Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Rules

When it comes to pure storytelling, is there a company doing better than Pixar? Pixar Animation Studios is a Disney subsidiary based in California and, since 1979, has produced some of the best-ever, film-presented stories. Part of Pixar’s success was thanks to early influence from George Lucas’s vision and Steve Jobs’s money, but much of their ongoing success comes from 22 storytelling rules Pixar writers religiously follow.

Toy Story. Finding Nemo. Dory. The Incredibles. Wall-E. A Bug’s Life. Monsters, Inc. Cars. And now Luca, to name just a few. What these blockbusters have in common is storytelling. Pure storytelling. But storytelling that follows Pixar’s rules.

 

Here at the Kill Zone, we have storytelling in common. Whether we’ve got our writing hat on or our reading hat off, at the end of the day, on the bottom line (insert your own concluding cliché here), we all love good stories well told. Must be something in our ancestral DNA.

Let me go around the Kill Zone room and spec out people’s storytelling style / rule adherence. (Sorry if I miss one or more of the usual suspects, but there’re only so many musical chairs at this party.)

Let’s see. Gonna start with JSB. Jim’s a crime guy, now working on a great hardboiled series starring Mike Romeo and HB has genre rules that Jim well knows, but probably breaks. Terry writes mystery & romance series. Same with her, she probably rule breaks. Debbie? She’s into action mysteries, I’d call them. John cranks out high octane thrillers; reportedly doing well. Kay and Ruth are traditional cozy gals with rules of their own while Deb does tall tales and short stories of redemption. Dale. Where’s Dale? He’s got his niche in empowered library cozies which, I’m sure, has its unique genre rules.

Joe’s retired from the contributing mill but always has time for an insightful and highly intelligent comment. Plus, he’s first to get up in the morning. Dr. Steve is building a legacy with middle-grade fantasies while Harald writes about Neanderthals who could be plucked straight from the Canadian Senate.

Sue—your crime works are so bloody powerful that if they get any stronger you’ll need to be institutionalized. Harvey writes right across the board. He’s, by far, the most prolific among us, and I think should be tested for meth. And Reavis Z is in a league all his own, making up rules as he writes along, and up there with GOATs like Brady.

Yeah, we’re a diverse pack, us Kill Zoners. But we’re storytelling fans and creatives at heart with one more thing in common. We understand there are storytelling rules. (I think it was Somerset Maugham who said, “There are only three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”)

And we’re a delinquent bunch here at the Kill Zone. As much as we respect “the rules”, we know rules are supposed to be broken. Provided, that is, we know what rules to broke and do so intentionally at potential peril of killing our darlings.

Pixar calls BS on the 3-rule crap. They have 22 rules their screenwriters follow, and they’re generous enough to share these storytelling rules with us lowly novelists.

What got me going on this post was a piece on Jane Friedman’s site the other morning titled Why Write This Book? The contributor, Jennie Nash, opened by stating that in 2013 Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats wrote down the 22 rules her collaboration team used to generate content—Academy Award-winning content. Ms. Coats shared them on Twitter, to which they went viral, and are now quoted so often that they’ve taken a life of their own. In no particular order, here are Pixar’s storytelling rules (guidelines, if you’d like):

1.  You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2.  You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

3.  Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4.  Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5.  Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6.  What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7.  Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8.  Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9.  When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10.  Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

11.  Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

12.  Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13.  Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

14.  Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

15.  If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16.  What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

17.  No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

18.  You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19.  Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20.  Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21.  You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

22.  What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Kill Zoners — What Pixar storytelling rules hit home to you?  And what rule or rules could you add to the Pixar list? Don’t be shy. Let us know in the comments!

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired murder cop and coroner who specialized in forensic death investigation. Now, Garry’s reinvented himself as an indie crime writer working on a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.

Outside of crime-style storytelling, Garry Rodgers hosts a popular website and blog at DyingWords.net. Garry’s also a Transport Canada certified marine captain. Sometimes he putts around the Pacific saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island at British Columbia’s west coast.

