Naming Your Baby

 

By Elaine Viets

I’d rather write an entire mystery than come up with a title for it. So much depends on choosing the right name for your baby: Will your title grab the reader? Describe your book? Boost your sales?
If you’re writing for a traditional publisher, your contract will probably call your mystery Untitled Work. It’s your job to give it a snappier name. You’ve lived with this book for months, even years. Maybe you’re too close to think of a good title. It’s time to step back and take a look at tips for mystery titles.
Ask your family and friends. I originally wanted to call my Angela Richman mystery about the murder of an aging Hollywood diva, Death Star. My editor said the title sounded too much like science-fiction. My husband Don came up with a play on a classic movie title. The new book was christened A Star Is Dead.
Keep Your Title Short. Yes, I know The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t hurt by its long name. But short, snappy titles sell well. Consider Michael Connelly’s mysteries, starting with Black Echo. His titles are short and to the point. Stephen Cannell was another master of titles. My favorite is The Vertical Coffin, which he said was a cop term. When the first law enforcement officer rushes the door in a takedown, that doorway can quickly become a vertical coffin. Especially if firearms are used.
Early in my career, I wrote a collection of humor columns called The Viets Guide to Sex, Travel and Anything Else that Will Sell This Book. Lots of laughing readers didn’t line up for that title. Instead, drooling old men infested my signings, saying, “I want that book on sex travel.” Apparently the old boys missed that comma between Sex and Travel in the title. My mystery novels with titles like Killer Cuts attracted a better reader.


Search Shakespeare. Some authors, including Marcia Talley, find titles in the Bard’s work. My favorite Talley title is Unbreathed Memories, a phrase from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You can hunt for titles in OpenSourceShakespeare.org
Hymns and the Bible. Julia Spencer-Fleming has found a number of titles in hymns, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter. They are perfect for her Rev. Clare Fergusson series.

Want to go trendy? For a while every third book had “Girl” in the title. That trend started with novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, not to mention  The Girls With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. None of these women were the girl next door, but their books sold. By the way, The Girl Next Door was used by a wide range of writers, from Brad Parks to Ruth Rendall. It’s even a horror story.

There were also a raft of “Daughters,” as in Leslie Welsh’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Now I’m seeing lots of “Wives,” including Daisy Wood’s debut novel, The Clockmaker’s Wife, and Alice Hunter’s The Serial Killer’s Wife.
One word titles can sum up the book. This works well for thrillers, such as Jeff Abbott’s Panic and Aaron Elkins’ Loot. I had a one-word title for a Dead-End Job mystery. I wanted to call the book Catnapped, but there was another mystery with the same name that year.

My editor added an exclamation point to the title and made it Catnapped!, leaving me with a punctuation nightmare. How would you end this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!
Should I add a period at the end of this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!.”
Or keep the exclamation point and look like a hyper-excited ditz?
Some words have a mystery mystique. Currently on the Pub Alley Fiction Mystery Bestsellers list are titles with words that seem to grab readers:
Paris. Gets them every time. At the top of the list is The Paris Detective: Three Detective Luc Moncrief Thrillers by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo.
Curse. Another intriguing word. Curse of Salem by Kay Hooper made the list.
Midnight. Two titles with “Midnight” are on the list: The Midnight Lock by Jeffrey Deaver and The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
Book Title Generators are another tool for clueless mystery writers. You can find several of them here: https://kindlepreneur.com/free-book-title-generator-tools/
I sampled the Mystery Book Title Generator, which claims to be the “Ultimate Bank of 10,000 Titles” that will “generate a random story title that’s relevant to your genre. You can pick between fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, or sci-fi.” http://blog.reedsy.com/book-title-generator/mystery

I clicked on “I’m just starting to write” and got this title: “The Mystery of the Three-Inch Stranger,” which struck me as a bit personal. It’s not the size of the stranger, it’s what you do with him.

Series titles: Sue Grafton has her alphabet series, beginning with A Is for Alibi and ending with Y Is for Yesterday. Mary Higgins Clark and her partner-in-crime Alafair Burke have a song title series, starting with You Don’t Own Me. Stephanie Plum uses numbers. Her latest is Game on: Tempting Twenty-eight.
I’d wanted to call my first novel for Penguin The Dead-End Job. My editor thought that would make a good series title, so that book became Shop Till You Drop.
When you write for a publisher, potential titles are batted back and forth. My fourth mystery in that series featured the murder of an overbearing mother of the bride. I wanted to call it One Dead Mother.
My publisher nixed that title as “too urban.” The novel was named Just Murdered.

Enter to win a free copy of Life Without Parole, my latest Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Stop by Kings River Life magazine: https://www.krlnews.com/2022/01/life-without-parole-angela-richman.html

 

How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

“I did not think this series could become more compelling, oh how wrong I was! Coletta delivers shock after shock and spiraling twists and turns that you will never see coming. I was glued to the pages, unable to stop reading.” 

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Merry Misdirection

Misdirection is the intentional deflection of attention for the purpose of disguise, and it’s a vital literary device. To plant and disguise a clue so the reader doesn’t realize its importance takes time and finesse.

The most important thing to remember is to play fair. Clues must be in plain sight. We cannot reveal a clue that wasn’t visible earlier. That’s cheating.

