POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)

 by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

This is the first of a three-part series on point of view (POV) in fiction.

I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my aspiring author clients who write in third-person point of view (the most common POV in novels) is to portray their story world through the viewpoint / eyes / head of one character at a time, rather than hovering above them (omniscient POV) or ping-ponging back and forth between different characters’ viewpoints (head-hopping).

Except for omniscient POV (the author talking directly to the readers), point of view or POV simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. Most of today’s novels are written in third-person POV, with the main character referred to as “he” or
“she,” even though we’re seeing their world through their eyes. First-person POV, where the main character is telling their own story, using “I” and “me” seems to be gaining popularity, and is very common in YA (young adult) fiction.

This post is about using close third person or deep point of view to bring your main character to life for the readers. Ideally, we should only see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would – with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This closeness helps your readers get to know your viewpoint character intimately, which makes them start worrying about him or her – and that keeps them turning the pages!

A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient POV is no longer popular today (except for historical sagas), and for good reason: Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know/feel her inner thoughts, insecurities, hopes, and fears, so they bond with her quickly and are eager to find out what’s going to happen to her next and how she’s going to handle it.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice:

“Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.”

It’s especially important to open your book in your protagonist’s point of view, and stay there for at least the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to figure out quickly whose story this is, and get to know him fast and start identifying with him and rooting for him.

Years ago I edited a novel in which a 15-year-old girl is riding in a car with her mother, who’s driving, and her 11-year-old brother in the backseat. (I’ve changed the details a bit.) The book starts out in the point of view of the mom, who is worried about uprooting her two kids and moving across the country, away from their friends. So we start empathizing with the mother, thinking it’s her story.

Then suddenly we’re in the head of the teenage girl beside her, who is deeply resentful at her mom for tearing her away from her friends and is agonizing over what lies ahead. Then, all within the first page, we switch to the head of the 11-year-old boy, who’s excited about the new adventure and wishes his sister would lighten up and quit hassling the mom. We’re also in his visual POV – he looks at his sister’s ponytail and considers yanking it. Now we’re confused. Whose story is this, anyway? Who are we supposed to be most identifying with and bonding with? Readers want to know this right away, so they can sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.

It’s essential to start out the story in your protagonist’s POV, but it’s also smart to tell most of your story from your main character’s viewpoint – at least 70 percent of it. That gets the reader deeper and deeper into that person’s psyche, so they get more and more invested in what’s happening to her.

As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.”

Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action.

So if you want your lead character to come alive and matter to the reader, and your story to be compelling, it’s best to show most of the action from inside the head and heart of your protagonist. Of course, thrillers often jump to the POV of the villain, to add suspense, worry, intrigue and dimension. But give the bad guy his own scene, and make sure he’s not onstage more than the protagonist is! And many romances have two main protagonists, the hero and heroine, but one usually predominates – most often the heroine, so the largely female readership can identify with her. Just don’t be inside the head of both characters in one scene – too jarring and confusing!

Also, if there’s a scene with your protagonist and a minor character, don’t show the scene from the POV of the minor character, unless there’s a very good reason for it – it’s just too unnatural and jarring.

In POV 102, I discuss “head-hopping,” a sure sign of amateurish writing, with a trick for spotting this in your writing; and in POV 103, I’ll get into more detail on deep point of view, or close third-person POV.

By the way, I presented two writing craft workshops at a conference two weeks ago, “Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View” and “Spark up Your Stories – Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue.” Here’s the HANDOUT for the Deep POV one. The handout for the other one is there, too, as well as a list of writers’ conferences and book festivals through July 2015.

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie 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: 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd

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. You can submit your short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests, or publish a collection of three or four of your stories yourself in a short anthology. Or even one really good story, and price it at 99 cents. You can also get together with other authors in your genre and each contribute a story for an anthology, as did Kill Zone authors in 2010, with Fresh Kills, Tales from The Kill Zone. Time for another collection, I’d say, wouldn’t you? (Nudge, nudge.)

In fact, it’s a good idea to try to publish a few high-quality, well-edited short stories between novels to help with discoverability and growing a fan base.

Also, today’s busy readers (especially the young ones) have more distractions and temptations for their time, therefore shorter attention spans, so a short story is a nice escapism-byte for increasing numbers of people, I think.

I’ve judged short stories for several contests and anthologies, including for Writer’s Digest, and I’ve come up with some tips for writing a compelling short story that is worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Of course, these are only guidelines—like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision, goal, and story idea.

PLANNING STAGE:

1. Keep the story tight. Unlike a novel or even a novella, a short story is about just a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one main character plus a few supporting characters, one main conflict, one geographical location, and a brief time frame, like a few weeks maximum—better yet, a few days, or even hours or minutes.

2. Create a complex, charismatic main character, one readers will care about. Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. He should be charismatic, with plenty of personality, but give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers identify with him and start worrying about him immediately. If readers don’t care about your character, they also won’t care about what happens to him.

3. Give your protagonist a burning desire. What does she want more than anything? This is the basis for your story goal, the driving force of your story.

