Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 

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Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.

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Being the Next…

Miami_Vice

I was for no particular reason thinking about the Miami Vice television series on Friday afternoon. You’ve probably at least heard of Miami Vice, if you haven’t seen an episode.Television producer Michael Mann originally conceived the idea behind the iconic series during a brainstorming/brainstreaming session in which he wrote the words “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. The audience didn’t necessarily tune in entirely for the music, but they sure didn’t turn away, either. Mann gave viewers a forty-eight minute music video featuring multiple songs, violence, some PG-rated sex, and a lot of style, all from the viewpoint of Crockett and Tubbs, a couple of Miami-Dade County drug enforcement agents.  If your dad or, uh, grandfather has a white linen sport coat in the back of his closet it may well mean that he was rockin’ his best Sonny Crockett back in the day.

cop rock

Now. Have you ever heard of…Cop Rock? It was pitched as the next Miami Vice, and featured dramatic episodes with a cast ensemble who, in the middle of a squad room, a murder scene, or whatever, would…burst into song and dance. It is almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of any of the very few episodes of Cop Rock that aired without hoping that the cast, scriptwriters, showrunners, and the like would…burst into flame. Just kidding. I think.

I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. p.g. sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will. 

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model.

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Getting to Jack Reacher, or Someone Like Him

reacher said nothing

I am reading an extremely interesting book which will see the light of day next week — Tuesday, November 24, 2015, to be exact — everywhere books are sold. It is titled REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It is written by Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge but is nonetheless capable of writing a fun book, and more so, a fun book about the writing process. What occurred is that Martin approached Child via email in August 2014 about writing a book that would take the reader from the very beginning of the process by which Child does what he does so well to the very end. Martin’s timing was perfect, given that Child was about to start writing what ultimately became MAKE ME, his latest Jack Reacher novel.

 

I’m not going to present my review of REACHER SAID NOTHING now — you’ll have to go here next week over the Thanksgiving weekend to see that — but I can tell you that if you have ever thought of writing a novel you need to get a copy of REACHER SAID NOTHING and sit down and read it. You’ll feel better about the process, for sure. I can assure you that, whatever problem you may have had with completing your work, Child has had it as well, and yes, still has it and works to overcome it year in and year out. You will find within the pages of REACHER SAID NOTHING how he does it, as well as the very first thing that Child did when he started writing the very first Reacher book, lo those many years ago. Child utilizes many tools — copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes among them — but you don’t have to have move into Starbucks or have access to a secret stash of Chesterfield Kings to have similar results, with “similar results” being finishing your book, and then writing another, and another. And no, I’m not going to give away the specifics. Martin gave up a year of his life following Child around with  proximity and access that would make a proctologist jealous, and then compiled it all into something readable, so it would be neither fair nor right. I will tell you in one general word, however, how Child does what he does: discipline. That’s it. He sits down (among other things) and gets it done. The process of doing that is a part of Martin’s book, and so far, that book is an entertaining hodgepodge of an account consisting of emails, diary entries, and transcripts of conversations.

 

Will reading REACHER SAID NOTHING help you to write a bestseller or a critically acclaimed work? No. No. No. Life is not fair. Equity is not equal. If you want justice go to theology school and cross your fingers; maybe you’ll get it. But, if you model your work ethic after Child, you’ll finish your book, The rest is a combination of luck and ability and timing. As far as writing goes, remember that just because you like sausage doesn’t mean you want to make it. Have at it, by all means, but know what you are getting into. And if you still want to by the time you finish REACHER SAID NOTHING, by all means: start, and never stop until the job is done.

 

From my house to yours: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m old and grumpy and experiencing a health issue that is more an inconvenience than a herald of mortality but it’s a reminder that the sand is running, ever running, through the hourglass. Still, I have much to be thankful for, and you would be very high on that list, for stopping by The Kill Zone and spending a few minutes with us. Thank you.

 

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Want to Be a Writer?
First Be a Mensch

By PJ Parrish

After almost two decades as a crime novelist, working in a business that has seen head-spinning turmoil, I’ve found there is one thing that never seems to change — the menschness of my fellow writers.

I’m pretty sure that menschness is not a word. But maybe it should be. Because what I am trying to describe goes beyond friendliness, kindness and even camaraderie. Sure, you can find all those traits in our community. But the thing that always strikes me when I mingle at conferences, sit on panels or hoist a pinot at the hotel bar is the down-to-earth nice-guy attitudes of my fellow crime dogs.

Okay, I just went and looked up mensch so you don’t have to:

Mensch (מענטש) a Yiddish word that means “a person of integrity.” A mensch is someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong and is the sort of person other people look up to. First known use 1856. In English the word has come to mean “a good guy.”

I have met lots of mensches in the mystery world. Folks who were kind to me in the beginning and gave me advice or a blurb. Big-time writers who, as Lee Child once put it, once they climb high don’t forget to reach down and pull others up a rung. Fellow mid-list authors who shared my pain and talked me off ledges. Beginning writers who sent me thank you notes for something I did or said.  With the exception of one super-successful bestselling toad-guy (who shall remain nameless here) most the people I’ve met along the way have been generous of spirit.

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MWA’s head mensch Margery Flax unpacking the Edgars before the banquet.

This point was driven home to me this past week when I went up to New York for the Edgar awards given out by Mystery Writers of America.  I’ve been chairing the banquet since 2007 and it has put me in touch with some of the biggest luminaries of our genre. (One reason I volunteer for the job!) Bear with me if I go alittle fan-girl here on you, but I want to talk about them, because sometimes us guys on the lower rungs tend to think those stars above us aren’t human.

