How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

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

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

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

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

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

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

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

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

Really

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

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

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

Very

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

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

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

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

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

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

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

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

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

Want(ed)

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

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

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

Came/Went

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

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

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

Had

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

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

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

Well (to start a sentence)

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

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

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

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

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

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

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

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

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

FILLER PHRASES

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

A bit

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

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

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

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

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

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

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

The question as to whether

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

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

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

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

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

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

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

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

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

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

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

The fact that

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

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

I might add

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

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

In order to 

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

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

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

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

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

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

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Merry Misdirection

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

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

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

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

A magician uses three types of misdirection:

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

Notice any similarities to writing?

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

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

How do we do that?

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

Examples:

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

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

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

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

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

False Trails

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

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

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

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

— The Writer magazine

Character Misdirection

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

Two types of character misdirection.

  • False Ally
  • False Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Short Stories: Small and Twisted

By Elaine Viets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Here are some things editors DO NOT want:

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

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

Cue Words in Dialogue

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

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

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

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

“What guy?” Foster asked.

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

“What did he look like?”

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you tell your parents? Tell anyone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do any of your characters use cue words?

First Page Critique: City of Caves

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

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

 

City of Caves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

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

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

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

Example (continued from earlier example):

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

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

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

Example:  

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

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

POP QUIZ ON ADJECTIVES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When we first learned to talk, most likely we never gave a second thought to the order of words. We just mimicked our parents until the sentences that came out of our mouths made sense and were understandable.

If a five-year-old said, I kicked over the fence the ball, most likely Mom, Dad, or a kindergarten teacher would tell the child it sounded better to say: I kicked the ball over the fence.

We instinctively knew how to place the words in the right order, even though we didn’t realize exactly what it was we knew or how we knew it. 

[Side note: English is a particularly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn because it’s full of inconsistencies and contradictory rules. If you didn’t learn English as a first language, please accept my condolences for the misery you’re going through.]

 

At some point in our language development, we learned that adjectives make sentences more descriptive. For those of us destined to become writers, adjectives became fun new toys.

Consider the three examples below:

The Jack Russell tan frisky terrier chased a mouse.

Hey, wait a sec. That sounds awkward. What’s wrong?

Instead, how about:

The frisky tan Jack Russell terrier chased a mouse.

Sounds natural.

A hot-air red massive balloon floated above farm land.

Awkward.

A massive red hot-air balloon floated above farm land.

Natural.

A new silver shiny Cadillac was parked in the murky dark shadows of the concrete parking high-rise garage.

Awkward.

A shiny new silver Cadillac was parked in the dark murky shadows of the high-rise concrete parking garage.

Natural.

In these examples, one flows easily off the tongue while, in the other, words come out in halts and jerks.

What is the difference?

The order of the adjectives.

Huh? Who even thinks about that?

Writers, that’s who.

Turns out there are actual rules about the correct order of adjectives.

Recently I learned that new lesson when TKZ regular Chuck sent me an interesting article that quotes The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth. In his book, Forsyth separates adjectives into eight different types of descriptors and their proper order:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Color
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

There is even a handy little acronym to remind you of the correct order, using the first letter of each type: OSASCOMP.

Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t want the rules to be that simple so they offer an alternate option that divides adjectives into 10 classifications in slightly different order.

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Physical quality
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Type
  10. Purpose

Translated to an acronym: OSPSACOMTP.

Hmm, I think I’ll stick with Forsyth’s version.

In Elements of Eloquence, Forsyth illustrates the correct order with this complicated yet coherent phrase:

A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

Take a moment to experiment. Can you rearrange the adjectives in a different order that makes sense and sounds better?

Me neither.

Of course, no author would dare string that many adjectives together without a stern reprimand from the editor.

Photo credit: Isaak Alexandre Karslain, Unsplash

Let’s have some fun with a quiz. Read the following jumbled descriptions and put them in the correct order. Your choice of either Forsyth’s or Cambridge Dictionary’s rules.