 

 

How and Why Reading Improves Writing

To master the art of writing we need to read. Whenever the words won’t flow, I grab my Kindle. Reading someone else’s story kickstarts my creativity, and like magic, I know exactly what I need to do in my WIP.

“Read” is the easiest writing tip, yet one of the most powerful. And here’s why.

 

READING BENEFITS OUR WRITING 

  • Reading strengthens our skills and storytelling abilities.
  • Reading helps us become more persuasive, which is an essential skill when pitching a book to an agent, editor, producer, etc.
  • Fiction reading helps us hone the skills to draw the reader into the story and engage the reader.
  • Nonfiction reading helps us learn how to condense research into an authoritative proposal. And ultimately, into a storyline.
  • Reading expands our vocabulary, improves grammar, and shows how to use words in context.
  • Reading helps us find the right word!

READING IMPROVES BRAIN HEALTH 

Narratives activate many parts of our brains. In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. — New York Times

Whenever participants read words like “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex (the part of the brain that processes smell) lit up the fMRI machine. Words like “velvet” activated the sensory cortex, the emotional center of the brain. Researchers concluded that in certain cases, the brain can make no distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Pretty cool, right?

4 TIPS TO READ WITH A WRITER’S EYE

1. Look for the author’s persuasion tactics.

How does s/he draw you in?

How does s/he keep you focused and flipping pages?

What’s the author’s style, fast-pace or slow but intriguing?

Does the author have beautiful imagery or sparse, powerful description that rockets an image into your mind?

2. Take note of metaphors and analogies.

How did the metaphor enhance the image in your mind?

How often did the author use an analogy?

Where in the scene did the author use a metaphor/analogy?

Why did the author use a metaphor/analogy? Reread the scene without it. Did it strengthen or weaken the scene?

In a 2012 study, researchers from Emory University discovered how metaphors can access different regions of the brain.

New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

A metaphor like “he had leathery hands” activated the participants’ sensory cortex, while “he had strong hands” did nothing at all.

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language.”

 

3. Read with purpose.

As you read, study the different ways some writers tackle subjects, how they craft their sentences and employ story structure, and how they handle dialogue.

4. Recognize the author’s strengths (and weaknesses, but focus on strengths).

Other writers are unintentional mentors. When we read their work, they’re showing us a different way to tell a story—their way.

Ask, why am I drawn to this author? What’s the magic sauce that compels me to buy everything they write?

Is it how they string sentences together?

Story rhythm?

Snappy dialogue?

How they world-build?

Or all of the above?

I don’t know about you but I’m dying to jump back into the book I’m devouring. 🙂 What’s your favorite tip?

Wishing you a safe and happy Memorial Day! In between cookouts and family get-togethers, squeeze in time to read!

Looking for a new series to love?

FOR TODAY ONLY, all four Grafton County thrillers are on sale!

MARRED 99c
CLEAVED 99c
SCATHED $1.99
RACKED $1.99

 

Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

Jim’s Reader Friday question got me thinking. What is the special sauce that ignites a writer’s brain? Would a new writer know when to run with an idea and when to let it go? Maybe. Maybe not.

With that in mind, I’ll share the following tips from critically acclaimed author and beloved writing instructor, Gary Provost. Incidentally, these tips can be used for fiction and nonfiction, if your nonfiction falls into the “story” category (i.e. true crime, historical, narrative nonfiction, etc).

Gary Provost created a simple paragraph to encapsulate the dramatic arc in a story.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This works because of its classic dramatic structure, which is the most satisfying type of story for the reader. It’s brilliant, if you take the time to dissect it. For now, I’d like to concentrate on a quick and dirty shortcut to test a story idea.

Gary Provost thought of stories in terms of a series of “buts.”

Joyce is a poor secretary, but she meets a millionaire and marries him.

She’s married to a millionaire, but the marriage goes sour.

She wants to end the marriage, but she (allegedly) thinks she’ll be left penniless.

She perhaps has a motive for murdering her husband, but so do other people.

