillfully painted a picture not only of Frank’s appearance but also his personality. 

Flavia quickly sets Frank straight that she is a princess who won’t tolerate being called “babe.” Frank isn’t at all fazed by being put in his place and goes on to eloquently charm her, while at the same time giving readers a quick sketch of what Flavia looks like: Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. 

In first person, it’s difficult to find effective ways for a character to describe herself without resorting to cliches like looking in a mirror. This was a nice blending of dialogue and description that didn’t sound forced. 

Voice:

The humor works well. The banter between aloof Flavia and smartass Frank is entertaining. They keep trying to one-up each other, competing over who gets the last word. That creates ongoing tension between them. The reader wants to find out who wins the verbal jousting.

The author also nicely juxtaposes that humor with Flavia’s wistful longing for connection with another human.

The following is my favorite sentence:

He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends.

That really pins down both personalities and poignantly conveys Flavia’s loneliness.

Audience:

Flavia’s age indicates the target audience may be Young Adult. Overall, I like her voice, even though she sounds much more mature than an average 12-year-old. I know intelligent, articulate, well-read kids like her so she comes across as unusual but still realistic.

Line editing:

What if you rearrange the order of the first sentence like this?

Between lunch and teatime, I met Frank Barron and survived an assassination attempt.

Switching the assassination attempt to the end of the sentence creates a more dramatic punchline. 

Another thought about the first line: it could come off as a gimmicky ploy unless the author delivers a payoff within a few pages.

Is Frank the savior who thwarts the attempt on her life? That creates a compelling reason for an ongoing relationship between them.

Or is he the would-be assassin?

Because Flavia already knows what happens (even though the reader doesn’t), she could foreshadow a little more.To raise tension, perhaps she wonders how he got past security into the palace library.

The phrase If you ignored his actual words confused me.

Here’s what Frank says: “Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.”