A few years ago, I read a novel about [can’t name the profession without giving away the title]. The protagonist located the dead and solved every mystery with invisible clues. After I whipped my Kindle across the room, I took a deep breath and skimmed the story searching for the clues. Never found one. Not one! The author’s name now sits at the pinnacle of my Do Not Read list.

A key feature of good misdirection means you brought attention to the clue, and the reader still missed it.

A magician uses three types of misdirection:

  • Time: The magician has the silk scarf balled in one fist before he begins the trick.
  • Place: The magician draws your attention to his right hand while the real trick is happening in his left.
  • Intent: The magician leads you to the decision he wants, but afterward you’ll swear you had a choice.

Notice any similarities to writing?

Misdirection can be either external or internal. External would be when the author misdirects the reader. Internal is when a character misdirects another character.

Misdirection is different than misinformation. We should never outright lie to the reader. Rather, we let them lie to themselves by disguising the clue(s) as inconsequential.

How do we do that?

When you come to a part of the story where nothing major occurs, slip in a clue. Or include the detail/clue while fleshing out a character’s life.

Examples:

One character chats with another as they drive to a designated location. Is the locale a clue in and of itself?

What about the title of the book? The reader has seen the title numerous times, yet she never gave it much thought until the protagonist reveals its meaning to the plot.

Clandestine lovers meet in a hideaway. While there, one of the characters notices a symbol or sign. Later in the story, she finds another clue that relates to the sign or symbol. Only now, she has enough experience to interpret its true meaning.

A kidnapper chalks an X on a park bench to signal the drop-off spot. What if a stray dog approaches the kidnapper? If he reads the dog’s tag to find his human, the clue takes center stage, yet it’s disguised as inconsequential.

In all four examples the arrival of the clue seems insignificant at first. The reader will notice the clue because we’ve drawn attention to it, but we’ve framed it in a way that allows the character to dismiss it. Thus, the reader will, too.

False Trails

The character knows the clue is important when she finds it, but she misinterprets its meaning, leading her down a dead end.

What if we need to supply information on a certain topic, but we don’t want the reader to understand why yet? If we take the clue out of context and present it as something else—something innocuous or insignificant—we’ve misdirected the reader to reach the wrong conclusion.

An important factor of misdirection is that the disguise must make sense within the confines of the scene. It should also further the plot in some way.

“Misdirection can be used either strategically or tactically. Strategically to change the whole direction of a story, to send it off into a new and different world, and have the reader realize that it’s been headed that way all along. Tactically to conceal, obscure, obfuscate, and camouflage one important fact, to save it for later revelation.”

— The Writer magazine

Character Misdirection

Character misdirection is when the protagonist (and reader) believes a secondary character fulfills one role when, in fact, he fulfills the opposite.

Two types of character misdirection.

  • False Ally
  • False Enemy

These two characters are not what they seem on the surface. They provide opportunities for dichotomy, juxtaposition, insights into the protagonist, theme, plot, and plot twists. They’re useful characters and so much fun to write.

A false ally is a character who acts like they’re on the protagonist’s side when they really have ulterior motives. The protagonist trusts the false ally. The reader will, too. Until the moment when the character unmasks, revealing their false façade and true intention.

A false enemy is a character the protagonist does not trust. Past experiences with this character warn the protagonist to be wary. But this time, the false enemy wants to help the protagonist.

When Hannibal Lecter tries to help Clarice, she’s leery about trusting a serial killing cannibal. The reader is too.

What type of character is Hannibal Lecter, a false ally or false enemy?

An argument could be made for both. On one hand, he acts like a false enemy, but he does have his own agenda. Thomas Harris blurred the lines between the two. What emerged is a multifaceted character that we’ve analyzed for years.

When crafting a false ally or false enemy, it’s fine to fit the character into one of these roles. Or, like Harris, add shades of gray.

Mastering the art of misdirection is an important skill. It’s especially important for mysteries and thrillers. I hope this post churns up new ideas for you.

Do you have a false ally or false enemy in your WIP? What are some ways you’ve employed misdirection?

This is my final post of 2021. Wishing you all a joyous holiday season. See ya in the New Year!

Female killers are often portrayed as caricatures: Black Widows, Angels of Death, or Femme Fatales. But the real stories of these women are much more complex. In Pretty Evil New England, true crime author Sue Coletta tells the story of these five women, from broken childhoods to first brushes with death, and she examines the overwhelming urges that propelled these women to take the lives of more than one-hundred innocent victims. If you enjoy narrative nonfiction/true crime, Pretty Evil New England is on sale for $1.99. Limited time. On Wednesday, Dec. 15, the price returns to full retail: $13.99.

Short Stories: Small and Twisted

By Elaine Viets

Did you ever say this? “I’m trying to write a short story, but I’m blocked. I’m getting nowhere.”

That happens to every writer. It certainly happens to me. Short stories are hard to write. In some ways, they may be harder to writer than novels. Here are a few tips for when you feel blocked working on your short story:

Think small – and think twisted.
There are good reasons why you can’t continue your short story. You could be blocked because you have too much going to on. In short, you may be writing a 5,000-word novel instead of a short story.
In a short story, you don’t need long, dreamy descriptions of the scenery.
You don’t need six subplots.
You don’t need to tell us your character’s awful childhood – unless it’s vital to the plot.
It’s a short story.
Think small.

