How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Novella Words of Wisdom

I wanted to follow last time’s Words of Wisdom on short fiction with a Words of Wisdom look at the novella. I’ve written several novellas, and have published three of them, and have been hankering to write another. So, it seemed like the perfect follow up to short stories.

It turned out that Steve Hooley did that, after a fashion, not quite two years ago. His own post had an excellent definition and history of the novella, and then listed bullet points from James Scott Bell’s 2012 post on writing the novella, as well as Jordan Dane’s look at the novella in 2016, as well two points from a 2015 Joe Moore post.

After some thought, I decided it would still be worth giving Steve’s, Jim’s and Jordan’s posts the full Words of Wisdom treatment, with excerpts from each for discussion. I hope you will find this return to the novella not too soon. Certainly it’s a perennial favorite of mine.

Definition

The word “novella” is the feminine form of “novello,” Italian (masculine) for “new.”

The novella has been described as “a short novel or a long short story.” Its length is listed as 10,000 – 40,000 words (some sources say 20,000 – 50,000 or even 15,000 – 60,000). The novella usually has a single plotline, is focused on one character, and “can be read in a single day.” It may or may not be divided into chapters, and white space is traditionally used to divide sections.

Examples of novellas that used chapters:

  • Animal Farm – George Orwell
  • War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

During its history, the novella has been used in different ways. Let’s see if it is the “load-it-up-with-everything compact utility vehicle” or a “fast-sexy-Italian sports car.”

History

The Britannica entry for Novella (summarized) states that the novella originated in Italy during the Middle Ages, where its form was originally based on local events (humorous, political, or amorous). Writers such as Boccaccio, Sacchetti, and Bandello later developed it into a psychologically subtle and structured short tale, using a frame story to unify.

Chaucer introduced it to England with The Canterbury Tales.

During the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and other playwrights used plots from the Italian novella.

The content and form of these tales influenced development of the English novel in the 18th century, and the short story in the 19th century.

The novella flourished in Germany (known as Novelle) in the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies, often contained in a frame story and based on a catastrophic event. It was characterized by brevity, a self-contained plot, and ending with irony, while using restraint of emotion and an objective presentation.

Examples of novellas:

  • Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilich
  • Dostoyevsky – Notes from the Underground
  • Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
  • Henry James – The Aspern Papers

Steve Hooley—April 22, 2022

 

Yes, a novella is obviously shorter than a novel. A rule of thumb puts the novella between 20k and 40k words.

Here are the general guidelines for writing a novella. I say general because, like all writing principles, they are subject to change. But ONLY if you have a good reason for the exception!

  1. One plot

The length of the novella dictates that it have one plot. It’s a too short to support subplots. That doesn’t mean you don’t have plot complications.It’s just that you are doing your dance around one story problem.

  1. One POV

It’s almost always best to stick with one point of view. Both of my novellas, Watch Your Back and One More Lie, are written in first person POV. That’s because you want, in the short space you have, to create as intimate a relationship between the Lead character and the reader as possible.

As indicated earlier, more than one POV is acceptable if you have a reason for including it. And that reason is NOT so you can fill more pages.

A modern master of the novella is, of course, Stephen King. A look at his collection, Different Seasons, reveals three novellas written in first person POV. The exception is Apt Pupil, which is about an ex-Nazi’s influence over a thirteen-year-old boy. The story thus has a reason for shifting between these two points of view. However, I note that Apt Pupil is the longest of these, and I actually suspect it’s over 40k words, making it a short novel.

  1. One central question

There is one story question per novella, usually in the form: Will X get Y?

In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, the question is, will the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne survive in God-awful Shawshank prison?

In The Old Man and the Sea: Will the old fisherman, Santiago, land the big fish?

A Christmas Carol: Will Ebenezer Scrooge get redemption?

  1. One style and tone

There are novels that crack the style barrier in various ways, but a novella should stick to one tone, one style throughout.

In the old pulp days, novellas were common and usually written in the hard boiled style.

My two novellas are done in the confessional style of James M. Cain––the narrator looking back at his past sins, detailing the consequences of same, with a twist ending.

Romance would have a different tone. Ditto paranormal. Whatever the genre, keep it consistent.

The Benefits of the Novella

Digital publishing has brought novellas back into favor. There are some story ideas that don’t merit 90k words, but may be just right for 30k. The suspense story is particularly apt for this form. One of the great masters, Cornell Woolrich, practically made his career on novellas of suspense.

An indie-publishing writer can charge 99¢ – $2.99 for novellas. They can obviously be turned out more quickly than a full length novel.

Some Suggestions for Writing the Novella

  1. Make sure your premise is rock solid

You don’t want to travel down the road of a flabby idea, only to find out after 15k words that it isn’t working. Come up with a premise that creates the greatest possible stress for the Lead character. For example, One More Lie is about a man accused of murdering his mistress. He’s innocent of the crime, but guilty of the adultery. A bit of stress, I’d say.

  1. Write in the heat of passion

Novellas are great for the NaNoWriMos among us. Getting the story down quickly releases that inner creativity we long for. And there won’t be the need for as much revision as in a novel, which has subplot complications to deal with.

  1. Use white space to designate scene changes

Instead of chapters, the novella usually employs white space between scenes. Some writers do break up a novella into sections designated by numbers. That’s a matter of style. Just don’t say “Chapter 1” etc. It’s not necessary and interrupts what should be the flow.