4. Decide what your character is most afraid of. What does your hero regret most? What is his biggest fear? What is he most afraid might happen? Give him some baggage and secrets.

5. Devise a critical story problem/conflict. Create a main conflict or challenge for your protagonist. Put her in hot water right away, on the first page, so the readers start worrying about her early on. No conflict = no story. The conflict can be internal, external, or interpersonal, or all three, against one’s own demons, other people, circumstances, or nature.

6. Develop a unique “voice” for this story by first getting to know your character really well. A good way is to journal in his voice. Pretend you are the character, writing in his secret diary, expressing his hopes and fears and venting his frustrations. Just let the ideas flow, in his point of view, using his words and expressions. Then take it a step further and carry that voice you’ve developed throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which are really the character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations and reactions. (In a novel, the voice will of course change in any chapters in other characters’ viewpoints.)

7. Create an antagonist and a few interesting supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with their own agenda, hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be quite different from your protagonist, for contrast.

8. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, charismatic, even quirky or weird character; a unique premise or situation; and an unexpected, even shocking revelation and plot twist.

Captivate_full_w_decal9. Experiment – take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they’re short, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time.

WRITING STAGE:

10. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to use his name right in the first sentence to establish him as the point-of-view character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. And let readers know really soon his rough age and role in the story world.

11. Put your character in motion right away. Having her interacting with someone else is usually best—much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, best not to start with your character just waking up or in an everyday situation or on the way to somewhere. That’s too much of a slow lead-up for a short story—or any compelling story, for that matter.

12. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your main character and tell the whole story from his point of view. Show his thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations. And don’t show anyone else’s thoughts or inner reactions. You don’t have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Even the narration is your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language.

13. Situate the reader early on. Don’t forget the 4 W’s: who, what, where, when. Establish your setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs, to situate your reader and avoid confusion. But as mentioned above, avoid starting with a great long descriptive passage.

14. Jump right in with some tension in the first paragraphs. There’s no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended description of the setting or the characters and their background. Disrupt the main character’s life in some way on the first page. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, start as close to the end as possible.

15. Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened—put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Just use a few words to go from one time/place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.

16. Your character needs to react! Show your character’s emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible or appropriate, not just sight and hearing.

17. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.

18. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters’ words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real and moves along at a good clip.

19. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle—whether it’s physical, psychological, or interpersonal.

20. Go out with a bang. Don’t stretch out the conclusion – tie it up pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph, your final paragraph needs to be memorable, and also satisfying to the readers. Try to create a surprise twist at the end – but of course it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story.

21. Provide some reader satisfaction at the end. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat bow, but do give your reader some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they’ve been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they’ve been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else.

REVISION STAGE:

22. Hook ’em in right away. Now that you’ve got your whole story down, go back and grab the readers with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph, and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to compel the readers to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.

23. Cut to the chase! The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a sentence or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, add intrigue, or develop a character, take it out.

Also, use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “He walked heavily” say “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly into the room,” say “She tiptoed…”

24. Make every element and every image count. Every element you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. You have no room for filler or extraneous details in a compelling short story. In fact, try to make all descriptions do double duty. Rather than listing their physical attributes and what they’re wearing, your description of a character should reveal their personality, their mood, their intentions, and their effect on those around them, and also the personality and attitude of the character who is observing them.

25. Pay attention to word count and other guidelines. Short stories are generally between 500 and 7,500 words long, with the most popular length around 2,500 to 4,000 words. If you want to submit your short story to a website, magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length, genre, language, etc. Also, for your own protection, do read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.

For some great insights on creating a compelling short story, see James Scott Bell’s post here on TKZ, How to Write a Short Story. And check out Anne R. Allen’s great posts on the subject, such as “Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.” Also, if you’re fairly new at writing short stories and would like more guidance, see my recent post, Some Quick, Basic Tips for Writing a Riveting Short Story. (Click on the titles.)

Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

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: 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

@JodieRennerEd

(This is a quick fill-in post for P.J. Parrish, who’s been hit by a flu bug. Get well soon, Kris!)

First, what’s a scene?

Although most novels are divided up into chapters, the scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. Each scene is a mini-story, with a main character, a problem or challenge, and a beginning, middle, and end of its own. Every scene needs tension or conflict, and at the end of each scene, at least one of the main characters must have gone through some sort of change. Otherwise, the scene isn’t pulling its weight and needs to be revised or cut. Every scene needs a mission (goal), an obstacle, and an outcome (usually a disaster). For more on scenes, see Jodie’s article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change.”

A modern novel normally has several dozen scenes. Each scene can range in length from a few paragraphs to a dozen pages or more. A chapter can contain one scene or several. Some authors like to use jump cuts, where they “cut away” in the middle of a scene to go to a different scene, then perhaps interrupt that one in the middle to go back to the first scene and resume where they left off. In this case, a scene can span several chapters, often with other scenes interspersed.

Using the Scene Outline:

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

This is a great tool for both plotters and pantsers. Plotters/outliners can use it to outline your scenes early on in the process, and those of you who prefer to just let the words flow and write “by the seat of your pants” can use it later, to make sure the timeline makes sense and that the scene has conflict/tension and a change.

