Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

3+

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.

 

 

4+

Key Tips for Creating a Genderless Character for Villain Options

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




In my critique of Cruel Sacrifices, an anonymous submission, I brought up the topic of creating scenes with a genderless character and TKZ follower Paul Duffau asked for a post on the subject. You asked, Paul. Here it is. 

The technique of writing a genderless character can be effective to allow an author more options for suspects so the reader can’t easily determine the gender of a villain. One of my favorite ways to create a mystery/suspense “whodunnit” is to build a case against a slew of suspects. By the end of the book, I can flip a coin and make the final decision on who is guilty. By making a killer neutral and without gender, that expands my choices. More fun for me.

I’ve seen many books written with scenes where a villain is described as “the man” or “the killer.” As an author, that pulls me from the story, because I see the craft behind the use of the generic term. It’s obvious the author is trying to build suspense by letting the reader see a glimpse of the diabolical bad guy without fully disclosing who it is. I’m sure I’ve done this too, but in my last two thriller novels (Blood Score and The Last Victim), I challenged myself by creating a genderless character to broaden my suspect list and make it harder for readers to figure out who the guilty are. 

Scenes with my genderless character were difficult to write. It’s easy to slip and add a pronoun of he or she, so edits must be thorough. And it’s hard to come up with different ways to describe this person. It’s also a challenge where to place these scenes throughout a book to add tension and mystery, but try it. It adds complexity to your writing and can make for a better “whodunnit.”

1.) Omniscient POV – In select spots during the scene, I write in omniscient Point of View (POV). I try not to carry this on for too long. I want the reader to clearly know this is my bad guy and I add a generic descriptor later to ground the reader into the head of my character, but the shock value of seeing the bodies through the eyes of the killer (the artistic elements to the brutal crime) seemed to create a more macabre effect and give insight into my serial killer.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Moonlight cast its slate glow onto a lifted hand, fingers gracefully posed toward the dark heavens. They would point to the worthy pinnacle of the masterpiece. The bare skin of a sculpted leg made a beautiful silhouette against the full moon, toes perfectly poised to catch the glimmer of the night. Frozen flesh glittered under the stars in the right light. The crystalline webbing of ice turned blanched skin into an intricate texture with a shine that reflected the dark sacred night.

Too bad the meat had to thaw. To rot.

2.) Generic Character Description – Without gender, I used a description of “the driver” to describe my bad guy. This type of generic description can be used for anyone, men or women.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Cutting a scream loose, the warmth of a blood shower, the thrill of seeing the soul leave the body and knowing God’s hand played no part in it—those were rare and powerful addictions—but none of those things matched the final moment when hope left their eyes and they accepted their fate. Sated and drunk on memories, the driver tossed sturdy work gloves aside and climbed into a truck when it was time to go, started the engine, and turned on the music.

The voice of Ray Charles sang. ‘What a Wonderful World’ brought a fitting end as the truck jostled along the gravel service road toward the busted gate few people knew about—heading through the trees into the dark sacred night.


3.) Deep POV – Focus on the action and see it through the eyes of the character. My killer is suffering from withdrawals and the need to kill is escalating. So rather than focusing on HIM or HER, I distract the reader by concentrating on the action or what he or she is obsessed with. In deep POV (in our heads), we wouldn’t define ourselves because we already know who we are. We would simply let random thoughts race through our minds, driven by what we see or think. Deep POV, coupled with omniscient view, can give the illusion to the reader that they are in the head of a killer, yet not give away the gender of a bad guy.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

One final glance in the rear view mirror made it hard to leave, but the stunning silhouette of the Totem against the moon stirred the question that remained. Who would top the next creation? There would definitely be a next time and it had to be someone worthy. It wasn’t enough to kill perfection once.

Hitting stride, the Totem Killer had only gotten started and had cross-hairs on the next one. A name. Another perfect one. Everything had been planned with each detail thought out. Nothing would be rushed.

The driver had a pick up to make and wouldn’t go home empty handed.

4.) Unreliable Narrators – Detectives or sleuths can assume a gender based on a criminal profile or perhaps the strength it would take to perpetrate a crime or the statistically expected Modus Operandi (MO) for one gender over another. FBI profiles can project a male killer simply by MO if the crime is heinous enough NOT to indicate a female assailant, for example. So your main heroic character can be the unreliable narrator, or witnesses can lie or tell their version of the truth as they see it. A big reveal can come later to turn things around, but that’s what is so fun about peeling back the layers of an investigation.

