Concrete Tips for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue to Any Story

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

Are you in the process of writing a novel? Maybe a thriller or other popular fiction that you hope will grab readers and really sell? Besides a great character and a fascinating plot, you’ll also need some tried-and-true fiction-writing techniques to take your story up a level or three.

To keep readers engaged and eagerly turning the pages, all genres of fiction, not just thrillers, need tension and intrigue – and a certain amount of suspense. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension, intrigue, and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting, page-turner.

Here are some techniques for engaging your readers and keeping them riveted: 

~ First, create a protagonist that readers will care about, and give him some worries and secrets. Make your hero or heroine intriguing and complex, clever and resourceful. But not perfect – make them vulnerable too, with an Achilles heel and some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. In most cases, you want your protagonist to be likeable too, or at least have some endearing traits to make readers worry about her and root for her. If readers can’t identify with or bond with your character, it’s pretty hard to make them care what happens to her. Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

~ Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character right from the opening paragraph. Show his thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations, worries, and physical and sensory reactions in every scene. Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View.

~ Show your hero or heroine in action in the first paragraphs. Rather than opening with description, background info, or your character alone musing, it’s best to jumpstart your story with your lead interacting with someone else who matters to them, preferably with a bit of discord and tension. And show his/her inner thoughts and emotional reactions, maybe some frustration or anxiety.  Act First, Explain Later.

~ Give your character a problem to solve right from the get-go. It can be minor, but creating an early conflict that throws your lead off-balance will make your readers worry about him. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. This is so important and a common weakness for new fiction writers. Hold off on critical information. Hint at a traumatic or life-changing event early on, then reveal fragments of info about it little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering and worrying.

~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in lengthy descriptions, backstory, or exposition. Keep the action and interactions moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis, through dialogue or flashbacks – not as the author/narrator interrupting the scene to explain things to the readers. See my blog post Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character! 

~ Introduce a significant, meaningful story problem. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major challenge, dilemma, goal, or threat within the first ten chapters, a big one that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an overarching sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:

“Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time?”

~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time as they’re happening, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your main character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t explain as the author or narrator – stay in the character’s viewpoint. And don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene after it happened. Instead, show that scene as it’s unfolding or as a flashback. Of course, briefly narrate or “tell” transition scenes. Tips for showing instead of telling.

~ Make use of compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening him. Show his reactions to his environment, including what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, even tasting, and also any discomfort – is he hot, cold, tired, stressed, hungry, thirsty, afraid? Is sweat pouring down his back? Are his feet sore? These details bring him to life for the readers, who feel that hunger, thirst, fatigue, or discomfort too. 

~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your viewpoint character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc. Show these in real time for greater impact.

~ Insert some conflict/tension and a change into every scene. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective or goal (agenda), but she encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is thwarted in her efforts to reach her goal. By the end of the chapter or scene, she or circumstances have changed.

~ Put tension on every page. Every page needs some tension, even if it’s just doubt, questioning, disbelief, disagreement, suspicion, or resentment simmering below the surface.

~ Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and intriguing.

~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.

~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.

If you’re writing a thriller or other suspense fiction, ratchet up the tension and conflict even more with these techniques: 

~ Create a cunning antagonist. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him or her a serious force to be reckoned with! See my post here on TKZ, Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist.

~ Ratchet up the problem to a serious threat, and make it personal. Your hero or someone he cares about is personally threatened. It’s a life-or-death situation.

~ Establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing. Do this by your choice of words and tight writing.

~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.

~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the villain’s thoughts and intentions.

~ Keep hampering your hero or heroine throughout the novel to increase worry, tension, and suspense. Stir in some of these ingredients: a ticking clock, obstacles, chases, traps, restrictions, handicaps, injuries, bad luck, etc.

~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.

~ Get us into the head of the villain too. For increased anxiety and suspense, show us the thoughts and intentions of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the hero or heroine doesn’t know, things we desperately want to warn her about!

~ Use foreshadowing to incite curiosity. Tease the readers with innuendos. Drop subtle hints of troubles to come. Hint at the main character’s past secrets. What is the character worried about or afraid might happen? Capitalize on this. For more specific tips on this technique, see my TKZ article, Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing.

~ Add in some revelations and epiphanies to put a twist on things and reward readers for their interest and involvement.

~ Use cliff-hangers. Put your hero or heroine in hot water at the end of some chapters to incite reader curiosity and questions and compel them to go to the next chapter. Then maybe use a jump cut to go to a different scene, so they have to read more to find out what happened in the previous chapter.

For a list of techniques to consider when writing suspense fiction, see my Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue here on TKZ.

Then, in the Revision Stage: 

~ Amp up, condense, or delete any scenes that lag, and tighten up your writing.  Are some of your sentences and paragraphs too long? Are you inadvertently repeating words, ideas, actions, or imagery in close proximity? Go back and make sure every scene, paragraph, sentence, and word enhance the story and drive the plot forward. Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details.

Use short paragraphs and mix it up with brief narration and snappy dialogue. Vary the sentence structure and length. Use shorter sentences at tense times. More tips: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner.

~ Word choice is critical too. Vary your words. Use specific, evocative nouns, and verbs that really capture the action and add tension, rather than overused ones like “walked” and “ran.” For examples and more, see Nail it with Just the Right Word.

Have some of these techniques worked for you? Which ones do you find the most helpful in your own writing? Do you have any other tips to help new suspense fiction writers create a novel that will captivate readers, sell lots of copies, and garner great reviews? Or examples from your own work or a bestselling novel you’ve read? Let us know in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, at her Amazon Author Page, her blog Resources for Writers, and on Facebook

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Stay in the Phone Booth With the Gorilla

Stay in the Phone Booth With the Gorilla
Terry Odell

One of my critique partners is a computer programmer by trade, and one of the things we frequently mention in our critiques is how much detail is needed, and when. His mind works in a very logical fashion, and he’s always looking at every what if possibility. Normally, I’m pointing out where he doesn’t need to cover all the possible permutations of any given situation. But once in a while, he’ll catch me dwelling on unnecessary details. I figure when he sees them, I probably need to cut.

When I’m writing my police scenes, I do like my character to weigh all the options, since they’re trying to piece together clues, and often they don’t know what’s a clue and what’s not. But in an action scene, it’s important to remember to stick with the action. This isn’t the time to have your characters stop to reflect on the past. Dripping in back story should be done judiciously, and it’s probably never appropriate in life-threatening situations. Or even tension-filled scenes. Here’s an example from when I was working on Dangerous Connections:

My heroine, an undercover Vice cop, was supposed to use her “feminine wiles” to distract another character so the hero could mess with a computer program. I had her thinking about her job, because I wanted to make it clear that because she worked Vice didn’t mean she was experienced at seducing men.

Elle shoved her mind to the place she sent it when she was working a major sting. Truth of the matter, her day-to-day routine working vice didn’t involve seduction. Seduction could lead to claims of entrapment, and that was a headache for everyone. The johns weren’t fussy, and they didn’t want romance. All she had to do was get the money to change hands, and someone from her unit would show up and take them both away so as not to break her cover.

My partner’s comment: “I think you need to stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.”

Where did that come from?

Here’s an explanation from Robert Newton Peck’s Secrets of Successful Fiction:

Alma walked hurriedly down the dark and deserted street. Hearing footsteps echo behind her, she darted into a telephone booth. Before closing the door, Alma Glook knew she was not alone. With her in that phone booth was a five-hundred pound gorilla.

“Help!” yelped Alma.

Seeing the gorilla, her thoughts turned back in time to when she was a little girl, back home in Topeka, living with her aunt Mildred who was a taxidermist and scratched out their meager living by stuffing gorillas. In fact, her aunt had earned quite a reputation in college when she had, as a prank, stuffed nine gorillas into a phone booth.

Your readers aren’t interested in Alma’s past right now. They want to know how she’s going to deal with the gorilla. And the readers probably don’t need to know the ins and outs of working Vice. They want to know if Elle is going to be able to distract Bill so Jinx can do what he’s supposed to do.

A character’s thoughts can reveal a lot. Just be careful where you insert them.

Deadly FunMy new release, Deadly Fun. I’m sharing all March royalties with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Should You Write Dreck?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week we talked about the “telling detail,” and the power it adds. We gave some tips on how to craft such moments. That requires a thing called work.

Today we’re going to ask: is it worth the effort?

This query comes out of a post by Mr. Joe Konrath. He was, most of you will remember, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of self-publishing. He was also a prolific blogger, and not one to shy away from a strong opinion. Then, a couple of years ago, he went silent. Now he’s back, and clearly he’s lost none of his verve, as evidenced by his post On Writing S*** (this being a family blog, I have made a slight edit to the title).

The gist of the piece is that it may be pointless for today’s writer of indie fiction to spend too much time trying to improve the quality of his writing:

My first drafts are pretty good. They’re lean, and fast, and the character arcs and plot rarely need tweaking. The rewrite polish is mostly spent on housekeeping stuff; adding color, exploding certain scenes, adding more drama to the climax, salting in a few more jokes, changing word choices, putting in a few more clues or callbacks.

And sometimes a book is short, say around 60k words, I’ll spend time expanding some scenes or adding a few to beef it up to 70k+, because I want to give good value to the readers who still pay for my stuff rather than read it via KU.

So I spend a full 1/3 of my time as a writer trying to make a grade B book into a grade A book.

I think I’m wasting my time.

He goes on to say that readers of an author will stick with that author even if subsequent books in a series are not as good as the first few. His argument, broken down, goes like this:

Better isn’t actually better.

More is better.

Faster is better.

Flash beats substance.

Loyalty trumps all.

Konrath’s main exhibit is his wife’s reading habits. She will stick with an author she has liked in the past, even if the author’s new books aren’t so hot.

To be clear, Konrath’s post does not actually advocate its title. He does not think you can write pure dreck and get away with it. He says he couldn’t live with producing a work that’s “less than a grade C … But I could live with Bs. I was fine with getting Bs in school. Why put in all that extra work to turn a B into an A when I won’t lose readers for a B?”

It’s a good question, so let’s talk about it. A few reflections:

  1. Several A-list, traditionally-published writers have, over the last several years, “mailed it in.” Some have kicked up their output to satisfy publishers, who need them more than ever for the ol’ bottom line. Some of these more recent books have wider margins and fewer total words. Yet still they sell…though perhaps with some fall off, if reviews are any indication.
  2. A little fall off from an A-list writer still brings in big bucks.
  3. More is better does not always pay off. You still have to meet a certain minimum of storytelling skill.
  4. There many prolific indies (Konrath is one) who do have the skill and thus make more money the more they produce.
  5. For me, pride plays a role. I worked hard on a traditionally published legal thriller trilogy I’m very proud of. Indeed, I think the last line of the last book is the most perfect ending of my career. I re-wrote that last scene at least a dozen times. I’d do it again to gain the same effect. (FYI, the first book of the trilogy, Try Dying, is free today in the Kindle store).
  6. I write a book and work on it until I think it’s the best I can do within a time limit. I’ve got SIDs (self-imposed deadlines) and readers who want more of my stuff. Sometimes I miss a SID.
  7. If I miss a SID, I don’t cancel my contract. I do give myself a stern talking-to.
  8. I write to entertain, and for me that includes going for what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. This requires, once again, work.
  9. I also like being prolific which, in the “old days,” meant a book a year. As an indie, I can do more, and also include a regular output of short fiction.
  10. “The most critical thing a writer does is produce.” — Robert B. Parker.

So…where do you come out on this scale of craft, care, prolificity, faster, better?

Do you stick with an author or series no matter the quality of recent books?

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The Writing Books That Helped Me At The Start

by James Scott Bell

Last week in the comments, Kay DiBianca wrote:

I sure would like to have a master list of the best books for learning the craft of writing.

You asked, you got it.

Now, modesty prevents me from mentioning my own books on the craft. If I was not the humble scribe that I am, I would probably say something like, “These books have proved extremely helpful to fiction writers,” and then I’d put a link to my website for a list of the books.

Instead, I will narrow my focus six books which I found most helpful when I was starting out. There’s that old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Well, I was ready, and these books appeared. They helped lay a foundation for all my writing since.

Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham

Apparently only available in hardback, this is the Writer’s Digest updated version of Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell (which is the edition I studied). It was his treatment of “scene and sequel” that gave me my first big breakthrough as both a screenwriter and novelist. A light came on in my brain. It was a major AH HA! moment. Bickham’s style is accessible and practical, and a big influence on me when I began teaching. I wanted to give writers what Bickham gave me: nuts and bolts, techniques that work, and not a lot of fluff and war stories.

I found out that Bickham was running the writing program at the University of Oklahoma, where he himself had been mentored by a man named Dwight V. Swain. So I researched Swain, and discovered he’d been a writer of pulp fiction and mass market paperbacks, and written a book a bunch of writers swore by. So naturally I bought it.

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

For those wanting to write commercial fiction (i.e., fiction that sells), this is the golden text. Swain takes the practical view of the pulp writer, the guy who had to produce gripping, ripping stories in order to pay the bills. He lays it all out in a perfect sequence for the new writer, who could go chapter by chapter, building a writing foundation from the ground up. I review my highlighted and sticky-noted copy every year.

Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block

Block was, for years, the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine. At the same time, he was a working writer himself, having come up through the paperback market and into a series character that has endured, the New York ex-cop Matthew Scudder. Thus, what Block brought to the table was the way a prolific writer actually thinks. The questions I was having as I wrote Block always seemed to anticipate and address. He opens the book with his timeless advice: “If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel.”

Screenplay by Syd Field

This was, I believe, the first “how to” book I bought when I decided I had to try to become a writer. I started out wanting to write screenplays. With writers like William Goldman and Joe Eszterhas getting seven figures for original scripts, I thought, well, maybe this would be a good venture (the only more lucrative form of writing, according to Elmore Leonard, is ransom notes). Field’s book contains his famous “template,” which is a structure model. I studied movies for a year just looking at structure, and finally nailed it. What I added to Field was what is supposed to happen at the first “plot point.” I called it the “Doorway of No Return.” That discovery still excites me.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

This is a right-brain book, and therefore a necessary balance. The secret to elevated writing is finding a way for the rational and playful sides of the writer’s mind to partner up. Bradbury’s book is full of the joy of writing, and it’s infectious. Two of my favorite quotes: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” And: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!” My signed copy is always within reach.

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Sol Stein, 92 years young, is a writer, editor, and publisher (he founded Stein & Day back in 1962). When I started out he had an innovative, interactive computer program called WritePro, which is apparently still available. Much of the advice in the program is in this book, including inside tips on point of view, dialogue, showing and telling, plotting, and suspense.

So there you have it. My list of the books that helped me most when I was starting out. The floor is now open to you, TKZers. What books have you found helpful in your writing journey?

11+

From My Bookshelf: Early Writing Lessons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back when I decided I had to try to become a writer (even though I’d been told you can’t learn how to do it, that you’re either born a writer or not, and sorry, bud, if you’re not) I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. I had to see if I could learn, because the desire to write had come back into my life like a long, lost love.

Behind me in my office is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stuffed with my beloved writing books, a goodly portion of them purchased from WD. I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to look back at the early lessons I picked up during my unpublished days. I’ll look not only at the books, but also the several binders of Writer’s Digest magazines which I devoured each month. The underlines, highlights and sticky notes are like an archaeological dig into the formation of one writer’s mind.

One of the first books I got from WD was Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop. Bishop was an old-school fiction writer in the naturalistic style of James T Farrell. He also did a lot of teaching and editing. I ordered the book because I thought, Wow, 329 keys! I better get cracking!

Something funny about the book—there is no order in the material. It’s a collection of short selections that hop around between plot and characters and scenes and openings and point-of-view and the publishing business and so on. There’s an index which categorizes the subjects for you, but I happily got out my highlighter and sticky notes and read the thing from cover to cover.

It’s so much fun to look back to see what stuck out to me. For instance, on page 39 I highlighted the section called Details of Setting, wherein Bishop writes, in part, “Details of setting should be incorporated into the activity of a character. When details are put down separately from the character, they either intrude, slow the pace, or take the focus away from the character.”

Bishop then, as he does throughout the book, gives examples of how to do it, and how not to do it. And boom! I had learned something about the craft of fiction that I could immediately put to work to make my stuff better. I learned it because someone taught it to me in a book.  

Take that, skeptics!

In the middle of Dare to Be a Great Writer I have a sticky note next to the heading Avoid Repetitious Settings. Bishop says, “When rewriting, be alert for a repetition of setting. This repetition quickly reveals that the writer has been lax in his use of invention or is uninformed about the time in which the characters are living. To avoid this, list the settings you have already used and determine how often you have used them.”

Apparently I got the message, because just the other day I was writing a scene in a restaurant. I moved the characters outside to a hot dog stand where there is more activity going on. And now I realize that move was probably put in my head thirty years ago by Leonard Bishop.

But even more interesting, to me at least, are my own notes scribbled on the blank flyleaves of Bishop’s book. I added 14 more “keys.” These were things that occurred to me as I wrote my own pages or when I noticed what another author did in a novel.

I even numbered them according to Bishop’s scheme. For instance, #330, my first note, says Turn the Cliché 180°. I jotted an example of a man and woman going fishing, with the man being skilled and the woman being clumsy. Switch the roles, I wrote.

#332 is Close Your Eyes When Typing. Especially good for description. Capture the scene.

My last note , #343, says: In first rewrite, take out as much info in opening chapters as you can, in order to make it move and be more mysterious. Fill in the info later. TKZ regulars will recognize this as my later formulation, Act first, explain later. It first occurred to me back around 1990!

What I remember most about Dare To Be A Great Writer is the excitement I felt every time I opened it up. I wanted to be a great writer. Here was a book that was filled with the how. I’d wasted ten years believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction. This book dared to tell me I could.

So I did.

What is one of the earliest writing lessons you picked up? Where’d it come from?

20+

It Helps If You Can Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“For a long time now I have tried to simply write the best I can. Sometimes I have luck and write better than I can.” – Ernest Hemingway

There’s an old joke about a guy who gets paired with a priest for a round of golf. They hit the first green in regulation. The priest has a thirty-foot putt with a big break. He crosses himself and drains the putt.

The guy misses a five-footer.

On the next green, the priest crosses himself and nails a fifteen footer. The guy misses his.

Same story on the third green.

As they’re about to tee off on the fourth hole, the guy says, “Father, I noticed what you do before you putt. You think if I crossed myself I’d start making mine?”

The priest says, “It couldn’t hurt, my son.”

On the fourth hole the guy has a straight ten footer. He crosses himself, putts, and misses.

“So what happened?” he asks the priest.

And the priest says, “Well, it helps if you can putt.”

Which is how I feel about the whole how do I sell more books issue.

For many writers out there, unleashing a plethora of fancy marketing tricks is like crossing yourself. It can’t hurt. But to sell and keep selling, it helps if you can write.

The data backs this up. For example, BookBub recently put out an infographic based on a survey of their subscribers. Natch, most of them use BookBub to select new titles. But from there, two old reliables assert themselves as the largest slices of the book-buying pie.

The biggest factor is word of mouth. Overwhelmingly (and it has always been thus) people buy books they hear about from trusted sources. This usually means someone they know and can rely on, but also includes online communities such as Goodreads and well-trafficked blogs.

The other big slice is when an author someone has enjoyed in the past comes out with a new title. Once this happens a couple of times, the author has made a fan.

And how are fans created? By really good reads.

The $64,000 question (for those of you who remember the cultural derivation of that term) is this: What constitutes a really good read?

I am going to tell you.

It depends.

Thanks for stopping by!

Okay, here’s what I mean: It depends on your genre, your voice, your professionalism. It means you are able to write a book that not only meets expectations, but in some way exceeds them.

In other words, not just the “same old.” Because we’ve got too much of that. It means adding your own special something to the story.

I think of the old pulp writers. Who were the ones who caught on and were able to sell issue after issue, book after book?

Raymond Chandler, who could write description and dialogue like a trench-coated angel.

Erle Stanley Gardner, who could create twisty-turny plots featuring the smartest lawyer in the world.

Robert E. Howard, whose voice was as big and bold as the Texas winds that raised him.

Max Brand (real name: Fred Faust), the most prolific of them all, who elevated the standard Western into something that reaches into the soul.

I could go on, and we all can create our own list of favorite writers. What they will have in common is storytelling ability and “something more” that resonates with us.

Marketing only gets you an introduction. It’s your writing that does the heavy lifting. Which is why I offer a free novella to those who want to sample my wares. That’s a fair exchange. It’s like an arranged lunch date. As long as I don’t have broccoli in my teeth, maybe a reader will want to read more of my stuff.

So to you writers just starting out, or are trying to get a foothold in the market—keep learning and growing. Yes, you’ll need to lay a marketing foundation (e.g. a website, a bit of social media presence).

But keep the main thing the main thing: Always strive to write your best and sometimes you’ll have good luck and write better than you can!

12+

Stuff That Takes Readers Out of a Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today is an open forum. I want to discuss my theory of speed bumps. Why do we writers seem a bit obsessive about things like point of view, “head hopping,” dialogue attributions and so on? Some might think, Hey, man, if you’ve got a good story, those things won’t matter so much.

Well, I think they do. Because if you’re enjoying a pleasant drive, but keep hitting speed bumps, the pleasure you might otherwise have enjoyed will be diminished. And if it happens a lot, you may decide not to take that road again (meaning, not buy another book by the same author).

We want our novels to be more than good. We want them to be unforgettable. A high bar indeed, but why settle for less? “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one,” the old saying goes, “but you won’t get a handful of mud, either.”

I thought about all this the other day when reading a thriller by a bestselling author. Four things bumped me out of the story. I’d like to see if you agree. I have tweaked the details just a bit because I’m not here to throw shade on a fellow writer. But I do want us to learn.

The novel is about a female police detective on the trail of a serial killer.

  1. Double Punctuation

So I’m reading along and come to this line:

“You mean she took all of them!?”

I blinked a couple of times to make sure I was seeing correctly. Yes, they were there, the two punctuation marks.

It jolted me because I don’t even think this was done in the old Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books. Where was it done? In comic strips.

But here it is, in a contemporary thriller. I think it looks amateurish. But maybe that’s just me. Would a reader really care?

What do you think?

  1. Unneeded Attribution for Italicized Thoughts

It’s not going to happen, she thinks. Not here, not ever.

There are several ways to give us the interior thoughts of a character. One of them is via italics. But the whole point of an italicized thought is so you don’t have to use a tag like she thinks or she thought.

It’s an unnecessary interruption and thus a speed bump. Sure, maybe it’s a little one, but why have any at all when it’s so easy to smooth them out?

  1. But The Rock Does It!

Now we come to the climactic scene. The cop comes home only to find the serial killer waiting for her, with a gun, and holding a hostage by the neck.

The killer shoots. The bullet hits the cop in her upper arm and propels her body backward into the living room wall.

You know how we see this in movies all the time? Like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with a sawed-off shotgun and the bad guy’s body slamming into a wall or out a window or through a door.

Only problem: bodies don’t do that. Brother Gilstrap will back me up on this, but even with a shotgun blast to the chest a body falls downward like a sack of laundry.

But here we have a mere bullet from a revolver hitting an arm. I’m taken out of the scene because there’s no possible way for a body slam to happen.

But will readers notice? I ask you.

  1. Thrillus ex machina

You should be familiar with deus ex machina—Latin for “god from the machine.” It’s a term for something that happens to resolve the climax, only it drops in out-of-the-blue, unjustified. The protagonist is saved but the reader utters a great big “Come on!”

In some thrillers I’ve read there’s a kind of thrillus ex machina (apologies to Aristotle) at work. Suddenly the protagonist develops an instant set of skills or finds almost superhuman strength at just the right time. Or maybe there’s a suspension of physical or forensic reality.

So here we have our serial killer winging the protagonist while holding a hostage. The cop reaches behind her, with her left hand, for the service revolver she has holstered at the small of her back.

Then, using the hand she’s never practiced with, she fires off a shot and hits the killer’s right shoulder, inches from the hostage’s head.

Blood sprays from the wound.

The cop fires another round with her left, a perfect shot to the killer’s other shoulder, once again next to the hostage’s head.

At which point the killer passes out from shock and blood loss.

If I may: A bullet to the shoulder (or other soft tissue) does not cause a spray of blood.

Also, it’s hard for me to believe a trained cop would shoot with her unskilled hand with an innocent target exposed. But perhaps we can let that first shot pass. That she manages another perfect shot with her left, hostage still there, is too much.

Finally, someone doesn’t pass out from blood loss in a matter of seconds. A person needs to lose 3 to 4 pints of blood before they start to have oxygen issues.

Again, I’m not here to throw stones at this author. It’s doggone hard to end a thriller in a way that’s satisfying and unpredictable. Perhaps an A-list writer can get away with thrillus ex machina from time to time. It probably won’t put a big dent in the ol’ fan base.

