How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Situational Awareness

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. –Jimmy Dean

* * *

Did you know the deadliest aviation accident in history happened on the ground? Yes, you read that correctly. It occurred in 1977 when two 747’s collided in dense fog on a runway in the Canary Islands. Here’s how it happened:

An incident at the airport on Gran Canaria Island had diverted aircraft to the smaller Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife Island. The Los Rodeos Airport had only one runway and an adjacent parallel taxiway with several smaller taxiways connecting the two. Because of the increase in aircraft that had landed at Los Rodeos, several aircraft were parked on  the taxiway.

Two 747’s were lined up at one end of the taxiway, ready to depart. A KLM aircraft was to be first, followed by a PanAm flight. Because of the wind direction, each aircraft would have to move from its current position to the opposite end of the runway, but they couldn’t use the main taxiway because it was blocked by other aircraft.

An air traffic controller in the Los Rodeos tower instructed the KLM plane to taxi down the runway to the end and turn 180° in preparation for takeoff. While the KLM plane was taxiing, the controller told the PanAm plane to taxi on the same runway (which would put it behind the KLM) and then exit at a connecting taxiway. That way, the PanAm plane would be off the runway before the KLM started its takeoff roll.

Because of the fog, the crews of the two planes could not see each other, and the air traffic controller could not see the planes. They were relying on accurate communication to guide their movements. If the crews of both planes had obeyed the controller’s instructions, the accident would not have happened.

The KLM completed its taxi and turning maneuver and was positioned at the end of the runway. Now, an aircraft must have specific clearance from ATC before starting its takeoff roll. The tower never gave the KLM flight clearance to take off, but the captain of the KLM plane thought he had been given the okay. Because of his misunderstanding and his inability to see clearly, the giant 747 began barreling down the runway, unaware that the other plane was in its path.

The takeoff plane was traveling at approximately 160 mph when the crew spotted the other plane dead ahead. They were only one hundred meters apart. There was no time to stop or swerve to avoid the other plane. The captain of the takeoff plane pulled the nose up sharply in an effort to “leapfrog” over the other one. He didn’t make it. The lower part of the KLM aircraft struck the PanAm plane and crashed onto the runway, exploding in a huge fireball.

Although the crews of both planes were experienced, five hundred and eighty-three people died in that accident. All the people on the KLM flight perished, and most of the passengers on the PanAm plane also died. And it happened because the captain of the KLM plane lacked “situational awareness”, or the ability to fully understand his environment. He acted on an assumption that the runway was clear. He was wrong.

* * *

Situational awareness applies to many aspects of life, not just flying. Fortunately for authors, lack of such an awareness will not endanger our lives, but it just might endanger our livelihoods!

So what is situational awareness for writers? Most writers (I hope) know what they want out of writing. It may be fame, financial success, independence, self-fulfillment, a way to touch other people’s lives, or just the experience of writing a very good book. But in order to achieve his/her goals, the writer has to know what the current landscape is. After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you figure out how to get where you’re going?

If you’re a pilot, you depend on the air traffic controller to direct your flight. When you drive, you may use your car’s GPS system to get you to your destination. For those of us who are new to publishing, we rely on experts in the field to lead us. Add to that the notion that the publishing world keeps shifting beneath our feet, it’s more important than ever to be well-informed.

When I began writing my first novel, I understood early on that I needed an editor/mentor to help guide me. Imagine my surprise when she told me my omniscient narrator was out of style and I’d have to take a different approach. After I got over my “Well, it’s my book and that’s the way I want to do it” reaction, I realized I didn’t understand the big picture of where I was in this new world. I needed a map.

Fortunately for me, the first two resources that were recommended to me were Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Along with my editor, these books laid the groundwork for my moving forward.

Luckily, authors have an abundance of good information in craft books, podcasts, blogs, and a semi-infinite number of online resources. The information is there. We just have to take advantage of it.

Whatever methods you use to get you where you want to go, best wishes for a successful journey and a happy landing!

* * *

So TKZers: What are your writing goals? What tools do you use to get you to your destination? Books? Blogs? Podcasts? Courses?

* * *

Private pilot Cassie Deakin has her feet firmly planted in the air. But when she lands on the ground and has to help disentangle a murder mystery, the landscape isn’t nearly so friendly. 