5.) Red Herrings – A mystery craft technique, called a red herring, is used to create a clue that leads down a false path in the investigation. This can contribute to the illusion that the killer is one gender, when it can easily be discovered later that the clue was misinterpreted or someone lied to mislead the police. If you couple this method with your generic character POV, it can keep the reader guessing. And news flash: killers lie to throw cops off their scent or they plant evidence or pretend to be a victim to mislead investigators. That makes the chase more fun. A good killer is a chameleon who could conceivably get away with murder. The more diabolically clever the killer, the more brilliant your sleuth would have to be. Make your hero earn his status by giving him or her a worthy adversary.

6.) Scene Timing – If a scene is written through the eyes of the dastardly genderless villain (at a distance, for example), followed by a subsequent scene where the character walks unassumingly on the page with a name, that could influence the reader into thinking “it can’t be him/her. He/she can’t be in two places at once.” If the scene is written well enough, it can appear there is distance and the reader assumes there are two people, when the character could be one and the same.

I used all of these methods to build upon the mystery of my killer’s identity and push off “the reveal” as late as possible in the book. Leave twists in the plot, even toward the end, and make your readers sweat it out.

Has anyone else used a technique not mentioned here, to create a genderless/faceless villain? Or what books have you read where an author kept you guessing on gender? Please share.

Wishing you happy holidays, TKZers! Hope 2015 is special for all of you.

0

End of Chapter Hooks

Nancy J. Cohen

Creating a hook at the end of a chapter encourages readers to turn the page to find out what happens next in your story. What works well are unexpected revelations, wherein an important plot point is offered or a secret exposed; cliffhanger situations in which your character is in physical danger; or a decision your character makes that affects story momentum. Also useful are promises of a sexual tryst, arrival of an important secondary character, or a puzzling observation that leaves your reader wondering what it means.

womantied

It’s important to stay in viewpoint because otherwise you’ll lose immediacy, and this will throw your reader out of the story. For example, your heroine is shown placing a perfume atomizer into her purse while thinking to herself: “Before the day was done, I’d wish it had been a can of pepper spray instead.”

This character is looking back from future events rather than experiencing the present. As a reader, you’ve lost the sense of timing that holds you to her viewpoint. You’re supposed to see what she sees and hear what she hears, so how can you see what hasn’t yet come to pass?

Foreshadowing is desirable because it heightens tension, but it can be done using more subtle techniques while staying within the character’s point of view. Here’s another out of body experience: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d never have walked through that door.” Who is telling us this? The Author, that’s who. Certainly not your character, or she’d heed her own advice. Who else but the author is hovering up in the air observing your heroine and pulling her strings? Same goes for these examples:

“I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” [okay, who can see around that corner if not your viewpoint character? YOU, the author!]

“Watching our favorite TV program instead of the news, we missed the story about a vandalized restaurant.” [if the characters missed the story, who saw it?]

“I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.” [speaking again from the future looking back]

“I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.” [ditto]

“I was so intent on watching the doorway, I didn’t see the tall figure slink around the corner.” [then who did spot the tall figure? You got it–the author]

Although these examples are given in first person, the same principles apply to third person limited viewpoint. Your reader is inside that character’s skin. She shouldn’t be able to see/hear/feel beyond your heroine’s sensory perceptions. By dropping hints about future events, you’re losing the reader’s rapt attention. Stick to the present, and end your chapter with a hook that stays in character.

Here are some examples from Permed to Death, my first mystery novel. These hooks are meant to be page turners:

“This was her chance to finally bury the mistake she’d made years ago. Gritting her teeth, she pulled onto the main road and headed east.” (Important Decision)

“There’s something you should know. He had every reason to want my mother dead.” (Revelation)

“Her heart pounding against her ribs, she grabbed her purse and dashed out of her town house. Time was of the essence. If she was right, Bertha was destined to have company in her grave.” (Character in Jeopardy)

“She allowed oblivion to sweep her into its comforting depths.” (Physical Danger)

dead woman

Personal decisions that have risky consequences can also be effective. For example, your heroine decides to visit her boyfriend’s aunt against his wishes. She risks losing his affection but believes what she’s doing is right. Suspense heightens as the reader turns the page to see if the hero misinterprets her actions. Or have the hero in a thriller make a dangerous choice, wherein he puts someone he cares about in jeopardy no matter what he decides. Or his decision is an ethical one with no good coming from either choice. What are the consequences? End of chapter. Readers must keep on track to find out what happens next.

