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.

~~~

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.

~~~

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?

~~~

 

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

With a Little Help from My Friends

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

NEWSFLASH!

MOST AUTHORS HATE SELF-PROMOTION!

All right, so that’s not news to anyone at TKZ.

Truth is we’d rather parade naked down the mall than sit at a lonely table full of books in front of Barnes & Noble, directing people to the restroom.

But we gotta do it sometimes if we want to sell books.

One way to make promotion less painful is to join with other authors.

WHY?

  1. Misery loves company (just kidding!).
  2. Being in front an audience by yourself is scary. Being in front of audience with colleagues is easier.
  3. A solo appearance means you carry 100% of the responsibility to entertain the audience. Join with other authors and that splits the responsibility up.
  4. More authors draw more interest…unless you’re Lee Child, who doesn’t need help.

HOW TO DO IT?

  1. Find other authors.

Invite one to three other authors in your area to join you either in person or by zoom. A total of three or four offers good variety while giving everyone a chance to talk. More than that is too crowded and cumbersome.

  1. Decide on a genre and theme.

Montana authors Leslie Budewitz, Christine Carbo, Debbie Burke, Mark Leichliter

My recent event focused on crime fiction, combining four subgenres: cozy mystery (Leslie Budewitz), small town police procedural (Mark Leichliter), police procedural in a national park (Christine Carbo), and thriller (Debbie Burke). The title was “Murder, Inc. – How Montana authors kill people…on the page.”

Include variety in subgenres so there aren’t two cat cozy authors competing with each other.

For instance, a children’s literature gathering could feature one author who writes picture books, one middle grade, and one young adult, reaching three different audiences.

  1. Set up a venue.

Weather permitting, many people feel more comfortable outdoors these days. Depending on where you live, indoor settings may or may not be available.

I’ve been lucky to be hosted twice by a dream open-air location in Bigfork, Montana, right beside the Swan River. Lake Baked Bakery/Riverview Bar has a large grassy area with tables and chairs.

Lake Baked Bakery/River View Bar, Bigfork, Montana

Many cafes, coffee houses, brew pubs, and independent bookstores are struggling financially due to the pandemic. The ones I’ve approached are enthusiastic about hosting activities that draw more customers.

Independent-living senior communities are a good bet to find  many avid readers. So are schools, community colleges, and libraries.

  1. Decide on a format.

A panel discussion with Q&A from the audience works well. Designate one person as moderator. S/he has a list of prepared questions and keeps the discussion moving.

If you decide to do open readings, they should be short—no more than five minutes per person, broken up with discussion and questions between authors.

  1. Publicize the event.

Here’s where having friends is a real force multiplier. Each author has their own blog and email list to disseminate info about the appearance. Each has their own social media followers. If there are four participants, that’s four times the number of contacts than if you did it by yourself.

Press releases to newspapers/radio are more likely to be noticed if there are three or four authors appearing together. Then it becomes an event of interest to the community instead of a lonely author crying in the wilderness.

The venue may have a Facebook page or other outlet where they publicize events. Ask them to include yours. Again, that reaches a wider, different demographic than simply reading fans.

Supplement these efforts with posters around the area and you should have a respectable turnout.

  1. Set up and logistics.

Scope out the venue before the event. Find out what equipment, chairs, tables, etc. they can provide and what you need to bring yourselves.

You need sound equipment–an amplifier and at least two mics for four people. If the venue doesn’t have that, you may know someone who will let you use their equipment. If not, you may need to rent it.

Leslie Budewitz is my frequent partner-in-crime for live presentations. Her husband Don is a musician and he graciously sets up and runs his equipment for us. I always buy a drink and snack for great volunteer helpers like him.

If you need Power Point capability for slide shows, verify that the venue’s system is compatible with yours. Sometimes you can put a thumb drive in their computer. Other times, it’s better to bring your own computer but check that connecting cords work.

Always, always, always test video and audio beforehand. Glitches are uncomfortable not only for you but your audience as well.

Depending on the venue, if there’s a stage, you can sit on chairs/bar stools. Or you may prefer to stand/walk around as you talk.

Set the tone. If possible, arrange the audience seating to be comfortable and relaxed. Rows of chairs are not as friendly as groupings like in a café or bar.

  1. The day of the event.

Arrive at least a half hour early to set up/test equipment. Always, always, always test sound equipment before the presentation.

If the venue serves refreshments, buy some and encourage others. The business is supporting you to improve their bottom line. The higher their sales, the more likely they’ll invite you back again. Thank your host and the servers and tip generously.

During the discussion, encourage the audience to ask questions. The more interaction with them, the better.

Beforehand, set up your own book table.

Bring pens, business cards, and swag.

Bring a signup sheet for your mailing list.

Bring change for cash purchases.

If you use a credit card reader, make sure you can log into the venue’s wi-fi.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to bring your books!

Consider holding a drawing or contest with your book as the prize. People love to win free stuff.