  1. Keep asking, How can it get worse?

Whether your novella is about the inner life of a character (as in The Old Man and the Sea)or the outer life of the plot (as in Double Indemnity) turn up the heat on the character as much as you can.

Think of the novella as a coil that gets tighter and tighter, until you release it at the end.

James Scott Bell—August 12, 2012

 

Challenges of Writing a Shorter Story:

I have always been a novel writer. I never started out on shorter material, thinking it would be easier to write, as some people might believe. In my mind, a shorter story is more challenging. It’s only been this year that I’ve written shorter stories for Amazon Kindle Worlds. My novellas have been 25,000-30,000 words, at my option. That length forced me to change how I write, but I didn’t want my readers to feel that I’ve short-changed their reading experience because my voice or style has been stripped down.

Personal Challenges:

1.) Plots must be simpler – This has taken some new thinking and conceiving of plots in advance while I’m planning my story. More intense story lines with complex layers have to be shed in order to peel back to the essence of a story.

2.) Minimize subplots – Subplots can still be done, but they are more of a challenge, so I try to limit the way I think out a story. The subplot must be integral to the overall story and enhance the pace or suspense.

3.) Setting descriptions and prose must be simplified – Getting straight to the bare emotional elements of a scene or a story will stick with readers and provide them with a solid reading experience, without making them feel that the writing is too sparse. I must be truly selective on what images I choose and the wording I use to create the most impact.

4.) Novellas are like screenplays – My shorter stories are more like screenplays with a focus on dialogue and major plots movements, less on back story and lengthy internal monologue.

5.) Novellas are like the visuals of film – I like this aspect. Give the reader a visual experience as if they are watching a movie. The scenes must have memorable images to tap into their minds quicker, using fewer words to do it.

Jordan Dane—April 21, 2016

***

Thanks for revisiting the novella today. Now it’s your to weigh in.

  1. Do you enjoy reading at the novella length? Do you agree with the definition of novella that Steve shared above?
  2. Do you write novellas? What tips do you have ?
  3. If you do write at the novella length, what challenges have you encountered? How have you overcome them?
  4. Have you published a novella, traditionally or indie? If so, how has it gone? What differences, if any, do you see in how novellas are marketed versus novels?

Short Story Words of Wisdom

One of my writing goals for 2024 is to write more short stories, something I used to do regularly. Early on, that was all I wrote. My first sales were with flash fiction, and my first indie publishing efforts were with short stories in 2012.

Today’s Words of Wisdom gives advice on writing short stories, and ways to publish it. First, PJ Parrish looks at Kurt Vonnegut’s tips on writing short stories. Elaine Vets follows with thoughts on how to get past being blocked when trying to write short. Finally, James Scott Bell shares what a good story does and where to publish short fiction today.

As always, the original posts are well worth reading in their entirety, and are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

When I started this post, I had forgotten that Vonnegut had — despite his disclaimer of having nothing to teach other writers — issued his Eight Tips For Writing a Good Short Story.  So of course, I looked them up. I think they work well for any kind of fiction, actually.  With a few caveats for us crime dogs, maybe. Some you might have heard before, but they bear repeating:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The first one is great advice no matter what you’re writing — even a memo.

The second one I believe in wholeheartedly. Which is why I gave up on The Americans.  

Number three we’ve quoted many times here at TKZ when we talk about motivation. And the deeper you can plumb the depths of what a character wants, the richer your story will be.

Rule four is important. Every sentence should do something, be on the page for a reason. I read somewhere that Vonnegut disliked television, except for Cheers, which he called a comic masterpiece.  He said, “I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written. Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny.”

Now, we get to number five, which is critical for short stories but troublesome for novelists, given that we like to flap our gums sometimes before getting to the dramatic point. (ie weather, description, backstory).  But if you really think about it, you should never start your novel at too early a juncture. You should always find that prime dramatic moment to drop your reader into the action.

Six is a given. As James says here often, something must be disturbed in your protagonist’s world.

Number seven is about authenticity. If you set out to be James Patterson, you will fail. Yeah, be smart about today’s market, but write the book you were meant to write.

Now the last one is tricky. I am not quite sure what Vonnegut is talking about here. Because on its face, it goes against much of what we talk about here about NOT larding your early pages with too much information. You want some mystery in the beginning. You want to pose questions that beg answers. Maybe Vonnegut is just arguing for clarity in the writing itself?  The choreography (moving characters through time and space) must be clear. Confusion should be avoided. Maybe you all can help me out on this one.

P.J. Parrish—March 26, 2019

 

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.

Elaine Vets—December 9, 2021

 

So what does a good short story do?

To make one strong impression on the mind of the reader, and to make that impression so powerfully that it will leave the reader pleased, convinced and emotionally moved is the principal aim of a good short story. To the production of that one effect everything in the story—characters, action, description, and exposition—points with the definiteness of an established purpose. All else is omitted, and thus all the parts of the story are both necessary and harmonious. Centralizing everything on the production of one effect makes every short story complete in itself. The purpose having been accomplished there is nothing more to be said. The end is the end.

Well now! If I may modestly mention my own book on the subject, How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, this affirms the “secret” I found by analyzing thousands of short stories. I call it “one shattering moment.”