To summarize, here’s a quick list of chapter endings that will spur your reader to keep the night light burning:
1. Decision
2. Danger
3. Revelation
4. Another character’s unexpected arrival
5. Emotional turning point
6. Puzzle
7. Sex
In a romance, end chapter with one viewpoint, and switch to partner’s viewpoint in next chapter. Or end a scene of heightened sexual tension with the promise of further intimacy on the next page.

lovers

Sprinkle the lucky seven judiciously into your story and hopefully one day you’ll be the happy recipient of a fan letter that says: “I stayed up all night to finish your book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What other techniques do you use?

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The Muddy Middle: Where good plots go to die


Well, I don’t know how I got here tonight

I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down those stairs.
Plot holes to left of me
Bad action to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with goo
First off, apologies to the rock group Stealers Wheel whose song “Stuck in the Middle With You” has been rolling around in my brain this week because I am now about 80K words into my book and I am stuck in the middle with goo.
Ah, yes…the middle of the book. The quicksand bog of fiction. The sinkhole of despair. The sand pit that swallowed up that poor lad in Lawrence of Arabia.
I call it the Muddy Middle. It is the place where good plots go to die. It’s not that hard, I think, to craft a attention-getting beginning, and it isn’t that difficult to come up with a slam-bang climax. But what about that looooong stretch in between? How do you keep suspense taut, how do you keep the pages turning? Maybe this is why we have so many serial killer books, because when all else flags, toss out another body, right? This is also why most serial killer books are god awful stale. Because usually the suspense is not organic and hard-earned. It is a failure of imagination.

The classic dramatic plot

Recently, I re-read Gone with the Wind. It clocks in at 63 chapters. The first five are what I’d call the opening and the story essentially wraps up in one chapter. So what did Margaret Mitchell fill the 57 chapters in between with? Challenges, obstacles, reversals of fortune for her characters, especially for Scarlett O’Hara. This is the essence of plotting, what keeps the story from bogging down. And it has a definite trajectory. A good plot is like Woody Allen’s shark — if it’s not constantly moving forward — and upward — it dies. (Warning: more shark analogies ahead!)

There are lots of different kinds of plots. Picaresque plots like Shogun or Tom Jones, where the main point is to trail behind the protag’s adventure. Disaster movies like The Towering Inferno have multiple plots that intersect and sometimes mesh at the end. There are even novels without plots, though I’d venture that most are unsatisfying because readers have an innate craving for order and purpose that they don’t find in real life. But for those of us who write thrillers or mysteries, well, you can’t go wrong with the tried and true classic dramatic plot.

Let me give you a visual. Which of these plot lines is the best?

The one at top left is a flat line. If you’ve got one of these you’re in big trouble. (Or maybe writing bad literary fiction…sorry, cheap shot). That one below it is almost as bad, a plot that is a yawner until the writer gives you a paddle-jolt climax that comes out of nowhere. The one at top right looks like it would be a nifty thriller — nonstop action! — but it also doesn’t work because the pacing is too frenetic. Think about a roller coaster. Why do people love them? Because the heart-stopping plunges are balanced with quiet moments when we can catch our breath and anticipate the next thrill. And that leaves us with the jagged plot line at the bottom.

You give me fever!
I call it The Fever Chart Plot because it is graph that charts the protagonist’s fortunes. The trajectory of the story moves forward AND always upward toward the climax but between A and Z it and dips and rises. The beginning A represents an attention-grabbing opening scene. Then there’s a slight dip as we establish characters and setting and define the problem (in crime fiction, usually a murder to be solved). The line dips because as the problem is more clearly defined, it seems increasingly unlikely the hero will ever solve it.

But then the line goes up as the hero begins to cope, fighting his way through a thicket of complications. Sometimes, the plot hits an early high because it looks like the hero has things in hand but then there is a dip — something goes wrong, there is a reversal of fortune. The hero climbs out again only to be confronted with new obstacles along the way. We get another hard climb and more dips. Eventually, the hero achieves a summit of sorts (toward the end) when it looks like he will be triumph BUT…

He is plunged into a final abyss of despair (the last major setback before the climax). This is where your classic tragic plot usually ends. (Hamlet dies). But we’re talking heroic plots here, so just when it looks like all is lost, the hero, through bravery, smarts and fortitude, recovers and soars back, solving the problem once and for all. That little line at the end? That’s just the denouement where little threads are tied up.

