Emphasized Words in Fiction

Many new writers struggle with how to emphasize words in fiction. It’s tempting to stick a word in ALL CAPS.

Please resist that urge. Yes, all-caps draws the reader’s attention, but not in a good way. All-caps become annoying after a while.

In fact, a 1955 study found that all-caps slowed reading speed by 9.5% over a five-minute period.

For example:

“I AM NOT HYSTERICAL!”

Notice how all the letters blend together in all-caps? It’s difficult to read. Imagine an entire novel littered with all-caps? In dialogue, it’s even more exhausting and amateurish.

If your character is shouting, use one exclamation point—not three!!!—or show us with a body cue.

“I am not hysterical!”

Or…

She slammed her fist on the table. “I am not hysterical!”

The combination of body cue, italicizing not, and the exclamation mark show the reader she is hysterical.

To the best of my recollection, I only used all-caps once in nineteen books. In my latest psychological thriller that releases at the end of this month (Yay!), the MC finds an engraved invitation, and I used italicized all-caps to show the heading across the front. Because all-caps is so offensive and jarring, I took special care to break up the text with an em dash, spacing above and below it, and double-tabbed to set it apart from the narrative. Offensive and jarring was exactly what I was going for, so all-caps worked in this case.

If you can think of another exception, please share in the comments.

What about changing the font to indicate emphasis?

I know it’s easy to change fonts these days, but the end result doesn’t enhance the reading experience. If anything, it pulls the reader out of the story. Please, stop. Let the writing speak for itself. If it can’t, then the problem is the writing, not the font.

What about bold to emphasize a word?

The short answer is no. The reading experience isn’t enhanced by bold, either. Both bold and all-caps look like the author’s screaming for attention.

What are we left with?

Italics. Yes, but don’t overdo it. Italics work best for emphasis when used sparingly. Like all-caps and bold, if used too much the eye passes right over the words we want emphasized.

We do have one other trick.

Em dashes. I love the little suckers. Maybe too much. 😉 At least I’m in good company. Jim professed his love for the em dash on Valentine’s Day last year.

“It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information.”

Couldn’t say it any better. It’s a beloved, versatile punctuation mark.

Hope he doesn’t mind if I steal his example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

See how drugging stands right out? The em dashes draw the eye right to it. They tell us to pay attention. They pique interest. They emphasize.

With italics and em dashes, we have all the tools we need to emphasize words. Now, go forth and finish that novel.

For fun, share a sentence from your WIP, published work, or a book you’re reading that shows how a word–or words–are emphasized. Don’t forget to include the title!

Pumpkin Spice and Writing

Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so popular? The fascinating part is not only does it taste amazing, but many are obsessed with how it makes them feel on an emotional level.

Dr. John McGann, a sensory neuroscientist at Rutgers Department of Psychology, explains how it all reverts back to the olfactory system — our sense of smell — which is complex to say the least.

“Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell,” McGann says. “About 70 percent of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25 percent of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there also additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

The human brain also assembles memories and emotions. In this way, smell is unique from all other senses, which first passes through the thalamus — a relay station of the brain — and goes straight to the olfactory bulb.

“From there it goes to the amygdala, which controls emotion, and to the hippocampal formation, the entorhinal cortex,” McGann explains. “Smell anatomically has a more direct connection to classical memory regions in the brain.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? A scene becomes more impactful and memorable when we include smell.

  • If your character is in the forest, include the fresh scent of pine.
  • If your character is in the bowling alley, include the stench of bare feet.
  • If your character is in a boat, include the salty ocean air.
  • If your character is at an Italian restaurant, include the signature tomato sauce.
  • If your character is at the gym, include body odor or sweat.
  • If your character is in a sauna, include cedar.
  • If your character is at a pool, include chlorine.
  • If your character is home, include a scented candle, tart warmer, or air freshener.
  • If one character is cradling a toddler, include baby shampoo or talcum powder.

McGann recalls a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past”, where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and feels as if he’s transported back in time. The same thing happens to us when we drink or eat something flavored with pumpkin spice.

What makes the flavor so widely relatable is the inclusion of spices like cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg that are more prevalent during the holidays. The aroma of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — historically, a prosperous time of year.

Food chemists hit an olfactory jackpot. Hence why pumpkin spice became more than just a fad. It’s a seasonal staple.

“The pumpkin spice blend… It’s about making people happy and connecting them to moments: the changing of the season, of being warm under the covers, but also the memory of spending enjoyable time with family and friends.” Thierry Muret, executive chef chocolatier at Godiva

Think about how the aroma of hot buttery popcorn triggers memories of movie theaters or how lobster tails remind New Englanders of the beach.