Lee Child I met at the Las Vegas Bouchercon. During a cocktail party, I screwed up my courage and went over to introduce myself. He looked down at me (everyone does…I’m five-three and shrinking fast) and said, “You stole the title of my book, you know.” I’m standing there thinking WTF? Then Lee told me that his book One Shot had come out the same day as the MWA anthology, in which I had my first short story, “One Shot.”

“I forgive you,” Lee said. And he bought me a beer.

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Kelly and me flanking Mary Higgins Clark at our first Edgars.

Mary Higgins Clark I met at my first Edgar banquet when she came up to me when it was over and said that she had been attending the banquet for decades and this was the best one. She didn’t have to do that. But she’s a mensch.  This year, when I went to get my drink at the cocktail party, the bartender asked me in a whisper, “Is that Mary Higgins Clark over there? I’m her biggest fan.”  Wiping away visions of Misery, I took her over to meet her and Queen Mary was utterly charming.

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With Lisa Scottoline. then MWA prez.

Speaking of royalty, Lisa Scottoline is another good guy. The night she was emceeing the Edgars Prince William was getting married to Catherine Middleton. At the podium, Lisa wore a tiara in their honor. We’re both royalists and bonded over brain-lint on the Saxe-Coburg Gotha family line. Another mensch queen.

Which leads us to kings. Yeah, I got to meet him. It was my first Edgar job back in 2007 and Stephen King was named Grand Master. One of my duties was to greet him, make sure he got to interviews, a book signing and cocktail parties, and wasn’t mobbed in the Grand Hyatt lobby. I was nervous and tongue-tied. He took my hand and told me to relax. Last week, we met again because he was a Best Novel nominee. (He won for Mr. Mercedes). Not only did he remember my name, he asked what I was working on.

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I got to escort Stephen and his wife Tabitha to the nominee party, and when I walked in, you’d think I had the pope in tow. That pic is of me  (looking oddly dyspeptic) with Sara Paretsky and Brad Meltzer. As I watched King work the room (or rather the room work him), I was in awe of how unflaggingly gracious he was to everyone, no matter what their rank.

I wasn’t alone. Best nominee Ian Rankin tweeted: “Well, on the minus side I didn’t win the Edgar award – some young ruffian called Stephen King did. On the plus side I got to meet Mr King.”  From Best nominee (and one of my fave writers) Stuart Neville came this tweet: “I didn’t win the Edgar, but I got to meet Stephen King, who was very gracious in tolerating my fawning.”

Another true mensch is Brad Meltzer. I got to meet him when he was the GOH at SleuthFest and later when he was MWA president and emceed the banquet. He is funny, down-to-earth, and always has time to talk to you, no matter your status.

These are just a few of the good folks I’ve been lucky to meet. So many others have been kind to me on my way to this point in my career — Jerry Healy, Elaine Viets, James Hall, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, William Kent Kreuger, Reed Farrel Coleman, Linda Fairstein, Mike Connelly, Stuart Kaminsky, Eleanor Taylor Bland, and John Gilstrap, who gave me my first blurb.

I wish I could remember who said this, but it was about what “class” was: The ability to make any other person comfortable, regardless of their status and your own. All the folks I’ve mentioned have it in spades. And after a sorta rough year, it was good to go back to New York and be reminded that no matter what winds buffet the book world, our community provides shelter and support.

But ours is a small family with long memories. So no matter where you are on the food chain, play well with others. This post was inspired by a blog I read the other day wherein the author Guy Kawasaki provides five tips on how to be a mensch. After the Edgars, I realized there are lessons in here for writers:

1. When someone has wronged you, continue to treat them with civility. For writers, don’t curl up and die at the easy slight. This happened to me years ago when a fellow writer said something not-so-nice to me in a conference bar. I stewed about it for a long time and finally decided to confront her. She apologized and said she was drunk and had been too embarrassed to bring it up. We’re friends now.

2. Give way more than you take. Volunteer to work at a conference. If you’re published, give someone a critique. Don’t just sit back and bitch; get involved. And if you are a blog lurker, don’t be shy about posting. No one wants to be that creepy guy at the party who sits silent in the corner and just watches. A good blog (like ours here at TKZ) is a conversation. It’s at its best when we all give something back. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

3. Genuinely acknowledge others. If someone gets published, congratulate them, for God’s sake. If you owe someone a debt, put them in your acknowledgements. If you’re in a critique group, find something to praise. We all need praise. It is high octane fuel for the soul.

4. Embrace diversity.  If you read only light books with happy neat endings, read something dark and difficult. Or better yet, try to write it.  If you’ve never tried to write short stories, now’s the time. If nothing else you will find, as I did, that it’s not as easy as it looks. And lastly, don’t be a genre snob. If you write hardboiled noir, don’t look down your nose at cozies. (Chances are their royalty checks are bigger anyway). When I finally got around to going to Malice Domestic a few years ago, it was like being in a different world, sure, but I came to appreciate more deeply the writing of our less gritty brothers and sisters.

5. Default to kindness. In his blog, Kawasaki says the biggest deficit is not monetary—it is the lack of kindness in our interactions with others. You see this dynamic in action at any writer’s conference. We tend toward cliques. We gather with people of similar status. It’s like high school all over again. But you don’t have to give in to it. If you see someone sitting alone, gather them into your circle. If you are on a panel and someone is struggling, help them out. If you’re sharing an event or signing with someone, talk up their stuff along with your own. And if you ever find yourself in the same room as Stephen King, introduce yourself. He may keep a small boy’s heart in a jar on his desk, but he won’t bite your head off.

Be a mensch. And thank you for putting up with my fan girl pix.

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