Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

Captivate Your Readers_medJodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

For mundane scenes, it’s best to spare readers the details. We don’t need to know that your character got up, showered, dressed and had toast and eggs before heading off to work. Yawn.

On the other hand, when it comes to significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. To increase tension, suspense, and intrigue, milk those crucial scenes for all they’re worth.

Below are some “before” examples, inspired by passages I’ve edited. In each example, including additional detail, such as emotions, physical sensations, and reactions, would be much more effective in bringing the scene to life and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

I’ve quickly created a possible “after” example for each one to illustrate what I mean, but I’m sure you can do even better.

Setup: Escaping from an insane asylum.

Before:

Harley whispered, “I managed to lift the keys. Four in the morning. Get through the woods. I’ll be waiting in a car on the other side.”

Jennifer didn’t sleep at all that night. Four a.m. couldn’t come soon enough. Harley had chosen that time because it was the morning shift change, when the attendants met to discuss what patient problems to look for. After they had settled into the cafeteria, Jennifer ran to the supply room that had an exit door at the other end. The keys worked perfectly, and she was out behind the hospital in less than a minute.

That was way too easy for suspense fiction. Nothing went wrong! Yawn. Let’s try that again:

After:

Harley whispered, “I managed to lift the keys to the supply room. Inside the room, there’s an exit door that leads to the backyard. Do it at four in the morning. It’s shift change, and they’ll all be meeting to discuss the patients. Get through the woods. I’ll be waiting in a car on the other side.”

Jennifer didn’t sleep at all that night. At four a.m., she threw on a robe and crept toward the supply room, flattening herself against the walls and ducking into doorways. She peeked around the last corner. Damn. An orderly was coming out of the supply room carrying towels. Jennifer ducked her head back and hid in a dark recessed doorway, clutching the keys so they wouldn’t jiggle.

She heard footsteps approaching. She held her breath. The orderly passed, engrossed in his cell phone, so he didn’t notice her. She raced to the storage room, glad she was wearing sneakers. Looking around, she tried one key after another, before finally hitting one that opened the door. Yes. She crept in and quietly closed the door behind her, then fumbled for the light switch so she could find the back exit. Just as she saw the exit straight ahead, she heard footsteps approaching. Damn. The orderly must be back. She snapped off the light and tiptoed toward the Exit sign in the dark. She fumbled for the doorknob and found it just as she heard a key in the other door. She yanked out the door and slipped out.

So far so good! But she still has to make it across the back field to the cover of the woods. And did the orderly hear her close the exit door?

Another “before” to continue the same story:

Jennifer looked around. It was pitch black and raining like crazy. With every step, she would sink a few inches into the muck, more walking than running. When she got to the edge of the yard, she searched for a hole in the hedge, then crawled through. She hopped a barbed wire fence and saw a blue Toyota idling on the side of the road. She took off on a run.

My advice to the author of the original version was:

For nail-biting scenes like this, it’s best to have more “showing” than “telling.” Stretch it out a bit here for more trouble and tension and suspense. Also, amp up the tension by adding more danger and threats.

After:

It was pitch black and raining like crazy. And she was in her hospital gown. She started to run across the field, sinking into the muck with every step, more walking than running. Behind her, the door opened, and a male voice yelled “Hey, you! Stop!”

Crap! She picked up her pace, glad she was away from the lights and there was no full moon. As she raced through the soggy field, the mud sucked off one shoe, then another. The alarm started blaring behind her. She limped along, bare feet sinking into the mud with each step.

When she finally reached the woods, she discovered that what from her window had looked like a thin hedge was instead a thorny knot of blackberry bushes. She ran along the edge looking for an opening. At last, she found an opening and crawled through. She ran along the deer path for a while, then stopped. A barbed wire fence. Damn! She carefully grabbed the wires and pulled them up and down, then crawled through with difficulty. She could hear yelling and running behind her. She ran to the road and saw a blue Toyota idling there. She took off on a run.