  1. The wicked old shriveled witch cast a permanent vengeful curse on the young innocent maiden.
  2. The black-and-tan huge guard German Shepherd dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The parchment ancient yellowed fragile scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the silk designer black sexy strapless dress.

Below are my answers. If you disagree, please share in the comment section.

  1. The wicked (opinion) shriveled (physical quality) old (age) witch cast a vengeful (opinion) permanent (type) curse on the innocent (opinion) young (age) maiden.
  2. The huge (size) black-and-tan (color) German Shepherd (origin) guard (purpose) dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The fragile (physical quality) ancient (age) yellowed (color) parchment (material) scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the sexy (opinion) strapless (shape) black (color) designer (origin) silk (material) dress.

Here’s a shortcut for when you’re writing a sentence with several adjectives but can’t remember the rules:

Read the sentence out loud.

If it sounds awkward, rearrange the order of the adjectives until the sentence flows smoothly and naturally.

If you’re still not sure, read the sentence out loud to someone else. Ask how the adjective order sounds best to their ears.

If you can’t remember the rules or would rather ignore them, here’s the easiest option of all: don’t string more than two adjectives together.

Your editor will appreciate it and so will your readers.

~~~

TKZers: Did you know there were rules for the order of adjectives?

As a writer, do you love adjectives? Or would you rather discard them in the same wastebasket with adverbs?

~~~

Debbie Burke is an absentminded (opinion) aging (age) blond (color) Montana (origin) thriller (purpose) writer who never uses more than two adjectives in a row. You can verify that if you read Debbie’s six-book series at this link.

Hook Your Readers with a Compelling Storyline, Tagline, & Back Cover Copy

by Jodie Rennereditor & author 

You run into a friend and mention you’re writing a novel. “What’s it about?” they ask.

You stammer, “Well, it’s about this guy… Actually, and his sidekick too. She’s a woman. They don’t really get along all that well… at least, not at the beginning. He’s former FBI agent and she used to be a cop. Did I tell you they’re private detectives? Anyway, they get this weird case… Hey, where are you going? I was just getting to the good part!”

This is the kind of situation where you wish you had created a succinct, compelling storyline or “elevator pitch,” well-prepared and memorized.

Here are some tips on writing an engaging storyline, tagline, elevator pitch, and back cover copy for your novel. These are all essentials for hooking potential readers and enticing them to read your novel. If you’re still writing your novel, doing these exercises will help you focus on the core of your story and how best to engage readers.

STORYLINE:

Your storyline (or logline) gives the gist of your book in a few sentences. It tells something about the main character, the conflict or dilemma, and the stakes.

When someone casually asks you what your book is about, you’ll probably give them your storyline/logline. It’s a condensed version of the elevator pitch.

Even if you haven’t yet finished your novel, writing a storyline for it will help you zero in on what your story is really about, at its essence, and what emotion(s) you want to evoke in your readers.

Start with a 5-6-sentence version (up to a paragraph or two) and work down to one or two sentences. Keep your longer version as your “elevator pitch” for when the situation allows enough time to use it.

To create your storyline, first answer these questions:

Who is your main character? (Not just the name, or not necessarily the name at all.)

Where does the story take place? (if it’s of interest)

What is the protagonist’s goal?

What is the situation, problem, challenge, obstacle, or dilemma the protagonist faces?

Why does it matter? Why does he/she have to overcome the obstacle, vanquish the foe, or solve the problem?

How does he/she solve the problem?

Of course, you won’t reveal the answer to the last question in your logline, tagline, or back cover copy!

Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, in their excellent book for newbie writers, Writing Fiction for Dummies, talk about a one-sentence storyline or “one-sentence summary,” which is kind of like a condensed elevator pitch or condensed back-cover copy. They say to “shoot for 25 words or less. If you can do it in less than 15 words, you get extra credit.” Other tips by them for a compelling one-sentence storyline, condensed and paraphrased:

  • Limit the storyline to just a few main characters. Of course, include the protagonist.
  • Tell one thread of the story, ether the most essential one or the most interesting one.
  • Most of the time, don’t name the characters. Instead, find unique, fascinating ways to describe each of them.
  • Use adjectives that evoke empathy or cast a character as vulnerable or an outsider.
  • Include verbs that pack a punch, like battles or struggles.
  • Backload the storyline by putting a surprise or some emotively punchy words at the end of the sentence.