~~~

Photo credit: Kay Bjork

Take a deep breath and try to relax. Initially, you may feel like you’re going to an IRS audit but you’re not.

The audience came because they’re interested in reading. They want to learn more about you as authors and your books. Make it enjoyable for them and yourself.

We get by with a little help from our friends. 

~~~

 TKZers: Have you done live appearances? What tips can you offer?

If you haven’t yet done a live appearance, what is holding you back?

~~~

 

Debbie Burke enjoys meeting readers in person or by Zoom. To set up an appearance, please click on “Request a TKZ speaker” at the top of the page.

Here is her series sales link.

Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!

Handling Age and Time in Series Fiction

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Age.

Like the weather, we talk about it a lot but can’t do anything about it.

Remember the original Nancy Drew books? I devoured 37 of them before outgrowing the series. From the first book The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) until #37, The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (1960), Nancy was 16 to 18.

Thirty-seven adventures in two years? Busy young lady, that Nancy.

But she started me thinking about writing series characters.

Can they stay the same age through numerous books?

Should they age?

That raises more questions when writing a contemporary series with continuing characters.

What kind of character arc can an author create if the hero doesn’t age?

Is an evolving character arc important to today’s readers?

How does an author keep characters fresh and interesting if they remain approximately the same age over a number of books?

Classics like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple remain basically static; the plots change but the characters don’t.

Then there is the quintessential hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe.

Even Philip Marlowe was young once – photo credit Maika, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Although I don’t believe his specific age is ever mentioned (please correct me if I’m wrong), the reader has the strong impression that, at birth, Marlowe was already old and cynical.

Over two decades, starting with The Big Sleep (1939)  and ending with Playback (1959), Marlowe was repeatedly beaten up, double-crossed, and betrayed. His life remained solitary with occasional sexual encounters that didn’t end well. The tarnished knight won a few victories but ultimately lost the war against evil. As vivid and memorable a character as he was, he didn’t change much, except for more scars. (Note: I’m not counting Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished novel completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989 where Marlowe married, at least for a little while.)

How would readers react to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler if their books were released today?

Contemporary readers seem to lean more toward series characters who go through ups and downs similar to those we face in real life.  

In James Lee Burke’s series, the beleaguered Dave Robicheaux moves from New Orleans to New Iberia, switches jobs, falls off the wagon and climbs back on, gains and loses spouses and friends, and adopts a child who grows up through the books.

Readers meet Kinsey Milhone at age 32, with a police career and two marriages already behind her. In the course of Sue Grafton’s 25-book Alphabet Series, Kinsey has her home blown up and rebuilt, loses her beloved VW convertible, discovers the roots of her absent family, falls in and out of love several times but remains determinedly single. In the final book, Y is for Yesterday, she is 39.