Here’s another reason why your short story may be blocked: How many characters does it have?
If your short story has more than four major characters – you may — accent on may –have too many. It’s like being in a small room with too many people. You can’t move.

The short story is a small world.
Don’t make work for yourself. Giving all those people something to do is hard labor. Think small. Cut back on your characters.
If your story is going nowhere, consider some pruning. Clear out all the extraneous details, the unnecessary characters, the descriptions of the weather.
If you’re still not sure, read the story out loud. Read it to your spouse, or your dog, or your wall. But tell the story instead of looking at it on the page.
That’s a good way to find out what works – and what doesn’t.
Lawrence Block is a master of the traditional short story.
Let me show you what he does in one paragraph – one – in a short story called “This Crazy Business of Ours.” It’s in Block’s anthology called Enough Rope. If you’re interested in traditional short stories, I recommend this anthology.

“This Crazy Business of Ours”
The elevator, swift and silent as a garrote, whisked the young man eighteen stories skyward to Wilson Colliard’s penthouse. The doors opened to reveal Colliard himself. He wore a cashmere smoking jacket the color of vintage port. His flannel slacks and broadcloth shirt were a matching oyster white. They could have been chosen to match his hair, which had been expensively barbered in a leonine mane. His eyes, beneath sharply defined white brows, were as blue and as bottomless as the Caribbean, upon the shores of which he had acquired this radiant tan. He wore doeskin slippers upon his small feet and a smile upon his thinnish lips, and in his right hands he held an automatic pistol of German origin, the precise manufacturer and caliber of which need not concern us.

See how Block establishes a character in one paragraph? That is true economy of writing.
Make sure your story is about what it’s about. In a novel, you don’t have to get to the story right away. You have time to develop it. Time to build. Slowly.
In a short story, you have to hit them and run.

This is one of my favorite short story leads. It’s by Maria Lima in the Chesapeake Chapter Sisters in Crime anthology called Chesapeake Crimes I. Here it is:

“The telegram said it all: AUNT DEAD. STOP. BUTLER DID IT. STOP. FLY SOONEST. STOP. GERALD.”

That’s short and to the point. The writer has hooked you and she’s ready to move on to the story.


That takes me to the second requirement of a good short story. It needs a twist. It needs a surprise – either in the beginning or the end. But get that surprise in there.
Here’s the lead to my short story, “Red Meat,” which was nominated for an Agatha and a Macavity. It was in Blood on their Hands edited by Lawrence Block, and now in my own anthology, Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories.

“Ashley has a body to die for, and I should know. I’m on death row because of her.
“You want to know the funny thing?
“My wife bought me Ashley. For a present.”

There’s your twist – in three sentences.
Maybe your short story has all those things, but so what? It still feels lifeless.
You can’t make it get up and walk. You need something to liven it up. Ask yourself what specialized knowledge you have that could make your short story unique, and then build the story around it.
I was asked to write a short story for a gambling anthology. I panicked. I was going to tell my editors no. I don’t know how to gamble. I don’t play poker or blackjack. What am I doing in a gambling anthology?
Then I realized I did know gambling. My aunts used to take me to bingo. I was brought up Catholic – and I learned how people can cheat at bingo, and especially, how they can cheat at cruise ship bingo. Do you know what the prize is for cruise ship bingo?
Twenty thousand dollars on some cruises. That’s major money. That’s big-time gambling. Bingo! I had a short story.


The result was “Sex and Bingo,” which was nominated for an Agatha Award.
At a short story seminar in New York, I heard top editors talk about what made a good short story, what they buy, and what they won’t buy.

Here are some things editors DO NOT want:

– No more stories about husbands who kill wives, or vice versa.
– No more stories ending, “And then I woke up.”

What do they want?
A fresh voice.
An unusual location.
An offbeat character.
An opening that grabs them.
That was the most important part. You have one sentence – maybe two – to catch an editor’s eye with a short story.
Make every word count.
***
Elaine Viets was nominated for a 2021 International Thriller Award for her short story: “Dog Eat Dog” in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pacher. Crippen & Landru has published Elaine’s own collection, Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories Stories. Buy it here:  https://www.amazon.com/Deal-Devil-Elaine-Viets/dp/1936363275

Timing and Punchlines

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Allan Warren, Creative Commons license

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

~~~

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

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

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

According to Masterclass.com:

Where Did the Punchline Originate?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stack up those chapters and you eventually have a book.

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

What makes a good sentence?

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

Direct and active;

Has a purpose in the story;

Concise.

What shouldn’t be in a sentence? 

Description for description’s sake;

Pointless thinking or musing by a character;

Excess verbiage or fluff.

Confusing elements;

Long, overly-complicated, or convoluted phrasing.

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

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

Is there a stronger verb or noun you can use?

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

Consider the order of the words in the following example:

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

Meh.

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

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

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

The paragraph ends with a whimper, not a bang.

 Rewrite:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While editing, the writer discovers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true with storytelling.