What that moment is depends on the type of story you write. If it’s a crime or mystery story with a “twist,” that’s one kind of moment, and usually comes at the end (see Elaine’s post on that subject here).

Another type of story is the one that lays you flat with an emotional punch. Here the shattering moment may happen in the middle, as it often does in a Raymond Carver story. The emotional shattering can come at the end, as in Irwin Shaw’s classic “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

Keeping one shattering moment in mind gives you all the direction you’ll need to write a short story worth reading. Just add your own stamp and creativity.

A good short story can be a gateway for readers to discover you and your full-length books. So where can you publish? There are established venues, like Alfred Hitchcockand Analog. These can be hard to crack and take a long time to hear from.

Some authors, like yours truly, use Patreon. (Hey, can I urge you to give it a try? No obligation, and I’d love to hear what you think!)

Many more use sites like WattpadMedium, and Comaful. Heck, you can start your own blog just for short stories.

Or why not go right to Kindle? Publish it in Kindle Select, price it at 99¢, and run a free promo every 90 days. Make sure you have links to your website and books in the back matter.

James Scott Bell—January 16, 2022

***

  1. Do you write short stories? What tips do you have?
  2. How do you “think small?” How do you get around blocks in doing so?
  3. Where do you publish your short stories?

My story collection Rules Concerning Earthlight is available in ebook and print. Stories of the science fictional, and stories of the fantastic including:

  • A young man lives alone on the far side of the moon, an artificial intelligence his only friend and companion.
  • A hex-slinger encounters his dead wife, sword in hand, standing at a twilight crossroads.
  • A young woman in prison for having superpowers is tested.
  • A former Martian marine and her brilliant husband investigate a mystery on a colossal space station orbiting Saturn.
  • A traveling medicine show where real magic happens faces evil in a frontier boomtown in 1901.

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

“Can’t Put the Book Down”

Last weekend I once again had the privilege of being a panelist at Orycon, our local science fiction convention, and, among other things, moderated panels on writing and pacing your story. Creating a compelling story and keeping a reader turning the pages, to the point of missing sleep to read through to the end, are goals I believe all of us here at TKZ share.

Today’s Words of Wisdom considers three tools to help achieve those twin goals of creating a compelling story that is a page-turner. First off, Joe Moore looks at when and how to actual slow the pacing down. Then, Jordan Dane gives advice on managing narrative drive. Finally, Elaine Viets shares tips on creating cliffhangers.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

Joe Moore—March 18, 2015

Each author strives to create a compelling narrative drive (whether they understand what the term means or not) because they want readers eager to turn the page. That means the author MUST manipulate the world and the characters into the optimal story that involves mystery, suspense and intriguing relationships. This covers all genres of writing.

The author controls what is revealed to the reader and parses it out in the most optimal way by their judgement. They make choices on when to reveal things and how they are to be doled out. Natural born story tellers know how to do this instinctively.

The author is in control of EVERYTHING. He or she manipulates the reader with a titillating story and how that story is shared and how it affects the character relationships. Nothing should come as a surprise to the author.

To create MYSTERY elements, the author is guarded about what to share with the reader and when to share it. There’s misdirection with red herrings or through unreliable narrators, for example.

To create SUSPENSE, the author can have the reader follow along and reveal what they want the reader to know as the main characters discover things. This builds on suspense elements.

To give the reader an INSIDER VIEW, the author may reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t know. Let the readers play God from afar and watch the play that is told in the story.

KEEP A READER CURIOUS and/or WORRIED – Readers are naturally curious folks. Give them something to uncover. A wise author will let a reader’s minds be piqued by carefully placed clues. Or an author might make readers worry for the characters they’ve grown fond of. Make readers care and escalate the danger for the characters. Again, this post might sound geared for crime fiction, but it can apply to any genre. The threat does not have to involve life or death. It can involve the heart or the emotional survival of a family enduring a tragedy or a stigma.

WHAT KILLS NARRATIVE DRIVE
1.) Backstory dumps and long boring expositions can kill a strong page turner.
2.) When one scene doesn’t lead to a cause and effect, the plot may drift without cohesion. The reader gets lost in the amble. Actions must have consequences for the reader to want to come along for the ride.
3.) Cheating at mystery elements, where the author creates intrigue, but the outcome is a let down or a head fake for the reader. That’s when a reader will throw a book against a wall and may never buy an author again.
4.) Cheap surprises without build up is the same type of disappointment. Don’t pull a killer or a bad actor or a story element from thin air to end the book.
5.) No coincidences. An author might get away with a coincidence in the first few pages of a story, but a coincidence should never end the book. Major No-No.

HOW TO FIX A FAULTY NARRATIVE DRIVE:
I believe that each scene in a book should be like a mini-story. It should have a compelling beginning, a journey through the scene with purpose, and an ending that foreshadows what’s to come to create a page turner. Each scene should move the plot forward by 1-3 plot points, making that scene impossible to delete without toppling your story (like the wood block-building game of Jenga.)

I endeavor to build as many of these scenes as possible, even with scenes that build on a relationship as a subplot. The subplot should have a journey through the book as well.

Jordan Dane—October 3, 2019

Cliffhangers are the hooks that make your readers keep turning the pages, pulling them into the next scene or chapter. Most cliffhangers come at the end of the chapter. If your readers are hooked, they’ll continue reading.

Here are some tips for good cliffhangers:

A cliffhanger should catch your readers by surprise.