Judging by their popularity, readers relate deeply to characters like Dave and Kinsey. We’ve been in the trenches beside them as they live through the same life trials that we ourselves do. They become close friends we’ve known for years.

What do series authors need to consider when time passes and their characters age?

When I wrote Instrument of the Devil in 2015-6, I didn’t envision a series. The book was set in 2011 as smartphones were transitioning from exotic toys for geeks into phones adopted by ordinary people. Because of a new smartphone, my character Tawny Lindholm stumbles over her milestone 50th birthday and into a nightmarish world of technology. Unbeknownst to her, it has been rigged by a terrorist to launch a cyberattack she’ll be blamed for.

The book was published in 2017, six years after the story takes place.

Near the end of Instrument, a brilliant, arrogant attorney, Tillman Rosenbaum, came on scene to defend Tawny. He was intended as a minor walk-on character. However, the match and gasoline chemistry between him and Tawny propelled them into more books where she goes to work as his investigator despite her dislike for him.

[Spoiler alert: they ultimately fall in love. But you’d already guessed that, right?]

What I originally conceived as a one-off had longer legs than anticipated.

Although there are no time stamps, roughly two years pass during the second and third books in the series, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.

Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Florida and knocked out power to 16 million residents.

The event tweaked my writer’s imagination. Reports of people who mysteriously went missing during that storm, along with scary personal experiences related to me by family and friends, turned into Dead Man’s Bluff.

After drifting along a vague fictional timeline starting in 2011, all of a sudden there’s a real date that’s set in stone. Uh-oh.

Okay, I figured from now on, I’d just make oblique references to Tawny’s age. Her children are in their thirties. Let readers infer she’s somewhere in her fifties.

As often happens with writing, life had other plans.

2020 hit.

Can an author ignore monumental events that tilt the world on its axis?

Not unless you write alternate history.

For much of 2020, writers debated how to handle the pandemic in current fiction. If it was incorporated into the plot, readers who were sick of it might be alienated. If we tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, we risked being perceived as unrealistic and insensitive. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

Some authors attacked it head-on with thrillers about biological weapons or adventures in a post-pandemic, futuristic, dystopian world.

Some retreated in time to historical genres where major outcomes—like who won the war—had already been determined.

Others dove into fantasy genres where the author, not real life, decided the outcome.

Now in the last quarter of 2021, the world changes faster every day. What you wrote this morning may well be obsolete and out of date by this afternoon.

The sixth book in my series, Flight to Forever, is set in spring of 2020. When a Vietnam veteran can’t visit his beloved wife in a memory care facility because of pandemic restrictions, in desperation, he busts her out, seriously injuring two employees during the getaway. They flee to a remote fire lookout in treacherous Montana mountains. Tawny races to find them to prevent a deadly showdown between the cops and the vet who has nothing to lose.

Do the math. If Tawny was 50 in 2011, that made her 59 in 2020. 

Uh-oh, I really should have hired a stunt double for her in this book.

Even though 60 is the new 40, will readers find some of the action implausible for a woman her age?

Many people in their 70s and 80s are in fantastic shape. Recently I wrote an article for Montana Senior News about the Senior Olympic games where nonagenarians are setting athletic records.

Yet ageism lurks in the world of publishing and literature.

Especially about sex.

Many younger readers are creeped out by the notion that characters who are their parents’ or grandparents’ age enjoy sex.

Newsflash, kid—that’s how you got here. And, since you grew up and moved out, it’s even better.

How about physical wear and tear on characters?

Gunsmoke cast – public domain

Remember classic TV westerns like Gunsmoke? Whenever Matt Dillion got shot (reportedly more than 50 times), in the final scene, he’d be back in the saddle with one arm in a sling. By the following episode, he resumed life as usual—galloping horses and engaging in fisticuffs.

How realistic should series fiction be? How far will contemporary readers go to suspend disbelief?

If we put our lead characters through hell, in the next book, should they suffer from PTSD or physical disability?