Where does your main character live? Does the area have a signature dish? Tickle the reader’s sense of smell to transport them there.

“Pumpkin spice is a novelty smell because you don’t smell it very often and it’s usually a pleasant smell,” explains Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. “Combine that with the fact that the part of the brain that processes smell is closely tied to the part of your brain responsible for memories and you have part of the secret to the success of pumpkin spice.”

Makes sense, right?

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell,” Harris adds. “It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment.”

This helps to explain why scent is such a powerful driver of emotion.

The irony is that pumpkin spice doesn’t smell like pumpkins. Pumpkins are members of the squash family, and don’t smell like spices. On their own their taste ranges from bland to bitter. What we’re actually smelling and/or tasting is a combination of cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

The true genius of the pumpkin spice craze is all about timing. Same holds true for writing. Don’t include a scent merely to check off an item on the to-do list. Include smell for a reason.

Examples:

  • To enhance the setting—the MC is hiking up a mountain trail.
  • To transport the reader back in time and/or place—flashing back to a memory.
  • To pack a more emotional punch—a mother loses her son, but she can still smell him on his favorite football jersey or bed pillow.
  • To set the scene—the MC meets a blind date at a restaurant.

“Pumpkin spice plays on what’s known in psychology as reactance theory, which refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it,” according to Harris. “The seasonality of it is really intentional. If pumpkin spice were available year-round, it wouldn’t trigger such powerful memories and people wouldn’t want it as much.”

Also, when the pumpkin spice craze starts, people don’t want to miss out. They crave being part of a community.

“If you add it all up, the powerful ability of smell to summon up old experiences becomes a mental transportation device, shifting you from summer to fall and it becomes an event people want to be part of.”

Let’s pretend you are the main character. What scents should I expect to smell while reading your life story?

Happy Halloween!

Homegrown Thrill Rides

Homegrown Thrill Rides: A checklist for suspense, what is the domestic thriller,  and tips on writing one.

As a now retired librarian turned full-time fiction writer, diving into the vast Kill Zone archives for three nuggets of wisdom is the perfect role for me here at KZB. It gives me the opportunity to share so many insightful posts on craft, publishing, and much more. For today’s post, I want to take a look on creating “homegrown thrill rides.” It begins with a sampling from a checklist on how to create suspense and tension for the reader, a necessary ingredient in any thrill ride. We then turn to excerpts from a pair of posts on the domestic thriller: defining it, and a few of the key factors to consider in writing one.

Please weigh in with your own thoughts. I have included a few questions as prompts for comments after the excerpts. Date links are provided to the full posts which can provide further fuel for thought and discussion.

Experiment with these devices to increase suspense and intrigue:

__ Sprinkle in some foreshadowing – drop subtle advance hints and innuendos about critical plot points or events.

__ Withhold information – use delay tactics, interruptions at critical points.

__ Stretch out critical scenes – milk them for all they’re worth.

Surprise or shock your readers:

__ Add in a few unexpected twists. Put a big one in the middle and another big one at the end.

__ Use surprise revelations from time to time – reveal character secrets and other critical information the reader has been dying to know.

__ Have your main character experience at least one epiphany – a sudden significant realization that changes everything for them. Try putting one in the middle and one near the end.

__ Write in some reversals of feelings, attitudes, expectations, and outcomes.

Keep adding more tension. Increase the troubles of your protagonist by using these plot devices:

__ Ticking clocks – every second counts.

__ Obstacles, hindrances – keep challenging your hero or heroine.

__ Chases – your protagonist is chasing or being chased.

__ Threats or hints of more possible danger ahead.

__ Traps and restrictions – your character becomes somehow trapped and must use all their resources to get out of the situation.

Create a memorable, satisfying ending.

Design a big showdown scene, an extremely close battle between the hero/heroine and the villain.

__ Write in a surprise twist at the end.

__ Leave your readers satisfied – the hero wins by a hair, the main story question/conflict is resolved.

–Jodie Renner, June 12, 2013 

 

I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

–James Scott Bell, May 6, 2018

 

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

–Jordan Dane, January 3, 2019

***

  1. How do you go about creating suspense in your fiction?
  2. Do you read domestic thrillers? Write them?
  3. What tips or advice do you have?

 

What Writers Can Learn from Bad TV Adaptations

Even in this image you can see different personality types.

There’s a popular TV adaptation of a thriller series that drives me crazy, but it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

The first problem is characterization. Every single female on the show is the same—strong, badass, snarky, and walks all over the meek male characters, who all seem to cower in their presence.