Keep each scene description to a minimum. Don’t get carried away with too many details, or the task could become arduous. The most important thing is the POV (point of view) character’s goal for that scene, and what’s preventing him/her from reaching that goal, plus any new conflicts / problems / questions that arise.

And you can use a different font color or highlight color for each main character, for a quick reference on who was the POV character for each scene. Also, you can print it up and cut them out to rearrange the scenes, or use a writing software for that.

If in doubt as to who should be the viewpoint character for that scene, most often it’s your protagonist. The point of view character can also, less often, be your antagonist or another main character. Almost never a minor character. If you can’t decide who should be the POV character for a particular scene, go with the character who has the most invested emotionally or the most to lose.

SCENE OUTLINE FORM:

Scene 1: Chapter:1 Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character for this scene:

Other main characters here:

POV character’s goal here:

Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):

Main problem / conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:

Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:

(And/or new info, revelation, new question, or, rarely, the resolution of the problem):

Scene 2: Chapter: Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):
    

POV character:

Other main characters:

POV character’s goal:

Motivation for their goal:   

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):

Scene 3: Chapter: Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character:

Other main characters:

POV character’s goal:

Motivation:     

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):

Scene 4:

Etc. Continue for as many scenes as you have.


Fiction writers – Do you have any tips to add to this scene outline?

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her upcoming Captivate Your Readers, as well as her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Jodie Renner, editor, author, blogger

I don’t know about you, but I can’t possibly get to all the blogs I’d like to in any given day. We’re all busy people, so we want to know within seconds whether a blog post will offer anything of value to our hectic lives. And we might even get annoyed at time-wasters that meander or don’t deliver on their promises.

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed and if you’re looking to start your own blog then I would say go for it! If you need help starting one, just visit Blogging.com for help. I’m honored and proud to be a member of this award-winning group blog, The Kill Zone, where my fellow bloggers, all savvy, accomplished writers, offer daily value and entertainment to writers, and our community of eager participants enrich every post with insightful comments.

But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not about you. It’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format. A rambling, unclear, too formal, or overly long blog post can be irritating or boring – a turnoff. And can jeopardize your reputation or blog.

Starting a blog can be scary, especially if you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself in to. The first tip I can give you is to make sure you have a strong web hosting provider. You could even do something like Check Now HostiServer Website Server Hosting to give you a better idea of what you should be looking for when it comes to a web hosting provider. This will give your blog the foundation it needs in order to build a dedicated, large following. If you’re starting a blog and in need of good web hosting, you might want to check out the best web hosting uk to help get you started.

Here are some tips for engaging readers with your blog posts so they’ll share them with friends and on social media.

1. Offer value.

When you’re deciding what to write on, focus on what will benefit your readers, and make them come back the next time. Maybe it’s useful info that will help them in some way, or just some entertaining or humorous or uplifting writing for them to enjoy, for a break in their busy or stressful day. If it’s a personal anecdote, show readers why your story or content could be relevant to their lives, how they can benefit from your experience.

2. Be clear about your topic right from the start.

The subject of your post should be evident by the title and the first few sentences. Readers are so busy these days, with long to-do lists and many other blogs competing for their scarce reading/browsing time, that if they have no idea what your post is about, they’ll probably just move on to the next one.

If you can’t describe your topic in one or two sentences, then it won’t be clear to readers, either. Work on that brief description of the post, then take out any digressions that don’t fit under the topic and would be best under another topic or as their own blog post.

Captivate_full_w_decal3. Hook them in with a great headline.

Give readers a really good reason to stop and read your blog post. What’s in it for them? How will your article enrich their lives in some way? Your headline should clearly tell readers what your post is about, in an inviting way that makes them sit up and take notice.

4. Then follow it up with an enticing intro.

Again, how can readers gain from your article? Make sure it’s obvious right away what exactly you’re going to talk about and why/how it will benefit them.

5. Stick to one main topic per post.

Make sure your whole post is focused on the initial promise you made in your title and first sentences. If you’ve written a long, rambling blog post that covers several topics, even if they’re related, divide it up into several different posts. Then next time you need to submit a post, most of your work is already done!

6. Use a casual, chatty tone.

Blog posts are not the place for formal writing or lectures. Imagine you’re in a coffeehouse discussing a topic with friends. Keep your “voice” casual, open, and friendly.

7. Keep it brief – don’t go on and on.

Readers and writers are busy these days, so be respectful of their time. For most subjects, it’s best not to go over 1000 words – 1,500 max. An optimal guideline for word count is about 400 to 900 words, I think. If your post is long, like this one, I recommend subheadings to help the readers glean the info quickly.

8. Make your post reader-friendly.

There are hundreds of great blogs out there competing for your readers’ time, so make the info readily apparent and easily accessible. Edit out all the extra wordiness, use short paragraphs and lots of white space, and if you’re offering several subtopics under your main topic, use bolded subheadings so they can quickly scan your article to see if it would be useful to them. Numbered lists or bullet points are good, too.