After the murder, police suspect her, but she passes two polygraph exams at two different times and places. One, a highly regarded expert.

She passes the polygraphs, but the court rules they will not be allowed. But a federal court rules in a different case that the polygraphs can be allowed.

She goes back to court to get the polygraph tests allowed, but Judge Smith still will not allow them.

Someone claims to have heard shots at 3:30 A.M., but the medical examiner says that Stanley died around 5:30 A.M., consistent with Joyce’s story. She seems to be telling the truth, but it was five minutes from the time of the Colorado phone call to the call to 911.

Joyce allegedly says to Officer Catherine Parker, “I shouldn’t have done it,”but Parker never reports this.

Three days after the murder a cop tells the medical examiner that he saw signs of lividity, indicating that the body had been dead for a few hours.

But Wetli, the medical examiner, reviews his material, still comes to the same conclusion. Stays with that conclusion for three years.

No charges against Joyce, but the Miami Herald starts an anti-Joyce campaign, demanding that she be brought to justice.

Newscaster Gerri Helfman is about to get married, but her father is murdered.

No charges are brought against Joyce, but Stanley’s family pressures the state’s attorney’s office to come up with something.

And on and on it goes.

The above series of “buts” Provost used in a book proposal for a true crime book entitled Rich Blood. The proposal started a bidding war between publishers.

In the end, he decided to write Deadly Secrets instead. Turned out to be the right move because Deadly Secrets became the mega-hit Perfect Husband: True Story of the Trusting Bride Who Discovered Her Husband was a Coldblooded Killer.

Use a series of “buts” to test your story idea. Obviously, a “but” won’t fit every sentence. When it doesn’t, try “and then.” But a “but” should follow “and then” soon. Why? Because “buts” are complications. Complications = conflict. And conflict drives the story.

Example:

Husband kills wife, and then stuffs her body into a 3ml bag, and then drives to a secluded area to bury her, but his foldable spade isn’t in the backseat. Did the neighbor borrow it again?

When you write don’t keep all the “buts” and “and thens.” Think in those terms, but you don’t want all of them in the final draft. Over time your story sensibilities will automatically search for (nonfiction) and/or apply (fiction) this rhythm.

The point is, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to find the story beneath the headline or first spark of an idea. Without a narrative driven by conflict, the story will fall flat.

Five pieces of wisdom from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

  1. A writer’s most important vocabulary is the one he or she already has. 

Learning new words is much less important than learning to use the words you already know. Think about your ideal reader. If he or she wouldn’t understand your word choice, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. Over time finding the right word becomes easier, almost a subconscious act. Until then, be intentional with every word.

  1. A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.

Whether a lead is the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first several paragraphs of your story, it should pique a reader’s interest by raising story questions and give readers someone (or something) to care about before delving into the backstory.

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

  1. When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. 

Meaning, make your point by answering “who, what, when, where” in the first paragraph. Make the reader wait for “why.” Unless, of course, the why is the character’s goal.

A topic sentence contains the thought that is developed throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a paragraph. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence.

When you edit, ask how each sentence works for the paragraph. Ask why it’s there. Does it have a purpose? Great! Then keep it. If you can’t pinpoint why you included that sentence, hit DELETE.

  1. Style is form, not content.

In writing, the word style means how an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.

 

  1. To write is to create music.

The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.

 

Gary Provost was highly regarded as an author, sought-after speaker, consultant, and celebrity biographer.

“The writers’ writer” authored thousands of articles, columns, and dozens of books covering most every genre. His highly acclaimed Writers Retreat Workshop, and video and audio courses remain available through writersretreatworkshop.com.

What’s your favorite piece of advice here? Care to add a tip?

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”  – John LeCarre

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

First Page Critique: Scattershot

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Catch ya on the flip-side.

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?

Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part II

And we’re back with Part II of Tiny Creatures deconstruction. In Part I, we looked at characterization, plotting, pacing, and the importance of raising story questions. In this segment, let’s narrow in on story structure, scene development, character arc, word choices, and story rhythm.