Something unexpected has to happen: Someone threatens to jump off a bridge. Their car goes into a skid on a snowy curve. A door opens unexpectedly. Then, bam! The chapter ends.

Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope novel, has a perfect cliffhanger chapter ending. Vera follows a killer, who gets her alone and strangles her. I’ve edited out the killer’s name in this section, but you get the idea.

“As Vera began to lose consciousness, she thought that this was her fault. . . it was her pride again, making her think she was indestructible.

“Then the world went blank.”

I couldn’t wait to turn the page and see what happened to Vera. Not to mention the killer.

Someone unexpected arrives. A crook, an innocent person, a cop, just in time. This person is a surprise. They abruptly break up the scene.

Someone leaves.

A bride suddenly leaves the groom standing at the altar. A couple is fighting, and he walks out on her. She suddenly quits her job.

Sometimes, the cliffhanger is a new piece of information.

Your character learns something. She’s not married legally to her husband after all because he never divorced his first wife.

Or, he’s not the son of the man he called father: the DNA test proved it.

Your character notices something. The detective sees the scratches around the door lock and realizes the house had been broken into. A wife finds lipstick on her husband’s shirt – scarlet lipstick. She never wears that color.

Your character figures something out. She finally understands the key to the puzzle the dead man left behind. He finally knows why his dead father wanted him to listen to the CD he left in his desk drawer.

Your character decides something. She’s going to leave her abusive husband. He’s going to rob the store to get enough money to feed his family.

She’s going back to school.

Elaine Viets—May 14, 2020

***

  1. How much do you think about slowing your story’s pacing when writing or editing? Do you have a favorite technique?
  2. What does narrative drive mean to you? How important is it to you?
  3. Do you use cliff-hangers? If so, what sort and when?

***

Empowered: Agent, the first book in my Empowered series, is currently free at all major ebook retailers.

The world says those possessing superpowers are either heroes or villains. But what if you’re both? Mathilda Brandt isn’t the angry, out-of-control teenager she was before she got out of jail. She’s hungry for a chance at a normal life, but when a gang threatens her sisters, she has no choice but to use her illegal superpower to protect them. A secretive government agency gives her a choice: go back to prison for life, or infiltrate a notorious super-villain group in order to stop a psychotic Empowered. To save her city, her family, and herself, Mat must become the last thing she ever wanted to be again: a criminal.

Deadline Words of Wisdom

Deadlines have helped me publish. They can also stress me out if I’m not careful, as my wonderful, very patient wife can attest, and give me tunnel vision when it comes to priorities. I have a set of new deadlines now for my current work-in-progress, and am hoping to accomplish them without being unduly stressed out and still being able to participate in my various family responsibilities.

Today we take a deep dive into TKZ’s archives. Kathryn Lilley discusses deadline behaviors, Clare Langley-Hawthorne talks about setting and managing deadlines, and John Gilstrap takes us with him as he goes through a deadline crunch. As always, the full articles are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

Then I started thinking about all my other deadline behaviors that could be considered annoying, or even strange, by family and friends. My crazy-writer deadline behaviors include:

The Big Tune-out

It’s not that I deliberately don’t listen to people (Okay, sometimes it is deliberate), but I frequently tune them out. This mostly happens when I’m on a deadline, which means it happens a lot. I might even respond to someone during a conversation, but not remember it later. It’s kind of like brain on auto-pilot.

To Kill a Magpie

When I’m out and about with my husband, I frequently dive for a pen and write detailed notes about our surroundings: the full moon hovering between two palm trees at night, a bag lady sitting in a bus shelter, the timbre of silverware clatter–I take notes about anything I can use later in my writing. Inevitably, I have left my notepad at home, so I drag home notes scribbled on scraps of things: a napkin, a flyer, even the back of a business card. My husband must think he lives with a magpie.

Hair on Fire 

It’s predictable: Six weeks before any deadline, I go on a tear. This means that I’m a) Constantly hunched over the laptop, muttering, b) Setting the alarm for 4 a.m., then groaning my way to wakefulness over the course of several Snooze cycles, and c) Bounding out of bed at odd hours of the night to tap out some problem-solving idea that struck me.

I do not talk very much during this time. And when I do, it’s not pleasant.

So there it is. I could go on, but the length of the list is starting to make me feel bad about myself. I would like to feel that I’m not alone in my crazy-writer deadline syndromes. Have you any to share?

Kathryn Lilley—July 27, 2009

Deadlines make you both accountable and responsible. But what does that really mean when you aren’t as yet published? It means you know that in order to achieve your larger goal (writing the novel, getting it published etc.) you need to divide the task into manageable chunks and (here is where it gets tricky) you need to meet the deadlines you impose upon yourself. Otherwise you’re just like the billions of amateur writers whining about how ‘one day’ they will write a book but (insert excuse here…) they never seem to get around to it. In today’s post I want to deal with both publisher as well as personal deadlines.

Publisher Imposed Deadlines:

As John said in his blog post on Friday, these deadlines are pretty much inviolable. If, as the author, you miss these then there is a cascading effect on the whole publication cycle. Worse case scenario the publisher views it as a breach of contract and pulls out of the deal. Best case scenario you inconvenience a whole lot of other people. So if you do need to extend, you’d better have a pretty good excuse.