9. Include your readers and invite their opinions.

Use “you” or “we” wherever you can throughout your post to include your readers and make it relevant to them. End your article with a question or two that invites comments and participation by readers. I find I’ve learned a great deal from comments left by readers, which enrich my knowledge of the subject and future articles on that topic. Maybe even start your blog post with a question that will draw your readers in and invite their active participation. Keep your readers involved!

10. Start your blog post a few days in advance, so you have time to revise and tweak.

That gives you time to go back and reread and edit and smooth out your phrasing and think of more interesting word choices and examples. Maybe you’ll come up with some great additional ideas while you’re in the shower, driving somewhere, out for a walk, or just falling asleep or waking up.

Go through your article several times, at different sittings, looking for repetitions, rambling, off-topic sentences, typos, etc. Read it out loud to catch those little missing words and awkward phrasing. If you pause, put in a comma there, or maybe a period, dash, or semicolon. Then, if it’s on your own blog, after you’ve uploaded it, “view” it as it will appear on the blog, then make any final changes. I always find some areas for improvement after I see it as it will appear to the public. If it’s a guest post, use Windows Live Writer to see how it will look on the blog.

11. Pay attention to formatting.

If you have trouble with the formatting of your posts, with odd fonts or too much or too little space between paragraphs, you can fix that in two ways:

(1) While you’re still in Microsoft Word, do a Control All (Ctrl+A) to highlight the whole article, then click on the “Clear formatting” in the tool bar (Home tab, little whiteboard and eraser that looks like chalk).

(2) If you’ve already uploaded your post to the blog, fix the formatting by clearing it in the blog. In Blogger, Do the Ctrl+A thing or just highlight the whole post manually, then click on the Tx at the top right (“Remove formatting”). Then correct the spacing between paragraphs, and redo your bolding, italics, etc. Maybe make your subheads a larger font or a different color so they stand out.

12. To increase the SEO and get more traffic, add in key words.

To increase search engine optimization, so Google shows your article on the first pages, add key words about your topic in your heading and throughout your article, plus in the list of labels at the end. (See mine below.)

Finally, adding a related image or two (be sure they’re yours or in the public domain or you have permission to use them) and some links to other related posts adds to the overall positive experience for readers.

Of course, for guest posting, be sure to read and follow all the guidelines of the host blog!

Bloggers, do you have any blogging tips to add? Or maybe you disagree with some of my points? Give us your opinion below!

Also, check out a related by one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen, called “How to Blog: A Guide for Authors” and another excellent one by Chuck Sambuchino called “7 Easy Things You Can Do Right Now to Get more Blog Traffic.”

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: 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

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:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you — but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here’s a list of writers conferences in 2015), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

Captivate_full_w_decal4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader.

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up.

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers — savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story – not someone else’s.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!

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: 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

by Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd 

In another article, Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue, I discuss various techniques for writing dialogue that will come alive on the page. Drop over there for some advice on making your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding. Also, check out another post of mine, Some Dialogue Don’ts.

This article just provides a reference for the grammatically correct way to write dialogue, as well as some style tips for dialogue tags. Using correct punctuation and form for dialogue will keep your readers from becoming distracted, confused or annoyed, and maintain their focus on your story. So if you want your manuscript to look professional and your story to read smoothly, it’s best to follow these technical guidelines.

THE BASICS:

First of all, start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. On the other hand, don’t start a new paragraph if it’s still the same speaker, unless you’re doing it for a good reason, like a pause or emphasis.

Punctuation for Dialogue:

1. Put quotation marks around all spoken words.
 

Although in Britain and Australia, it’s more common to use single quotes around dialogue, in the United States and Canada, the standard is double quotes around dialogue, with single quotes around any quoted words or phrases within the quoted dialogue.

2. In North America, the punctuation always goes inside the end quote, not outside it:

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.

3. If the person is asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark, and a period goes at the end of the whole sentence. The same goes for exclamations.

“Where were you?” she asked.
“Help!” he shouted.

Note that in the above examples, even though your word processor wants you to put a capital letter for “she” or “he”, these need to be lowercase, as they don’t start a new sentence.

4. If the person speaking is making a statement (or a suggestion or a command), replace the period (which would follow if it weren’t in quotation marks) with a comma. Then put your period at the end of the sentence.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

5. If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.

“Turn off the TV.”

6. If you start with the dialogue tag, put a comma after it, before your opening quotation mark and the dialogue:

He said, “But my game is on.”

7. If you want to put your dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence, put a comma inside the first set of closing quotation marks, and also after the dialogue tag:

“I can never understand,” she said, “what you see in him.” (Note no capital for the second part.)

8. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (definitely not a great idea to have one person speaking at great length), you leave out the closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, but put opening quotation marks at the beginning of the next one. Use closing quotation marks only when that person is finished speaking.

“…no matter what you do.
“And another thing, don’t ….”

STYLE TIPS

1. Avoid overusing dialogue tags. Instead of constantly using he said or she said (or the name and said), replace them often with action beats, which will also help bring the scene alive:

He closed the door very quietly. Too late.

She stood there, hands on hips. “Where’ve you been?”