First, a quick review of Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part I to allow you to see the full character arc. Within a four-part story structure, each Part of the character arc equals 25%.

Part I: The Setup

  • introduce the protagonist
  • hook the reader
  • setup 1st Plot Point through foreshadowing and establishing stakes
  • establish empathy for the hero

In the first quartile, Tiny Creatures introduced the viewer to our tiny hero in an empathetic way and we bonded with her right away. We also learned about Raven, who we believed was the villain. And the writer setup the 1st Plot Point — a life or death chase which defined the stakes.

Part II: The Response

  • protagonist reacts to new goals/stakes/obstacles revealed by the 1st Plot Point
  • hero doesn’t need to act heroic yet
  • she retreats, regroups, experiences doomed attempts
  • remind the reader/viewer of the antagonistic forces at play

Tiny Creatures excelled in this area as well. Remember when Raven chased our tiny hero around the cabin? That scene established the life or death stakes, and Miss Rat reacted by fleeing. She also feared the human. Which is exactly how she should act in the second quartile of the character arc.

Part III: The Attack

  • Midpoint information/awareness causes the protagonist(s) to change course
  • hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed
  • not merely reacting anymore
  • hero also ramps up battle with inner demons

A perfect example of this occurred in Tiny Creatures when our tiny hero summoned the courage to face her fears and freed the raven from the fisherman’s trap.

Now, let’s return to the deconstruction. Keep in mind, we’re still in Part III of the character arc.

Tiny Creatures, Episode 6 Deconstruction Part II

Once released from the trap, Raven cocks his head at the rat. Their gazes lock, linger. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky.

The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn Miss Rat to get out of sight (Remember all those intriguing characteristics of the raven we learned in The Setup? Now they take on new meaning. Raven’s intellect actually compliments Miss Rat’s strengths, and together they morph into a winning team). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.

As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + story questions. Will our heroes face this beast?)

Camera pans out to a body of water in the Everglades, cleverly disguised, and we’re not sure why. (We’ll keep watching to find out. Which expertly demonstrates why it’s important to withhold information.) “But some animals aren’t always welcome. An exotic species introduced by humans, the Burmese python doesn’t naturally belong in the Everglades. Despite this fact, it has everything it requires to multiply and dominate these delicate waterways.” (Notice the harsh “dominate” paired with “delicate.” Perfect word choices send subtle clues of emanate danger.)

The slow and agonizing action of the Burmese python sliding into our tiny hero’s drainpipe would tremble even the steeliest heart. (That image alone proves my point about the Tiny Creatures Netflix series — the writer has mastered the art of suspense. Showing a murder or attack is far less suspenseful than the moments leading up to it. Examples: A lone pinecone crunches under the weight of a stranger’s boot behind you on the hiking trail. The flick of a butane lighter amidst the darkened forest around your property while you sip an evening cocktail at the picnic table. You get the picture. 😉)

Sampling the air, the python flicks its tongue. “An intense odor is coming through the pipes.” <dramatic pause> “It can smell a rat.” (Raising the stakes even higher — our heroes don’t stand a chance against this formidable villain.) The python slithers through the drainpipe. “Although the Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, they’re surprisingly agile climbers. To shift their heavy, elongated frame, specialized muscles under their belly propel them forward.” (This smattering of backstory shows how skillful and deadly this predator is AND drives the plot. Lesson: Any and all backstory should be employed with purpose. If it doesn’t benefit the plot, don’t include it.)

<cue dangerous music as the python flows through the dark pipe>

“Continuously flicking its forked tongue, it analyzes its surroundings.” The python emerges from the toilet in the shack (paying off an earlier scene that showed our tiny hero traversing the same route). “The snake can taste (“taste” is another perfect word choice) chemical trails in the air left behind by passing prey.” (Gulp. He referred to our tiny hero as prey! This scene conjures images of the snake swallowing our tiny hero, and our fear mounts with anticipation.)