~~~

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

~~~

 

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Cue Words in Dialogue

A cue word, as I call it, sends a subtle cue to the reader for who’s speaking. Using a cue word(s) in dialogue helps to establish a character and adds to their characterization. In my Mayhem Series I have a foil character who says “Woot! Awesomesauce.” These words no one else in the series would ever say. They are uniquely hers. She also says “ship” rather than swear. In my Grafton County Series, an important secondary character uses “Minga” which is Italian slang used in place of WTF? And like my Mayhem Series character, no one else in the series would say her cue word. It is uniquely hers.

Think about the people in your life. Have you noticed subtleties in their speech? We all have favorite words and phrases. Our characters should, too.

In The Darkness by Mike Omer has the perfect example of cue words in action. They jump right out. Never does Omer describe the following eyewitness in detail. Instead, he lets the dialogue form a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

“Well, like I said, me and Jeff—he don’ live here no more because he moved out with his mother because his parents got divorced, so he and his mom moved in with his grandparents down south—we were walking around a while ago, I think it was a year and a half ago, because Jeff moved away last summer and it was just before then…I remember he was talking about how his parents were getting a divorce because they were fighting all the time, and we saw this guy.”

“What guy?” Foster asked.

“A guy where you built that tent over there. He dug a pit, he had a shovel and a bunch of other tools, and he wore some kind of maintenance suit, but we knew he wasn’t maintaining shit, because there are no pipes or wires or anything there, right? Jeff’s dad used to be a plumber working for the city before he got fired, because he drank all the time, so he knew there was nothing there—also this guy didn’t look like a plumber.”

“What did he look like?”

“I don’t know, man. He was white for sure, but we were too far away, and we didn’t want to get any closer because we didn’t want him to see us.”

Notice how he slipped in race? Most “white” people wouldn’t mention the guy was “white” right away. It’s another subtle cue word that adds brushstrokes to the mental image we’re forming of Paul, the eyewitness.

“Why not?”

The author breaks up the dialogue by bringing the reader’s attention to the conversation through Tatum, the POV character, who’s not involved in the questioning.

The rhythm of the conversation was hypnotic, Foster asking pointed questions fast and short and the boy answering in long, serpentine sentences, their structure mazelike. Tatum could almost imagine this being a stage act accompanied by the strumming of a single guitar.

Did he have to bring attention to the dialogue? No, but by letting the POV character mention the contrast between detective and witness, it further cements the mental image and adds characterization for Tatum so we don’t forget he’s there. It wouldn’t be as effective if he allowed Tatum to dwell on it too long. One short paragraph, then segue back to the conversation. Notice where he places the cue word when we return.

“Because Jeff said he was someone from the Mafia and that he dug a pit to stash drugs in or money or a body, and we didn’t want him to see us—we’re not idiots—we stayed away, but we were careful to see exactly what he was doing, and this guy dug there all day, like nonstop.”

Boom — first word is because. Is there any question who’s speaking?

Notice also how Omer chose to exclude most body cues and tags. This demonstrates how to let dialogue do the heavy lifting.

“Did you tell your parents? Tell anyone?”

Now he adds a body cue, but not to indicate who’s speaking. He adds it to show indecisiveness.

Paul seemed to hesitate for a moment and stared downward at his shoes, biting his lips.

“You didn’t want to,” Tatum said. “Because you were hoping he’d stash money there.”

See how Tatum used the cue word? Empathetic people are like parrots. We can’t help but use the cue word when responding to someone like Paul. This subconscious act adds another layer to the characterization.

“It ain’t against the law to say nothin’,” Paul muttered.

“So this guy digs a hole.” Frustration crept into Foster’s voice (now that Tatum’s involved in the conversation it’s important to ground the reader). “Then what?”

“Then he left. So we waited until was dark, and we went there, because we figured maybe he stashed some money there, so we could take some of it—not too much, y’know. Jeff really wanted cash because his dad was unemployed, so he figured he could maybe help out a bit, and I wanted cash because…” He paused. His own motives probably hadn’t been as pure as Jeff’s.

“Because cash is a good thing to have,” Tatum said. “Go on.”

Even without the dialogue tag, the reader knows Tatum responded because he used the same cue word earlier. See how powerful they can be? Foster would never get sucked in like Tatum. It’s not in her character.

Do any of your characters use cue words?

First Page Critique: City of Caves

My apologies to the brave writer who submitted this first page for critique. I meant to do it sooner, but I’ve had an insanely busy October.

The writer says the genre is paranormal/horror. My comments will follow.

 

City of Caves

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine. Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loose as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly. Hoping they’d forget he was there.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck and he’d tried to escape again. Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall.

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess.

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

I like the imagery in this first page, but we need to discuss a few important areas of craft. The first of which is continuity. In paragraph two, Esme had just been taken out of the cell. Then we’re told what happened to Albie in the past. We swing back to the current situation and Esme is sitting across from him. Only now, Albie has no idea who she is. See the problem?