Ingermanson and Economy provide some one-sentence storylines for well-known novels. Here are a few of them:

The Firm, by John Grisham (legal thriller): “A brilliant young lawyer gets a fabulous job at a firm that is a cover for a Mafia money-laundering operation.”

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel (historical): “A young human girl in Ice Age Europe struggles to survive persecution by her adoptive clan of Neanderthals.”

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith (mystery): “A Moscow homicide detective investigates a bizarre triple murder and runs afoul of the KGB and FBI.”

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (literary): “A boy raised in Afghanistan grows up with the shame of having failed to fight the gang of boys who raped his closest friend.”

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy): “A Hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.”

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (time-travel romance): “A young English nurse searches for the way back home after time-traveling from 1945 to 1743 Scotland.”

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown (thriller): “A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.”

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (romance): “A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.”

Resources: Randy Ingermanson & Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies; Shaunta Grimes, The Everyday Novelist blog, “How (and Why) to Write a Logline and a Tagline for Your Book”

TAGLINE:

The tagline evolves from the storyline but is even briefer and snappier. It’s a one-line hook whose job is to evoke emotion and compel readers to open your book. Readers want to know what they will feel if they read your book, so it needs to pack an emotive punch.

The tagline might go on the front cover of your book, in bold and/or italics at the top of your back cover or your book description on Amazon, at the beginning of a query letter, in the signature of your emails, as part of your Facebook or other social media page, or elsewhere. It might be as long as two or three brief sentences if it goes at the top of your back cover or Amazon description.

What makes a great tagline? Here are some tips:

  1. Keep it short – a sentence or sentence fragment is best.
  2. Make every word count. Skip “This book is about.” Make it pack a punch.
  3. Hint at genre. Readers want to know what they’re getting into, whether this is going to be their kind of book.
  4. Capture the tone of your story – overall, is it lyrical, nail-biting, romantic, sad, humorous, intriguing, fanciful, sexy, adventurous?
  5. Arouse curiosity. Maybe ask an intriguing question, raise a question just by the wording, or hint at danger or an impossible dilemma.
  6. Invoke emotions. Choose words that appeal to readers’ emotions.
  7. Make sure your phrase has an easy rhythm and flow. Read it aloud and cut out any unnecessary or convoluted words.

Brainstorm a variety of taglines. Write them all out and compare them for emotional punch, intrigue, brevity, and flow.

Here are some taglines from the front cover, the top of the back cover, or the top of the Amazon book description of well-known novels:

Blue Moon, by Lee Child: “Jack Reacher comes to the aid of an elderly couple . . . and confronts his most dangerous opponents yet.”

The Return, by Nicholas Sparks: “In the romantic tradition of Dear John, an injured Navy doctor meets two extremely important women whose secrets will change the course of his life.”

The Dark Hours, by Michael Connelly: “Has a killer lain dormant for years only to strike again on New Year’s Eve?”

Legacy, by Nora Roberts: “…a new novel of a mother and a daughter, of ambition and romance, and of a traumatic past reawakened by a terrifying threat…”

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz: “Every gift has a price.”

Willa of the Wood, by Robert Beatty: “Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.”

Insurrection, by Tom Combs: “Domestic terrorists, a captive ER, and a nation held hostage.”

Her Last Tomorrow, by Adam Croft: “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

Taken, by Robert Crais: “The search for a missing girl leads private investigators Elvis Cole and Joe Pike into the nightmarish world of human trafficking.”

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty: “The trouble with the truth is that it can change everything.”

Silent Child, by Sarah A. Denzil: “Her child has the answers. But he can’t tell her the unspeakable.”

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: “There are two sides to every story.”

The Crucifix Killer, by Chris Carter: “Cross your heart and hope to die…quickly.”

Outfox, by Sandra Brown: “One man with multiple identities. Eight vanished women. The next target…his wife.”