My rather strict view of deadlines also extends to how you fulfil them. I’ve heard of an author who views the submission date with her publisher with a bit of a shrug – sure, she gets them the manuscript, but she’s not too concerned about making it perfect as she knows the editor will get back to her with comments, so she views the deadline as a necessary evil and continues to work through the book even while waiting for the editor to peruse and comment upon it. I differ on this in that I go into each deal with the belief that, whatever I submit has to be as damn-near-perfect as it possible. To me this is how professionals fulfil their obligations – not with a half-hearted shrug but with a commitment to demonstrating their craft to the highest degree possible.

Of course when it comes to an authors first book, the initial draft manuscript is what was acquired but any amendments to this (based on editorial feedback) should be treated with the same level of professionalism and adherence to deadlines. If an editor doesn’t provide a deadline (which would be highly unusual) then I would request or set one – that way the author remains on track and accountable to a timetable.

So what do you do if you have to seek a deadline extension?

This is where a good agent can act on an author’s behalf to mitigate against this – but the author must still have a genuine excuse for seeking an extension given the potential impact it has on the publisher. When it comes to agents, I would also recommend setting deadlines (for the agent as well as yourself) to ensure there remains a level of responsiveness and accountability that demonstrates an author’s professionalism.

Self-Imposed Deadlines

As a professional writer I like to set myself specific goals for my WIP to keep me on track. Typically I lay out a timetable to complete certain chapters or parts of the books to ensure I don’t face the overwhelming panic of producing a novel. When the tasks ahead are in manageable chunks the path seems far less onerous (or scary). The first thing I do is also set the date I want to get the draft manuscript to my agent and then work backwards from there.

Sometimes I give my agent an initial deadline for the first 5-10 chapters and the proposed plot outline so I can get his read/feedback on the project ahead. Then I always tell him the date I propose getting the complete manuscript to him – it helps establish my own timetable as well as alerting him to my goal (and, I hope, demonstrate I am tackling it in a serious, professional manner).

As a terrible procrastinator, self-imposed deadlines are vital to keeping me on track as a professional writer.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—March 19, 2012

One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book.  I plan my entire year around that deadline.  A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15.  That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that.  But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline.  (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)

On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere.  This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12.  That shortened my deadline by three whole days!  That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two.  It was either submit two days early or four weeks late.  In my world, we call that “motivation.”

Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works.  If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1.  Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable.  Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write.  I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.

This year, reality bitch-slapped me.  ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana.  When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.

And September 12 still sat there, immovable.

I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event.  Math was beginning to work against me.  I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions.  Sounds horrible, but doable.

Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone.  And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend.  The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals.  Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.

Tick and Tock were both laughing at me.  In fact, they were mocking me.

Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words.  Perish the thought.  The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.

Never in my life have I written so much in so little time.  That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days).  If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me.  The last two writing days were each 6K-plus.  It was exhausting.

As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary.  And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for.  Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.”  Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation.  No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.

When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing.  For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter.  No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one.  Just spelling and continuity.

So . . . what the f-bomb?  How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe?  I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.

John Gilstrap—October 11, 2017

***

  1. Do you find deadlines a help, a hindrance, or both?
  2. Do you have any “deadline behaviors?”
  3. Do you set self-imposed deadlines? Any advice?
  4. If you do have deadlines, how do you handle the deadline crunch?

Biological Responses to Fear

Last night, my husband and I went to a pumpkin festival with another couple. The town blocks off downtown’s main drag, and skeletons, witches, monsters, live music, and laser shows filled the streets.

Dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns on shelved staging fringed one side of the road — the focal point of the evening’s festivities. The only thing missing was a haunted house. Fine by us. We don’t chase the adrenaline high of fear.

Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear

Fear is a universal, physical response to danger. We associate fear as a negative emotion, but it also plays a vital role in keeping us safe by mobilizing us to cope with potential dangers.

What happens within the body when we’re fearful?

Fear begins in the amygdala, which then activates the pituitary gland, where the nervous system meets the endocrine (hormonal) system. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to squirt  epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and other catecholamines into the bloodstream.

The body also releases cortisol in response to ACTH, which raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells. Circulating cortisol turns fatty acids into energy for the muscles to use should the need arise.

Catecholamines include epinephrine and norepinephrine, both hormones that prepare the muscles for violence by causing the following:

  • Boost activity in the heart and lungs
  • Reduce activity in the stomach and intestines, producing “butterflies” in the belly.
  • Inhibit the production of tears and saliva, which explains why dry mouth often accompanies fright.
  • Dilate the pupils.
  • Produces tunnel vision.
  • Reduces hearing.

The hippocampus part of the brain is heavily involved in memory, whereas the prefrontal cortex aids in high-level decision making. Both these areas help us control the fear response and determine if the danger is real or exaggerated. If the latter, these areas of the brain dampen the fear, allowing us to read scary books or watch slasher films.

Biologically, fear responses include:

  • Increased breathing.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Peripheral blood vessels in the skin constrict while central blood vessels around vital organs dilate and flood with oxygen and nutrients.
  • Blood pumps the muscles so they’re ready to react.
  • Muscles at the base of each hair tighten, causing piloerection aka goosebumps.
  • Eyebrows raise and pinch together.
  • Upper eyelid raises while the lower tenses.
  • Jaw may slack and part stretched lips.
  • Voice pitch rises, tone strains.
  • Posture either mobilizes or immobilizes or fluctuates between both.
  • Breath shallows.
  • Muscles tighten, especially in the limbs.
  • Increased sweating.