Lesson: Each character must have unique traits. All women are not strong. All men are not meek. Just as all characters are not beautiful or handsome. They’re individuals with their own quirks, strengths, flaws, etc.

The main character and her best friend are particularly annoying. I won’t get too deep into their backstory. Briefly, they both loved the same man (MC’s husband) who dies by the hand of a serial killer.

Now, either the writer knows nothing about women, or he lives in a dream world, because these two badass women move past the fact that they were sleeping with the same guy and open a PI business together.

Seriously? I don’t about you, but if another woman slept with my husband right before he died, we certainly wouldn’t become best friends and business partners. I’d hunt her for the rest of my life.

Ahem.

Lesson: If you know nothing about cheating or loss, ask someone who does.

Early on there was some mention that the MC was on the force at one point. Husband dies. She gains a new best friend, and the two women open a PI business to chase the serial killer who killed Mr. Wonderful. But because she’s so tough she walks all over the Sheriff and his deputies. And soon, he hands her a badge. On her first day, she’s basically running the whole department.

Now, I’m all for a strong female lead, but come on!

Keep in mind, she still owns half the PI business. Conflict of interest? Nah. In fact, she interviews more criminals with her best friend (who is not law enforcement) than she does with her meek male partner. And get this — she and her PI partner both have the power to make deals with criminals, like no jail time if you give up so-and-so. What??? There’s no DA is this story world? Apparently not.

Warrants also don’t exist, unless the writer needs to buy time. Otherwise, if she wants to kick in a door, she does. She even fights much larger male characters and wins every single time. Oh, and she puts out APBs instead of BOLOs.

Lesson #1: An APB and BOLO are two different things. An All Points Bulletin (APB) might be released when there’s a prison break and they want “all points” to get the message. A Be On the Look Out (BOLO) is more traditional these days for when a specific person and/or vehicle is wanted in connection with a crime.

Same goes for 187 to indicate a homicide. It’s a gang term not used by law enforcement with the exception of California. California operates differently than the rest of the country, so check with local law enforcement.

Lesson #2: Do your homework, writers! If you’re unsure if they use APB or BOLO, call and ask. Most departments will happily answer questions from writers.

Lesson #3: Characters must fail, or they become ridiculous and unrealistic. There’s also no character arc without failure. These characters have not changed one iota from the first episode to the last.

Lesson #4: There are laws in this country, and the vast majority of law enforcement work within the law. Can a cop character cut corners once in a while? Within reason, I suppose, but they cannot blatantly disregard the law entirely.

Let’s talk about the serial killer character for a moment. He could not be more stereotyped with Mommy issues, etc. Another eye roll character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And—surprise, surprise—a dirty cop is protecting him. At the end of season one, the cop dies. But fear not! He’s back in season two. Can anyone guess how?

Anyone? Anyone?

He’s a twin, of course. A twin, I might add, that no one knew about…until the writer needed an easy way to continue the series.

Lesson: Whatever solution first pops into your mind is a cop-out. Dig deeper and work for a solution that isn’t eye-roll-worthy.

It gets worse. The twin brother gets shot—in the head!—and is still able to flee before capture. Gotta continue the series, right? Wrong. If you kill a character, that’s it. You don’t get to magically move the bullet to his shoulder because it’s convenient.

Lesson: You cannot perform medical miracles to suit your story. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy.

Now, I will say, I haven’t read the novels, nor will I after sitting through the series while pounding out notes on my phone. It’s possible the film industry destroyed the novels. I doubt it because the author consults on set, but maybe the books aren’t as ridiculous.

I keep watching for two reasons:

  1. My husband I have a blast making fun of it. 🙂
  2. We can learn just as much from bad series as we can from good ones. Maybe more.

If you’ve figured out the series, please don’t mention the title.

If you enjoy strong and snarky female leads (not cardboard cutouts who never fail), check out WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1 of the Mayhem Series.

FREE on Amazon.

How To Craft a Compelling Character

Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.

I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.

How do we craft a compelling character?

It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.

  • Who is your character in public?
  • Do they put their best foot forward?
  • Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?

Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.

The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.

  • How does your character react around close friends and family?
  • Are they goofballs?
  • The practical jokester?
  • More loving, more reserved?

The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.

  • Did he die?
  • Is someone holding him hostage?
  • Is he being abused?

No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.

What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.

Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.

The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.

  • Who is your character then?
  • Are they the savior or the selfish?
  • Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?

Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉

Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,

  • What’s your greatest passion?
  • What’s your favorite genre of music?
  • Do you travel?
  • What places have you gone?
  • How did each trip affect you?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
  • Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
  • How did you feel when they died?
  • What type of things are on your bucket list?

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.

Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.

Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?

For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?

5 Similarities Between Your Hero and Villain 

In story terms, a villain is a person, entity, or force who is cruel, evil, or malicious enough to wish the protagonist harm. Rather than simply blocking a goal or interfering with the hero’s plan, a villain causes suffering, making it vital for them to be conquered by the protagonist. Clarice must find and defeat Buffalo Bill if she wants to rise above her past and become a great FBI agent (The Silence of the Lambs); Chief Brody must kill the man-eating shark to preserve his town (Jaws).  

Regardless of the form your villain takes, there are certain qualities that will make them formidable and credible—qualities and connections they share with the protagonist. Let’s explore these qualifications through a case study of Dr. Lawrence Myrick, played by Gene Hackman in the movie Extreme Measures 

VILLAINS, LIKE HEROES, LIVE BY A MORAL CODE  

It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story.  

Dr. Myrick is a renowned and brilliant neurosurgeon who has dedicated his life’s work to curing paralysis. It’s a noble cause that he believes in more than anything—not so much for himself but for all the paralyzed people in the world. This cause is so important that when he develops a treatment, he can’t wait decades for it to crawl through the testing process and eventually be approved. So he bypasses the animal testing phase and goes right to human trials. It’s kind of hard to find healthy subjects who are willing to take such a risk, so he kidnaps homeless people and confines them to his secret medical facility, then severs their spinal cords so he can test his treatment on them.  

To the rest of the world, this is unconscionable. But to Myrick, the end justifies the means. He’s perfectly okay stealing people, taking away their freedom and mobility, and subjecting them to countless medical cruelties. And if they reach a point of no longer being useful, he’s fine doing away with them because they’re people no one will miss. He actually views them as heroes, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. His morals are deranged, but they’re absolute, guiding his choices and actions. And when you know his code, while you don’t agree with it, you at least understand what’s driving him, and his actions make sense.  

When you’re planning your villain, explore their beliefs about right and wrong. Figure out their worldview and ideals. Specifically, see how the villain’s beliefs differ from the protagonist’s. This will show you the framework the villain is willing to work within, steer the conflict they generate, and provide a stark contrast to the hero.  

THEY HAVE A STORY GOAL, TOO  

Like the hero, the villain has an overall objective, and they’re willing to do anything within their moral code to achieve it. When their goal is diametrically opposed to the hero’s, the two become enemies in a situation where only one can succeed.  

We know Myrick’s goal: to cure paralysis. And things are progressing nicely until an ER doctor in his hospital discovers homeless patients disappearing from the facility. Dr. Lathan starts nosing around, and when he realizes someone is up to no good, it becomes his mission to stop them. So the two are pitted against each other. If one succeeds, the other must fail. To quote Highlander: there can only be one.  

As the author who has spirited the villain out of your own (dare we say twisted?) imagination, you need to know their goal. It should be as clear-cut and obvious as the hero’s objective. Does it put them in opposition to the protagonist? Ideally, both characters’ goals should block each other from getting what they want and need.  

VILLAINS ARE WELL-ROUNDED  

Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of. Myrick is cruel, unfeeling, and devious. But he’s also intelligent, generous, and absolutely dedicated to curing a devastating malady that afflicts the lives of many.  

Positive traits add authenticity for the villain while making them intimidating and harder to defeat. An added bonus is when their strength counters the hero’s.  

The villain of Watership Down is General Woundwort, a nasty rabbit whose positive attributes are brute strength and sheer force of will, making him more man than animal. In contrast, hero Hazel embodies what it means to be a rabbit. He’s swift and clever. He knows who he is and embraces what makes him him. In the end, Hazel and his rabbits overcome a seemingly undefeatable enemy by being true to their nature.  

When your villain is conceived and begins to grow in the amniotic fluid of your imagination, be sure to give him some positive traits along with the negative ones. Not only will you make him an enemy worthy of your hero, he’ll also be one readers will remember.  

THEY HAVE A BACKSTORY (AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS)  

Authors know how important it is to dig into their protagonist’s backstory and have a strong grasp of how it has impacted that character. Yet one of the biggest mistakes we make with villains is not giving them their own origin story. A character who is evil with no real reason behind their actions or motivations isn’t realistic, making them stereotypical and a bit…meh.  

To avoid this trap, know your villain’s beginnings. Why are they the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy? The planning and research for this kind of character is significant, but it will pay off in the form of a memorable and one-of-a-kind villain who will give your hero a run for his money and intrigue readers.  