Let’s take a closer look. My comments are in bold.

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine.

Not a bad first line, but I think you can make it even better. Rather than “shivers down the spine” (overused body cue), describe what he’s hearing. “Strange” is too generic for a first line.

Example:

Disembodied cries snaked through a catacomb of underground tunnels. Hooded guards dragged Albie Halstead through a dark, dank maze, his bare feet dragging behind him.  

Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles (I realize you’re trying to avoid repetition by using manacles rather than cuffs, but it doesn’t work. The imagery should be clear and concise.) he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loosen as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly.

Do you realize the above sentence is 67 words long? It’s exhausting to read. Break up the text to make it easier to digest. Good writing has a mixture of short and long sentences. Short sentences pack a punch and are used for emphasis. Longer sentences add rhythm. Too much of either becomes redundant and weakens the writing. By varying sentences, we add interest, drama, and hold a reader’s attention. 

Example (continued from earlier example):

Helpless to fight back, his captors shackled him to the cell wall. Metal clanged against stone. When he straightened, a young girl sat across from him, streaks of tears bleeding black mascara over a crooked nose—bloody and swollen. Screams pierced the chanting outside the door. Albie squeezed his eyes closed. How did this happen? He attended church every Sunday, escorted the elderly across busy roadways, and volunteered at homeless shelters. He’d more than repaid his debt to society. Yet here he sat. Isolated. Shivering. Alone.

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

The details I added probably don’t match your storyline. Doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how to include hints of who Albie is and why we should care if he’s being held prisoner. It’s not enough to show a harrowing situation. Readers must connect with the main character, or at least empathize with his situation.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all. I like the rhythm here, but the action occurs prior to the scene. When we tell the reader what happened in the past, even if it’s only minutes earlier, we remove conflict and tension.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress, and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck, and he’d tried to escape again. (46 words) Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. (41 words) He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

The above three paragraphs have the same problem as the one preceding it. The action occurs prior to the scene, robbing the reader of experiencing the abduction and feeling Albie’s terror.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall. This implies Albie doesn’t know the young girl, but earlier you wrote “They’d just taken Esme.” If he knew her name then, why is this girl a stranger now?

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess. If they’re about the same age, why would Albie refer to her as “the young girl”?

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself. Good job here. And believable.

Side note: If you plan to publish traditionally or self-publish for an American market, use double quotes for dialogue, not single.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

Is the pit a well-known place? If he’s talking to a stranger, the pit might mean nothing to Esme. If it is well-known by the locals, include a line or two to ground the reader.

Example:  

Everyone in [town/city] worked at the pit at one point or another. Rumors circulated about the landfill being the most haunted place in [state], but Albie never believed the hype. Until now. [Include a hint of the paranormal element here]

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

These three lines of dialogue come across as too on-the-nose. Granted, it’s an easy way to sneak in names, but it’s unrealistic in this situation. They’ve been kidnapped, beaten, held prisoner. More realistic questions might be: Why us? Will they kill us? Rape us? Sell us to the highest bidder? Who are these guys? What do they want?

Their top priority would be to figure out why they were taken and how to escape. The last thing on their minds should be getting to know one another. They’re shackled to the wall! Weird chanting, disembodied screams! At any moment they could die! Sheer terror should bleed through every word.

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. I worked on this for hours because I believe in you. If I didn’t think you had the writing chops to turn this into a compelling story, I wouldn’t have taken the time. Curse me, throw things, then roll up your sleeves and dig in. You’ve got this. 🙂 

TKZ family, what advice would you give this brave writer?

 

Twitter Tutorial – From Zero to 12K

Gerd Altmann – Pixabay

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Full disclosure: I’m lousy at social media.

My writing bona fides are respectable with six published thrillers, numerous nonfiction articles, and this wonderful gig on TKZ.

Yet, after three years on Twitter, I have a low three-figure following. Pitiful, huh? 

Clearly, I’m doing something wrong.

Social media is that annoying stone in my already-uncomfortable marketing shoe. For contemporary authors, it’s a fact of life that we may not embrace but we can’t dismiss it either.

Recently, during an off-air discussion with TKZ regular Ben Lucas, he mentioned he was working on his as-yet-unpublished first novel and…

he had more than 12,000 Twitter followers.

What???

How does a writer without a single book to sell develop such an impressive presence on social media?

I needed to know more. So I asked him.

His answers are today’s post.

Take it away, Ben!