Metabolically, glucose levels spike to provide energy if needed for action. Fear also increases levels of calcium and white blood cells.

Tips to Show Fear

To show a believable fear response in your main character, consider the above scientific and biologic changes within the body. Then get creative. An effective way to enhance fear is to slow down. Visualize the context. What’s happening in this moment? What is the character experiencing, moment by moment? By drilling into slivers of time, we’re telling the reader to pay attention. We’re creating emotional resonance. We’re drawing readers farther into the story, forcing them to turn the page.

Trigger the Senses

Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)

Do the leathery wings of a bat flap overhead? Or do footsteps ricochet off the building and make it difficult to pinpoint direction? (sound)

Does the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of the throat? (taste) Or fill the sinuses? (smell)

Is the thick bark of the ash tree she’s hiding behind rough and scratchy? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or does the MC enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear?

Emotion is Layered

Characters shouldn’t be totally fine one second then immediately immobilized by terror. Let emotions build over time, even second by second.

“In the real world, no two people are alike, which means each of us expresses emotion in our own way. Some people find it perfectly natural to share what they feel with those around them, experiencing little to no discomfort with their emotions being on display. Others find the idea of revealing what they feel horrifying and will avoid situations that could lead to such vulnerability. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. This spectrum of expressiveness is called an emotional range, and it will influence not only which feelings a person overtly shows but when and how they will manifest.”

—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus

Emotions — especially ones as extreme and universal as fear — unfold on a continuum. To impact the reader, show the MC’s physical and emotional responses in the correct order and with the proper intensity, or fear may come across as irrational or melodramatic.

Any adrenaline junkies in our audience? Do you ride roller coasters? Like haunted houses? Have you ever zip-lined? What about jumping out of an aircraft? Care to share a frightful experience?

 

 

Suspenseful Words of Wisdom

I began reading thrillers during my sophomore year in high school. One of the first I read was Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday, a pulse-pounding novel that was a race against time to stop a diabolical terrorist attack at the Super Bowl. Another thriller I read then was Paul Erdman’s The Silver Bears, which featured kind of scheme, one to corner the silver market.

I burned through both novels in just a couple of days. The stories were very different, yet the suspense in each kept me turning pages, unable to stop until the end.

Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at suspense. Jordan Dane gives you a few questions to ask yourself during editing in order to make your book more suspenseful, while Joe Moore discusses how having too much action can hurt suspense, and PJ Parrish considers formulas for suspense and surprise.

The full versions are linked from the bottom of their respective excerpts and very much worth reading in full.

If you’ve made it through your first draft of a novel and want to edit for suspense and pace to give your book a page-turner feel, below are questions to ask yourself.

1.) Did you begin your story at the right point? Opening in the middle of action is an attention getter, but don’t spoil it with excessive back story. You can also add an element of mystery or intrigue to your opener that will draw readers in if action doesn’t exactly fit your story, but remember that less is more. You’ll always have the opportunity to weave in back story if it’s necessary as the story progresses. It might be helpful to ask yourself if the start of your book is the last possible moment before your main character’s life is changed. Change is an excellent starting point. I sometimes start the story where I think it should, then consider adding either an inciting incident by way of Prologue or a standalone jumpstart to the story that precedes where I began.

4.) Do you have flashbacks that work or drag down the pace? Flashbacks can be tricky. We’ve all read books where flashbacks drive the novel and do it effectively, but make sure yours have a purpose and build on the tension of the main plot going forward. Flashbacks aren’t just another way to sneak in back story. Give the reader insight into the main plot with an effective and brief look into the motivation of the characters, if the flashbacks are necessary.

6.) Do you use foreshadowing to your advantage or is it a detriment that deflates your tension? The right balance of foreshadowing can add a sense of pace to your story. It can propel your storyline from scene to scene, but too much can burst the bubble of any mystery and telegraph your punches. Sometimes I look at my scene endings and see if I can stop them sooner at a more critical suspense moment. Or I split up an action scene at the bottom of a chapter and carry it over to the top of the next chapter. This simple idea of splitting scenes or cutting them off at a more appropriate spot can add a sense of pace, without any major rewrites.

Jordan Dane—March 7, 2013

I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

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

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

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

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

Joe Moore–September 18, 2013

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

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

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

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

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

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

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

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

PJ Parrish—November 10, 2015

***

  1. Do you edit for suspense? Any advice to share?
  2. Do you feel there can be too much action in a thriller?
  3. Do you have a formula for suspense in your fiction?
  4. Any other tips for creating suspense?

First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

Let me apologize to the Brave Writer who submitted this first page. A mix-up in communication caused me to think Brian sent this to another TKZer. Sorry! And thank you for your patience. My comments will follow.

***

Title: The Puzzle Within

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. “I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin, and a vein in his neck bulged.

Reclining her head to make eye contact with a man nearly a foot taller than herself, Ari wrinkled her nose, crossed her arms, but refused to back down. “You can’t force me to do this. I’ll take it to the top.” All the way to the Director if necessary.

Matt’s energy deflated, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “This assignment came from the top. From the Director himself. The shrink doesn’t believe you’re ready,” he said, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. His expression softened. “Not yet.”