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple Books.

 

 

The Chronology of Story: Flashbacks

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

–Isaac Watts

 * * *

We live in a four-dimensional world. For most of us, the three dimensions of space can be manipulated at will because we can move around and change our position on the Earth. We can climb the stairs in our homes, sail across oceans, or fly through the air. However, we have no control over the fourth dimension: time.

Albert Einstein famously told us that time is relative, and I sort of understand that. But the clock on my office wall doesn’t know anything about relativity. It just ticks away, recording one second after another. And despite what our friends in quantum physics tell us, my time goes in only one direction. Yes, I’ve heard of Kurt Gödel, worm holes, and theories that say traveling backwards in time is possible, but to my knowledge, no one has accomplished that feat. I know I haven’t. So, for the purposes of this post, we’ll use this definition from dictionary.com:

Chronology – noun – the sequential order in which past events occur.

Unless you’re writing a time-travel fantasy book, the events in the story you’re creating occur in a chronological sequence. But the telling of it doesn’t have to. Authors are a lucky bunch because we can tell a story in any way we want to. Even in a non-fantasy novel, we can take time and twirl it around our little fingers, make it do somersaults, or leap forward and backward in great bounds.

But why would we do that? Well, to keep the reader interested, of course. And how do we do it? One way is by the use of flashbacks.

* * *

What is a flashback scene?

Smartblogger.com defines a flashback as

“a literary device where a story breaks away from the present narrative to delve into the past, by showing us a past event or a scene from the past.”

 

According to novelist James Hynes in his Great Courses lectures entitled Writing Great Fiction,

“One of the fundamental principles of plotting is the withholding of information.…  A plot is the mechanism by which the writer decides what information to withhold, what information to reveal, and in what order.”

If the reader knows there was some disturbance in the protagonist’s past, but doesn’t know the full story, he/she will be compelled to keep reading to find out. When the author decides to reveal that fact, it may be effective to use a flashback scene.

The Power of a Flashback Scene

According to writingmastery.com,

“The beauty of flashbacks is that they give writers the freedom to fully show instead of tell the details of a traumatic or significant event in a character’s history, at the moment when it will be most powerful.”

 

How to move from the present to the past

Transitioning to a flashback scene can be achieved by a character remembering something from his/her past. Or it can be a break in the story that presents some important background information that is crucial to the narrative. In either case, it’s important that the reader understand where he/she is in the story. To that end, transition can be accomplished in several ways:

A change in verb tense: If the story is written in the past tense, switching to past perfect will clue the reader in.

The use of italics: Although some readers don’t like long passages in italics, I’ve seen this device used and found it effective.

A specific date: A flashback can be a separate chapter or scene that is clearly dated to indicate a previous time.

However you decide to handle a flashback, it’s a device that can add strength to your story.

A Word of Caution

In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell warns us about the overuse of this plotting device.

“There is an inherent plot problem when you use flashbacks—the forward momentum is stopped for a trip to the past…. If such information can be dropped in during a present-moment scene, that’s always a better choice.”

But if you feel the flashback scene is necessary, then JSB advises to make sure it works as a scene.

“Write it as a unit of dramatic action, not as an information dump.”

* * *

Examples of flashbacks in literature

The entire book is a flashback

Most of the articles I read about flashback scenes describe a character who remembers something, and the flashback scene ensues from that. One example is The Catcher in the Rye which starts with Holden Caulfield’s first-person account of his current situation. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like,…”

Then the second paragraph begins with a transition to a flashback: “Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep.” The rest of the book is a continuation of the flashback.

Other examples of stories written almost entirely in flashback are Wuthering Heights and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the book

Another type of flashback is used by Jane Harper in her debut novel, The Dry. The story begins when Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to his hometown to attend a funeral. As the story progresses, we learn that Falk left his hometown as a child after being suspected of the murder of one of his friends. As the reader gets more and more intrigued about Falk’s history, Harper fills in backstory through the use of flashbacks dropped in strategic chapters to show Falk and his friends as youngsters. These scenes are written in italics so it’s easy to know when you’re reading a flashback scene. The main narrative is written in Falk’s third-person POV, but the flashback POVs vary.

