If They Buy the Premise

If They Buy the Premise …
Terry Odell

A comment from my editor on my current manuscript, saying “This should have come up 200 pages ago” was a good reminder about using foreshadowing.

If they buy the premiseIn talking about comedy, Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.”

The same goes for fiction. You have to sell the premise early on. You can’t stop to explain a character’s skill set, motivation, or fear at the height of the action. Nor can you bring in great-uncle Phineas in the last chapter of your mystery and reveal him as the killer. No fair using the deus ex machina method of resolving your story.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. If the movie had opened with Indy in the classroom, would viewers have “bought” that he was really capable of everything he’d have to do in the movie? No, but by showing him in the field in a life-and-death situation first, we’ll accept that he’s a lot more than a mild mannered college professor.

Before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we’ve seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he’s got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes using duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.

Foreshadowing isn’t only for the “Big Stuff,” though. You should consider making sure you’ve set things up for the “Little Stuff” as well. Think of setups as breadcrumbs you scatter for readers to follow.

You should set things up early on, and in a different context. Setup Scenes should occur throughout the book, and should set up minor plot points as well as major ones.

Example. In a scene from my When Danger Calls, my stalwart hero has been tasked with supervising two little girls who are playing with dolls. They come downstairs and show their mom the fancy braids he’s created.

Would my macho covert ops guy really know how to braid a doll’s hair, or did I stick it in because I thought it would be a cool way to move his relationship with the mom along? Would I have to stop the story to explain where he acquired the skill? Not if I’ve shown it, and better to do it in an entirely different context. Earlier in the book, readers see this:

Ryan leafed through the snapshots while he waited for the earth to start revolving again. He knew which one he wanted as soon as he saw it. He remembered the day it had been taken, right after he’d won third prize at the fair with Dynamite, his pony. He’d been so sure he’d get the blue ribbon and hadn’t wanted to pose for the family picture his grandfather insisted on taking. He saw the look in his mother’s eyes. So proud, she’d made him feel like he’d won first prize after all.

There’s no mention of him actually braiding the horse’s mane or tail, but it shows that he’s had experience with horses, all couched in a scene that’s about something entirely different—his emotional reaction to seeing old family photos.

Then, later in the book, when the girls display their dolls’ hairdos, Mom asks where Ryan learned to braid. One of the girls responds, “On real horses. He used to braid their hair. For shows.”

You’ve set the premise, so reader should buy the bit.

We know Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes at the very beginning of the movie. Because of that opening scene, we know to expect something with snakes, which adds to the tension.

Lee Child foreshadows almost everything he shows in his books. In Gone Tomorrow  a fellow passenger rambles on about the different kinds of subway cars in New York. That tidbit shows up front and center later on in a high-action climactic scene. And even the little things, that might not be significant plot points, such as the origin of the use of “Hello” to answer the phone will appear, letting the reader know that the character was paying attention, too.

What will lead to book-throwing by readers? How about this?

Hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. (Since I write romantic suspense as well as mystery, the genre requires both as protagonists, but it could be your hero and partner, or someone he’s been charged to protect.)

The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, “Of course. I’m a crack shot,” and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what’s necessary to save the hero’s life. Plus, she’s an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

Believable? Not if this is the first time you’ve seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she’s cleaning up after a fishing trip. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don’t want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she’ll need later. Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you’re writing, it’s important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you’re writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there’s no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and scatter those breadcrumbs.

What about you? How do you make sure you’re not entering into deus ex machina territory? What kind of breadcrumbs do you scatter? How do you hide the clues?



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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Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Another author who blurbed one of my books told me, “You have great narrative drive.” I thanked her with a smile and quickly went to look it up. Being a self-taught author, I had never heard the term. Narrative drive is that quality that keeps readers turning the pages, riveted to your work. It’s your innate story telling ability. It’s not complicated when you break it down, but how do you teach it? Can it be taught?

What sets apart highly successful best selling authors from others? Best selling authors can build worlds that readers want to be in and they create memorable characters and plots that are compelling with good pace, but do they have something unique to them and their ability that sets them apart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If an author is in control of everything in a book, the fixes come from the author too. Be critical of each scene during the edit phase. I first strip out the unnecessary words to tighten the writing. I layer in the emotional content. Whatever the scene is meant to do–like action or romance or mystery–I layer in MORE of those elements. I read the book aloud to make sure it has cadence and the dialogue sounds real and well-motivated.

1.) Give a character GOALS to every scene. Otherwise what is the purpose for that scene?

2.) Are the motives clear? Are the characters well-motivated? Do their actions make sense and does the scene contribute to building on the plot? If not, how can the scene be revised to make motives stronger or more compelling?

3.) What is the internal and external conflict in the scene? How is conflict layered in? Revise to show the parallels between what a character is confronted with and how it affects them emotionally. Heighten the intensity of a character’s journey.

4.) What’s at stake and is it compelling enough? Are the stakes clear to the reader? What does the character stand to lose? Make the reader care more.

5.) Give the character choices. Good guys or bad, do they face dire consequences for their actions? Do the consequences matter? Make the reader care what happens.

6.) Do the character(s) change in the scene? Is there a journey of growth or development? No throw away scenes. Make each one count.

7.) Be critical of the scenes meant for backstory or too much world building. Do these elements drag on and slow the pace? How much is essential to the story? How much should be reserved as a mystery element? Remember, even the smallest of mysteries can create curiosity in the reader. Make it count. Be judicious.

8.) What is the point of each scene? What makes it impossible to delete? If a scene can be deleted in total without consequence to the overall plot, it should stay gone or parts of it could be stripped and used in other scenes.

9.) Word choices can affect Narrative Drive – Strip out unnecessary words within each sentence to give more impact. Too many adjectives or flowery descriptions can slow pace and confuse the reader on the direction of each scene.

10.) Do your scene and chapter endings fizzle to a dead stop or do they foreshadow what’s coming? Anticipation can build on fear or feelings from readers. Compelling imagery can be an effective way to end a scene that’s based on a relationship. Cliffhangers don’t have to be major to intrigue a reader, but don’t waste a scene or chapter ending without something that makes the reader want to turn the page. That’s a wasted opportunity.

11.) Look for too much described body language in each scene. Too much head movements or blinking eyes or interruption with movement can be a distraction to slow narrative drive. Make sure any character movement means something or adds to the irony or character banter.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Can storytelling be taught? What distinguishes authors from the competition?

2.) What tips do you have on Narrative Drive that you use in your own writing?

3.) What challenges have you experienced in improving your Narrative Drive?

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