 ~~~

Debbie: How has an as-yet-unpublished author collected 12K Twitter followers in less than a year?

Ben: First, I wanted to thank Debbie for allowing me to post on TKZ. I hope she keeps this line in so that you all know I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to share. This is a new personal high, and I hope to return the favor.

Technically, I’m a new author, but I’ve studied the craft for over a decade. Most of this is not new information, just good use of good advice. I have 12.5K Twitter followers, 9.8K on LinkedIn and another 5K on Facebook. These are the links:

The obvious question is, why am I doing this if I have no book to sell? It’s a line item of a giant checklist to help my future launch be successful. 2011, my first go around getting a book published was a disaster—many lessons learned. A big failure on my part was not using good advice or best practices.

But in 2020, (me having regrets), I listened to James Scott Bell on Great Courses. My immediate takeaway was marketing is crucial. That experience started my WIP, but also made me determined to brand myself. After more careful study, I started my social media building last December.

Marketing and branding are kind of related, but different. Marketing is the efforts you make to generate sales. But, branding is the business image you create. As I went along, I built my social media base to create goodwill and credibility whenever I can, (e.g. branding).

For the record, I have no illusions, as I’m keeping my hopes high and my expectations low. None of this is guaranteed, especially if my book comes out and SUCKS!

James Scott Bell says you can’t sell books on Twitter. I think he’s 100% right. If there is an effective marketing technique on social media, I haven’t seen it yet. Actually, besides announcing great deals, a lot of sales tactics on Twitter leave me feeling awkward and tacky. But, there are more important things that social media will offer you, which branding seems the best effort.

My overall goal is to not be forgotten before I even get started. Multiple experts helped to develop my approach:

Post something at least once a day. Twice maximum. Any less and you are forgotten. Any more than twice, you are a nuisance. (I’ve actually stopped following people because they constantly send out four posts an hour and I don’t have time to follow it all).

You can’t just publish text as a social media post. You need something visual that should have a common look/feel. Canva.com comes in handy.

You need to follow other people back. Following other people back on social media will help you get into an algorithm. In short, if you are connecting to other readers and authors, Twitter will also suggest you as a connection to other like-minded individuals.

One reason people are following me is because I’m asking them to. I’m soft, not pushy, but consistent. For example, my common lead for my posts, “I would appreciate your support/follow on Twitter—for more information about me and my upcoming projects sign up for my newsletter https://therealbenlucas.com/contact/ #readmore #writingcommunity #writing #quoteoftheday.”

Here’s an example of something created using Canva. I send out a visual quote every day similar to this one:

Debbie: Are all your tweets on writing/reading?

Ben: Yes. Everything I tweet or post is about writing or others in the #writingcommunity.

Debbie: Do you contribute to/take part in groups not related to writing/reading?

Ben: No. All my efforts are about writing. I’m making new friends and relationships. I’m finding this very rewarding.

Debbie: Did you already have an established following for some other interest?

Ben: No. None. I have lots of other interest but nothing I wanted to write about. Being an author is my passion, and I spend nearly all my free time pursuing it.

Debbie: How much time do you spend on social media each day?

 Ben: I spend about an hour a day on social media (all three sites). I’ve become highly efficient—I had to, otherwise this can consume you like a shark devouring a guppy. Routine for me is important since I manage five people during my day job, have a wife, three kids, and a needy dog.

My daily routine is to wake up the kids, get people fed, go to the computer and post my daily thing. I’ll wish my followers a happy birthday or congratulations on their life events. I read TKZ, and if I can, add something to the conversations. After that, I do my day job and then try to write a thousand words between the remaining madness. At the end of the day, I interact online with some followers.

Debbie: What’s your day job?

Ben: I’m a Safety Manager for a construction company that services oil and gas. I have been in occupational safety and health for twenty-five plus years.

Debbie: How did you find your particular niche?

Ben: This question made me think of two different things.

  1. My niche for story telling came from my overseas experiences. I was in the UAE back in the early 2000s, working in one of the largest gas plants in the world. When the Arabs brought in the surface-to-air missiles, I thought it was time to leave. I was okay with the 50 caliber guns at the gate, but not the other stuff.
  2. My approach to branding comes from the safety profession and building and implementing management systems. I’m great at developing and measuring safety culture—which boils down to opinions. What I chase the most in my day job with our employees and clients is to shape their opinions. It’s an important part of business, which equates to building confidence.

If I do my job right, company culture is positive. Do it wrong, you have a negative impact or feeling.

Same thing goes here too, that I’m shaping my followers to feel good about connecting with me. My hope is my actions will lead to a positive opinion about who I am and what I do.

Debbie: You talk quite a bit about “brand.” Can you sum up in a sentence or two what your brand is?

Ben: For me, branding is two-fold.

I base my actions on four words which are sincerity, success, tolerance, and tact. (Posted on my Ted Lasso wall), my daily focus.

Brand statements to me are secondary, but I have one. “Ben Lucas is an author, rooted in thriller storytelling, who is inspired by the high and lows of the world oil industry.” For me, my brand statement will develop as my work matures.

Debbie: Do you ever attract “creepy” followers? If so, how do you handle them?

Ben: YES! This kind of stuff happens a lot to me because I tend to follow everyone back. But, don’t be afraid to follow other people. Be open to other like-minded individuals. If you follow others who are like-minded, you will build more followers. Connections can build even more followers and potential readers of your materials.

Overall, here are your best defenses:

Don’t follow people back if they appear to be scammers. I think there are some great articles on TKZ that go into a lot of details of what to look for.

Don’t answer back any direct or personal mail on social media, (like Twitter), unless you know the person. Social media is meant to be ‘social’ and you should communicate in group discussions or comments on posts. Once those conversations happen in private, things can get awkward fast.

Do not give out your personal details online.

You are in control—therefore, take control of the situation and block those people making things awkward. If it feels odd, be safe, block them, and make a report.

Debbie: Do you have a short synopsis of your upcoming book?

Ben: It’s called The Smoke Eater

(JSB Inspired Tagline)

Survival In a New Age of Extremism

When terrorist radicals are thrown into the mix, Reid’s new job turns deadly.

Desiring a fresh start, broken firefighter Reid Harris goes to Azurbar to work at the massive BuHasa facility. His new employer doesn’t care that he can’t pass the physical.

On his first day, Reid witnesses a stunning incident that determines his new norm. Martial law drives surging terrorism. He expected hard times, but now worries he can’t meet work demands. On top of Reid’s fear of dying on the job, a Azurbaree national with a vicious obsession further threatens his survival.