“Don’t start.” He took off his coat and hung it up.

The action immediately before or after the words tells us who’s talking.

Or, if it can be done without confusing the readers, just leave out the dialogue tag or action beat. Context often makes it obvious who’s speaking.

2. The best dialogue tags are the simple he said and she said (or asked), or with the name: John said, Carol said. These simple dialogue tags don’t draw attention to themselves or interrupt the story line, as they’re almost invisible. Avoid fancy tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, affirmed, etc., which can be distracting. But I do suggest using verbs that accurately and quickly describe how the words are delivered, like whispered, shouted, yelled, screamed, or stammered.

3. You can’t use words like laughed or grinned or smiled or grimaced or scowled as dialogue tags.

These are both incorrect:
 
“You look great,” he grinned.
“Why, thank you,” she smiled.
 
Why don’t they work? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” or “grin” words.
Change to:

“You look great,” he said, grinning.
“Why, thank you.” She smiled at the compliment. (Note period and capital “She”)
Or “Why, thank you,” she said, then smiled at him.

4. Use adverbs very sparingly.
 

Avoid:
“I’m sorry,” she said apologetically.
“Come here,” he said imperiously.
“I’m in charge,” she said haughtily.

Instead, make sure the words they’re saying and any actions convey the feelings you wish to express.

 
5. Off-topic, but do not put quotation marks around thoughts. That’s a topic for another post.

 TWO CURRENT STYLE TRENDS (Jodie’s observations):

1. Contemporary North American fiction seems to avoid the reversed form, “said Carol”, in favor of “Carol said.” The reversed form seems to be more British and also considered kind of archaic, which makes it great for historical fiction.

2. Most contemporary North American fiction writers, with the notable exception of Lee Child, seem to put most dialogue tags after the words spoken:

“Let’s go,” Tony said.

Rather than before:  

Tony said, “Let’s go.”

These last two points are of course just my observations of common usage, not rules. But aspiring or debut authors would do well to stick with what seems to be in favor, to give a contemporary feel to your novel. Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, go for the older “said Elizabeth” form.

For more tips on dialogue, thoughts, and other fiction techniques, check out my book, Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories.

Fiction writers and readers, what do you think? Do you have any more tips to add to the mechanics of writing dialogue? Or opinions on the last two “style trends”? Let’s get a dialogue going!



Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her upcoming Captivate Your Readers, as well as her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

Captivate_full_w_decal

by Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd
In another article, Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue, I discuss various techniques for writing dialogue that will come alive on the page. Drop over there for some advice on making your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding. Also, check out another post of mine, Some Dialogue Don’ts.This article just provides a reference for the grammatically correct way to write dialogue, as well as some style tips for dialogue tags. Using correct punctuation and form for dialogue will keep your readers from becoming distracted, confused or annoyed, and maintain their focus on your story. So if you want your manuscript to look professional and your story to read smoothly, it’s best to follow these technical guidelines.THE BASICS:

First of all, start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. On the other hand, don’t start a new paragraph if it’s still the same speaker, unless you’re doing it for a good reason, like a pause or emphasis.

Punctuation for Dialogue:

1. Put quotation marks around all spoken words.

Although in Britain and Australia, it’s more common to use single quotes around dialogue, in the United States and Canada, the standard is double quotes around dialogue, with single quotes around any quoted words or phrases within the quoted dialogue.2. In North America, the punctuation always goes inside the end quote, not outside it:“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.3. If the person is asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark, and a period goes at the end of the whole sentence. The same goes for exclamations.

“Where were you?” she asked.
“Help!” he shouted.

Note that in the above examples, even though your word processor wants you to put a capital letter for “she” or “he”, these need to be lowercase, as they don’t start a new sentence.

4. If the person speaking is making a statement (or a suggestion or a command), replace the period (which would follow if it weren’t in quotation marks) with a comma. Then put your period at the end of the sentence.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

5. If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.

“Turn off the TV.”

6. If you start with the dialogue tag, put a comma after it, before your opening quotation mark and the dialogue:

He said, “But my game is on.”

7. If you want to put your dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence, put a comma inside the first set of closing quotation marks, and also after the dialogue tag:

“I can never understand,” she said, “what you see in him.” (Note no capital for the second part.)

8. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (definitely not a great idea to have one person speaking at great length), you leave out the closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, but put opening quotation marks at the beginning of the next one. Use closing quotation marks only when that person is finished speaking.

“…no matter what you do.
“And another thing, don’t ….”

STYLE TIPS

1. Avoid overusing dialogue tags. Instead of constantly using he said or she said (or the name and said), replace them often with action beats, which will also help bring the scene alive:

He closed the door very quietly. Too late.She stood there, hands on hips. “Where’ve you been?”“Don’t start.” He took off his coat and hung it up.
The action immediately before or after the words tells us who’s talking.Or, if it can be done without confusing the readers, just leave out the dialogue tag or action beat. Context often makes it obvious who’s speaking.2. The best dialogue tags are the simple he said and she said (or asked), or with the name: John said, Carol said. These simple dialogue tags don’t draw attention to themselves or interrupt the story line, as they’re almost invisible. Avoid fancy tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, affirmed, etc., which can be distracting. But I do suggest using verbs that accurately and quickly describe how the words are delivered, like whispered, shouted, yelled, screamed, or stammered.3. You can’t use words like laughed or grinned or smiled or grimaced or scowled as dialogue tags.