His “actual words” show a sophisticated command of language so I don’t understand why Flavia talks about ignoring them. Maybe delete the phrase: If you ignored his actual words, 

~~~

Overall, this first page works well. The characters are likable, multi-dimensional, and complex. There’s conflict, tension, and suspense.

Additionally, the author proof-read and submitted a clean page without typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.

YA, fantasy, and magic realism are not genres I’m terribly familiar with. But the Brave Author did a good job of pulling me into this intriguing submission. Thank you for sharing it!

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of Flavia and Frank? Are you interested in the premise? Any suggestions for our Brave Author?

Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

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The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.

 

Your writing will show the difference.

 

TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?

 

Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!

 

Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”

Whatever.

It’s available on Amazon here.

You Control the Action – Make It Flow Without Distractions – First Page Critique – In Vitro

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Another intrepid author has submitted their 400-word introduction to their work-in-progress for feedback. Please read and enjoy. Provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you, my TKZ family.

***

The simple action of opening a door made Axel Chadwick an accomplice to murder.

The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. As usual, his eyes burned from reading a paper on his tablet titled The Further Evidence of Botanic Life Benefits on Astro-based Laboratories nearly too fast to comprehend. Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

Empty, he could sway without worry and delve further into his text. The soft patter of rain against the windows were interrupted by frantic bangs on the door a few feet away. A boy stood outside it. “Oi, let me in! I’m locked out!”

Axel glanced past him to see nothing but dark clouds over the beach through the window before returning back to his text. “Use the fingerprint scanner like you’re supposed to.”

“The rain—it’s short circuited it,” he cried, muffled through the glass. “I’m going to be late to my exam!”

He should have asked his name, what class he was in, which exam he had to take, and who his department head was so he could verify it, because even though no intruder had gotten onto the island before, it was the rules not to let anyone in.

A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

The windowed-hallway was far behind him when Autumn caught up, pulling the pegs from her glasses out of her knotted hair. “Ready?”

Axel read the last sentence and then powered down his tablet, pulling its handle out of its top, and carrying it to his side. “Of course. You?”

“As much as I can be.”

***

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This reads as if the story could be ripped from the headlines if the author intends this to be about a school shooting and an unauthorized entry on campus. To pull that off effectively, I would recommend the author stick to the action of the story and avoid diverging into back story or slowing the pace with actions not related to this intrusion. More details below.

FIRST TWO SENTENCES – The first sentence foreshadows what is coming, but it’s a head fake. I believe the author intended to force a compelling first line, but since it’s written in hindsight and quickly shifts into tedious details that slow the pace, it detracts rather than helps the pace and add to the intrigue. That first line might be more compelling if the author had stuck to the action and added that line to a scene ending, when Axel realizes what he’s done.

Any momentum from that first line is quickly diffused by a redirection into the POV of a student reading something on a laptop who reminiscences about the day as if he’s seeing it in hindsight with THIS line – The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. This line serves no purpose and is confusing. It should be deleted.

POV – I’m not sure why Axel is chosen as the POV, except that the author has probably given him a starring role as the main protag. I wonder how this intro might read if the POV came from the shooter gaining illegal access to the school, but let’s focus on Axel. If the action started with Axel racing through the school, against a clock, the author could set the stage better by focusing on Axel careening through the corridors, bumping into students and nearly dropping his laptop before he sees the kid pounding at the door in the rain. He knows he shouldn’t open the door (minimize his awareness of rules until later), but he tries to be a good guy and makes the mistake.

Give the shooter distinctive clothes that Axel realizes later is the guy he let into the building. Does the shooting start right away? Does the shooter do anything to let Axel realize he might’ve made a mistake? Does Axel see his face? There needs to be more tension in this gesture of opening a door, rather than Axel “telling” the reader that what he’d done was wrong. Following the action of Axel opening the door, he immediately gets back into his exam as he runs into Autumn. This diverts attention and adds to the slow pace.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – If the intruder to campus is a big deal, the author should focus on it as it happens and as the guy enters the premises. Instead we have Axel and Autumn talking about their test and if they studied enough.

AXEL’s AGE/STUDENT STATUS – I’m assuming that Axel is a student and not a teacher, although that is never really shown. Since Axel shows poor judgment in letting the student in and his mind sounds like the workings of a distracted teenager, but it’s not truly spelled out until he talks to Autumn. That point could be clearer, earlier.

DESCRIPTION OF ACTION – To give the illusion of pace, the author should give a better description of Axel’s scattered race through the halls. The original line below is too long. He’s also “striding” which is calm, but he is only thinking about “bumping into someone while trying to avoid someone else,” an awkward and distant way of describing the action. He comes across as too methodical in his run for his exam room.

BEFORE – Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

AFTER – Axel dodged bodies as he ran through the hectic atrium of Invitron. He careened through the horde of students with sweat running down his temple, Axel had one eye on the obstacles and the other on his open laptop. After he stumbled over a freshman, he nearly dropped his laptop.

“Eyes open, fish.” With his chest heaving, he darted by the bumbling kid without looking back.