 

What if you write middle grade or young adult books? Every year, there’s a new crop of readers to replace older ones who’ve outgrown a series. Perhaps MG and YA characters don’t need to age. Nancy Drew did all right. What do you think?

For now, I’ll keep writing Tawny and Tillman in their fifties and hope no one checks my math too carefully.

CC by 2.0

Or maybe I’ll let them drink out of Nancy’s fountain of youth.

~~~

For discussion:

Question for series authors: how do you handle age and the passage of time with continuing characters?

Have you found workarounds, tips, or tricks?

Question for series readers: Do you care about the main character’s age? Do you want to see evolution and change in them over time?

~~~

To follow series characters who age more slowly than the calendar, please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion.

Amazon link

Other online booksellers:

Instrument of the Devil    Stalking Midas    Eyes in the Sky

Dead Man’s Bluff        Crowded Hearts     Flight to Forever

Three Things I Learned from Movie Adaptations

Please help me welcome back a dear friend and talented storyteller, Steven Ramirez. The last time he guest posted on TKZ he discussed Pantsing Through the Pandemic. Today, he’s sharing his experience with— Well, I’ll let him tell you…

Recently, I took a break from writing fiction to focus on screenwriting. Currently, I’m adapting my latest novella, Brandon’s Last Words, as a feature screenplay.

If you’re wondering why anyone in their right mind would take on something like this, it’s simple—I live in LA. Trust me, you can’t swing a dead cat at Starbucks without hitting a screenwriter huddled at a corner table, determined to crank out the next Black Widow.

Okay, that’s partly it. The other reason is, I wanted to see if I could do it.

The novella is a prequel to a new thriller series. It takes place in the same universe as another of my series—only this time, with new characters. For those who have written a screenplay, you already know you need a log line. Here’s what I originally wrote for the novella:

Brandon Wheegar has just joined a secretive government-funded lab as a security guard. Why did no one warn him about the murderous test subjects?

That’s not bad. The question is, does it work for a movie? We’ll see. Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about. For this post, I’ll focus on three lessons learned.

The Beats, They Are Different

As fiction writers, we are keenly aware of story beats. They’re hammered into us starting in the womb. I’m tempted to joke that our friend James Scott Bell has beat that concept to death, but it would be low-hanging fruit, so.

The point is, screenplays need beats, too. But these are different and immutable. And without them, you effectively have something that is not a screenplay.

There are lots of resources out there that can teach you about screenplay structure. For simplicity’s sake, here are the high-level story beats, courtesy of Syd Field:

INCITING INCIDENT

This scene brings the main character into focus. Without this beat, there’s no story.

FIRST TURNING POINT

What happens here sends the MC off on a new path, similar to the Hero’s Journey.

MIDPOINT

This is where things get interesting. Maybe the MC makes an important decision that changes the course of the story. Or they realize that what they thought was the truth isn’t.

SECOND TURNING POINT

This scene moves the character from conflict to resolution. The MC has a plan and intends to execute on it.

RESOLUTION

Often, these events bring physical and emotional closure. In Hero’s Journey terms, the MC returns home and shares what they’ve learned.

Now, there are many other elements you should layer in to make a killer screenplay. If you want to see a more fully realized story beat list for some well-known movies, check out Save The Cat.

Limiting the Character Count

When writing a novel, I include lots of characters. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a little Russian blood in me. In my case, the names don’t all sound the same, though. Anyway, I take this approach because my main characters tend to travel far and wide.

Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury when it comes to screenplays—unless you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Why?

Because a script is a blueprint that tells the producer how much money they must spend. And the more characters, the more the above-the-line costs skyrocket—things like actors’ salaries, hair, makeup, and snacks.

My novella has a fair number of supporting characters. And they serve the story well. But for the screenplay, I had to find a way to either cut or combine characters. Which brings to mind that most famous of advice, which admonishes the writer to kill your darlings. Most people attribute the quote to Faulkner. But, in fact, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Murder your darlings.”