THEY SHARE A CONNECTION WITH THE PROTAGONIST  

In real life, we have many adversaries. Some of them are distant—the offensive driver on the highway or that self-serving, flip-flopping politician you foolishly voted for. Those adversaries can create problems for us, but the ones that do the most damage—the ones we find hardest to confront—are those we share a connection with. Parents, siblings, exes, neighbors we see every day, competitors we both admire and envy, people we don’t like who are similar to us in some way…conflicts with these people are complicated because of the emotions they stir up.  

The same is true for our protagonists. The most meaningful clashes will be with the people they know. Use this to your advantage. Bring the villain in close and make things personal by engineering a connection between the two characters. Here are a few options for you to work with.  

  • Give Them a Shared History. The more history the two have, the more emotion will be involved. Guilt, rage, grief, fear, jealousy, regret, desire—strong feelings like these will add sparks to their interactions. They’ll cloud the protagonist’s judgment and increase the chances their villain will gain an edge.  
  • Make Them Reflections of Each Other. What happens when the protagonist sees him or herself in the villain? A seed of empathy forms. The hero feels a connection with the person they have to destroy, which complicates things immensely. Personality traits, flaws, vulnerabilities, wounding events, needs and desires—all of these (and more) can be used to forge a bond that will add complexity and depth to this important relationship.  
  • Give Them a Shared Goal. When your hero and your villain are pursuing the same objective, it accomplishes a number of good things. First, it ensures that only one of them can be the victor, pitting them against each other. But they’re also more likely to understand one another. They’ll have different reasons and methods of chasing the dream, but the shared goal can create an emotional connection.  

As you can see, a lot goes into creating an enemy that is realistic, complete, and worthy of holding the title of villain in your story. When you’re drawing this character, give them the same thought and effort you’d put into your hero, and you’ll end up with a villain that will enhance your story, intrigue readers, and give the hero a run for their money.  

Want to take your conflict further? The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more! 

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 900,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

 

Telepathy and Writing

Deep down each of us have a strong but underused connection to the world around us.

Consider the time when you sensed someone watching you, even if you couldn’t see them. Or the gut feeling, telling you something significant was about to happen. Or the intuitive, instinctive feeling that gave you the name of the person on the other end of the line before checking the caller ID.

If we learn how to tap into this sixth sense, we begin to notice when someone—dead or alive—is thinking about us, even when we’re physically apart.

Telepathic communication explains why, when you randomly thought of a friend and she texted you the next day. Or that time when you spontaneously called your third cousin, and he said, “Oh em gee, I was just thinking about you!”

Writers are especially attuned to the “little voice” inside us.

Some are more intuitive than others, but we all have an underutilized sixth sense. Once we learn its power and how to use it, new doorways open up, doorways that enhance our writing.

The more we open up to the possibility of telepathy, the more we’ll start to notice the messages from our spirit guides and ancestors, and the synchronicities or coincidences that have always been present in our lives.

The Natural World thrives on telepathic communication.

An animal’s survival depends on it. If you’ve ever wondered how one species warns another about potential threats, telepathy answers this question. And humans — as members of the Natural World — can tap into that same energy.

The notion of telepathic communication first intrigued me as a way to chat with animals, wild and domestic. Because when we watch and listen to animals, they help us reach our full potential. Animals enrich the mind, body, and soul. They’re sentient, intuitive beings who communicate with us in many ways. Body language, vocals, and telepathy, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Think about this: Most animals know more about their environment than you or I ever will.

An intuitive exchange with any animal — cats, dogs, guinea pigs, crows — begins the same way. First, with physical body cues. Then with the silent language of love.

So, how can we telepathically communicate with animals?

Step 1: Rest your hands over your heart and practice deep breathing exercises.

Step 2: Once you’re relaxed, pay attention to your heart, to your soul, and feel the gravity of your love for the animal.

Step 3: Express your love for that animal by visualizing a soft beam of light, a tether connecting the two of you.

Step 4: Silently or vocally ask the animal for permission to telepathically communicate with them.

Step 5: If you don’t sense any reluctance, express how you’re open to receiving messages in return. Keep it light in the beginning and progress deeper once you build trust, confidence, and strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind, animals live in the moment. They’re not distracted by the phone, the to-do list, or regret. And so, you must also be in the present moment to connect with them.

The only obstacle is you.

Trust the flow, the energetic pulse of life. Align with, not against, this flow. By blocking out all distractions, the energy exchanges between you and animals will occur effortlessly. You are in the present, anchored by love and grace, and coming from a place of neutrality. You are part of the Natural World, connected across space and time.