Ari shrugged, knocking his hand away, and stalked to the other side of the room. She rested her hands on a bookshelf, her eyes falling upon the photo of Matt’s smiling family taken at Disneyland last summer. The FBI was her family, and she didn’t need sympathy. She needed her job back. With a sigh, she rotated to face her boss. “But why me? Why isn’t DSS handling this?”

Shouldn’t the Diplomatic Secret Service be handling this problem? They’re responsible for Ambassador Van Sloan and his spoiled daughter, Bianca—the biggest brat in diplomatic circles. Growing up in the consulate with the world at her fingertips and a silver spoon in her mouth, the college student didn’t comprehend the word “no.”

I don’t have time for this. I’ve got cases to solve and missing children to find. A knot formed in her stomach.

Matt cleared his throat and returned to his seat.

Ari’s pulse flickered in her neck. “What aren’t you telling me?” Apprehension tinged her voice.

He swallowed. “DSS is handling it.” His eyes darted to a manila envelope on his desk. “You’re being ‘borrowed’ for the time being.”

***

Let’s first discuss all the things Brave Writer did right.

  • Good grasp of POV
  • Story starts with a goal: To get out of babysitting a diplomat’s daughter.
  • Includes a complication: The boss is forcing her to go.
  • Raises story questions: Why is Arizona not ready for FBI work? Why did the psychiatrist evaluate her?
  • Includes a subtle clue that tells us Arizona isn’t dressed for work—her hiking boot—which implies she’s on leave after an incident or came in on her day off.

If we put all these puzzle pieces together, the assumption is something bad happened to Arizona.

Kudos to you, Brave Writer. You’ve worked hard to hone your craft.

Now for some tough love.

The bones of intrigue are there, but it’s overshadowed by too many body cues and random details that add nothing of value. Here are the first two paragraphs with my comments in blue.

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. This first line has no context. It’s a reaction without a motivation, or an effect without a cause. If, say, a grizzly bear was advancing on our MC, we wouldn’t first show the MC’s reaction. We’d show the grizzly bear huff or stomp the ground. Then the MC could react. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe This body cue implies she’s changing directions to leave, yet the rest of the sentence implies she’s entering her boss’s office. When put together, these two body cues cancel each other out and cause confusion., locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. I realize some writers use “locking eyes” but I immediately envision floating eyeballs. “Locking gazes” avoids confusion. But again, without knowing if she’s leaving or entering the office, the scene remains scrambled in this reader’s mind. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. And now, she’s fidgeting, which implies nervousness. However, slamming a hand into a wall, locking gazes, and the inner monologue and dialogue all implies anger and/or defiance. Choose one emotion and stick with it. We haven’t even gotten to the second paragraph, and already the MC has experienced a plethora of conflicting emotions. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. Glass surface of what? “I’m not kidding. <- this adds nothing of value, nor does this -> You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows <- I have no idea what this means. Is he consciously angling his bushy eyebrows at something? Doubtful. And if he is, we’ve slipped out of Arizona’s POV. and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin Face? Nose? Be specific. ’Course, shoving his chair backward is all you need to portray anger. All these other emotional cues distract from the dialogue. It’s too much. A good exercise for you may be to limit one emotion per character per page. It’ll force you to focus on strengthening the dialogue, inner monologue, and the narrative., and a vein in his neck bulged.

Let’s move on…

What if you started by showing Ari trying to control the diplomat’s reckless daughter (and failing)? Then this whole opener could be threaded through the narrative in a more organic way.

Example:

I didn’t become a federal agent to babysit a diplomat’s brat.

That one line of inner dialogue shows what you’ve conveyed in this first page. Please don’t get discouraged. We’ve all started novels too soon. And many of us continue to learn that lesson over and over and over. I wrote three different openers to my current WIP before I landed on one that worked, and it’ll be my 22nd book.

One last comment…

Because the out-of-control diplomat kid is a familiar trope, you need to work twice as hard to twist it in a way that’s fresh and new. It likens to the alcoholic cop or homicide detective who’s haunted by the cases he couldn’t solve. I can see that you have worked hard on your craft—otherwise I’d be handling you with kid gloves—so I’ll assume you have a fresh take. Which is great. I only bring it up to make you aware. Okay? Now, go write your bestseller. You’ve got the writing chops to do it. 😉

Over to you, TKZers. Please add your thoughtful suggestions for this Brave Writer.

For the Love of It–Words of Wisdom

Back in 2016 when I was working on the first two novels in the Empowered series and taking a self-study crash course in indie publishing, “writing to market” was the topic d’jour in indie author circles and on self-publishing podcasts. Chris Fox’s Write To Market laid out how to do this. I have indie author friends who were adroit at figuring out the tropes and trends in their particular sub-genre and successfully hit their particular market’ bull’s-eye.

Contrast that with advice I’d read years before, from agents and editors, to be aware of the market, but not chase it, since you’ll always be behind. Instead write the story that you most want to tell, which still seems like very sound advice. Another way of putting it is to know the reader expectations of your particular genre, but first and foremost, write what you love. Finding the place on the publishing Venn diagram where those expectations and what you love intersect can connect you with readers.

Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at the importance of writing “for the love of it.” Rather than the usual trio of excerpts we have a quartet of briefer ones on writing what you love, the different kinds of love you need, how writing what you love can rejuvenate and power your writing, and how love for a project can be a vital factor in your success. Two are from JSB, since they build nicely off each other. Even more than usual, given the short length of the excerpts, it is worth checking out the full versions, which are linked at the bottom of their respective enteries here.