Axel kept his eyes glued to the screen, studying with every second he had before his exam started.

CONTROL THE SETTING – Setting can add tension to any scene. In this intro, the author chose a soft patter of rain, against a frantic bang on the door. The sense of urgency is deflated if the rain isn’t a deluge. Since an author controls the setting, make it rain harder, where Axel feels badly for the drenched kid outside. Or have the intruder hold up his computer, saying it will be damaged, so Axel can relate to helping him.

CONTRADICTIONS – In this paragraph below, Axel is asking himself questions on why the kid is out in the “pouring rain” (that was previously described as a soft patter), but then Axel shows no regard as he lets the guy into the building without even looking at him. It’s not consistent if he has all these questions but his actions show indifference. Pick a perspective and do it for the betterment of the story.

EXAMPLE – A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

This introduction needs work in order to make it consistent, descriptive with action, and focus on a foreshadowing of things to come. If the author’s intent is to focus on Axel and his studious world, that can be accomplished by endearing  him more to the reader, so when a fake student gets him to open a security door, the reader is rooting for him. But the author would need to get deeply into Axel overachieving head and give him some traits we can identify with. Opening a door to a drenched student might be understandable if the proper groundwork is set up. Don’t foreshadow that Axel knew all the rules and still ignored them. Have him be well-meaning and let the action unfold as he is duped. That would be another way to go.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think TKZers? Would you read more? What helpful feedback would you give this author?

 

Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Below is an anonymous submission of the first 400 words of a brave author’s work in progress. Read and enjoy. My feedback is on the flip side. Please comment with your constructive criticism. Thank you.

***

On the floor. Broken and alone.

The image had haunted Kit Paterson’s mind for days. No one should die alone.

Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head was harsh enough. Seeing it for real would have been unbearable. Rachel, neighbor and friend, had been thirty-two, eighteen years younger than Kit.

A dog’s sudden barking sent Kit to the windows of her dinette. It wasn’t MuMu’s usual bark. This howl sounded angry.

Kit knew MuMu’s owners weren’t home. She peeked through the blinds to the backyard beside hers. While searching for the Bogarts’ shepherd-lab in the near-darkness, she noticed the next house over, Rachel’s house. A glow came from the living room in back. Kit was certain she’d turned off all lights after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day. Apparently she hadn’t. She grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter.

Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind. She smiled. Smoke from someone’s chimney made autumn official. She wrapped her cardigan close.

MuMu’s frenzied yowls continued.

Feral cats must be prowling the woods, Kit thought. Or maybe coyotes again. She increased her speed.

As she approached Rachel’s one-story home, brightness from the windows on each side of the battered front door caught her attention. The radiance wasn’t steady like a lamp’s. This light danced.

Fire!

Kit snatched her phone from a sweater pocket. She punched 911. The operator asked, “What is your emergency?” Kit shouted the situation.

A drought had dogged Atlanta since spring. What if the fire jumped to the Bogart’s property? To the woods? To the neighborhood behind? The fire station was only a mile away, but she couldn’t wait. MuMu agreed.

Kit tore across Rachel’s lawn, past the garage, toward the rear of the house, where she collided with two people dressed in black. The taller one shoved Kit away. He and the shorter figure dashed to the road.

Kit stood stunned, until the stench of smoke slapped her awake. She ran to the patio off the living room.

A coiled garden hose laid below a faucet, unattached. Kit’s fingers trembled as she placed its end to the spigot. After several attempts, she connected the fittings and spun the faucet wheel to the left. The smell of burning wood and fabric began to overwhelm. Kit covered her nose and mouth with a hand while MuMu crashed against the chain-link fence, raising holy-hell.

FEEDBACK:

I had to reread this one a few times before I got the picture of the action. The brief memory and back story introduction of Rachel’s death had me following a path in the action until I realized there had been a detour back to a barking dog and something happening next door. One of the best tips I ever received from another author—and I’ve certainly read about this tip here at TKZ—is to “Stick with the action.”

The brief flashback to the body of Rachel is too important to gloss over and it’s a distraction from what’s happening in the present. It reads like the dead body is immediately on the page until the reader finds out this is a flashback and back story at the same time. I almost want this story to start with the body and how Kit discovers her dead neighbor. That would sure raise the hair on my neck if the author can put the reader in the moment. Very creepy.

This submission doesn’t do that. It quickly jumps into a dog barking and a fire starting next door, another good place to start. Either could be pulled off effectively, but the combination of both of them gives me the feeling that this intro is rushed and neither approach has enough meat on the bone, so let’s flesh this out.

DEAD BODY START – If the author moved the start of this story back to when Kit first discovers her neighbor Rachel’s dead body, there would need to be a setting established to put the reader into it. Why had Kit gone next door? When did it start to get creepy and why? Picture a harmless reason to call on a neighbor until Kit sees a door cracked open. Stick with the action and draw the reader into every aspect of that frightening experience. Did she scare off the killer? How much did she see of the body?

From there, where would the author go? Kit questioned by detectives, reporters, and the intrusion into Kit’s life. What does it feel like to find a body of someone you knew well and considered a friend? Kit’s reaction might cause her to overreact when a dog barks the next night and she runs to find the house on fire.

The bottom line is that this story seems to have a beginning off the page and only hinted at in the first few lines. That raised questions with me as a crime novel reader. I wanted to know what Kit saw? The dog barking and the fire can be exciting, but what happened to Rachel?