Now, he was talking about prose. In screenwriting, you pretty much have to take out the entire family. Here’s an example. In the novella, I have a chief security officer, a head of security, and two ruthless security specialists. Each has a part to play, and in Brandon’s Last Words, it’s all good. But for the script, I realized I had to combine the two security chiefs into one character and do the same with the two specialists. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you adapt. Chances are, you’ll slice and dice like a boss.

Getting the Genre Right

My novella can best be described as a horror/sci-fi thriller, with some comedy thrown in. I know, I know—welcome to my world. But, like any successful novel, you should tailor your screenplay to a target market.

When I sent off my first draft to a professional reader, I got back lots of notes. Some centered on the fact that my script didn’t read like horror. I had missed essential tropes, and many of the beats weren’t right.

Rereading the work, I realized I was clinging to my original mashup. Fine for novellas, not so much for screenplays that sell. I’m rewriting now, and let me tell you something. Scripts aren’t written—they’re rewritten. You thought it was a big deal writing three drafts of your novel? Try ten—or fifteen. Yeah. Also, in the real world, once the project is greenlit, they bring in other writers to “punch up the script.” Call it insurance.

Using the reader’s notes, I took a crack at turning my story into classic horror. But I ended up losing much of the humor. Now, if I were as cold-blooded as the chemically modified test subjects who terrorize my main character, I’d continue down this path. Most of you would because it’s the smart thing to do. And after all, you’d like to make some money, right? Me, I’m a rebel. I decided I prefer the story as a comedy thriller. Who knows, I might still have a shot (he said, nursing his tepid tea at Denny’s).

Look, there are quirky films out there that defy genre. I mean, did you ever see a little movie called Naked Lunch? It was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the William S. Burroughs novel. Yeah, so you know what I’m saying. Anyway, my advice is this: If you’re serious about selling your screenplay, then, by all means, write to market. Who knows? You might end up as a big-time Hollywood screenwriter. Me, I just want to create something surprising.

Final Thoughts

We writers are well acquainted with copyrighting our work. Technically, your novel is protected the moment you put pen to paper. Unfortunately, when it comes to screenplays, there’s more to it than that. In this town, a good movie idea gets stolen faster than you can say Coming to America. The point is, register your script with the Writers Guild of America. It’s no guarantee some no-account won’t try to take your precious, but at least you have legal recourse. For more information, visit the WGA West website.

The other thing to consider is screenwriting software. There’s plenty out there, including traditional writing apps like Scrivener, which support the screenplay format. If you’re planning to make this a career, though, I suggest you purchase Final Draft. It’s arguably the industry standard. Also, when collaborating with other screenwriters, there’s an excellent chance that’s the software they use. For more information, visit the Final Draft website.

Well, that’s me done. Happy screenwriting. Oh, and wish me luck with the next Naked Lunch.

Steven Ramirez is the award-winning author of thriller, supernatural, and horror fiction. A former screenwriter, he’s written about zombie plagues and places infested with ghosts and demons. His latest novel is Faithless, a thriller. Steven lives in Los Angeles.

Join Steven’s newsletter here or connect with him on Twitter.

For discussion: Have you ever considered turning your novel/novella into a screenplay? What actor would you want to play your hero or antagonist?

Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/490552091/Death-Grip

How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Difference Engine, CC by SA 4.0

From the 1931 through 2018, Clifton’s Cafeteria was a venerable Los Angeles landmark. Starting a new restaurant in the depth of the Great Depression sounded like folly. Even crazier was the policy of Pay What You Wish at a time when many people were jobless, broke, and hungry. Yet founder Clifford Clinton’s Golden Rule guided the business through many successful decades, his vision shaped in part by his childhood in China as the son of missionaries who ministered to the poor.

Reportedly, at one point, Ray Bradbury was a starving writer who enjoyed a helping of Clinton’s generosity.