This might seem obvious almost to the point of simple-mindedness, but it is the sturdy scaffolding on which most mysteries and thrillers are built. Your book might have fewer or more dips and rises, depending on the complexity of your story. I once charted out all the plot points of our book A Killing Rain and this is what it looks like:


Tools to dig out of the Muddy Middle

So what can you use if you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your story? There are some nifty tried and true devices and to illustrate them, I’m going to use a movie we all know instead of a book — Jaws. A couple years ago, I got to know Jaws really well when I contributed an essay on the Benchley book to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell. I hadn’t read Jaws since it first came out and when I dissected it for the essay I was surprised at how flabby the book is. (lots of bad subplots about class warfare, mafia kingpins, and a really icky affair between Chief Brody’s wife and  Hooper). But the screenplay — well, it’s one of the best thrillers written, and I’ve used it when I teach workshops on thriller plotting. Jaws uses six devices that keep the middle of the story moving forward:
  • Setbacks
  • Pendulum swings of emotion
  • Raising the stakes
  • Obstacles
  • Rift in the team
  • Isolation of the hero
So let’s go cut open that shark and see how each works…
First, there was that great attention-getting opening scene.
Then we meet the hero, who is a classic dramatic archetype: the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Chief Brody is an outsider on the insular little vacation island — and he can’t even swim. In the setup, he is confronted with the problem, and the girl’s death forces him into action.
The SETBACKS keep coming as the victims pile up. And since Jaws is basically a serial killer plot, each new body plunges Brody deeper into despair. But then — TA-DA! — we hit a peak when local fishermen snag a great white and every one is happy.
But then we get A PENDULUM SWING OF EMOTION when Brody’s own son is almost attacked. And another when a dead boy’s mother confronts Brody and castigates him for her son’s death.
Another SETBACK occurs when Hooper tells him the bite radius of the captured shark is off and when they cut open the shark, they don’t find any body parts. Brody gets proactive and moves to close the beaches until they can catch the killer shark. But then he faces a new OBSTACLE.

The Amity mayor who’s hellbent on saving the island’s lucrative July Fourth weekend. Brody’s overruled, the beaches stay open and all Brody can do is sit on the beach and sweat. We get a slight rise in the plot graph when Hooper and Brody go out  on a night hunt (Hooper is a perfect foil character for Brody, there to give him hope and pull him out of the dips). But then they find that dead guy in the submerged boat and things look increasingly grim. Until we get a major up-thrust for Brody. He gets the money to hire a professional shark hunter — Quint.

Our hero has things under control now, right? Not so fast. Quint is a great character, and he represents one of the most effective devices you can use to beef up your middle — THE RIFT IN THE TEAM. As the three men hunt the shark, the escalating tension between them threatens the quest. You see this device used a lot in cop novels — the errant hard-drinking guy bumping heads with his partner. Think of every partner Dirty Harry ever had. Or watch the sparring between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective. Rifts in the team. Brody is pulled down in another dip as he tries to cope with crazy Quint, who at one point even smashes the boat’s radio.

The plot goes into fever pitch after this, with dips and rises as they chase the shark. The STAKES ARE RAISED as their weapons prove futile, and the boat starts to fall apart and the shark even starts to gnaw on it.

We’re entered the final big trough when Hooper decides the only option left is for him to go down in the shark cage. (STAKES ARE RAISED AGAIN). Hooper disappears, presumed dead. And then we begin the final plunge into the abyss for poor Brody. Quint goes out in a blaze of gory…

And there is our hero, alone on a sinking ship, staring into the maw of death. Which brings us to one of the most effective ways to beef up your plot — ISOLATION OF THE HERO.   Think of Clarise Starling alone in that creepy basement. We’ve use this device often, putting our hero Louis in abandoned asylum tunnels, on frozen ice bridges on Lake Huron, gator-infested Everglades, and yes, on a sinking boat in the Gulf. It gives your hero that final chance to prove himself  — through guts and brains — and triumph over evil. Remember how Brody did it?

Blasted the bad guy to bits. With his final bullet. And he couldn’t even swim. What a guy. What a climax. What a roller coaster ride.

One last note: In the book, Peter Benchley lets the shark just swim away never to be seen again. Which is a really really bad ending. But that is a blog for another day.