This is my working cover, which I made on Canva.com:

BTW – Recent posts on TKZ made me rethink my publishing strategy. My gut is telling me to buckle down and find an agent. I was inspired when I saw John Gilstrap’s video of his agent and editor being in sync with each other. He’s very fortunate to have people like that on his side. Going to start that process and see where it might take me.

~~~

Thank you, Ben, for sharing your well-thought-out strategy. You are setting yourself up for a successful launch. Let us know when that happens.

~~~

Social media sidebar bonus courtesy of Authors Guild member Joanna Malaczynski:

Social Media Market Share (Source: StatCounter)
#1 Facebook – Approximately 70% of the market
#2 Pinterest and Twitter – Approximately 10% of the market each
#3 YouTube and Instagram – Less than 5% of the market each (BUT SEE BELOW about the significance of YouTube)
#4 Tumblr and Reddit – Approximately 1% of the market each

Most Popular Search Engines (Source: Search Engine Journal and Visual Capitalist)
#1 Google – about 60.5 billion monthly visits
#2 YouTube – about 25 billion monthly visits
#3 Amazon – about 2.4 billion monthly visits (but used more as a search engine than Facebook)
#4 Facebook – about 20 billion monthly visits

~~~

TKZers: Feel free to share your social media handles in the comment section. Someone might want to follow you and you might find someone you want to follow.

~~~

Debbie Burke’s new resolution: tweet more about her series Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. Please check them out at this link.

Using Conflict to Build Tension

My friend Becca Puglisi is here today with a fab post about how to use conflict and tension effectively. Enjoy!

One of my favorite Aha moments as a writer came in the form of feedback from a critiquer. (Shout out to all the critique partners!) She kept writing notes in my manuscript, like Where’s the tension? and This would be a good spot to add some tension.

No tension? What’s she talking about? The main character was just abandoned by her father. Her best friend was attacked by racist pigs. The family business is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there’s no tension??

After chewing on this for a while, I realized that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t necessarily the same.

Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) defines conflict like this: a character enters a scene with a goal, and standing in the way is an obstacle. That’s conflict. Maybe it’s a confrontation with an adversary, a downed tree that blocks the character’s path, the alarm not going off on the morning of an important meeting, or a temptation that triggers an internal struggle.

Conflict is whatever makes it harder for the character to achieve their goal. It’s a vital part of creating empathy in the reader as they wonder if the hero is up to the challenge.

Tension in literature is an emotional response from the reader, and conflict is one of the things that elicits it. Think of it in terms of real-life tension—that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that puts you on edge. Where conflict occurs, the character should be feeling some of that tension. If the reader feels it too, an emotional bond is forged that puts the reader more firmly in the character’s corner, rooting for them and turning pages to see if they succeed.

When conflict is done right, it should result in tension. But it doesn’t—not all the time, as my critique partner kindly pointed out. So how do we write stories that are chock full of tension? Here are four tips for making that happen.

Include Conflict in Every Scene. In each scene, your character should have a goal. If they get what they want without any opposition, where’s the fun (or tension) in that? Too many pages without conflict will result in a story that drags and readers who start wondering what’s in the fridge.

So for each scene, know what your character’s after, then add whatever will make it more difficult for them to achieve their goal. The conflict can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or quiet (the character wanting something that’s bad for them), but make sure it’s there. For ideas on possible conflict scenarios, take a look at this database at One Stop for Writers.

Employ a Variety of Conflict Scenarios. Think over the past day and take a quick inventory of all the difficulties you encountered. The list is going to be impressive (and maybe a little overwhelming). It’s going to include not only conflict of varying intensity, but scenarios that touch on different areas of life. The same should be true for our characters. Your spy protagonist is going to have lots of work-related conflict, but they’re also going to encounter relationship friction, moral temptations, power struggles, ticking clock situations, etc. Well-rounded characters should experience conflict in all areas of life. Maintain authenticity (and make things super difficult for them) by varying the conflict scenarios in your story.

Add Some Internal Conflict. While there always will be external forces working against your character, any protagonist traversing a change or failed character arc is going to struggle internally. As the story goes along, they’ll face difficulties that highlight a weakness, challenge a dysfunctional coping mechanism or flawed ideology, and push them to make the changes that will allow them to succeed. The only way they can reach that critical tipping point of meaningful change is if they struggle with their inner demons.

It’s Sarah Connor doubting her ability to become “the mother of the future.”

It’s Jason Bourne slowly realizing who he is, not knowing if he can live with the knowledge, and being unsure how to move forward.

It’s John Anderton—cop and neuroin addict—wrestling with the knowledge that the Pre-Crime program he’s devoted his career to may be flawed and even immoral.

Internal conflict is compelling to readers because they’ve been there—wrestling with questions about morality, right and wrong, identity, and a host of other things. They also know what’s at stake for the character should they fail to emerge from those internal struggles with a healthier approach to life.

Make Sure the Stakes are High Enough. We know that conflict doesn’t always result in tension, which means it won’t automatically engage readers. For readers to be unsettled and a little nervous about your character’s future, something significant needs to be at stake: a cost incurred if the protagonist fails to navigate the situation successfully.