Here’s another example of adding details, emotions, and reactions to create a more riveting scene.

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Before:

Linda opened the door of the tiny apartment.

Terry was gone, his clothes were gone, and so was the money. What! She ran down the concrete steps and into the parking lot. The Jeep was gone.

After:

Linda opened the door of the tiny apartment.

Where was Terry? She called his name. No answer. She surveyed the small room, then checked the bathroom and tiny bedroom. No sign of him. His clothes were gone too. What the–? Did he take the money, too?

Starting to panic, she searched under the bed and in the closet for the bag of cash. She yanked open all the dresser drawers and pulled out the contents, then ran and ransacked the small kitchen and living area. Nothing. Shit! The rat.

She ran down the concrete steps and into the parking lot. The Jeep was gone. Christ. Now what? She stomped her foot and ran a hand through her hair in frustration.

And one last example:

Before:

Ken ran down the back stairs. The wind was whistling between the buildings, and it felt like it was twenty below. He finally saw an old beater in the back of the parking lot that wasn’t locked, so he jumped in, hotwired it, and got the hell out of there.

It would be much more effective to show the details of his struggle so the reader can picture what he’s going through and get caught up in it, rather than skimming over and summarizing like this.

After:

Ken ran down the back stairs. The wind was whistling between the buildings, and it felt like it was twenty below. Hoodie up over his head, he darted through the parking lot, trying one car door after another. All locked. Damn! He looked around. A dented beater sat in the back of the parking lot. He dashed over and tried the door. It opened. Yes! He jumped in, hotwired it, and got the hell out of there.

But don’t show details the character wouldn’t notice.

On the other hand, skip any extraneous or distracting details, things the character wouldn’t notice or care about at that critical moment.

Say your two characters, a young male and female, are on the run from bad guys in a large museum or art gallery. They’ll be desperately looking for places to duck into or exits, concentrating on escaping alive. This is not the time to go into detail about the interesting artwork or ancient artifacts around them. Perhaps mention a few in passing as they consider ducking behind them, or for some other reason relevant to their life-or-death situation. Describing their surroundings in detail is not only unrealistic; it dissipates the tension and slows down the pace at a time when they should be charging through at a break-neck speed.

So be careful not to bog down your fast-paced scenes with a lot of detail the characters wouldn’t have time to notice.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversFor more tips on pacing your scenes, including how to write effective action scenes, check out my three editor’s guides to writing compelling fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller.

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Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

villainJodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. Readers need to be constantly worrying about him. Which means his life is in upheaval and he’s struggling, dealing with increasing conflict in the form of serious opposition or threats. One or more forces of opposition should threaten the protagonist or stand in the way of his goals.

Challenges don’t need to be in the form of an actual character. They can be some other kind of opposing force or idea, like a fear, phobia, prejudice, or handicap that is preventing the character from reaching her goals.

The main threat in fiction usually comes in the form of an antagonistic character, who isn’t necessarily a murderous villain. Other determined opponents include romantic rivals, “mean girls,” schoolyard bullies, competing colleagues, or sports rivals.

Antagonists can also fall into a gray zone of opposition characters who aren’t really evil, just at odds with the protagonist we’re rooting for. They can be fascinating too, as we don’t know if they’re going to change sides, so they’re often unpredictable. A few examples include the Tommy Lee Jones character chasing Harrison Ford’s character in the movie The Fugitive and Sheriff Teasle in First Blood, who is after our hero, John Rambo. Or how about Han Solo from Star Wars? Not a villain, but not a good guy, either. He sparks things up though, doesn’t he? We wonder whether these somewhat likeable or understandable bad guys could switch sides at any time.

To pose a credible, significant threat and cause readers to worry, your antagonist should be as clever, powerful, and determined as your protagonist. Challenges and troubles are what make your main character intriguing, compel her to be the best she can be. They force her to draw on resources she never knew she had in order to survive, defeat evil, or attain her goals.