These are both incorrect:
“You look great,” he grinned.
“Why, thank you,” she smiled.Why don’t they work? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” or “grin” words.
Change to:”You look great,” he said, grinning.
“Why, thank you.” She smiled at the compliment. (Note period and capital “She”)
Or “Why, thank you,” she said, then smiled at him.4. Use adverbs very sparingly.

Avoid:
“I’m sorry,” she said apologetically.
“Come here,” he said imperiously.
“I’m in charge,” she said haughtily.Instead, make sure the words they’re saying and any actions convey the feelings you wish to express.
5. Off-topic, but do not put quotation marks around thoughts. That’s a topic for another post. TWO CURRENT STYLE TRENDS (Jodie’s observations):1. Contemporary North American fiction seems to avoid the reversed form, “said Carol”, in favor of “Carol said.” The reversed form seems to be more British and also considered kind of archaic, which makes it great for historical fiction.2. Most contemporary North American fiction writers, with the notable exception of Lee Child, seem to put most dialogue tags after the words spoken:

“Let’s go,” Tony said.

Rather than before:

Tony said, “Let’s go.”

These last two points are of course just my observations of common usage, not rules. But aspiring or debut authors would do well to stick with what seems to be in favor, to give a contemporary feel to your novel. Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, go for the older “said Elizabeth” form.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversFor more tips on dialogue, thoughts, and other fiction techniques, check out my book, Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories.

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: 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions

by Jodie Renner, editor & author; @JodieRennerEd

 

So you’ve completed the first draft of your novel? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start the all-important revision process. Be sure not to shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off or self-publishing it too soon. That’s the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists – being in too much of a hurry to get their book out, when it still needs (major or minor) revisions and final polishing.

To start, put it aside for a week or more, then change the font and print it up and read it in a different location, where you don’t write. Or, to save paper, put it on your tablet and take it outside to a park or a (different) coffee shop to read. That way, you can approach it with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, as a reader, rather than in too close as the writer. Using the questions below to guide you, go through the whole manuscript for big-picture issues: logistics, characterization, plot, writing style, flow. Try to put some tension on every page, even if it’s just minor internal disagreement. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward. As you read, correct minor errors and typos that jump out at you and make notes in the margins and on the backs of the pages. Then go back to the computer and type in your changes.

Now it’s time to seek out about 3 to 6 avid readers to give you some feedback. It’s best not to ask your parent, child, significant other, sibling, or bff to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won’t want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. Or they may be so critical it actually will hurt your relationship! Your volunteer readers don’t need to be writers, but they should be smart, discerning readers who enjoy and read your genre, and are willing to give you honest feedback.

So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, writers’ organization, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for be age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud to students and collect feedback.

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?

2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?

3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?

4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?

5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?

6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?

7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?

8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?

10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?

14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?

15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

Captivate_full_w_decal– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

– Which characters did you really connect to?

– Which characters need more development or focus?

Once you’ve received feedback from all your beta readers, it’s time to consider their comments carefully. Ignore any you really don’t agree with, but if two or more people say the same thing, be sure to seriously consider that comment or suggestion. Now go through and revise your story, based on the comments you felt were insightful and helpful.

What about you writers out there? Do you use beta readers? If so, how do you guide their reading? Do you have any questions or suggestions to add that have helped you focus their reading, so you can get a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel? And beta readers – do you have any questions you’d like authors to ask? I’d love to hear from all of you!

Also, see my post, “12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel” here on TKZ.

And for a lengthy list of WRITERS’ CONFERENCES & BOOK FESTIVALS in North America in 2015, with links, click HERE.

 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: 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest, that the characters, story and/or writing just didn’t grab them. 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.

Besides, with TV, movies, and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their town, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on. Ditto with detailed technical explanations – if readers want to know more, they can just Google the topic.

While you don’t want your story barreling along at a break-neck speed all the way through – that would be exhausting for the reader – you do want the pace to be generally brisk enough to keep the readers’ interest. As Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Here are some concrete techniques for accelerating your narrative style at strategic spots to create those tense, fast-paced scenes.

~ Condense setup and backstory.

To increase the pace and overall tension of your story, start by cutting way back on setup and backstory. Instead, open with your protagonist in an intriguing scene with someone important in his life or to the story, with action, dialogue, and tension. Then marble in only the juiciest bits of the character’s background in tantalizing hints as you go along, rather than interrupting the story for paragraphs or pages to fill us in on the character’s life — which effectively eliminates a lot of great opportunities to incite reader curiosity and add intrigue with little hints and enticing innuendos.

~ Include hints at questions, secrets, worries, fears, indecision, or inner turmoil to every scene.

This will keep readers curious and worried, so emotionally engaged and compelled to keep turning the pages.

~ In general, develop a more direct, lean writing style.