Clifton’s Cafeteria took up multiple floors of a downtown LA building and was a decorating mash-up of art deco neon, tiki bar, mountain resort, and cascading waterfalls.

Buffet lines were laden with acres of salads, soups, entrees, fruits, vegetables, colorful Jello creations, pies, cakes, and ice cream. Diners could pick and choose from more than 10,000 food items and no one ever left hungry.

Photo credit: kevinEats.com

What, you ask, does this have to do with writing mysteries?

Recently, I received a gift of the book How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. With nearly 70 contributors, the book feels like the literary equivalent to Clifton’s Cafeteria. It offers a hugely varied smorgasbord of craft tips, along with insights into different genres, trends, and analyses on the state of the mystery.

Some authors write detailed essays that take as much digestion as multi-course banquets. Others deliver bite-size epigraphs that you can pop in your mouth like cocktail meatballs.

Moving along the buffet line of advice, if one chapter doesn’t resonate, you can skip to another by a different author. Each contribution is self-contained, allowing you to read sections in any order without worrying about continuity.

Feel like dessert before your entree? Head to that part of the buffet line.

Craving a particular menu item? Flip to the table of contents to find that topic.

Even famous authors don’t always agree with each other. Jeffrey Deaver writes a chapter entitled Always Outline,” followed by Lee Child’s chapter, Never Outline!”

This book offers nourishing food for thought that’s useful to every reader, no matter your genre, writing experience, or where you come down on the plotting vs. pantsing spectrum.

Subjects range from bleak noir as dark as bitter chocolate to cozies as sweet and fluffy as lemon meringue pie.

The following are some passages that struck me. They made me look at a subject in a fresh way while others reinforced well-worn but forgotten wisdom.

Neil Nyren neatly boils down an important distinction:

Mysteries are about a puzzle. Thrillers are about adrenaline.

Carolyn Hart asks:

Aren’t all mysteries about murder, guns and knives and poison, anger, jealousy and despair? Where is the good?

The good is in the never-quit protagonist who wants to live in a just world. Readers read mysteries and writers write mysteries because we live in an unjust world where evil often triumphs. In the traditional mystery, goodness will be admired and justice will prevail.

Meg Gardiner’s simple definition of plot: “Obstruct desire.”

She also discusses the difference between suspense and tension. “Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension spikes like a Geiger counter at a meltdown.”

And one more gem: “The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.”

My favorite item on Lindsey Davis’s list of advice to aspiring writers: “A synopsis—write it, then ignore it.”

Alex Segura defines noir as:

When we can have some feelings of remorse for a character’s terrible, murderous actions, because deep down, we fear that in the same situation, we’d probably make similar choices.

Hank Phillippi Ryan’s editing suggestions:

Try this random walk method of editing. Pick a page of your manuscript. Any page at all. Remember, 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. Page by page…Is something happening?…[Consider] intent and motivation. Why is this scene here? What work does it do? Does it advance the plot or reveal a secret or develop the character’s conflict?

I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.

Jacqueline Winspear talks about historical mystery: “Your job is to render the reader a curious, attentive, excited, and emotionally involved time-traveler.”

Suzanne Chazin says: “When I sit down to write, my fun comes not from looking into a mirror, but from peeking into someone else’s window.”

Medical thriller author and physician Tess Gerritsen makes a penetrating observation from a sales standpoint:

Thrillers about cancer or HIV or Alzheimer’s seem to have a tough time on the genre market. Perhaps because these subjects are just too close and too painful for us to contemplate, and readers shy away from confronting them in fiction.

Gayle Lynds believes research is more to benefit the writer than the reader:

In the end, we novelists use perhaps a tenth of a percent of the research we’ve done for any one book…only a tiny fraction of the details will make it into your book.

C.M. Surrisi sums up writing mysteries for kids: “Remember your protagonist can’t drive and has a curfew, and no one will believe them or let them be involved.”