For today’s post, we’ll assume your antagonist is a villain – a mean, even despicable, destructive character we definitely don’t want to root for. He needs to be a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goals or a menace to the hero’s loved ones or other innocents. And thrillers, fantasy, and horror require really frightening, nasty villains.

Most of the bad guys in movies and books want the same thing: power. Or maybe revenge or riches. And they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. Or worse, they enjoy causing pain, even torturing their victims.

The antagonist needs to be powerful, a game-changer. As Chuck Wendig says in his excellent blog post 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists,” “The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.”

The protagonist and antagonist have clashing motivations. Their needs, values, and desires are at odds. The antagonist and protagonist could have completely opposite backgrounds and personalities for contrast – or be uncomfortably similar, to show how close the protagonist came or could come to passing over to the dark side.

Most readers are no longer intrigued by “mwoo-ha-ha,” all-evil antagonists, like Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, be sure your villain isn’t unexplainably horrid, evil for the sake of evil. Today’s sophisticated readers are looking for an antagonist who’s more complex, realistic, and believable.

Chuck Wendig suggests antagonists should be depicted as real people with real problems: “People with wants, needs, fears, motivations. People with families and friends and their own enemies. They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy mustaches.”

For a believable, fascinating antagonist or villain, try to create a unique, memorable bad guy of a type that hasn’t been done to death. Try to give him or her an original background and voice.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s right. He justifies his actions somehow, whether it’s revenge, a thirst for power, ridding society of undesirables, or payback. He may even feel he has a noble or just goal, as in the serial killer of prostitutes.

To create a worthy opponent for the protagonist and a realistic, believable, complex antagonist, get into his mind-set. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does the antagonist want or need?
  • Why is he determined to go after it?
  • What drives the antagonist? Greed? Revenge? Hatred? Anger? Hurt?
  • What is his biggest motivation? To avenge past wrongs? To gain ultimate power?
  • Who does he want to suffer or lose out? Why?
  • How does he justify his actions? What does he tell himself?

Now create a backstory for your antagonist. Most of it will not show up in your story, but you need to get a handle on what makes him tick to ensure he acts in ways that are in keeping with his background.

Develop his voice. As you do for the protagonist, you can write a free-form rant, where he goes on and on about why he hates someone or something, wants to get revenge, needs to find and kill certain people, and so on.

Show his justification for his goals and actions. Why does he think he’s right and justified in his actions? This will create a more believable, more determined bad guy.

Perhaps identify at some point in your narrative a flashback or allusion to an experience that shows the antagonist as a victim – abused or neglected, treated cruelly by family or others in power. This can create a spark of sympathy while also potentially foreshadowing a particularly nasty incident. (Thanks to thriller author Tom Combs for this suggestion.)

Write some scenes purely from the antagonist’s point of view, away from the protagonist, so readers can find out what makes him tick and how twisted he is. This also creates reader concern for the protagonist, which is always a good thing.

Make him scary, a force to be reckoned with, but not all-powerful, as that’s unrealistic. Give him a few weaknesses, too.

And for added complexity and dimension, take it one step further by showing a human side of the antagonist, something readers can actually relate to, might be afraid they could also fall into. That amps up the tension and reader involvement.

So to create a fascinating, believable antagonist or villain, try to make him or her unique. Delve into their background, find out the goals and motivations that drive them forward. Get into their mind and try to understand them. How do they justify their actions?

Give us a complex villain we love to hate – or a gray antagonist who makes us squirm!

TKZers – Who are some powerful villains who made you shiver in novels or films?

Captivate Your Readers_med– And what about your favorite “gray” antagonists or anti-heroes?

And for a future article, what do you think about all the gray protagonists or anti-heroes cropping up in novels, movies, and TV shows, like Nick in Gone Girl and Walter in Breaking Bad? Do you welcome that trend toward a flawed, unlikeable protagonist? Or do you yearn for more admirable, ethical, heroic heroes to root for?