A single flashback scene to describe a life-changing moment in the plot

I included a flashback scene in my latest novel, Lacey’s Star. When Cassie Deakin’s uncle regains consciousness after being attacked and seriously injured by thieves, he explains that the assailants stole a package he had recently received from his unreliable and long-lost Vietnam war buddy, Sinclair. I wanted to include a flashback scene at that point in the narrative as a powerful display of Sinclair’s drunken despair changing to hope when he finds what he thinks is proof that his young sister was murdered 40 years earlier. In order to ensure the reader understood it was a flashback, I subtitled the chapter “Alaska – Three Weeks Earlier” and wrote it in italics. The novel is written in Cassie’s first-person POV, but the flashback is in Sinclair’s third-person.

* * *

And just in case those guys are right about time travel, here’s a clock that might be useful:

* * *

So, TKZers. What do you think about flashback scenes? Have you used them in your stories? What’s your opinion of the power of the flashback?

* * *

When Sinclair Alderson wakes up from a drunken binge to find himself in the home of a kind stranger, he pours out his despair over the death of his young sister 40 years earlier. Only then does he discover the note that could identify her killer.

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play. or Apple Books.

 

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

Biological Responses to Anger

In the comments of my post about fear, Dale suggested I write about anger, another powerful emotion with a physical response within the body. We associate anger as a negative emotion. If well-managed, anger can motivate us to make positive changes. The same holds true for our characters.

Most emotions begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified.

It’s so efficient at warning us that it can cause us to react before we’re able to confirm whether our response is warranted. Thought and judgment stem from the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), which tends to lag behind the amygdala.

In other words, our brains are wired to influence us to act before we can consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly—people can and do control their anger. Rather, it means managing anger is a skill, not something we instinctually know how to do.

Case in point: Teenagers. 😉

Fun fact: The human brain takes twenty-six years to fully develop. This should help you stay sane when kids lash out or talk gibberish. They’re not working with a full deck yet!

What happens within the body when we’re angry?

Like fear, anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and toward the muscles to prepare for physical exertion.

This results in:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Breathing increases and/or shallows
  • Rising body temperature
  • Increase of perspiration

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline), noradrenaline, and other energy hormones.

When we’re angry our muscles tense. Inside the brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released, causing a burst of energy that can last several minutes to hours. This burst of energy explains why our first reaction is to take immediate action.

In addition to the above list, the face flushes as increased blood flow enters the extremities to prepare for physical action. Attention narrows and locks onto the source of rage or innocent target, if misplaced. Additional neurotransmitters and hormones release, which trigger a lasting state of arousal.

The body is now ready to fight.

Quick story to illustrate anger.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a chilled person by nature. My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60. It’s tough to get me angry because I do not allow others to control my emotions. There’re only two ways to push my buttons—abuse of animals or children. If you tick one of those boxes, look out. I’m coming for you.

Now, I’ll tell you the story. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I’m editing Merciless Mayhem at my desk, when four husky guys huddled around the side of the road, bordered by woods.

Huh. That’s odd. Why are they here?

I get back to work but keep the strangers in my peripheral.

One of the guys jumps forward and kicks something on the ground.

What the—? Now they’ve got my full attention.

Over and over, this dude kicks. Laughs with his buddies. Kicks again. Another guy squats. When he rises, he has two hooves gripped in one hand, holding a dead deer by the legs while his buddy kicks and punches the carcass.

Unable to trust to my eyes, I jolt to my feet. All four guys find it hilarious to beat a young deer who lost its life.

Heat envelopes me from the inside out. My face flushes. Blood pressure spikes, and I careen out the door. “Hey!”

They stop, turn. The kicker said, “What?”

“Stop abusing that animal!”

“What’s the big deal, lady? It’s dead.”

“Oh, I see.” In seconds, I shorten the distance between us. “So, when you die, I can kick the sh*t outta your corpse? Leave now, or I’m gonna make that happen a lot sooner than you think.”

All four booked it to their SUV, parked around the corner.

Two hours later, my husband strolls through the door after work. “Hey, honey. Have a good day?”

Boom. All the same biological/physiological responses flood my system, and I’m reliving the incident while I recount the story.

“How many guys?” he said.

“Four.”

“And that didn’t give you pause?” He asked because I’m only 5’ 1.5” Doesn’t matter. It’s the fire that burns inside you, and mine was blazing hot.