<cue music that evokes urgency> Camera focuses on the sweet rat munching on a crumb, unaware of the dangerous intruder.

“Instead of adopting an ambush attack, it likes to stalk its unsuspecting prey slowly and silently. Able to open its mouth five times wider than its own head, the rat is an easy meal for the python.” (Can you feel the stakes raising more and more?)

The camera flashes between the snake and our sweet little hero.

“Using heat-sensitive pits lined along its upper lip, the python possesses infrared vision. This allows it to detect warm things.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)

The python slithers across the floor as Miss Rat climbs up to a workbench. The close-up of a fly adds to the chilling scene. (We’re glued to that screen as a gazillion questions race through our mind — the epitome of nail-biting suspense.)

Camera gives us a quick peek of outside the shack. “The fisherman has grown up on the Everglades, and he still honors the good ol’ days.” Near the window of the shack, a transparent plastic bag holds water and five coins. “Sunlight passing through the bag acts like a prism, scattering light in all directions. The idea is that it dazzles and confuses flies, keeping them away.” (We think this is just an interesting tidbit of backstory . . . until the camera zooms in on our tiny hero near the bag.) The camera narrows on the python. “But it might not be just the flies that get confused (python’s character flaw).” The snake approaches the bench. “The python has the advantage of not only seeing the rat but also feeling it.” (The writer could’ve used “senses” instead of “feeling,” but the later invokes more terror.)

The python slithers up the wooden leg of an upholstered chair—painfully slow—and we chew our cuticles raw. “Detecting the heat signature as far as three feet away, the rodent appears illuminated.” (Another perfect word choice. “Rodent” ratchets up the tension. Mean ol’ snake doesn’t know our tiny hero like we do!)

Unaware of the danger, Miss Rat munches on another tasty morsel.

“The python slithers ever closer. Its target lies dead ahead.” (2nd Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 62.5%)

Raven lands on the outside windowsill above the bench, but the window is closed. “The raven notices the snake (MRU motivation) and calls out to warn the rat (MRU reaction). But it’s no use. Our tiny hero’s loud munching overpowers the raven’s call (MRU motivation). Time for more drastic action (Scene Goal = Get inside the shack).”

Raven bangs on the glass pane with his strong beak (MRU reaction) to no avail (Scene Conflict = Glass won’t shatter).

“The snake’s hearing is sensitive only to low frequency sounds (villain’s character flaw). And so, it remains unperturbed the raven’s tapping.” With the Burmese python on the cushion of the chair near the workbench, the writer delivers the final blow. “Fixating on its victim, it retracts its body to strike position.” (Tension reaches a boiling point — we cannot look away! + MRU motivation)

Still frantically trying to get inside, Raven slides his beak around the edges of the windowpanes, hammers at the glass, and screeches at high decibels (MRU reaction).

Nothing works. (Suffocating suspense; we’re paralyzed by fear.)

Camera zooms in on the bag suspended next to our tiny hero. “The hanging water bag has gradually heated in the sun (MRU motivation). Now the snake senses two warm targets (MRU reaction + Scene Disaster). Any small movement from either will trigger the snake’s predatory instinct to strike.”

With his bill Raven hammers the crevice between the doors of a shudder-style window (Sequel Reaction).

Helpless, our hero’s furry back faces the python (Sequel Dilemma). Murder is afoot! But right when things look their bleakest (All-is-Lost Moment perfectly placed between 2nd Pinch Point & 2nd Plot Point), the raven busts through the window.

“The raven’s sudden appearance has foiled the python’s ambush.” The snake slithers down the chair leg (MRU motivation). From the safety of the workbench Raven scolds the python as it flees across the floor (MRU reaction + this scene pays off the earlier scene where we learned about the snake’s stomach muscles + Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal: keep his little buddy safe).

With our tiny hero safe from the python (MRU motivation), Raven hops back on the windowsill (MRU reaction) just as the fisherman enters the shack. The Burmese python in his shack (MRU motivation) causes him to snatch a grabber tool off the wall (MRU reaction).