The same principals apply to human-to-human telepathic communication. Both parties must be willing participants. Don’t use this life skill for evil (unless you’re targeting fictional characters).

Remember These Three Simple Truths

  1. We are all part of divine consciousness.
  2. Love creates alignment with all creation.
  3. We all have the ability to listen with our heart.

When we refocus on lowering the frequency of emotions — fear, self-doubt, anxiety — we raise our cognition, enhance the vibration of our energy, we align with nature. Animals are drawn to bright inner lights, and therefore will be enthusiastic about communicating with you.

That’s all well and good, Sue, but how does that help our writing?

Glad you asked. 😉

In On Writing, Stephen King provides the perfect example of telepathy and writing.

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

What does the quote mean?

The best way to think about writing is the process of transferring a mental image from your mind to the mind of a reader. As writers, we envision scenes, settings, characters, etc. Our job is to transfer that mental image to the page for the reader to experience later.

Sounds a lot like telepathy, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Hence why writing coaches tell us to envision our ideal reader, carrying that image with us while writing. The trick is learning what images to include and what to leave out. Hint: Less is more.

Want to hear something bizarre?

While writing this post in Word, the document kept disappearing. One second it’d be on my screen, gone the next. And I had three other documents open at the time. The other two stayed on the screen. Coincidence? You tell me.

Releases tomorrow! Preorder on Amazon for $1.49 before my publisher raises the price.

She may be paranoid, but is she right?

A string of gruesome murders rocks the small town of Alexandria, New Hampshire, with all the victims staged to resemble dead angels, and strange red and pink balloons appearing out of nowhere.

All the clues point to the Romeo Killer’s return. Except one: he died eight years ago.

Paranoid and on edge, Sage’s theory makes no sense. Dead serial killers don’t rise from the grave. Yet she swears he’s here, hungering for the only angel to slip through his grasp—Sage.

With only hours left to live, how can Sage convince her Sheriff husband before the sand in her hourglass runs out?

 

 

 

First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

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

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 

CHAPTER ONE

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail, as I walked and dwelled on past sins and future amends, Girl hunted.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.” I wedged the glove in a pine tree branch and headed toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscross the snow and Girl runs in circles.

But her guttural vocals, dog-talk I call it, told me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow; instead of a glove or purse, I saw a bare hand and forearm: black hair and white skin. I wondered if Girl pulled the ski glove off the hand as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive: SEXUEL TABOU.

I brushed snow off the face: a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

My breath clouded in the frigid air as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory of the last pulse I checked—five years ago, an unconscious man prone on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife and I busted a beer bottle over his head and held the jagged edge to his throat—accompanied me down the snow-covered trail.

I checked that guy’s pulse out of self-interest to ensure I hadn’t killed him. Then I walked out of the bar into a dusty street under a hot-as-hell sun and onto a bus heading out of town, leaving a job as a deckhand on a sportfishing boat without notice or collecting pay. Better than getting locked up again.

***

Brave Writer, we have a little colon/semicolon problem that needs to be addressed. With a few rare exceptions, they’re not necessary in fiction. If you pretend they don’t exist, you won’t use them as a crutch. That’s not a dig, btw. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t have crutch words, phrases, or punctuation they fall back on. The trick is learning our crutches so we can kill our darlings during edits.

Let’s dive right in…

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail (Is the day of the week important? If it is, fine. If it isn’t, delete), as I walked (use a stronger verb. Hiked?) and dwelled on past sins and future amends, [my dog] Girl hunted. Added “my dog” for clarity.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl [had a] always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: (change colon to em dash) dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills. <–  Here’s your opening line.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

Condense all of the above, like this…

My dog Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

On the snowy hiking trail of Mount Whatever, Girl slalomed around pine trees in search of prey. I threw a snowball for her to fetch, but she returned with a ski glove instead.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.”

With only a pet character to chat with, be careful your dialogue doesn’t become too on-the-nose. Less is more. Example: “Huh. That’s odd. Somebody must be looking for it.”

I wedged the glove between two in a pine tree branches and headed (be precise. Hiked, clomped, plodded, lumbered, strode…) toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscrossed the snow and Girl runs ran in circles (if she’s running in circles, she’s not digging a hole, yet you say she dug a hole three lines below. Easy fix. End the sentence after “snow”).

But her Girl’s guttural vocals, dog-talk I called it, told (alerted?) me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

Girl bounced on her front paws, then took off, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds to ensure I followed (to give her some personality).