“No. Why, should it?”

“Honey, they were probably hunters—with guns.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been shot.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been killed.”

“Oh, well. I will never allow anyone to abuse an animal, dead or alive, in front of me. I don’t care who they are.”

See how easily anger can spiral out of control? Hours after the incident, it didn’t take much to trigger me again.

Tips to Show Anger

Anger can build over time or occur in a split-second. If I were writing the above story in a novel, I’d slow it down. Show in detail the motivation that sparked rage in the MC. Drag out an inferno building inside the MC before she snaps.

Body cues include:

  • Flared nostrils
  • Sweating
  • Head up, chin and chest out, shoulders back
  • Audible breath
  • Flexed muscles
  • Vein or artery pulsing, thinning the skin
  • A fighter’s stance
  • Cold stare and all its variants
  • Face reddening (If the POV character is angry, they can’t see the color of their face)
  • Tightness of the eyes, chest, lips, etc.
  • Punching, kicking, throwing things
  • Teeth or jaw grinding
  • Hurtful words, sarcasm, swearing
  • Heart thundering
  • Muscles quivering against the surge of adrenaline
  • Irrationality
  • Jumping to the wrong conclusion 

Trigger the Senses

Using my story as the example…

Did tree limbs obscure my view? (sight)

Did each kick boomerang across the road? (sound)

Did the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of my throat? (taste) Or was the carcass rotting? (smell)

When I booked it across the street, did the cold asphalt sting my bare feet? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or is the MC always a hothead?

Prolonged Effects of Anger

  • Headaches
  • Lower immune system
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Tingling sensation—muscle tension
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers
  • Muscle soreness
  • Jaw pain

Are you a hothead or chilled? Where is your line in the sand? Meaning, what triggers your anger?

Biological Responses to Fear

Last night, my husband and I went to a pumpkin festival with another couple. The town blocks off downtown’s main drag, and skeletons, witches, monsters, live music, and laser shows filled the streets.

Dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns on shelved staging fringed one side of the road — the focal point of the evening’s festivities. The only thing missing was a haunted house. Fine by us. We don’t chase the adrenaline high of fear.

Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear

Fear is a universal, physical response to danger. We associate fear as a negative emotion, but it also plays a vital role in keeping us safe by mobilizing us to cope with potential dangers.

What happens within the body when we’re fearful?

Fear begins in the amygdala, which then activates the pituitary gland, where the nervous system meets the endocrine (hormonal) system. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to squirt  epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and other catecholamines into the bloodstream.

The body also releases cortisol in response to ACTH, which raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells. Circulating cortisol turns fatty acids into energy for the muscles to use should the need arise.

Catecholamines include epinephrine and norepinephrine, both hormones that prepare the muscles for violence by causing the following:

  • Boost activity in the heart and lungs
  • Reduce activity in the stomach and intestines, producing “butterflies” in the belly.
  • Inhibit the production of tears and saliva, which explains why dry mouth often accompanies fright.
  • Dilate the pupils.
  • Produces tunnel vision.
  • Reduces hearing.

The hippocampus part of the brain is heavily involved in memory, whereas the prefrontal cortex aids in high-level decision making. Both these areas help us control the fear response and determine if the danger is real or exaggerated. If the latter, these areas of the brain dampen the fear, allowing us to read scary books or watch slasher films.

Biologically, fear responses include:

  • Increased breathing.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Peripheral blood vessels in the skin constrict while central blood vessels around vital organs dilate and flood with oxygen and nutrients.
  • Blood pumps the muscles so they’re ready to react.
  • Muscles at the base of each hair tighten, causing piloerection aka goosebumps.
  • Eyebrows raise and pinch together.
  • Upper eyelid raises while the lower tenses.
  • Jaw may slack and part stretched lips.
  • Voice pitch rises, tone strains.
  • Posture either mobilizes or immobilizes or fluctuates between both.
  • Breath shallows.
  • Muscles tighten, especially in the limbs.
  • Increased sweating.

Metabolically, glucose levels spike to provide energy if needed for action. Fear also increases levels of calcium and white blood cells.