“Usually the cryptic nature of these snakes makes them hard to detect in the grass. But in the shack, there’s nowhere to hide.”

With the mechanical grabber, the fisherman grips the snake by its head and bundles it up in a long pillowcase. “Expertly catching the snake, the fisherman plans to take it far away.” He loads the python-filled-sack on the boat (MRU motivation). “The rat retreats to the safety and protection of her home (MRU reaction).”

<cue peaceful music as we roam the Everglades> The narrator adds a few lines about the rich landscape (weaving in backstory and allowing the viewer a well-needed break = expert pacing) as the fisherman returns home. “The waters and banks of the Everglades provide humans with endless opportunities.” Inside the shack, the fisherman turns on a gas burner and sets the tea kettle on top. (A close-up of the flame forewarns a potential hazard.)

“After an exhaustingly long day on the water, the fisherman’s work isn’t done yet. He sets about preparing and maintaining his much-loved equipment, working late into the early hours of the morning.” (2nd Plot Point, perfectly placed at 75%)

Our tiny hero curls up in her boot and falls asleep.

The fisherman makes and repairs lures at the workbench. “Such delicate work requires a lot of focus.” He scrubs a hand across his weary eyes. “But, as the saying goes, you shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends.” (forewarns danger + further sets up Climax.)

Our tiny hero peeks out from the boot at the fisherman, who leans back in his chair. Light snoring fills the room (MRU motivation). “A rat never passes on an opportunity to fuel up, and she quickly collects crumbs dropped by the fisherman.” (MRU reaction)

Wicked cute close-up of our tiny hero munching away on a snack (just sayin’). “The noise of the whistling kettle draws the attention of the rat, who anxiously watches as a gust of wind through the opened window ignites a disaster.”

The tail end of a paper towel roll catches fire — <cue dramatic music> — and a flaming sheet falls to the floor. (Climax begins)

Character Arc Part IV: The Resolution

  • hero summons courage and growth to come up with a solution
  • overcomes inner obstacles
  • conquers the antagonistic force
  • all new information must be referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by this point to avoid deus ex machina.

“Unaware of the catastrophe spreading around him, the fisherman slips into a deeper sleep.” Music from his ear buds lulls him into tranquility.  

Smaller fires break out everywhere (MRU motivation).

“The rat realizes she must act fast if she is to save her home (Scene Goal).” She scans the room. But she’s so tiny (Scene conflict). She scampers up to a wooden rack of pots and pans suspended from the ceiling, and chews through the rope (using the same behavior she learned at the Midpoint when she freed the raven from the trap; thus, this scene also pays off that earlier scene + MRU reaction). Pots and pans crash on the floor.

“The rat’s actions fall on deaf ears.” (Scene Disaster)

Like a black beacon of hope, Raven emerges through the smoke-fueled haze (Sequel Reaction). He lands on the fisherman’s crossed leg, but he doesn’t wake. <cue dramatic music> He screeches and squawks. The fisherman is out cold (Sequel Dilemma).

“The raven calls loudly. It appears to be trying to help the fisherman (nice role reversal, right? Which also illuminates Raven’s true character—3rd Dimension of Character). The raven is not giving up. This situation calls for more drastic measures.” (Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal = save his little buddy and the fishing shack)

Fire dances dangerously close to the fisherman’s leg as our two heroes communicate, as if forming a plan. But Miss Rat has done all she can. It’s up to Raven now.

While the rat looks on in horror, Raven’s gaze follows the wire from the ear buds to the human’s chest. Flames grow higher around the fisherman (MRU motivation + Scene Conflict).

<cue louder dramatic music> “Time to get physical.” Grabbing the wire in his beak, he tugs and pulls, but it’s no use. Those ear buds won’t budge (Scene Disaster). Nonetheless, he preserves. With all his might Raven muscles one last jerk (Sequel Reaction) and the ear buds pop loose.