DOG BARKING/FIRE START – If the author decides to start the story at the first sound of a dog barking, that can work, especially if when Kit goes to check on the fire, she finds Rachel’s dead body and the shadow of someone running from the house. Then it would be OFF TO THE RACES.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING – Whether the author chooses to go with the dog barking or the dead body to start this novel, setting can help to titillate the reader’s senses and give meat to the bones of this introduction. This intro is a little sparse for me. Try answering these questions by writing a solution into the introduction and see how much better it will read. It’s important to tease the reader with all their senses to put them into the scene.

Setting Questions:

  • What time of day is it? The first hint of time is in the 5th paragraph where the author references it’s “near-darkness.” We have control over every aspect of this scene. Why not pick total darkness? Anyone setting fire to a house would want to do it under cover of darkness.
  • What is the weather? In the paragraph starting with “Beneath a streetlight,” there’s mention of a brisk October wind. Instead of making this fact add to the mood of the scene and foreshadow what’s coming, the author made the choice for Kit to smell wood burning in a fireplace and it made her feel good. So picture a cold wind making Kit think twice about going outside. It makes her uncomfortable and forces her to bundle up. She’s already at odds with the weather, but her curiosity outweighs the biting chill.
  • What does Rachel’s house look like? Does it foreshadow what Kit might find? If Kit found a body there, going back would make her relive the shock. How would that make her feel? A house where good memories used to be might be cast into a sinister feel if Kit found Rachel dead inside.
  • How does the barking dog react when Kit approaches? If Kit’s going because she’s worried about the strangeness of the dog’s bark, how does the dog react as she approaches? A frenzied dog yapping would put me on edge and cause my adrenaline to hit the red zone, especially if I thought someone lurked inside.
  • How can the setting layer in the feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen? Make the reader feel the ramped up tension by layering the dread of something about to happen. Hitchcock was a master at building the anticipation of something bad. He knew how to build and layer. Once the reader (or moviegoer) saw what was behind the door, the tension was gone.

TENSION-FILLED DIALOGUE – Kit is alone for this intro, except for when she calls 911. Instead of focusing on Kit’s side of the call, while she’s frightened and unsure what to say, the author only writes what the calm dispatcher says, “What is your emergency?”

The author also uses a “telling” way to express Kit’s emotion by saying ‘Kit shouted the situation.’ Showing is a more effective way to get the reader engaged and have a visceral reaction to the action in the scene.

Imagine what Kit is feeling and how she might report the fire or a dead body. Her heart would be racing, her adrenaline would be off the charts, and she’d be panting as she tried to find her thoughts. She might speak in short spurts and stumble over words or ramble. What the author envisions for this scene, focus on the most emotional aspect of it—that’s Kit.

PLAUSIBLE ACTION – Toward the end of this intro, Kit encounters two people dressed in black. One of them shoves her. Instead of Kit being fearful of these two people, she races for a garden hose. That didn’t seem rational to me. If I ran into two people who obviously were up to no good, I would be afraid for my life. I wouldn’t be worried about a garden hose. Let the firemen do their job with their big hoses. (Everyone knows they have big hoses.) How gutsy does the author want Kit to be? Does she fight these people? Chase them? There are options for her behavior, but grabbing the garden might be last on Kit’s list if she is a gutsy, smart character.

For Discussion:

  • What constructive feedback would you give to this author, TKZ?

The Darkness Within Him – $1.99 Ebook

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star at Quantico, but he has a dark secret. When he sleeps, he sees nightmarish visions through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. After he agrees to help Jax Malloy with a teenage runaway, he senses the real damage in Bram Cross. Ryker must recreate the boy’s terror in painful detail—and connect to the dead—to uncover buried secrets in the splintered psyche of a broken child.

Suspense: To Be Exciting,
You Need To Be A Little Dull

peyton1

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.– Oscar Wilde

By PJ Parrish

Sunday, I picked up the latest by a bestselling thriller writer and about halfway through, I realized it was sorta…unthrilling. So I put it aside and tuned into the Broncos-Colts game. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment here either because I knew this old story. I mean, Denver was 4-0 and Indianapolis was 3-5. Denver has Manning and Indy has, at best, a little Luck.

But lo and behold! The Colts were winning 17-0. Well, I thought, this is kinda interesting. So I stuck around. And then, Denver returned a punt 83 yards for TD.

Hmmm.

Then Peyton Manning hit for a TD, Denver got a field goal and suddenly, we were all knotted up at 17-all. Early in the fourth quarter, Andrew Luck threw a TD but Manning answered with one of his own and we were tied again! Until Adam Vinatieri, who is 95-years-old and never misses despite having only seven toes, kicked a field goal putting the Colts ahead by three!

Six minutes left. But I was definitely not turning this one off now because Denver was driving. And how’s this for a twist? Peyton was only 30 yards away from becoming the leading passer of all time, surpassing Brett Favre!

Tick…tick…tick.

OH MY GOD! Peyton is picked off!

Can the Colts hang on? There’s four minutes left and Frank Gore is running the ball but he’s 105-years-old and has a habit of putting the rock on the ground. Denver uses its last time out. But here is the back story that I already know about this drama: Peyton leads the league with 43 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Can he do it again? Will he break the passing record? Will the Broncos stay perfect? Will Frank cough up another hairball like he did last week?

The suspense was killing me.

Frank is tackled on third down. Ninety seconds left! Peyton’s going to get the ball back! Wait! Is that a flag? Some guy named Aqib Talib poked a Colt in the eye and Denver gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct!

It’s over. Colts win.

{{{Whew}}}

Now that was suspense. After that, I had no desire to go back to my book. Because despite the book’s stellar blurbs and the reputation of the author as the Master of the Twist, it wasn’t near as good as that football game.