Tips to Show Fear

To show a believable fear response in your main character, consider the above scientific and biologic changes within the body. Then get creative. An effective way to enhance fear is to slow down. Visualize the context. What’s happening in this moment? What is the character experiencing, moment by moment? By drilling into slivers of time, we’re telling the reader to pay attention. We’re creating emotional resonance. We’re drawing readers farther into the story, forcing them to turn the page.

Trigger the Senses

Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)

Do the leathery wings of a bat flap overhead? Or do footsteps ricochet off the building and make it difficult to pinpoint direction? (sound)

Does the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of the throat? (taste) Or fill the sinuses? (smell)

Is the thick bark of the ash tree she’s hiding behind rough and scratchy? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or does the MC enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear?

Emotion is Layered

Characters shouldn’t be totally fine one second then immediately immobilized by terror. Let emotions build over time, even second by second.

“In the real world, no two people are alike, which means each of us expresses emotion in our own way. Some people find it perfectly natural to share what they feel with those around them, experiencing little to no discomfort with their emotions being on display. Others find the idea of revealing what they feel horrifying and will avoid situations that could lead to such vulnerability. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. This spectrum of expressiveness is called an emotional range, and it will influence not only which feelings a person overtly shows but when and how they will manifest.”

—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus

Emotions — especially ones as extreme and universal as fear — unfold on a continuum. To impact the reader, show the MC’s physical and emotional responses in the correct order and with the proper intensity, or fear may come across as irrational or melodramatic.

Any adrenaline junkies in our audience? Do you ride roller coasters? Like haunted houses? Have you ever zip-lined? What about jumping out of an aircraft? Care to share a frightful experience?

 

 

First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

Let me apologize to the Brave Writer who submitted this first page. A mix-up in communication caused me to think Brian sent this to another TKZer. Sorry! And thank you for your patience. My comments will follow.

***

Title: The Puzzle Within

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. “I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin, and a vein in his neck bulged.

Reclining her head to make eye contact with a man nearly a foot taller than herself, Ari wrinkled her nose, crossed her arms, but refused to back down. “You can’t force me to do this. I’ll take it to the top.” All the way to the Director if necessary.

Matt’s energy deflated, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “This assignment came from the top. From the Director himself. The shrink doesn’t believe you’re ready,” he said, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. His expression softened. “Not yet.”

Ari shrugged, knocking his hand away, and stalked to the other side of the room. She rested her hands on a bookshelf, her eyes falling upon the photo of Matt’s smiling family taken at Disneyland last summer. The FBI was her family, and she didn’t need sympathy. She needed her job back. With a sigh, she rotated to face her boss. “But why me? Why isn’t DSS handling this?”

Shouldn’t the Diplomatic Secret Service be handling this problem? They’re responsible for Ambassador Van Sloan and his spoiled daughter, Bianca—the biggest brat in diplomatic circles. Growing up in the consulate with the world at her fingertips and a silver spoon in her mouth, the college student didn’t comprehend the word “no.”

I don’t have time for this. I’ve got cases to solve and missing children to find. A knot formed in her stomach.

Matt cleared his throat and returned to his seat.

Ari’s pulse flickered in her neck. “What aren’t you telling me?” Apprehension tinged her voice.

He swallowed. “DSS is handling it.” His eyes darted to a manila envelope on his desk. “You’re being ‘borrowed’ for the time being.”

***

Let’s first discuss all the things Brave Writer did right.

  • Good grasp of POV
  • Story starts with a goal: To get out of babysitting a diplomat’s daughter.
  • Includes a complication: The boss is forcing her to go.
  • Raises story questions: Why is Arizona not ready for FBI work? Why did the psychiatrist evaluate her?
  • Includes a subtle clue that tells us Arizona isn’t dressed for work—her hiking boot—which implies she’s on leave after an incident or came in on her day off.

If we put all these puzzle pieces together, the assumption is something bad happened to Arizona.

Kudos to you, Brave Writer. You’ve worked hard to hone your craft.

Now for some tough love.

The bones of intrigue are there, but it’s overshadowed by too many body cues and random details that add nothing of value. Here are the first two paragraphs with my comments in blue.