BACK COVER COPY

Your back cover copy or book description is the biggest deciding factor for readers picking up your book for the first time. Not only does it have to be enticing and polished, but it has to strike at the heart of your actual story, hint at the genre and tone, and incite curiosity among the readers, to compel them to open the book and read the first page (which, as you know, is also critically important).

Your back cover copy or book description needs to:

– Grab readers’ attention – in a good way

– Incite curiosity about this book 

– Tell us roughly what the story is about

– Give an indication of the genre and tone of the book

– Introduce us to the main character and his goal

– Tell us the protagonist’s main problem or dilemma

– Leave us wanting to find out more

James Scott Bell (Yes, TKZ’s beloved Sunday columnist and writing guru) gives us a great template for writing strong, compelling back cover copy in his excellent book, Plot & Structure.

Jim’s outline is a perfect jumping-off point for creating your own book description.

Paragraph 1: Your main character’s name and her current situation:

__________________ is a ________________ who ___________________________________.

Write one or two more sentences, describing something of the character’s background and current world.

Paragraph 2: Start with Suddenly or But when. Fill in the major turning point, the event that threatens the character, disrupts his world and forces him to take action. Add two or three more sentences about what happens next.

“But his world is turned upside down when…”

Paragraph 3: Start with Now and make it an action sentence, for example, “Now (name) must struggle with….”

Or use a question or two starting with Will: Will (name) be able to….? Or will she….? And will these events….?

Then add a final sentence that is pure marketing, like “(Title) is a riveting…. novel about …. that will …you…till the … twist at the end.

Now polish it up, making sure every word counts and you’ve used the best possible word for each situation. Aim for about 250-500 words in total.

There are of course many other ways to grab your readers in your book description, but be sure to use the main character’s name and hint at the threat that has upset his world and the obstacles he needs to overcome to win, survive or defeat evil, and right wrongs. And leave the readers with a question, to pique their curiosity and propel them into the story.

Then, if there’s space, you could squeeze in a great blurb or two, or a short author bio.

Resource: James Scott Bell, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure. I highly recommend this book of Bell’s, as well as his excellent Revision & Self-Editing for Publication, which I recommend to all my clients.

TKZers – Would you like to share your back cover copy, book description, storyline, or tagline with us? Or create one for a well-known novel?

*By the way, I’m over at Kay DiBianca’s blog today as well. Kay is interviewing me about my writing advice in Fire up Your Fiction and related topics. Hop over there for a look! 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website, Blog – Resources for Writers, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.

Creating Likeable Villains

By Elaine Viets

This month got off to a pleasant start. My short story, “Dog Eat Dog” was nominated for two awards: the Macavity and the International Thriller Writers.
The story was in The Beat of Black Wings, an anthology based on the songs of Joni Mitchell. I chose “Dog Eat Dog.”

This story was difficult to write, because my protagonist was so dislikeable. We learn straight out that Tiffany Yokum is a gold digger – and a calculating killer.
Here’s her introduction:

“The first time I tried to kill my husband, I failed. Miserably. I gave him a little push at the top of the stairs and Colgate tangled himself in his walker and fell down twenty-seven marble steps, just as I hoped. And he cracked his head – but not hard enough.
“Now he’s in a coma. The doctors say there’s still brain activity and he could wake up at any time, so I can’t pull the plug. He could live forever this way. As I sit by his bedside, I watch the fluid drip through his IV, and imagine each drop is a dollar. Even his immense fortune will be drained away.
“I want desperately to finish him off, but I don’t want to get caught.”

Greedy Tiffany put a nice old man into a coma, and now she wants him to die. How do I make readers root for this little moneygrubber?
Unlikeable protagonists are extremely popular, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Before Gillian, there was the disgusting pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita. And Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and other novels in this series. Books I pretended to read in college but couldn’t finish because I found Rabbit, the protagonist, self-absorbed and dull.
Short stories don’t have time to create the subtleties of a novel. Which gets us back to Tiffany and how to make readers root for this crafty killer. Here are some ways to do it.
Give your villains a minor illness.