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Suspense vs. Action

By Joe Moore

Back in 1993, country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner? Always try for a little less action and a lot more thrills.

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Watchers: Heroes in Fiction (Guest Post Donna Galanti)

Hosted by Jordan Dane

I’m pleased to have a guest for TKZ today. Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense novel A Human Element (Echelon Press). She is an ITW debut author of the class of 2011/2012 and a member of SCBWI and Horror Writers Association. She lives with her family in an old farmhouse in PA with lots of nooks, fireplaces, and stinkbugs but sadly no ghosts.

Welcome, Donna!

Watchers. My favorite fictional figures that hover on the sidelines weaving in and out of the story. They change lives.

You may know them as guardians, guides, mentors, or allies. They help the hero on his journey by blocking them, guiding them, or even saving them. They can be a mysterious and dark overseer or a jolly and light eccentric. They ultimately save the hero or motivate him to save himself.

In my suspense novel, A Human Element, I created The Man in Black (Felix) as a watcher. He is a guardian, a guide, and a hero. He connects to both the earthly and the other-worldliness in my characters. Sometimes Felix is there, like a lifeguard, and sometimes he’s watching and you simply sense his presence, more like a god. In the end he suffers and is a martyr for the greater good so his people can go on.

How did Felix evolve and how do I perceive his function? He evolved as an instrument of light to help others survive so his own world would survive. His presence allows me to push the protagonist truly beyond the brink and eventually be saved. He also represents hope and acts as a catalyst to keep hope alive. He is like a god because he changes the destiny of others for a greater good (an entire people). And, like a god, he chooses not to always interfere unless it’s for the greater good. In a way he is a mythical figure.

My favorite mythical watcher in fiction is Merlin from the Arthurian legend. He’s a man of mystery and magic with roles as a sorcerer, prophet, bard, adviser, and teacher. In Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, Merlin is an ordinary mortal but one with intuitive intelligence and clairvoyance. He has foreseen that Arthur will become a great king who will unite all of Britain.

Just as Felix’s mission in A Human Element drove him to facilitate a child’s creation to carry on the line of his dying people, Merlin’s vision led him to facilitate Arthur’s creation as well. I like the idea of connecting medieval to modern times knowing that Merlin and Felix share the same mission. They both originate as earthly and mystical watchers who change destinies so their people may conquer. And don’t we, as authors, often look to the past to create something new in the present?

It appeals to me that often the watcher figure is a hero too, willing to sacrifice his life for the one he oversees. He gives the protagonist what he needs to finish his journey and outwit death, and in doing so may need saving himself.

Literature is full of such heroes whose actions require that they, too, be saved. Like Arthur “Boo” Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s a mysterious character we slowly get to know. At first, perceived as a dark, ghostly figure he ends up saving the children, Scout and Jem. He’s a self-exiled loner who appears as needed to save the children from evil. In the end Scout and Jem save him back, providing justice for Boo.   

One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, is known for his watchers. In his book, Lightning, Stefan Krieger is a watcher hero who needs saving himself. He’s a time traveler and a guardian of Laura since she was born. He interferes when necessary to save her life many times. In doing so he changes the course of her destiny for good–and bad. His fate eventually interweaves with hers until they are caught in a life or death situation. He saves Laura, but in the end she saves him too.

I can’t forget my beloved animal watchers in fiction. In Watchers (great name!) by Dean Koontz, Einstein is a genetically altered golden retriever with human intelligence. He’s also saved by the couple he watches too. Escaped and on the run, Einstein acts as a guide to bring these two lonely people together and transform them. He becomes their guardian inspiring them to save him from his nemesis, who in turn watches him. Check out other fictional dogs in literature HERE, including my favorites, Buck and White Fang.

I didn’t realize I had an obsession with watcher figures until pulling book after book out from my shelves. And then I knew why. I adore tormented characters and that’s often what watchers are. And that’s why I write them. They are wounded heroes that travel with us to the dark side and help draw us back. They may not always save the hero by their own hand, but at that critical moment they drive the hero to take control of his own destiny. And sometimes the watcher needs saving right back.

Do you have favorite watchers from other books or movies? What “saves” you, as author, when you’ve spent too long on your dark side? Do you have a “watcher” to help pull you back from the dark side and save you?

Donna Galanti Contact Info:
Facebook & Website & Twitter: @donnagalanti

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