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers.

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Do your Research!

imagesToday I leave for a very exciting trip to India – not only am I excited because it’s a place that’s been on my (long) ‘must see’ list for ages but also because it gives me a chance to do some ‘on the ground’ research. I’m lucky that my love of travel and history can be combined in this way, but I also understand that I have an obligation to future readers to get the details of any story I write as accurate as possible. Although ‘on site’ research isn’t always possible, few things compare to actually breathing in the air of the place you plan to write about or to feel, smell, hear and touch the very things your characters will experience.  The immediacy of this kind of research will (I hope) translate into a more visceral sensory experience for the reader as well.

Following Jim’s theme from yesterday’s blog post – I also feel strongly that one of the top things guaranteed to make a writer fail is a failure to do research. This research includes critical information about the publishing and writing industry as well as everything pertinent to the book a writer is hoping to complete. And when I say everything – I mean everything. Readers today demand a compelling and accurate story – and be assured, if you fail to research something properly there will be an army of readers out there eager to tell you so!

This research can usually be done at the desk top – with the internet offering a wealth of information that was never as readily accessible as it is today. I can read antiquarian books that have been electronically scanned, view newspaper columns from a past era – even look up the weather reports for a particular date I have in mind. As a historical writer, I feel an obligation to get the facts right as much as possible and I have been known to spend way too many hours researching furnishings, paintings, and books that will comprise less than a few sentences of background in my novels (what can I say, I love my job!). Still – nothing quite compares to the thrill of actually being in the place you want to write about.

So today I go armed with notebooks, computer and camera as well as all my (aging) senses – hoping to capture the essence of place and history for India that I want to capture in my future story. My travels will include Delhi, Agra, Hyderabad and Udaipur, and, I know I will find the experience overwhelming and confronting at times, as I witness the juxtaposition of modernity and history, poverty and riches first hand.

Unfortunately, I may not be able to view this post or comment as much as I’d like (as I’ll be flying part of the day), but I would like to hear from my fellow TKzers on a place that they would like to visit as research for an possible book they’d love to write.

So what country or place is on your ‘must see’ list for a possible future book? Have you ever given up on a book after realizing the writer failed to do their research?

 

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Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character!

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

DO YOUR CHARACTERS’ DECISIONS AND ACTIONS SEEM REALISTIC AND AUTHENTIC?

Have you ever been reading a story when suddenly the protagonist does or says something that makes you think, “Oh come on! Why would he do that?” or “This is crazy. Why doesn’t she…?” or “But I thought he…!” or “I didn’t know he/she could [insert extraordinary ability].” The character seems to be acting illogically, to be making decisions with little motivation or contrary to his personality, abilities, or values

I see this problem a lot in fiction manuscripts I edit. The author needs something to happen for the sake of the plot they’ve planned out in advance, so they force a supposedly intelligent character to do something contrary to common sense and their best interests, like recklessly putting themselves in danger.

For example, I once edited a book where the highly educated, intelligent heroine rose from her bed in the middle of the night and, without telling her husband where she was going or even leaving a note, drove to a remote warehouse to find some incriminating evidence, knowing the killer was likely to return – which of course he did, and attempted to kill her. It made for an exciting scene, but unfortunately, the otherwise savvy character came off looking like a foolhardy, impulsive airhead. I couldn’t help wondering, why wouldn’t she tell her husband? Better yet, call the police and let them handle it.  Even police, who are trained for these situations, usually get backup.

Moving your characters around like pawns to suit the plot, if it doesn’t make sense for who they are, could have your readers scratching their heads in disbelief or, worse, throwing your book across the room, then writing a scathing one-star review of it.

Don’t force your characters, kicking and screaming, into actions they just wouldn’t do.