The award-winning Evan Hunter – a.k.a. Ed McBain – made that recommendation. It works if your villains aren’t too evil. McBain had a lot of sniffling and sneezing detectives in the 87th Precinct. But I could give Tiffany pneumonia – heck, Covid-19 – and she still wouldn’t be likeable.

Give your villains a sympathetic background.


Tiffany is by no means her rich husband’s social equal. She’s an 18-year-old clerk at a hardware store in Festus, Missouri. “Colgate Osborne was a randy seventy-two when he first spotted me behind the cash register, falling out of my tank top,” Tiffany says. She grew up in a trailer park. So she’s at the bottom rung of the ladder, looking to climb. Readers like to root for a rags-to-riches scenario.

Make your villains smart. Or at least crafty.

Tiffany quickly becomes the fourth wife of rich old Cole Osborne and they live in luxury in Fort Lauderdale.
“I never went to college, but I wasn’t stupid,” Tiffany said. “I knew now that Cole had tied the knot with me, my struggle had just begun. Cole was very, very classy, and I had to fit in with his rich friends.”

Make your villains self-aware.

The Joni Mitchell song was Tiffany’s anthem, and she recognized herself in the lyrics of “Dog Eat Dog.” Especially the part about slaves. Some were well-treated . . .
And some like poor beasts
Are burdened down to breaking
Tiffany said, “This was a dog eat dog world – more so than the trailer park where I used to live. I was a well-treated slave, and I’d sold myself into slavery, but I knew that.”
Our villain has knows she’s living in comfort, but she can’t get comfortable.
“One misstep, and I’d be one of those poor beasts, working again at the local hardware store or greeting people at Walmart. I had a prenup that would give me a measly hundred thousand dollars if we divorced, but if I could hang on until Cole died, I’d get half his fortune.”

Make your villains work for their success. That way, readers can root for them.

Cindy knew she’s landed her pretty derriere in a tub of butter, but she knew her work has just started. Among other things, Cindy changed her name to a classier “Tish.”
She also “made friends with his housekeeper, Mrs. Anderson. She’d been with him for twenty years and three wives. I slipped her a little extra out of my mad money account that Cole gave me, and Mrs. A told me where to shop on Las Olas, the local Rodeo Drive, and which saleswoman to make an appointment with. She also advised me to ditch my long fake nails and get a nice, refined French manicure, then sent me to a salon where I had my long hair tamed into fashionable waves and the color became ‘not so blonde’ as the tactful stylist said.”

Make your villains aware of the stakes if they fail.

Now readers have more reasons to root for them.
“As I got into my mid-twenties, I had to work hard to keep my girlish figure,” Tiffany said. “My trainer was worse than a drill sergeant, and I endured endless runs on the beach. Awful as it was, it beat standing on my feet all day on a concrete floor, running a cranky cash register for nine dollars an hour.”

Create a conflict – and an even worse villain.

Tiffany says, “I thought I could sail smoothly into Cole’s sunset years and collect the cash when he went to his reward. But then that damn preacher showed up. The smarmy Reverend Joseph Starr, mega-millionaire pastor of Starr in the Heavens.”
As much as we may dislike money-hungry Tiffany, the bloodsucking TV preacher is even worse. He plays on Cole’s fear of death and walks off with a check for a million dollars on his first visit – and the Reverend has his sights set on more.
“Starr would work on Cole’s guilt and milk him for every dollar – my husband was one big cash cow,” the practical Tiffany said.
Now that her husband was in the hospital on life support, Tiffany has to find a way to kill her husband and put the blame on the Reverend Starr.
Does Tiffany succeed? Or does the Reverend Starr walk off with the money? You’ll have to read “Dog Eat Dog” to find out – and see if I made you root for her.
Tell us, TKZers. How do you humanize your villains?
***

The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, is an anthology of 28 crime writers who wrote short stories inspired by Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. The award-winning authors include Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski, Kathryn O’Sullivan, Stacy Woodson, and Donna Andrews. A third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell’s name.
Order your copy of Beat of Black Wings here: https://tinyurl.com/38x2cyar