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. This first line has no context. It’s a reaction without a motivation, or an effect without a cause. If, say, a grizzly bear was advancing on our MC, we wouldn’t first show the MC’s reaction. We’d show the grizzly bear huff or stomp the ground. Then the MC could react. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe This body cue implies she’s changing directions to leave, yet the rest of the sentence implies she’s entering her boss’s office. When put together, these two body cues cancel each other out and cause confusion., locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. I realize some writers use “locking eyes” but I immediately envision floating eyeballs. “Locking gazes” avoids confusion. But again, without knowing if she’s leaving or entering the office, the scene remains scrambled in this reader’s mind. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. And now, she’s fidgeting, which implies nervousness. However, slamming a hand into a wall, locking gazes, and the inner monologue and dialogue all implies anger and/or defiance. Choose one emotion and stick with it. We haven’t even gotten to the second paragraph, and already the MC has experienced a plethora of conflicting emotions. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. Glass surface of what? “I’m not kidding. <- this adds nothing of value, nor does this -> You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows <- I have no idea what this means. Is he consciously angling his bushy eyebrows at something? Doubtful. And if he is, we’ve slipped out of Arizona’s POV. and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin Face? Nose? Be specific. ’Course, shoving his chair backward is all you need to portray anger. All these other emotional cues distract from the dialogue. It’s too much. A good exercise for you may be to limit one emotion per character per page. It’ll force you to focus on strengthening the dialogue, inner monologue, and the narrative., and a vein in his neck bulged.

Let’s move on…

What if you started by showing Ari trying to control the diplomat’s reckless daughter (and failing)? Then this whole opener could be threaded through the narrative in a more organic way.

Example:

I didn’t become a federal agent to babysit a diplomat’s brat.

That one line of inner dialogue shows what you’ve conveyed in this first page. Please don’t get discouraged. We’ve all started novels too soon. And many of us continue to learn that lesson over and over and over. I wrote three different openers to my current WIP before I landed on one that worked, and it’ll be my 22nd book.

One last comment…

Because the out-of-control diplomat kid is a familiar trope, you need to work twice as hard to twist it in a way that’s fresh and new. It likens to the alcoholic cop or homicide detective who’s haunted by the cases he couldn’t solve. I can see that you have worked hard on your craft—otherwise I’d be handling you with kid gloves—so I’ll assume you have a fresh take. Which is great. I only bring it up to make you aware. Okay? Now, go write your bestseller. You’ve got the writing chops to do it. 😉

Over to you, TKZers. Please add your thoughtful suggestions for this Brave Writer.

Do You Have Dirty Links?

All our links need to work. Especially buy links. What if the link to your new release prevents your ARC readers from leaving reviews on Amazon? What if the link prevents all your readers from leaving reviews on Amazon, even verified purchase reviews? Or worse, Amazon shuts down your account because you’re violating their rules.

It happens more often than you may think, and many times the violation stems from a dirty link — the link you used in your marketing. That’s how important it is to clean your links. Trad-pub authors, don’t think this subject doesn’t apply to you. It does. In fact, that’s where I learned about dirty links, from my very first publisher.

What is a dirty link?

Your new book baby goes live on Amazon. If you search for the title on Amazon rather than go through your KDP dashboard, you’ll get a link that looks like this: https://www.amazon.com/Tracking-Mayhem-Sue-Coletta/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1EHIC52HI29T3&keywords=Tracking+Mayhem&qid=1692542716&s=books&sprefix=tracking+mayhem%2Cstripbooks%2C107&sr=1-1

That is a dirty link. It even looks ugly, right?

I want to draw your attention to this half of the link:

ref=sr_1_1?crid=1EHIC52HI29T3&keywords=Tracking+Mayhem&qid=1692542716&s=books&sprefix=tracking+mayhem%2Cstripbooks%2C107&sr=1-1

Everything after “ref” is filled with information for Amazon, information that can bite you in the butt. This tells Amazon who searched for the book. If the author conducted the search, then everyone who uses that link must be friends or family of said author.

Though you and I know that’s a ridiculous statement, Amazon disagrees.

If you have a connection to a reader, even if it’s on social media, Amazon presumes they’ll rate your book favorably. Doesn’t matter if you have 1M friends or followers. If someone buys your book from that dirty link, you are friends and/or family in Amazon’s eyes. Period. Hence why it’s also never a good idea to link your Goodreads (Amazon owned) to your Facebook.

As you probably know, Amazon doesn’t allow friends and/or family to review your book. If they do, Amazon can delete it from your book’s page. If you continue to violate this rule, Amazon can shut down your account.