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow.; instead of a glove or purse, I saw (saw is a telling word. Start the paragraph here –>) A bare hand and forearm protruded from a snowbank.: (lose the colons and semi-colons) Black hair, pale and white skin. I wondered (wondered is also a telling word. Rewrite into a question.) Did Girl pull the ski glove off the hand? as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. (<– Nice!) After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive.:  Rather than that pesky colon, set the next line apart like this…

SEXUEL TABOU. (Do you mean Sexual? Also, don’t change fonts. Use italics instead.)

I brushed snow off the face: (you’re killing me with these colons!) a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered (rewrite into a question to remove “wondered”) if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

Why would the MC assume the tattoo and his death are related? If it is a clue, don’t tell us yet. Let the reader wonder if there’s a connection and move on. Later, the MC can circle back to this clue. For more on how to use misdirection, read this post.

My breath clouded in the frigid air (<– great imagery) as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory (reminder?) of the last pulse I checked. (Don’t use an em dash here. It muddies the sentence.) Five years ago, an unconscious man lay prone (you know prone means facedown, right?) on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife. (This paragraph and ones after it can all be summed up in two sentences. Otherwise, it’s a flashback, and it’s much too early for a flashback.) He’s the reason I left a good-paying job and fled to [insert where we are]. Better than getting locked up. Again (I separated Again into a staccato to give it a little added punch, but it’s also fine as one sentence).

Hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Brave Writer. My only goal is to help you succeed. Once you clean up the few issues I mentioned, you’ll have a compelling storyline. I’d flip the page to find out what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

What do you think of the title? Would you turn the page?

What Writers Can Learn from I Was Prey

Please excuse my absence over the last 7-10 days while I was on deadline. I’m usually a better multitasker. *sigh*

Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that’s a goldmine for writers. I Was Prey is that type of series.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, each episode recounts the hauntingly true stories of people who found themselves in a life-or-death struggle with a dangerous animal. Whoever puts these shows together knows story structure, because each episode grips you, holds interest, and keeps you watching. It’s like a car crash. You cannot look away.

The benefit for writers comes through observation.

As each victim recounts their harrowing tale, watch their facial expressions, their involuntary tics and body movements. Listen to the inflection of their voice. It’s all real, raw emotion. These victims carry lifelong emotional and physical scars.

The grizzly bear and hippo attacks are my favorite. Not because I enjoy watching people fall prey to these animals, but because of their reaction to the animal’s power and strength. And we can use that to our advantage. The shock when they first encounter the animal, and what that looks like as they relive the moment on screen. More importantly, how they felt at the time.

Stories thrive on emotion.

It’s how we breathe life into characters.

By studying real people in dangerous situations, we can then transfer that emotion to our characters. It’s especially helpful for the young writer who has never experienced trauma, thus has an empty well of emotional upheaval to dip into.

Emotions add to the credibility of the story.

In a much-cited experiment, researchers showed several versions of the story of a father whose son is dying of cancer. The goal was to encourage listeners to donate money to charity. The versions of the story that emphasized statistics yielded the least donations. Versions focusing on the father’s feelings for his son’s condition gained the most.

Surprising? Not really. When we connect on an emotional level, we react.

Emotionally infused messages are more memorable.

Researchers have also shown how compelling stories boost hormones, oxytocin and cortisol. These hormones help us forge powerful connections. Stories that unlock strong emotions linger in a reader’s mind.

Evocative storytelling overcomes objections.

If we focus on “Just the facts, Jack,” the reader can experience analysis paralysis. Hence why there’s a fine art to weaving in research. Emotion allows readers to mark choices as good, bad, or indifferent, which in turn allows them to move beyond objections.

Emotional narratives inspire change.

For centuries we’ve told stories around the campfire. We’re wired to respond to traditional narrative structures. And so, emotion encourages empathy (say that five times fast). That emotional connection grounds the reader in the scene. Because they’ve been transported into the story, rather than merely reading words on a page, we’ve changed their mindset. Whether it’s temporary or permanent depends on the story.

A vivid, emotional story packs an extra punch and feels more real, more important. If you look back through times at moments when somebody’s beliefs changed, it’s often because of a story that hit home.

Emotion encourages word of mouth.

Emotion begets emotion. Readers who are moved by a story are more likely to recommend the book to friends, family, coworkers. They may even sing the author’s praises online.

Visceral emotion commands attention and creates a shared experience between character and reader.

Don’t tell the reader how the character feels. Show them through body cues, dialogue—external and internal—and unspoken truths. By doing so, the reader bonds with the characters.