The game was classic David and Goliath with a little Joseph Campbell The Hero’s Journey thrown in, yet it still went against my expectations. It had a good mix of pacing, with zip-fast passing attacks and slow grind-it-out running. It had setbacks and surprises. It had heroes and eye-gouging villains. And just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Think there’s a lesson here?

A good sports game has a lot in common with a good book or movie. Sitting on your barstool watching Daniel Murphy commit that error in game four and wondering if the Mets are doomed. Sitting in the triplex watching The Fugitive and wondering if Harrison Ford is going to jump off the dam. Or turning just one more page to find out if Amy is alive or is the girl gone for good. They are all related.

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

That’s why I gave up on that book I was reading. Its pacing was overly frenetic, with no slow moments for me to catch my breath. And the writer — excuse me, Master of the Twist — was so intent on forcing me through one more complication, one more bend in the road, one more plot gymnastic, that I began to anticipate his next move. I put the book down because the enjoyment was gone. The fun was leached away. The thrill was gone.

If your readers know you will have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end, then your book will no longer have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end.

So maybe it comes down to this: If you want to be thrilling, you also have to be willing to be boring very so often.

 

 

A Fond Farewell from Jodie Renner – and links to Jodie’s Top TKZ Posts

Jodie Renner, editor & authorJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

It’s with mixed feelings that I bid a fond farewell to The Kill Zone. I started guest blogging here in November 2012, then officially joined the team in early October 2013. It’s been a lot of fun and a real honor to be part of this talented team for the past few years, and I hope I’ve made some meaningful contributions, including setting up the TKZ library. (Click on the TKZ Library link above to check out many TKZ posts, categorized by topic.)

I’m also pleased to have brought in as guest bloggers several friends who are also bestselling authors, including Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Allison Brennan, LJ Sellers, and Allan Leverone, as well as award-winning blogger and humorous fiction writer, Anne R. Allen.

Scroll down to see links to my most popular TKZ posts.

I’ll continue to follow this excellent, award-winning blog, and have been told I’m welcome as a guest blogger any time, so you may see future posts by me here occasionally.

Below you’ll find links to many of my posts from this blog, listed from oldest to most recent. And at the bottom you’ll find links to my books, my websites, and my own little blog, where I will continue to post occasionally.

LINKS TO MANY OF JODIE RENNER’S CRAFT-OF-WRITING POSTS HERE ON TKZ:

~ Writing Tense Action Scenes

When your characters are running for their lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s. …

~ Impart Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world. Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude! …

~ Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction. …

~ Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed. …

~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

… In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him. …

~ Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point? …

~ 10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

… Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story. …

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

… Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to how they’re acting outwardly. …

~ Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

… Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. …

~ Nail it with Just the Right Word

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. …

~ Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!

An incident happened to me recently that got me thinking about all the pitfalls that aspiring authors face today when seeking professional assistance to get their books polished and ready to self-publish or send to agents. …

~ Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

As a freelance editor, I’ve received fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Captivate Your Readers_med~ How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff.  …

~ Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

… Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago. …

~ 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions

…To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your volunteer readers with specific questions. …

~ Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

The basics of writing dialogue in fiction: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

~ 12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

… If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process: …

~ 12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. …But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, it’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format.

~ Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

… The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut. …

~ 25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices. And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. …

Three articles on point of view in fiction, with an emphasis on close third-person viewpoint (deep POV). Includes examples.

~ POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of the novel)

~ POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping

~ POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

 ~ Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

How to format your manuscript before sending it to an editor or publishing.

Quick Clicks_Word Usage_Precise Choices~ Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.  …

~ Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work

Tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

~ Don’t Muddle Your Message

… Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book. …

~ How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 tips for clear, concise, powerful writing.

~ Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character

Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic? …

~ Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. …

~ How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

~ Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

… for significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. …

I look forward to connecting with you all again here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter — and maybe at some writers’ conferences! Keep on writing!

Jodie Renner, a former English teacher and school librarian with a master’s degree, 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: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook.