Coming To Terms

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When I first started trying to write fiction, about the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to tell a story. I had no idea what the basic rules for writing were, so I broke them all. I also came across many words and terms related to writing that remained undefined for a long time. As time passed, I started honing the craft and the terminology that goes with it. I’m still learning the craft today, but once a term is defined, it rarely changes. To help those that are just getting their feet wet in this wacky business of making stuff up in a dark room staring at a monitor and talking to imaginary people, here are a few terms that I wish someone would have defined for me back in the day. Hope there’s one here that you’ve wondered about but never knew for sure. Or maybe two or three. So let’s come to terms with writing terms.

Concept: A vague notion such as: A world ruled by apes.

High Concept: Usually verges on the outrageous or bigger-than-life “world” story such as: A world ruled by apes where humans are the subspecies.

Idea: A story description that sounds more like a short synopsis.

Premise: Similar to an idea, the premise is a one- or two-sentence reply to the question: “What is your story about?”

Genre: Categories of fiction (suspense, science fiction, horror, romance, etc.) that help create inherent expectations for the reader. Each genre will predetermine your basic story structure.

Mystery: Usually begins with an event and spends the rest of the story finding who caused it.

Thriller: Usually begins with the threat of an event and spends the rest of the story trying to stop it.

Plot: A series of events that determine the beginning, middle and end of a story.

Subplot(s): A secondary series of events that contribute to the main plot and characters.

Commercial Fiction: Plots that generally deal with externally driven characters and conflicts.

Literary Fiction: Plots that generally deal with internally driven characters and conflicts.

Plot Driven: A story that relies heavily on a series of events to push the characters forward.

Character Driven: A story that relies heavily on the characters to push the plot forward.

Story Question: A global question posed early in the story that intrigues the reader enough to keep reading. The story question signals to the reader when the story will end.

Theme: What the story says about the human condition.

Moral: A life lesson taught or insinuated at the conclusion of a story.

Suspense: Creates a desire in the reader for something to happen, delays the satisfaction of that desire, then delivers what the reader wants in an anticipated yet unexpected manner. Suspense is used to keep the reader wanting to read more.

Conflict: Conflict is the basic difference of goals between the protagonist and antagonist.

Foreshadow: The delivery of small hints about what’s going to happen later in the novel, and is used to heighten suspense.

Telegraphing: Revealing too much too soon. Telegraphing can diminish or destroy suspense.

Query Letter: A one- or two-page business letter to an agent or editor that serves as an introduction and selling tool for the writer and story.

Elevator Pitch: Similar to the premise, the elevator pitch is a short summary of the story that is meant to attract the attention of an agent or editor.

Copy Editor: An editor who addresses such story elements as word choice, plot points, paragraph flow, clichés and style issues. The copy editor will also point out a need for clarification and possible plot mistakes.

Line Editor: An editor who deals with the rules of grammar and punctuation along with addressing such issues as passive voice and formatting.

Acquisition Editor: an editor who reviews submitted manuscripts for possible purchase and publications. The acquisition editor also deals with global issues that might need addressing before the manuscript is accepted.

This is by no means a complete list of writing terminology. Additional lists can be compiled dealing with terms about publishing contracts, marketing, and so many other topics. So, Kill-Zoners, is there a term and definition you would like to contribute to today’s discussion? Perhaps a term you would like defined. Now’s your chance to come to terms.

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If it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

It was a dark and stormy night.

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in the blink of an eye?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch the movie THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these clichéd themes keep working. Try to avoid them at all costs.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix like the one in the previous sentence. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast in order to get the story onto the page, and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up.

My first tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where you can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean you should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for lazy writing.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character’s action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?

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shield-cover-smallDownload now: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

Coming soon in print and audio.

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Write Aids

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Wouldn’t it be great if we could download a software program, input some general ideas about a book we want to write, click compose, and an 80k-word manuscript magically appears? That’s certainly the Holy Grail of writers everywhere. Let the application do the heavy lifting while we just sit back and think up more great ideas. As of today, that software program doesn’t exist.

Still, writers are always looking for a shortcut. A tool that can take some of the pain away. A tool that can make the journey through the 3-act novel a bit easier. There are some programs that can help, even just a little.

Granted, the only tools needed to write a novel are a sharp pencil and a pad of paper. And some writers still use that method while others have gone on to word processors like MS Word. I prefer the latter since I can’t read my own writing.

But for those who seek a little bit of help to assist in the process, I’ve assembled a list of applications that might. I’ve never tried any of them and endorse none. But if one Zoner out there benefits from one of these, then my work here is done.

Probably the most popular program for novelists is Scrivener. Bestselling novels have been written with it and those who use it love it. You can test drive it for free.

After Scrivener comes smaller programs that focus on particular aspects of the writing process. Here’s a list. Hope you find that magic bullet in the list somewhere.

Note Everything. The ultimate note pad.

Write or Die 2. Helps to eliminate writer’s block.

yWriter5. Helps you to plan your novel.

Diaro. Advanced diary application.

Writer Pro. Professional writing suite.

FocusWriter. Gets rid of all distractions so you can concentrate on writing.

Writer. Helps you focus on your writing.

Hemingway. Helps you write bold and clear.

wikidPad. Helps you to link your ideas.

Wise Mapping. Online mind mapping tool.

MindNode. More mind mapping.

TreeSheets. Powerful note taking app.

Bubbl.us. Brainstorm or create a map for your ideas.

Sigil. EPUB editor.

Vizual Einstein. Visually develop a project.

The Writers Store. Complete source for writing software and other stuff.

There are tons more out there. You can find them with a simple Google search. So, fellow Zoners, do you use any writer aids or are all you writing tools in your head? Any programs to recommend?

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Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

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There’s no place like home

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

A beginning writer once asked me, “How do you find out what motivates your characters?” I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to consider interviewing your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.

As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them forward in the story. But it’s more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don’t know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won’t care about the outcome.

So what is the difference between want and a need?

The want is what our character consciously pursues in the story (Dorothy wants to get home after being transported to the Land of Oz by wooa tornado). The need can be a quality she must gain in order to get what she wants (courage, selflessness, maturity, etc.) or the need can be in direct conflict with what she wants. In Dorothy’s case, she needs to find the Wizard of Oz who supposedly can help her return home. Of course, we find that her real need is a lesson learned while interacting with all the good and evil characters along the Yellow Brick Road—a need to appreciate what she already has.

So the quality she needs to obtain is an appreciation of the love her family and friends have for her. If we work backwards, we already know that at the beginning of the story, she should show a lack of appreciation (or apparent lack) of those around her. Around the farm she lives on, they give her little attention and constantly tell her to stay out of the way. Knowing this need, we have now given Dorothy room to grow.

Now we can start forming Dorothy’s character in our head. We know that the story should force Dorothy into progressively greater conflicts so she sees how much her friends care for her, how much they stand by her and come to her aid. These conflicts should build until the final crisis (the Wizard leaves without her and she is trapped in Oz) where she is made aware of the deep love her family and friends feel toward her.

Every character must have a want and a need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every character, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.

In planning our stories, it’s important that we determine our main character’s wants and needs first. In doing so, we’ll always have a goal to focus on as we write. Ask ourselves, what are our main character’s wants and needs? Can we express them in one sentence? Dorothy wants to return home and needs to find the Wizard of Oz to help her. Give it a try. If you get lost, just click your heels together and repeat, “There’s no place like home.”

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Beta Readers

by Joe Moore

Recently, we received an email from Beth MacKinney, one of a TKZ friends, asking the question: “I’d like to know what guided questions an author can give to her beta readers to get the most helpful feedback from them.” I posted a blog on beta readers back in March, 2011. Below is a revised version of that blog to answer Beth’s question. Since many of my TKZ blog mates also use beta readers, I’m sure they will chime in with additional thoughts and tips.

A lot of writers including myself rely on beta readers to scrub our WIP and find all the plotting holes, mistakes, and general stuff that doesn’t work. So what is a beta reader? Should you go looking for one? How do you find and qualify them? How do they differ from a critique group? What are the things to look for in their feedback?

The term beta comes from software designers who use the term alpha and beta for different stages of program development. Alpha is the rawest stage—incomplete and untested—and beta is still under development but a small number of copies are released to the public for testing. In novel writing, this might be the first completed version of the manuscript where the author has made at least one pass through to edit and tweak.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Finally, always remember that it’s not personal. If it is, you chose the wrong beta reader. Regard the feedback as if you were giving input to a fellow writer.

How about the rest of you guys. Do you use beta readers? Are you a beta reader for someone else? Any additional qualifiers to choosing a beta reader?

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What’s wrong with said?

By Joe Moore

What’s wrong with the word said? Why is it that some writers, particularly new ones, feel that “said” is so boring they are compelled to find new ways to tag dialog? I think that said may be the best word ever invented. What other word can be used in any story with no adverse effects on the plot or characters? What other word is as transparent, invisible and nondestructive as said?

So if all that’s true, why do so many authors need to look elsewhere for a better word? It’s like a man married to the most beautiful woman in the world but decides to stray and cheat. Said is already the best choice; why go looking anywhere else? And in my opinion, straying from said too often will make the writing look amateurish.

So when an unfaithful author strays from a perfectly happy relationship with said, where do they go? They go to: exclaimed, murmured, screamed, whispered, pleaded, shrieked, demanded, ordered, cried, shouted, and my all-time favorite, muttered. If the dialog is so weak that the writer has to re-explain what emotions or motivations are being conveyed, there may be more serious problems lurking.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” the officer commanded. Really? Does anyone doubt that “Stop or I’ll shoot” is not a command? Is it necessary for the author to assume that the reader is that dumb? In this case, no dialog tag is even needed. The officer raised his Glock. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

Then there are the extreme dialog tags, the ones in which humans speak like animals. Here’s a fact: snakes don’t talk nor do dogs or lions or bears. I don’t believe that human speech should be tagged with the sounds animals make.

“I’m going to kill you,” he hissed. No he didn’t. First, it’s physically impossible. Second, it’s melodramatic. And it makes the character look silly. In a serious, dramatic moment, it can stop the reader cold and kick them right out of the story. If a writer wants to compare a character to a snake or dog, that’s fine. But humans don’t talk like snakes because snakes can’t talk. Don’t believe me? Try saying ANYTHING while hissing. Are people staring at you?

Then there’s the laughing and crying dialog tags. “I will defeat you,” he laughed. “I hate you,” she cried. No they didn’t. But here’s what could have happened: His laughter bellowed throughout the room. “I will defeat you.” Between sobs, she shook her clenched fist at him. “I hate you.” Wow, suddenly they don’t sound like carnival freaks.

Finally, there are the dreaded adverb tags. “I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do,” he said angrily. “Thank you so much,” she said gratefully. If the character’s words are already filled with anger or gratitude, the writer doesn’t need to double-explain it. The reader gets it. Don’t insult their intelligence.

Remember, your characters’ power is in their words, not in how you tag them. If needed, said will do just fine. Or better yet, don’t use a dialog tag.

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The End Game

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

I enjoy taking about the mechanics of writing, particularly the basics—Writing 101. The reason is that it’s where most new writers stumble and fall. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to play the end game and lose.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying conclusion. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time.

There are a number of methods you can use to make sure your ending works. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your protagonist to work toward and, in the end, they are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the protag and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

So how are you guys at playing the End Game. Any additional tips? What about telling us your favorite ending to a movie or book?

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Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

blade-cover4-smallI’m pleased to welcome back to TKZ my guest, Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer. I was fortunate to have Jodie edit my upcoming thriller, THE BLADE (co-written with Lynn Sholes), scheduled for release February 20. Enjoy Jodie’s terrific advice on creating the essential thriller hero.

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by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

P1070629_CloseupThe hero or heroine of a suspense-thriller, like the protagonist of any popular bestseller, has to be impassioned, unique, and likeable enough for the reader to want to latch on and follow them through their journey, worrying about them and cheering them on through their challenges. So it’s important to take the time to create a charismatic, passionate, complex, sympathetic main character, so readers connect with him or her immediately.

Heroes in novels and movies haven’t really changed a lot over the centuries since the days of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, but they continue to have universal appeal because through them, readers can vicariously participate in exciting adventures and confront and defeat evil to win the day and restore justice. Makes for a very entertaining, satisfying read. Get the adrenaline flowing with worry and fear, then triumph over adversity together, just in the nick of time!

Like the heroes of tales of long ago and, more recently, western and action-adventure stories and movies, the hero of a thriller is usually larger than life, and because of his cleverness, determination and special skills, can accomplish feats most of us cannot, including finding and crushing the bad guys before they get him! But unless you’re writing a James Bond-type story, don’t make your hero perfect or too cocky! Give them some inner conflict, weak spots or insecurities to keep readers worrying about them.

What’s the basic recipe for a suspense hero or heroine that sells books? I’d say the ideal hero is clever, resourceful, charismatic, likeable, tenacious, and courageous. What else? The classic hero may be (and often is) a rebel who defies society’s rules, but he has inner integrity and a personal code of honor, and will risk his life for a worthy cause. Readers want to cheer him on to defeat evil, so they can get a sense of satisfaction and empowerment that maybe they, too, could stop the bad guys, survive and help innocent victims, and restore harmony to their scary world.

From my various reading of craft-of-fiction books and bestselling thrillers and my own editing of thrillers and other suspense fiction, I’ve come up with this list of desired qualities for the hero or heroine of a page-turning suspenseful mystery, romantic suspense, or thriller novel.

Heroes and heroines of bestselling thrillers need most of these attributes:

~ Clever. They need to be smart enough to figure out the clues and outsmart the villain. Readers don’t want to feel they’re smarter than the lead character. They don’t want to say, “Oh, come on! Figure it out!”

~ Resourceful. Think MacGyver, Katniss of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, or Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive. The hero needs to be able to use ingenuity and whatever’s at his disposal to get out of any jams he finds himself in and also to find and defeat the bad guy(s).

~ Experienced. They’ve done things and been places. They’ve had a variety of tough life experiences that have helped them grow. They’ve “lived” and are stronger and more resilient for it. They’re definitely not naïve.

~ Determined. Your hero or heroine needs to be tenacious and resilient. They keep going. They don’t cave under pressure or adversity. They have a goal and stick to it, despite personal discomforts like fatigue, hunger, injuries, and threats.

~ Courageous. Bravery is essential, as readers want to look up to him/her. Any heroes who are tentative or fearful early on should soon find courage they didn’t know they had. The challenges and dangers they face force them to be stronger, creating growth and an interesting character arc for them.

~ Physically fit. Your heroine or hero needs to be up to the physical challenges facing her/him. It’s more believable if they jog or work out regularly, like Joe Pike running uphill carrying a 40-pound backpack. Don’t lose reader credibility by making your character perform feats you haven’t built into their makeup, abilities you can’t justify by what we know about them so far.

~ Skilled. To defeat those clever, skilled villains, they almost always have some special skills and talents to draw on when the going gets rough. For example, Katniss in Hunger Games is a master archer and knows how to track and survive in the woods, Jack Reacher has his army police training and size to draw on, and Joe Pike has multiple talents, including stealth.

~ Charismatic. Attractive in some way. Fascinating, appealing, and enigmatic. Maybe even sexy. People are drawn to him or her.

~ Confident but not overly cocky. Stay away from arrogant, unless you’re going for less-than-realistic caricatures like James Bond.

~ Passionate, but not overly emotional. Often calm under fire, steadfast. Usually don’t break under pressure. Often intense about what they feel is right and wrong, but “the strong, silent type” is common among current popular thrillers – “a man of few words,” like Joe Pike or Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch.

~ Unique, unpredictable. They have a special world view, and a distinctive background and attitude that sets them apart from others. They’ll often act in surprising ways, which keeps their adversaries off-balance and the readers on edge.

~ Complex. Imperfect, with some inner conflict. Guard against having a perfect or invincible hero or heroine. Make them human, with some self-doubt and fear, so readers worry more about the nasty villains defeating them and get more emotionally invested in their story.

~ Wounded. Had a tough background that toughened them up somewhat. But they’re still vulnerable because of it. Lucy Kincaid, from Allison Brennan’s romantic thriller series, was brutally attacked and nearly killed by a rapist, but she’s determined to overcome the emotional scars and become an FBI agent; Joe Pike was repeatedly beaten by an abusive father; Elvis Cole was abandoned by his mother; Jack Reacher was an army brat who was constantly in fights and lost his parents and brother. How these characters deal with their emotional and physical wounds touches the reader’s heart and draws us in.

~ Idealistic, Honorable, Self-sacrificing. The thriller hero or heroine may lie, cheat, steal, even kill, but they do it for the greater good, to stop threats and defeat evil. While never a pious goody-goody, the thriller hero is prepared to do whatever it takes to help innocent people who are threatened, protect an individual or family being terrorized, or rescue a child who’s been kidnapped. Having a sense of honor or being self-sacrificing is often what separates a flawed hero from a villain. For example, Rick in Casablanca is a cad-type antihero who ultimately sacrifices his own personal needs/wants/desires for the greater good and turns into a hero at the end. Similarly with Walt, the gruff, racist Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino.

~ Independent. Often a loner. Might even be an outlaw. Your hero works well – even best –alone, especially if an undercover agent or on a mission or assignment. Heroes often find themselves in situations where they can’t really depend on others – they need to solve the problems through their own resourcefulness, physical effort, and courage. As a result, and because of their inner makeup, heroes often make their own rules. Some examples of this are Robin Hood, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jack Reacher, and Joe Pike.

~ Usually likeable. But not always. Exceptions are those really rough, gruff antiheroes who redeem themselves somehow at the end, like Rick in Casablanca, Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry, or Walt Kowalsky, the crotchety old Clint Eastwood character in the movie Gran Torino.

Also, it’s a good idea to give your hero or heroine:

~ An Achilles heel. A weakness or phobia. Maybe they’re afraid of heights or are claustrophobic. Maybe they’re afraid of snakes, like Indiana Jones. And Superman had to stay away from kryptonite. Give your hero a phobia or weakness, then of course put them in a scene where they’ll have to face their fears and overcome them!

~ A soft spot. Show a softer, more caring side to your tough hero now and then, to make him more human and appealing. Maybe he cares about the underdog, a minor character, an animal, or a child or baby.

Who are some of your favorite thriller heroes and heroines of novels, films or TV? What makes them so likeable? What special talents or attributes do they possess? Any you really don’t like? Why not?

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

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Kick starting your story

By Joe Moore

Have you noticed that everyone is writing a book? Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. Here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

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Making an emotional connection

By Joe Moore

While reading the news recently, a story caught my attention: At least 25 dead in Hong Kong ferry collision. Apparently, two vessels collided, killing 25. More than a dozen others were missing. It’s being called one of Hong Kong’s worst maritime accidents.

plugAlmost every day we read or hear about tragedies in the news: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, mass killings. As human beings, even the most distant, obscure news of fellow humans losing their lives or encountering other tragedies usually draws some emotion, even if it’s fleeting. But unless we’re directly connected with the people in those news stories, our emotional reaction and interest is often shallow at best. The reason is that we know virtually nothing about them. They are just numbers and statistics. If we take the time to read the article, we may see some additional details that make the people involved a little more real. There may be a human interest angle that grabs our attention for a moment or two before we turn the newspaper page or click on the next link. But basically, we don’t care deeply because we have no emotional connection with them.

As writers, when it comes to our readers, if they have little or no emotional connection with the characters in our books, they won’t care what happens to them. And if they don’t care, we’re in trouble.

An emotional connection is created when a reader formulates conclusions about our characters’ personalities based on what we show the characters doing and saying. It’s not good enough for the narrator to “tell” the reader what a brave and generous guy our protagonist is or that our antagonist is a heinous villain. We have to show the reader through the characters’ actions, dialogue, interior thoughts and reasoning, and the way they treat others and their life choices from one situation to the next. Then a connection can start to form.

A solid approach to establishing each of these is to ask: what would you do? How would you react to a situation that you’ve created in your story? It doesn’t matter whether you’re assuming the persona of the protagonist, antagonist, secondary character or a mere walk-on. You are a human and so are they. They should act and react like humans, think like humans, and reason like humans. Only when they do will the reader form the critical bond or connection. Otherwise, all you have is two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts lacking depth and dimension.

Some helpful techniques include using universal experiences. Who has not told a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Who hasn’t been faced with deciding between what’s right and what’s easy? Who hasn’t felt animosity or even hate for someone who has wronged you? When your character is in a similar situation, examine how you would react?

If you want your reader to like your character, analyze what it is that makes you like or love someone in real life. Use those emotional traits to build your character. And the opposite is also true. To create a character you want the reader to hate or despise, look for someone you dislike and figure out why. Are they egotistical, self-centered, mettlesome, cold, cruel, or mean? Utilize those universal feelings to build a strong antagonist. But never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with humans. Even Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader had strong human characteristics, good and bad.

One universal element that we all can relate to is pain—both physical and mental. Don’t be afraid to dish out the pain when it comes to developing your characters. It’s okay to put pain in their path because it gives them an opportunity to overcome something and by doing so become stronger or wiser or both. Pain, like any other obstacle, is an opportunity for character growth.

The more human you can make your characters, the better chance you’ll have of your readers forming a connection with them. Always consider how you would react, then have your characters act in a similar, logical manner. And throw in a shot of pain once in a while to keep things interesting.

What about you? Think of your most memorable characters, as a writer and/or reader. What made the two of you connect?

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