So when you’re thinking of the consequences of failure, think in terms of stakes. Each conflict scenario needs a serious or else attached to it. To identify stakes that will greatly impact the character, consider the following:

  • Far-Reaching Stakes: those that may result in loss for many people if the protagonist fails.
  • Moral Stakes: those that threaten the character’s most foundational ideals and beliefs.
  • Primal (Death) Stakes: those involving the loss of something major, such as innocence, a relationship, a career, dream, idea, belief, reputation, or a physical life.

Stakes—even the far-reaching ones—should touch your character on some level. This gives them skin in the game by making things personal and endangering something or someone important. When the reader sees just how high the stakes are, their empathy for the character will grow, and they’ll be more engaged in the story.

We try to avoid tension in real life, but in our books? It’s absolutely vital for holding the reader’s interest. Create and maintain tension by carefully considering the conflicts in your story. Include opposition in every scene, vary the kinds of conflict your character experiences, add some internal struggles, and ensure that the stakes are impactful and you’re sure to raise your character’s blood pressure while keeping readers engaged.

For more information on the role conflict plays in storytelling and how you can use it effectively, check out The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1).

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers.

Her books have sold over 700,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

What is Your POV Motive?

Photo credit: JohnPotter Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Why does a writer choose to tell a story from a particular point of view?

Recently, Chuck, a regular TKZ reader, emailed me with questions about omniscient point of view. He wanted to write the first chapter of his revenge-theme murder mystery from the omniscient POV.

Right away, I knew I wasn’t qualified to advise him. I’ve never written anything  omniscient. The books I read rarely use it because my personal taste has always favored close, intimate POVs.

So I dove down the research rabbit hole to learn more about this mysterious POV.

Masterclass.com offers this definition:

An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…The narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance.

Before TV, films, internet, and streaming, most people didn’t venture far from the places they were born. Travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Charles Dickens – Wikimedia

Therefore, books were ships that carried readers to distant shores they would never personally set foot on; to exotic worlds constructed from the author’s descriptions; to smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes readers could only imagine.

World building was crucial. 

Leo Tolstoy – CC BY-SA 3.0

 

 

 

 

Authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien spent many pages explaining the physical, social, religious, economic, historic, and psychological elements of the story world.

J.R.R. Tolkien – public domain

 

 

 

But as communication increased and the world became smaller, authors no longer had to paint such detailed pictures.

Reader interest shifted to characters who were fascinating or with whom readers could identify. They wanted go deeper into the characters’ hearts and minds to vicariously experience their fears, elation, rage, joy, doubt, guilt, pride, disappointment, lust, etc.

In today’s book market, close third and first person POVs are the most prevalent, although epic fantasy with its detailed world building still uses omniscient POV.

According to a 2016 New York Times article by Elliott Holt:

The effects of omniscience are authority and scope; novels with such narrators seem especially confident. The characters may be uncertain, but we sense the controlling force above them. Omniscience reinforces that we are reading fiction.

Some readers like that quality while others see it as authorial intrusion.

Holt goes on to say:

We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime…Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Hmm. That explains why I personally avoid omniscient POV.

The most comprehensive article I found about omniscient POV is by John Matthew Fox of Book Fox at this link.

John provides clear, understandable explanations. For instance, in discussing show vs. tell, he says:

Third person omniscient is often more telling than showing, because the narrator is an objective observer. It’s like you’re telling someone about a movie you just saw.

He defines two types of third-person omniscient POV:

Objective: The narrator knows all, but they’re an observer. They can’t get into the characters’ heads, but are telling the story from somewhere outside.

Subjective: The narrator is an observer with opinions. We get a sense of what the narrator thinks about every character, in a judgy kind of way.

He says one advantage is the narrator “can dispense information that no character knows.” But he cautions: “many writers slide over into head hopping.”

He goes on to elaborate:

Where this gets confusing, especially for new writers, is in third person omniscient. Some newer writers think that head hopping and third person omniscient are the same thing, or at least close. This is not true. Third person omniscient tells a story from one perspective: the narrator’s. The narrator shouldn’t tell us the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, or any of the characters.

The narrator shows us how the characters feel through action and dialogue, not by hopping into the character’s heads to reveal what they’re thinking. The story is told from the narrator’s perspective, like the narrator is a character.

Here is John’s most compelling argument against using omniscient POV:

Literary agents and publishers are so reluctant to consider third person omniscient, and they’re not going to do it for a new writer. If you really want to try third person omniscient, do it for a very limited time, like the first chapter, to describe the setting. Sort of like a wide shot in a movie, writing the first chapter in third person omniscient can work.

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As writers, we like to experiment with new ways to tell stories. Some experiments work, others fall flat, and a few explode in our faces.

After researching, my suggestions to Chuck are:

Examine your motive for using omniscient. Why is it the absolute best way to introduce your story? If it’s merely a gimmick or experiment, rethink the choice. 

Run the first chapter by critiquers and beta readers. They’ll help you judge if it works or not.  

Before submitting to agents or editors, understand that many are predisposed to dislike it.

If you use omniscient POV, be darn sure it’s done correctly and effectively.

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TKZers: Please share books you’ve read that use omniscient POV. Which work and which don’t?

Why do you like or dislike omniscient POV?

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In Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, a drone gives an omniscient–and sinister–point of view. Please check it out at these links: 

Amazon

Other online booksellers