But why risk any dents at all?

The floor is open.

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What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?

 

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Review Your Fiction Fundamentals

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Things change.

For instance, as of January 1, recreational marijuana use is legal in California. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our traffic problems. I think I know: Now, more than ever, California drivers will seldom leave a turn unstoned.

Ba-dump-bump. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waiters on the way out.

Other things don’t change. Grant is still buried in Grant’s Tomb (isn’t that a marvelous coincidence?)

And the foundations of great fiction remain solid and true.

You still need a character and you still need a plot. A plot is the stuff that happens to a character that forces him into a battle requiring strength of will. If you don’t have those elements, you don’t have a story. You might have a slice of life, or a character study. You might even have an “experimental” novel, which is also defined as a novel no one reads.

So know your fundamentals.

But also realize that conditions around you change, which may require applying the fundamentals in a slightly different way.

Case in point: The Golden State Warriors.

Basketball fundamentals include dribbling, shooting, passing, setting screens, playing defense. A coach figures out ways his team can do these things to create high-percentage shots and stop the other team from doing the same.

In the “old days,” the ideal offense was designed around a dominant big man, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Shaquille O’Neal.

But things have changed because of a couple of kids named Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. These are the two guards on the Golden State Warriors, and they are the best three-point shooters I’ve ever seen. They have made the Warriors the pre-eminent team in the NBA by virtue of their ability to score from twenty-five feet or more.

Now, common sense would tell you that a fifteen-foot jumper has a better chance of going in than a twenty-five footer. And you’d be right. But sports has been taken over by analytics, and the numbers say that a three-point shot, even at a lower percentage, has a higher overall value than a two-pointer. You can look it up.

What’s happened as a result is that the NBA has become three-happy. A big man doing battle below is no longer seen as essential to a championship. Indeed, it may be a liability. If you’re a seven-footer these days, you’ve got to be able to fling the rock. Broad and bulky has been replaced by lean and lithe (e.g., another Warrior, Kevin Durant).

The antiquated notion of trying to get close jumpers, layups and dunks has given way to schemes designed to spring shooters outside the arc. The same fundamentals (passing, screens, shooting) are in play, but applied in a different way.

Which brings us back to fiction writing.

A hundred years ago, the standard point-of-view for a novel was omniscient, often with the authorial voice intruding into matters, as in the opening pages of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900):

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms.

You almost never see this style today. Hemingway—the Steph Curry of his day—exerted tremendous influence in the 1920s by way of character-centric minimalism (the very opposite of what Dreiser did, above).

By the 1990s, the trend was toward immersive (or deep) POV, which keeps author voice out entirely (unless that voice is itself the point of the novel, e.g., Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams).

It also used to be common—even expected—to have adverbs attached to dialogue attributions. For example, here are some clips from a single page in a1929 novel, The Stray Lamb by Thorne Smith:

“Off again, major,” Sandra said resignedly . . .

“Not a scrap of evidence left behind,” Mr. Long optimistically informed the party . . .

“That depends,” answered Thomas consideringly . . .

Ack! Do that now and your book is likely to be set aside contemptuously.

So … what are the current conditions for the writer of fiction? We all know attention spans are shorter and demands for our time and money louder and more pervasive. Which means getting and holding the attention of the reader from the jump is a major challenge.

The fundamentals are still there to help you, by focusing on the crucial questions:

  • Is your POV consistent and immersive?
  • Is your dialogue crisp and compressed? Can it stand alone without being propped up by adverbs?
  • Is your structure solid? When your book starts to “drag,” do you know why and how to fix it?
  • Are your scenes organic? Do they all have a connection to the overall plot?
  • Do you know how create “jump off the page” characters?
  • Are you aware of the “speed bumps” that interrupt the fictive dream?

We’ve talked about goals and resolutions this week on TKZ. A good thing for the new year. This is my gentle reminder to include craft study on your list. That way, even if you live in California, your books won’t go to pot.

What’s something you’ve recently learned about the craft of writing that is serving you well? What’s an area you need to revisit and shore up?

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Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…

This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:

  1. I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
  2. The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
  3. This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
  4. Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week.  As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
  5. Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
  6. Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.

So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)

So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?

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