“The fisherman’s woken to an alarming spectacle (Sequel Dilemma).” Raven escapes to the windowsill (Sequel Decision = survival) as the fisherman jolts to his feet. Our tiny hero ducks out of sight. “Fires are common in the Everglades. And luckily, he is well-prepared for such an emergency.” The human extinguishes the blaze.

“The heroic efforts of both the rat and the raven meant the fire didn’t get the chance to cause too much damage. The human has cheated death. And he has the rat and the raven to thank.” (Nice twist, right?)

The camera narrows in on both these amazing animals. Raven takes to the sky as our sweet rat climbs down to the floor (Scene Goal = to rest after a job well done).

“But the rat is left without a home.” Camera zooms in on her charred boot (Scene Conflict + setup of the ending). “She must find a new place to rest her weary head.” Our tiny hero climbs into a duffle bag, and her tail slips beneath the partially opened zipper.

Come morning, the sun rises to a new day.

“Troubled by the fire, the fisherman seeks solace on the water.” He collects his equipment, including the duffle bag (Scene Disaster), and sets off on his boat to clear his mind.

Our tiny hero’s nose twitches out a small opening in the bag. As the raven’s gaze follows his buddy being swept away by the human, his lower bill slacks. “Concerned by where the fisherman is taking the rat, the raven follows closely behind from the air.” (Sequel Reaction)

Camera pans out to show the vastness of the Everglades (indicates danger + story questions. Where will our tiny hero end up?). The boat putts through an open channel.

“The fisherman has an unexpected stowaway. But luckily for the rat, she comes from a long line of seafaring ancestors.” (This fact comforts the viewer and begins the setup of the denouement.)

Camera narrows on our tiny hero’s innocent face, shadowed by the duffle bag (Sequel Dilemma).

“As the boat engine stops, he sets up his fishing equipment.” The fisherman unzips the duffle bag but doesn’t spot the rat. “The rat owes a lot to the fisherman. The shack has provided a shelter to her and any future offspring.” (Perhaps the human isn’t all bad after all.)

Our tiny hero crawls out of the bag and into unfamiliar surroundings. Still, she remains quite perky (3rd dimension of character — her true character. And we love her even more.)

He casts. Casts again and again.

“All over the Everglades animals do what they must to survive.”

Camera flashes to the alligator, the python, the iguana, the fly, and then a wide pan from above showing the raven soaring toward the boat with his majestic outstretched wings. (Fantastic cinematography! Which novelists can also create by etching a vivid mental picture in the reader’s mind.)

“In a delicate ecosystem such as this, a balance between predator and prey is critical.”

Raven lands on the boat (Sequel Decision = ensure his little buddy’s safety).

“Through their trials and tribulations, the rat and the raven have developed a mutual respect and understanding for one another. These two lonely souls have formed an unlikely bond, proving that no matter where you’re from or who you are, it’s your actions that truly define you.” Silhouettes of our two heroes perched on the side of the boat.

“The once great rivalry that existed between them has transformed into an even greater friendship.”

Raven and Miss Rat turn to face each other as the sun sets in the background, brilliant orange and blue hues splashed across the horizon.

“Now with the support of one another, anything is possible.” (What a great last line! We leave the story with our hearts overflowing with love for these two incredible animals.) And the denouement is complete.

Highlights of the Writer’s Skill

 

The writer locked us in a stranglehold from the very beginning by raising the Central Dramatic Story Question (shown in Part I). Which became the jumping off point for more and more story questions. Each scene written with a purpose, to either setup a future scene or pay off an earlier one. The proper stringing of scenes ensures the viewer’s attention would never waver.

Also notice how the writer never loosened the death-grip around our throats for more than a brief moment (perfectly placed respites). And through characterization (shown in Part I), the writer periodically forced the viewer to change our perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we encountered. Most importantly, perfect plotting kept us engaged from the first sentence to the last.

What’s not to love about Tiny Creatures?

 

Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

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?

How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers

By SUE COLETTA

Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.

Schemas

In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?