Be ruthless with the delete button so your message and the impact of your story won’t get lost in all the clutter of superfluous words and repetitive sentences. I cover lots of specific techniques with examples for cutting down on wordiness in my book,  Fire up Your Fiction.

~ Rewrite, condense, or delete chapters and scenes that drag. 

Do you have slow-moving “filler” scenes, with little or no tension or change? Reduce any essentials from the scene to a paragraph or two, or even just a few sentences, and include it in another scene.

~ Keep chapters and scenes short.

This will help sustain the readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages. James Patterson is a master at short chapters, and his followers seem to really like that. Especially effective for reluctant or busy readers.

~ Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, and end it as early as possible.

Don’t open your chapters with a lengthy lead-up. Every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict, or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them compelled to keep reading. And don’t tie up the events in a nice, neat little bow at the end – that will just encourage the reader to close the book rather than to keep reading in anticipation. Instead, end in uncertainty or a new challenge.

~ Limit explaining – Show, don’t tell.

Keep descriptive passages, expository passages, and ruminations, reflections and analyses to a minimum. Critical scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. Use lots of action, dialogue, reactions, and thoughts. And keep the narration firmly in the viewpoint character’s voice – it’s really his/her thoughts, observations, and reactions to what’s going on.

~ Use summary to get past the boring bits, or skip ahead for effect.

Summarize in a sentence or two a passage of time where nothing much happens, to transition quickly from one critical scene to the next: “Three days later, he was no further ahead.” Skip past all the humdrum details and transition info, like getting from one place to another, and jump straight to the next action scene.

~ Make sure every scene has enough conflict.

In fact, every page should have some tension, even if it’s questioning, mild disagreement, doubts, or resentments simmering under the surface. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward and keep readers turning the pages.

~ Every scene needs a change of some kind.

No scene should be static. Throw a wrench in the works, make something unexpected happen. Add new characters, new information, new challenges, new dangers. And the events of the scenes should be changing your protagonist in some way. Change produces questions, anticipation, or anxiety — just what you need to keep reader interest.

~ Use cliff-hangers.

For fast pacing and more tension and intrigue, end most scenes and chapters with unresolved issues, with some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat. Prolonging the outcome, putting the resolution off to another chapter piques the readers’ curiosity and makes them worry, which keeps them turning the pages.

~ Employ scene cuts or jump cuts.

Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical moment and jump to a different scene, often at a different time and place, with different characters – perhaps picking up from a scene you cut short earlier. Switch chapters or scenes quickly back and forth between your protagonist and antagonist(s), or from one dicey, uncertain situation to another. And of course, don’t resolve the conflict/problem before you switch to the next one.

~ Use shorter paragraphs and more white space.

Short paragraphs and frequent paragraphing create more white space. The eye moves down the page faster, so the mind does, too. This also increases the tension, which is always a good thing in fiction.

~ Use rapid-fire dialogue, with conflict, confrontations, power struggles, suspicion.

For tense scenes, use short questions, abrupt, oblique or evasive answers, incomplete sentences, one or two-word questions and responses, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection.

~ Use powerful sentences with concrete, sensory words that evoke emotional responses.

Utilize the strongest, most concrete word you can find for the situation. Avoid vague, wishy-washy or abstract words, and unfamiliar terms the reader may have to look up. Concentrate on evocative, to-the-point verbs and nouns, and cut way back on adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

Also, take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and those wishy-washy, humdrum “filler” words and phrases. And use plenty of sensory details, emotional and physical reactions, and attitude. (For more on this, see Fire up Your Fiction.)

A well-disguised example from my editing:

Before:

Kristen fired him a dirty look, probably because he was doing this in piecemeal and not getting straight to the point as she would have liked him to. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”

After:

Kristen fired him a dirty look as if to say, Cut to the chase. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”

Or just:

Kristen fired him a dirty look. “Why not?”

~ Vary the sentence structure, and shorten sentences for effect at tense moments.

Shorter sentences give a pause, which catches the attention of the reader. At a critical moment, don’t run a bunch of significant ideas together in one long sentence, as they each will be diminished a bit, lost in among all the other ideas presented. You can also go to a new line for the same effect.

For a fast-paced, scary scene, use short, clipped sentences, as opposed to long, meandering, leisurely ones. Sentence fragments are very effective for increasing the tension and pace. Like this. It really works. Especially in dialogue.

For more tips with examples for picking up the pace, check out Jodie’s editor’s guides to writing compelling fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, Fire up Your Fiction, and Captivate Your Readers.

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 clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. Jodie lives in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest, that the characters, story and/or writing just didn’t grab them. 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.

Besides, with TV, movies, and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their town, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on. Ditto with detailed technical explanations – if readers want to know more, they can just Google the topic.

While you don’t want your story barreling along at a break-neck speed all the way through – that would be exhausting for the reader – you do want the pace to be generally brisk enough to keep the readers’ interest. As Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Here are some concrete techniques for accelerating your narrative style at strategic spots to create those tense, fast-paced scenes.

~ Condense setup and backstory.