So, the first thing you should do is delete everything from “ref” forward, leaving you with this: https://www.amazon.com/Tracking-Mayhem-Sue-Coletta/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/

Looks better, right? That link is now clean, but we can shorten it even more. The title and author are also irrelevant as far as the link is concerned. Let’s delete both. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/

If you’re working with limited space, you also don’t need “www.” You’ll end up with this: https://amazon.com/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/

Now that’s a spotless link! A far cry from the original, right? And with no added information for Amazon to track.

While we’re on the subject of links…

Most profile sections on social media only allow you to include one link. Wouldn’t it be great if you could house all your books, website, blog, newsletter sign-up, etc. under one link rather than choosing which one to include? You can!

The creative minds behind LinkTree solved the one-link problem.

Did I mention it’s free? When you sign up, they’ll ask you to customize your link with your name. Don’t use your book title or a clever alias. That defeats the purpose. You could use your pen name if that’s the only name you write under. Or create a new link for additional pen names.

Personally, I only want one link, but you do you.

Here’s how mine looks: https://linktr.ee/suecoletta

You can customize the links inside, with headings, color, button style, thumbnail images, etc.

Of course, you can upgrade for statistical data and other bells and whistles, like affiliate marketing. Though the free account does accept affiliate links for books without the upgrade.

Are you using affiliate links?

 If you’re unfamiliar with affiliate marketing, here’s what Amazon says about its program:

Amazon’s affiliate program, also known as Amazon Associates, is an affiliate marketing program that allows users to monetize their websites, blogs, or social media. Amazon affiliate users simply place links to Amazon products on their site, and when a customer makes a purchase via one of their links, the user receives a commission.

Every time we pay for a promo spot, you can bet the book site is including their affiliate ID in your link. Which is fine. It’s their site.

Quick funny story…

When my debut released, I thought a certain book site was the cat’s meow for sending me a universal book link to use in all future marketing. So nice, right? Yes and no. What I discovered later was they included their affiliate ID in the universal link. So, for well over a year, I gave away commissions that I could’ve earned. Kudos to them. They got me good. Now, the only links I use are the ones I create. If anyone’s gonna earn commissions from my marketing efforts, it’s me.

Do you use affiliate links? Do you clean your links? Have you ever had reviews removed by Amazon? Has a book site ever created a universal link for you? 😉 

Writers, have you fired “Chekhov’s Gun”?

I’ve got a special treat for you today. My dear friend Anne R. Allen is here! If you’re not following her blog, you should remedy that immediately. It’s a must-read for all writers.

Linked to Amazon

So okay, what the heck is “Chekhov’s gun?”

It’s a reference to advice the great Russian playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov, (1860-1904) gave young writers:

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

In other words, he says we shouldn’t clutter the story with things that have no relevance. If chapter one says your heroine won a bunch of trophies for javelin throwing, which she displays prominently on the wall alongside a javelin once thrown by Uwe Hohn, somebody had better darn well throw a javelin before the story is done.

Setting Details vs. Chekhov’s Gun

Yeah, but what if that javelin is there to show us what her apartment looks like? It’s good to show her décor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends. Yes, it’s good to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters.

But what’s all important is how you stress those details when you first present them. If there’s a whole page about those javelin throwing trophies, and the characters have a conversation about whether anyone will ever break Uwe Hohn’s throw record of 104.80 meters, you gotta toss some javelins. But if there’s just a cursory mention, “her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and long spears,” then you can leave them on the wall.

In other words, not every lampshade the author mentions has to show up two chapters later on the head of a drunken ex-boyfriend, but you need to be careful how much emphasis you put on that lampshade.

What, No Red Herrings?

Wait just a goldern minute, sez you. I write mysteries! Mysteries need to have irrelevant clues and red herrings. Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true. But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings. If the deceased met his demise via long pointy spear-thing, probably thrown from a considerable distance, then your sleuth is going to look like a very viable suspect to the local constabulary.

But of course she didn’t do it because she’s our hero, so the javelin on the wall and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be “fired.” Maybe not like Chekhov’s gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with. Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to “borrow” the Hwe Hohn javelin, but he couldn’t get it into his Kia, so in the end he used a shorter, more modern javelin…

Chekhov’s Gun and Subplots

I’ve been running into this problem in a lot of fiction lately: I find myself flipping through whole chapters that have nothing to do with the main story. That’s because the subplot isn’t hooked in with the main plot. It’s just hanging there, not furthering the action.