Readers won’t suspend their disbelief and bond with the character if they don’t “buy” what the character is doing and why. An engrossing story needs realistic characters dealing with adversity in bold but realistic and plausible ways.

To make a character’s decisions and actions convincing, take care when creating their background, character, abilities, and motivations.

Background, character, and personality

Of course, you don’t want to make your hero or heroine ordinary, timid, or passive, with few daring decisions, because that would make for a ho-hum book most readers wouldn’t bother finishing. But on the other hand, if you’re going to have them perform daredevil feats, be sure to build that into their makeup.

First, get to know your main characters well. Take some time to develop their background, character, and personality. Are they athletic or more cerebral? Risk-takers or cautious? Do they embrace change, enjoy challenge, love to learn new things? Or do they prefer to stay within their comfort zone? To plumb their depths, do some free-form journaling in which they express their strongest desires, fears, hopes, secrets, regrets, and gripes.

Are they physically capable of what you want them to do?

Abilities

If, for a riveting plot, you need your hero to do something heroic, almost superhuman, make sure he has the determination, strength, flexibility, and endurance to do that. Although it’s amazing what people are able to do under duress with the adrenaline flowing, it’s more credible if your character is already at least somewhat fit. Does he work out a lot to maintain muscle mass, agility, and endurance? How? Also, he’ll need to be intelligent, skilled, and resourceful.

If he needs special skills, show earlier on that he possesses them and how it all makes sense, given his overall makeup. In one novel I edited, the sedentary, slightly overweight, middle-aged protagonist fought off a strong attacker with quick, expert martial arts moves. This was an “Oh, come on!” moment, given his lifestyle, age, and paunch.

In The Hunger Games, we learn early on that Katniss is an expert at archery, which is a huge factor in her survival later. A nerdy banker probably doesn’t do kickboxing on the side, so you may need to make him less desk-bound and more athletic for it to work. Or give him another profession.

If you’re writing fantasy, of course you have more leeway with unusual characters and situations, but if you’re writing a realistic genre, with no supernatural or paranormal elements, make sure the character’s actions are realistic and make sense.

Motivations

Is your hero sufficiently motivated to put his life on the line? Do those motivations fit with his belief system, background, and immediate needs? If you want or need a character to do something dangerous, go back and give him some burning reasons for choosing that course of action.

Perhaps he finds himself in a life-and-death situation for himself or someone he loves, or innocent people are in grave danger. His love, concern, and determination will make him more selfless and daring, bringing out courage he never knew he had.

As Steven James advises in Story Trumps Structure, as you’re writing your story, ask yourself , “What would this character naturally do in this situation? Is he properly motivated to take this action?”

Causality

Be sure your narrative is also shaped by the logic of cause and effect. For your story to be believable, character decisions and reactions need to plausibly follow the original stimulus or actions. If your character overreacts or underreacts to what has just happened, they won’t seem “in character” or real.

Be sure every decision and action makes sense with what preceded it. As James suggests, as you go along, continually ask yourself, “What would naturally happen next?”

So don’t force your characters to act in uncharacteristic ways because your plot needs them to. Readers will pick up on that. Rather than insisting certain events or actions happen as you had planned, instead allow the natural sequence of events and logical reactions to shape your plotline.

Go through your story to make sure your characters are acting and reacting in ways that are authentic to who they are and where they’ve come from, and that they’re sufficiently motivated to take risks. Also, do their reactions fit with the stimulus? Is that a logical response to what happened?

Ask yourself, as you’re writing, “Is there a way to accomplish this that fits with the character’s values and personality?” If not, I suggest you either change the plot (have them make a different decision and rewrite where that leads them) or go back and change some of the character’s basic attributes, values, and skills. Or add in incidents in their past that have shaped them in ways that will justify their current actions.

That way your plot will flow seamlessly and your characters will seem real. There will be no bumps, no hiccups where readers will be suddenly jolted out of the story.

As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes,

“…get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-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. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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