Also on children’s mysteries, Chris Grabenstein says:

Here is one of the many beauties about writing for this audience: there is a new group of fifth graders every year. Your mystery has a chance to live a very long shelf life if kids, teachers, and librarians fall in love with it.

Avoid the broccoli books. The ones that are ‘good for children.’

For many adults, the books we read when we were eight to twelve are the ones we remember all our lives.

Art Taylor discusses the mystery short story:

In general, it’s a solid rule to try to do more with less—and to trust your reader to fill in the rest. Suggest instead of describe; imply instead of explain.

Charles Salzberg offers a response to the tired old saw of “write what you know.”

I’ve never been arrested; I have no cops in my family; I’ve only been in a police station once; I’ve never handled a pistol; I’ve never robbed a bank, knocked over a 7-Eleven, or mugged an old lady. I’ve only been in one fight and that was when I was eleven. I’ve never murdered anyone, much less my family, and I’ve never chased halfway around the world to bring a killer to justice. I’ve never searched for a missing person and I’ve never forged a rare book. Yet somehow I find myself as a crime writer who’s written about all those things.

How, if I am supposed to write only what I know, is this possible? Easy. It’s because I have an imagination, possess a fair amount of empathy, have easy access to Google, and like asking questions. If I were limited to writing what I know, I’d be in big trouble because the truth is, I don’t know all that much.

Lyndsay Faye observes: “The school of human culture is much cheaper than a graduate degree. Make use of it.”

She also talks about humor in the writer’s voice:

You needn’t be Janet Evanovich to incorporate jokes into your manuscript, and they needn’t even be jokes. Wry observations, sarcasm, creative insult—humor can be as heavy or as light as you choose. But writers who take their voice too seriously, without that crucial hint of self-deprecation or clever viciousness, will rarely wind up with a memorable result.

Steve Hockensmith covered the “Dos and Don’ts for Wannabe Writers.”

DO write.

DON’T spend more than three months ‘researching’ or ‘brainstorming’ or ‘outlining’ or ‘creating character bios.’ All this might—might—count as work on your book, but it’s not writing.

DON’T spend too much time reading about how to write.

DO keep reading this book. I didn’t mean for you to stop reading our writing advice.

Laurie R. King shares her method of rewriting:

Personally I prefer to make all my notes, corrections, and queries on a physical printout. In part, that’s because I’m old school, but it also forces me to consider any changes twice—once when I mark the page, then again when I return to put it into the manuscript. This guarantees that if I added something on page 34, then realized a better way to do it when I hit page 119, I’ve had the delay for reflection, gaining perspective as to which is better for the overall story.

Leslie Budewitz (a familiar guest on TKZ) talks about problem solving:

The same brain that created the problem can create the solution—but not if you keep thinking the same way.

So do something different. Write the next scene from the antagonist’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use it. Write longhand with a pen…instead of at your keyboard.

If you write in first person, try third. If you write in third, let your character rip in a diary only she—and you—will ever see.

Your brain, your beautiful creative brain, will find another way, if you give it a chance.

Frankie Y. Bailey explores diversity in crime fiction from the starting point every writer faces: “We have characters, setting, and a plot. We need to weave aspects of diversity through all these elements of our stories.”

TKZ’s own Elaine Viets offers this no-nonsense message: “When I spoke at a high school, a student asked, ‘What do you do about writer’s block?’ ‘Writer’s block doesn’t exist,’ I said. ‘It’s an indulgence.’”

Talking about protagonists, Allison Brennan shares “two particular qualities that leave a lasting impression on readers: forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

T. Jefferson Parker sees “two types of villain: the private and the public.”

The private ones seek no acknowledgement for their deeds…they shun the spotlight and avoid detection. The public ones proclaim themselves, trumpet their wickedness, and revel in the calamity.