The subplot becomes the unfired Chekhov’s gun.

For instance, one mystery had the protagonist go through endless chapters of police academy training after the discovery of the body. The mysterious murder wasn’t even mentioned for a good six chapters. I kept trying to figure out how her crush on a fellow aspiring policeperson was going to solve the mystery.

I finally realized it wasn’t. None of the romance stuff had to do with the mystery. When I finally flipped through to a place where the main plot resumed, the hot fellow student didn’t even make an appearance. He’d already gone off with a hotter fellow recruit.

It’s fine to have a romance subplot in a mystery — in fact, that’s my favorite kind. But the romance has to take place while some mystery-solving is going on.

But if that romance doesn’t trigger a new plot twist or reveal a clue, then it’s an unfired gun on the wall. It’s just hanging there, annoying your reader, who expects it to be relevant.

Naming a Character Creates a Chekhov’s Gun.

Another “unfired Chekhov’s gun” situation often comes up with the introduction of minor characters and, um, “spear-carriers.”

You don’t want to introduce the pizza delivery guy by telling us how he got the nickname “Spear” followed by two paragraphs about his javelin-throwing expertise — unless he’s going to reappear later in the story. And he’d better be doing something more javelin-related than delivering another pie with extra pepperoni.

This is a common problem with newbie fiction. In creative writing courses we’re taught to make every character vivid and alive. So every time you introduce a new character, no matter how minor, you want to make them memorable. You want to give them names and create great backstories for them.

Don’t give into the urge, no matter what the creative writing teacher in your head is saying.

If the character is not going to reappear, or be involved with the plot or subplot, don’t give him a name. Just call him “the pizza guy” or “the Uber driver” or “the barista.”

A named character becomes a Chekhov’s gun. The reader will expect that character to come back and do something related to the plot.

Beware Research-itis

A lot of unfired guns come from what I call research-itis. That’s when the author did a heckuva lot of research and goldernit, they’re going to tell you every single fact they dug up.

You’ll get three chapters on the historical significance of the javelin in Olympic competitions, going back to ancient Greece. And the popularity of depictions of javelin throwers in Hellenistic art. And how both Zeus and Poseidon are depicted throwing their thunderbolts and tridents like javelins…

None of which has anything to do with the dead guy in the back yard with the big pointy spear in his back.

If the reader doesn’t need to know it to solve the mystery and it’s not a red herring, keep it to yourself.

Although a lot of that research will come in very handy for blogposts and newsletters when you’re marketing the book, so don’t delete any of those research notes!

Beta Readers and Editors Can Take Chekhov’s Gun Off Your Wall

It’s tough to weed out all those unfired guns in your own work.

You’re sure you absolutely need to tell us that our heroine won those trophies when she was on her college javelin team where her nemesis, Rosalie Rich, once stole her glasses before a meet…and she found out she could throw better without them and didn’t need glasses after all, which was great because her glasses made her look dorky and after she stopped wearing them, Lance Spears noticed her for the first time. He turned out to be a creep, but…

Your editor will disagree. And eventually you will thank her for it.

So will your readers.

Have you ever left a Chekhov’s gun on the wall? Are you annoyed when you find them in published books? What’s the worst Chekhov’s gun mistake you’ve found in fiction? 

Anne R. Allen is a popular blogger and the author of the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries as well as the Boomer Women Trilogy and the anthology Why Grandma Bought that Car (Kotu Beach Press.) Her most recent mystery is Catfishing in America (Thalia Press) a comic look at romance scams. Her mystery The Gatsby Game is being published in French at the end of this month. Anne’s nonfiction guide, The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors, is an Amazon #1 bestseller that was named one of the 101 Best Blogging Books of All Time by Book Authority.  She’s also the co-author, with Catherine Ryan Hyde, of the writer’s guide How to Be a Writer in the E-Age. She blogs with NYT million-copy seller, Ruth Harris, at “Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.” You can find them at annerallen.com.

Don’t miss Anne’s new release! CATFISHING IN AMERICA is a mashup of mystery, romcom, and satire.