To increase the pace and overall tension of your story, start by cutting way back on setup and backstory. Instead, open with your protagonist in an intriguing scene with someone important in his life or to the story, with action, dialogue, and tension. Then marble in only the juiciest bits of the character’s background in tantalizing hints as you go along, rather than interrupting the story for paragraphs or pages to fill us in on the character’s life — which effectively eliminates a lot of great opportunities to incite reader curiosity and add intrigue with little hints and enticing innuendos.

~ Include hints at questions, secrets, worries, fears, indecision, or inner turmoil to every scene.

This will keep readers curious and worried, so emotionally engaged and compelled to keep turning the pages.

~ In general, develop a more direct, lean writing style.


Be ruthless with the delete button so your message and the impact of your story won’t get lost in all the clutter of superfluous words and repetitive sentences. I cover lots of specific techniques with examples for cutting down on wordiness in my book,  Fire up Your Fiction.

~ Rewrite, condense, or delete chapters and scenes that drag. 

Do you have slow-moving “filler” scenes, with little or no tension or change? Reduce any essentials from the scene to a paragraph or two, or even just a few sentences, and include it in another scene.

~ Keep chapters and scenes short.

This will help sustain the readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages. James Patterson is a master at short chapters, and his followers seem to really like that. Especially effective for reluctant or busy readers.

~ Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, and end it as early as possible.

Don’t open your chapters with a lengthy lead-up. Every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict, or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them compelled to keep reading. And don’t tie up the events in a nice, neat little bow at the end – that will just encourage the reader to close the book rather than to keep reading in anticipation. Instead, end in uncertainty or a new challenge.

~ Limit explaining – Show, don’t tell.

Keep descriptive passages, expository passages, and ruminations, reflections and analyses to a minimum. Critical scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. Use lots of action, dialogue, reactions, and thoughts. And keep the narration firmly in the viewpoint character’s voice – it’s really his/her thoughts, observations, and reactions to what’s going on.

~ Use summary to get past the boring bits, or skip ahead for effect.

Summarize in a sentence or two a passage of time where nothing much happens, to transition quickly from one critical scene to the next: “Three days later, he was no further ahead.” Skip past all the humdrum details and transition info, like getting from one place to another, and jump straight to the next action scene.

~ Make sure every scene has enough conflict.

In fact, every page should have some tension, even if it’s questioning, mild disagreement, doubts, or resentments simmering under the surface. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward and keep readers turning the pages.

~ Every scene needs a change of some kind.

No scene should be static. Throw a wrench in the works, make something unexpected happen. Add new characters, new information, new challenges, new dangers. And the events of the scenes should be changing your protagonist in some way. Change produces questions, anticipation, or anxiety — just what you need to keep reader interest.

~ Use cliff-hangers.

For fast pacing and more tension and intrigue, end most scenes and chapters with unresolved issues, with some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat. Prolonging the outcome, putting the resolution off to another chapter piques the readers’ curiosity and makes them worry, which keeps them turning the pages.

~ Employ scene cuts or jump cuts.

Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical moment and jump to a different scene, often at a different time and place, with different characters – perhaps picking up from a scene you cut short earlier. Switch chapters or scenes quickly back and forth between your protagonist and antagonist(s), or from one dicey, uncertain situation to another. And of course, don’t resolve the conflict/problem before you switch to the next one.

~ Use shorter paragraphs and more white space.

Short paragraphs and frequent paragraphing create more white space. The eye moves down the page faster, so the mind does, too. This also increases the tension, which is always a good thing in fiction.

~ Use rapid-fire dialogue, with conflict, confrontations, power struggles, suspicion.

For tense scenes, use short questions, abrupt, oblique or evasive answers, incomplete sentences, one or two-word questions and responses, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection.

~ Use powerful sentences with concrete, sensory words that evoke emotional responses.

Utilize the strongest, most concrete word you can find for the situation. Avoid vague, wishy-washy or abstract words, and unfamiliar terms the reader may have to look up. Concentrate on evocative, to-the-point verbs and nouns, and cut way back on adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

Also, take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and those wishy-washy, humdrum “filler” words and phrases. And use plenty of sensory details, emotional and physical reactions, and attitude. (For more on this, see Fire up Your Fiction.)

A well-disguised example from my editing:

Before:

Kristen fired him a dirty look, probably because he was doing this in piecemeal and not getting straight to the point as she would have liked him to. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”

After:

Kristen fired him a dirty look as if to say, Cut to the chase. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”

Or just:

Kristen fired him a dirty look. “Why not?”

~ Vary the sentence structure, and shorten sentences for effect at tense moments.

Shorter sentences give a pause, which catches the attention of the reader. At a critical moment, don’t run a bunch of significant ideas together in one long sentence, as they each will be diminished a bit, lost in among all the other ideas presented. You can also go to a new line for the same effect.

For a fast-paced, scary scene, use short, clipped sentences, as opposed to long, meandering, leisurely ones. Sentence fragments are very effective for increasing the tension and pace. Like this. It really works. Especially in dialogue.

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: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also Captivate_full_w_decalpublished 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, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.