He also touches on the crime author’s moral dilemma:

My literary amigos and I go back and forth on this. We know we traffic in violence and heartless behavior. We ride and write on the backs of victims. We suspect that our fictional appropriations of the world’s pain do little to assuage it. Worse, we wonder if we might just be feeding the worst in human nature by putting it center stage. Do we inspire heartless violence by portraying it?

Stephen Ross demonstrates the use of subtext (unspoken meaning) in his example of a shopping list:

Milk

Bread

Eggs

Hammer

Shovel

Quicklime

Champagne

 

I highlighted many more passages but I’ll stop now because this post is running almost as long as the book itself.

How to Write a Mystery is a book that you can read whether you need a substantial dinner or a quick snack.

It might not offer the 10,000 items that Clifton’s Cafeteria did but it comes close.

 

 

~~~

TKZers: Did any of the above quotes especially hit you? Do you have a favorite craft handbook you refer to over and over?

First Page Critique: Side Effects

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy! I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

Creating and Resolving Conflict in Your Novel

Conflict is at the heart of almost every great novel. Whether it’s external or internal, conflict provides a key driving force for the narrative and is often instrumental in giving a mystery or thriller it’s page-turning momentum. I raise the issue of conflict today because of some feedback a fellow author recently received on her draft manuscript citing the failure of the manuscript to take advantage of conflict opportunities and when those did arise, resolving that conflict too quickly. Here at TKZ we often talk about the need for dramatic tension when reviewing first pages, and Jim also blogged yesterday about the ‘certain something’ that each individual writer brings to the keyboard. To this I’d like to add that each of us as writers treat conflict very differently and yet we must all make sure we fully realized the potential for conflict in our novels, and resolve all those points of conflict to a reader’s satisfaction.

The way we accomplish this often reflects our individual talents, but conflict never arises in a vacuum and we must ensure that we have also created characters and situations which ensure our readers are invested in the conflict as well as its resolution. I was acutely reminded of this as I watched the movie Beckett on Netflix last night. Not only was the conflict scattered and confused but the lack of character development meant that I was never invested in the resolution of the conflict or the solution to the so called mystery surrounding why the protagonist was being pursued. I won’t say any more about the movie to avoid spoilers, but watching it made me think more about the nature of conflict in effective story-telling. Here are some of my main take aways (from both the movie and from the feedback given to my writer friend):

  • Don’t rush to set up conflict before the reader has time to feel invested in the character. No one will care if the character’s life is in danger or is internally conflicted over something unless we understand/identify with/care about the character. In the movie Beckett, I honestly didn’t feel any connection to the characters before the main conflict/point of dramatic tension arose and thus I didn’t feel invested in the main character’s plight.
  • Always take a step back from a scene to assess whether you’ve taken advantage of the potential for conflict within it. Often a scene may be dull or boring because it doesn’t take raise the stakes or use the opportunity to explore conflict (whether internally or externally driven). In a mystery for example, if it is too easy for a character to find a clue or pursue an investigation, then the plot can lose much of its momentum. Always think about conflict in your scene and whether you can raise the stakes even higher for your character.
  • If you do raise the stakes or take advantage of an opportunity for conflict, don’t squander it by resolving it too quickly. As a reader I don’t want to be eagerly turning the pages in suspense only to find the situation is over too easily or too quickly. This is where pacing is critical because obviously conflict has to be addressed – the key is not to lose momentum by making it too easily overcome or resolved.
  • Finally, though the conflict does have to be resolved in the end (maybe not all of it – especially if there is ongoing internal or character driven conflict) but a reader can’t be left hanging. A reader also can’t be holding their breath throughout the book only to have every point of conflict resolved in one big jumbled mess at the end (again, pacing is key).

Anyway, these are just some Monday thoughts on looking at conflict in your novel. TKZers, how do you approach the issue of conflict in your writing? What tips would you add in terms of maximizing the potential opportunity for conflict as well as pacing its resolution in your work…As always, I look forward to hearing your take/thoughts on this!