I thought I’d follow on from Jim’s terrific post yesterday about writing with heart, and discuss an issue that is just as important in my view – writing what you love and not what you think the market will love. It drives me crazy when people say “you should write a romance – you’d make more money that way” or (even weirder) “You should write erotica – it’s really hot (no pun intended) right now.” For some reason there always seem to people wanting to make ‘helpful suggestions’ on what you should write – usually by pointing out the ‘hot’ genre on the current bestseller list, as if that is all it takes. Hey, if you just added a paranormal element to your mystery, shazam, you’d have it made.

If only it was that easy…For many wannabe writers the thought of becoming the next J K Rowling or Stephenie Meyers is enticement enough, as is the belief that somehow if you write to what you think the market wants, your future will be secure. Wrong.

Setting aside the obvious (that by the time you’ve written what the market loves now, the market has already shifted to something else) there is something more fundamental at stake. As my agent always says, you must write what you love. Why? Because it shows.

It shows if you are writing a romance when you think it’s ‘easy money’. It shows if you write a YA fantasy when you really want to write contemporary thrillers…If your heart isn’t in it, the readers will know you’re faking it.

Clare Langley-Hawthrone–June 14, 2010

The world is full of entertaining distractions, and many of them would give me more pleasure than writing my novel would, at least in the short term. Yet I convince myself that this isn’t true. I put down my newspaper and tell myself, “You know what? My novel is more interesting than the CIA director’s scandalous affair. So what, the guy fooled around with a fawning younger woman, what’s so interesting about that? Come on, stop searching the Internet for lubricious details. Stop exchanging snarky e-mails with your friends. Get back to work!”

And this brings me to the second lie I tell myself. At some point in the process of writing a novel I become convinced that this book is the best thing I’ve ever written. No — the best thing ever written by anybody. Crazy, right? The lie is so absurd I can’t seriously entertain it for very long. But it’s a useful delusion to have, especially when I’m struggling with the book and the deadline is approaching and I have to devote practically every waking moment to finishing the damn thing. Why put in all the effort if the novel isn’t fantastic?

Then I finish the first draft and stop telling myself the lies. They’ve served their purpose, so I don’t have to believe them anymore. I wait a few weeks, and then I’m ready to look at the manuscript again and confront the truth: the book is a mess. Some parts don’t make sense, other parts are boring. I don’t love the book anymore. But I don’t hate it either. Now it’s time for some tough love. An intervention. I have to whip the manuscript into shape.

And then, after all the revisions are done and the final changes sent to the copy editor and the advance reading copies distributed to the reviewers, then I’m ready to fall in love with the book again. But this time it’s not a blind, self-deluding infatuation. I’ve done my best to fix the novel’s flaws, but I know it’ll never be perfect. I love the book despite its imperfections and infelicities. I’m at this stage now with my next novel, which will be published in February. I’m still collecting blurbs and composing the jacket copy, but I can’t make any major changes to the book. This stage is the literary equivalent of zipping up your lover’s dress and clasping the pearls around her neck, getting her ready for her big night on the town.

Go out there, beautiful. Knock ’em dead.

Mark Alpert—November 17, 2012

 

We have to have that in our writing if we’re going to keep doing this for the long term. You’ve only got so much time. Give that time to the stories you’re burning to tell. Do that first, and the money will follow. How much, no one can say. But joy tips the balance in your favor. For example, in addition to my novels and novellas, I’m writing short stories about a boxer in 1950s Los Angeles. I make some scratch every month on these. But more than that, I love writing them. It’s a different voice and genre than I normally write in, which has the added benefit of keeping my writing chops sharp.

If you love what you do you’ll do more of it, and  you’ll do it better, and that will increase the odds of making a decent buck at this—either through self-publishing or finding a traditional publisher who believes in your voice and vision. Or some combination of the two.

So my question for you today is, do you love what you’re writing? If not, why not?

James Scott Bell—September 29, 2013 

  1. Love

An inner fire to make it as a writer will get you through years of cold reality. I suspect that the majority of writers who make it to full-time status love what they do. Writing is a part of them, a calling as well as a vocation.

It’s certainly possible to write out of sheer business-mindedness (I think, however, that this is much easier when you write non-fiction). Yet there’s a certain something that gets translated to the page by the writer who loves the work. I believe you can write what you love and, if you do so with the other characteristics listed below, earn a fair return.

  1. Discipline

“One of the big lessons of sports for dedicated individuals and teams is that it shows us how hard work, and I mean hard work, does pay dividends.” – John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach

Love is not enough. Ask anyone who’s married.

Work puts legs on the dream.

  1. Perseverance 

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”

The true writer puts this thought in mind: I am going to write and never stop because that’s what I want to do. I will keep learning and growing and producing the words. I’ll keep carving out time to write, even if it means giving some things up. And it will always be too soon to quit. 

James Scott Bell—November 2, 2014

***

  1. Where are you on the spectrum of writing for love – writing to market? Does writing to market work for you?
  2. Do you maintain your love for a project throughout the process of writing it? Any tips?
  3. Has love for a particular story or novel rejuvenated your writing?
  4. How important is it to you to write what you love?