Have you ever seen I Was Prey? Any suggestions for other documentary-style shows that writers can benefit from?

Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Fictional truth is never quite as clear as it seems on the surface. Deceptiveness boils down to manipulation, disguise, and misdirection. The writer can deceive characters and readers in numerous ways.

A villain might murder another character, then lie to avoid detection. This leads to more lies, more misdirection, and deepening deceptions, creating tension and conflict.

What if the main character lies to themselves about who they are or their current circumstances? Because the truth may be too difficult to accept, the charade continues. One of the most widely known examples is The Sixth Sense.

*Spoiler Alert*

Dr. Malcom Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, could not accept the fact that he died from a fatal gunshot wound. He was an unreliable character from the start of the movie, but viewers didn’t know it. Because he couldn’t accept his fate, he fooled himself into believing he survived. Thus, we believed. In hindsight, we can see where the writer dropped clues. At the time, though, most viewers didn’t catch any hints the first time they watched the movie.

Creating an unreliable narrator takes a skilled hand.

Fail, and the reader feels tricked. Succeed, and reap the rewards.

The one advantage we have is that trust is often automatic. Because narrators act as our guide, deception isn’t something readers expect. Trust is woven into the fabric of our lives. Thus, we often take it for granted.

  • When we slip behind the steering wheel or into the passenger seat, we trust the wheels will stay bolted to the car.
  • When we eat at a restaurant, we trust we won’t get food poisoning.
  • When we crawl under the covers at night, we trust the legs won’t snap off the bed.

This presumed trust is why and how authors can manipulate readers. It’s reasonable to presume we can trust the main character. And so, we do. Should we, though? No narrator is 100% reliable. Stories that force us to question our own perception are often compelling page-turners, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Deception can occur anywhere.

We tend to first think of antagonists who are manipulative and deceptive, but heroes can deceive, too. In fact, even secondary characters are capable of deception.

What if a main character lies to protect a child?

What if a foil thrives on deceit? Or it only appears like they thrive on chaos when in truth, they’re hiding a secret? The higher the stakes, the more they’ll lie to protect it.

What if a character believes they’re right? They genuinely want to help and don’t mean to misdirect the detective. I’m talkin’ about eyewitnesses to a crime.

Think about this…

We each view the world through a filter of our past experiences, emotional baggage, scars we carry, profession—past or present—worldview, religion, politics, the list goes on and on.

For example:

When I look at an old mighty oak tree, I see a living, breathing being who’s survived for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and has provided housing and comfort to thousands of animals. And I think, Imagine the stories it can tell.

Someone else might only see firewood.

Neither view is wrong. We’re admiring the tree through different lenses.

Psychologists refer to this as the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect.

This refers to a phenomenon wherein the same event is interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. The Rashomon effect is named after the popular 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon in which a murder is described in four different ways by four different witnesses of the same crime. It is often used to emphasize the point that people’s perceptions about an event can differ considerably based on their individual personal experiences.

Thus, it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.

The same holds true for our characters. And that’s where the fine art of deception comes into play. If we stay true to our character, deception could be automatic. The reader might not catch on right away, but once the truth unravels it’ll make perfect sense. Why? Because they’ve come to know how the character views the world.

Another way to show a character disguising their actions, emotions, or a secret, is through subtle clues.

Subtle clues of how characters behave can tell the reader a lot about them. Imagine people in real life when they’re not being completely honest. How they act and react say a lot about who they are. Characteristics can also show the reader a character might be deceptive—things like suspicious behavior, not wishing to engage with others, indecisiveness, or apprehension.

Dialogue is another way for writers to manipulate the reader. What characters say—and don’t say—can show a character acting evasive or blatantly lying. Tone of voice also disguises the truth, as does ambiguity.

Symbolism and atmosphere can reinforce a specific message, feeling, or idea. If you look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a symbol or setting that might help foreshadow the truth or reinforce the deception?

For example, the following foreshadows danger:

  • Mirages
  • Heat waves
  • Venomous snakes
  • Fog
  • Poisonous plants

Symbols of triumph and joy:

  • Breathtaking sunrise
  • Rainbow
  • Four-leaf clover
  • Butterfly
  • Cardinal

Both these lists are so common they’ve become cliche, but we can use that to our advantage. What if you took a symbol that commonly brings joy and flipped the script? Now, the reader will no longer be able to trust their own instincts. You’re toying with their perception. Thus, able to deceive.

These are just a few ways to create deception. The possibilities are endless.

What are some ways you’ve deceived a character and/or the reader? Or name a favorite author/novel that hoodwinked you.