What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

Zoosemiotics is the study of animal communication, and it’s played an important role in the development of ethology, sociobiology, and the study of animal cognition. Writers can also learn from zoosemiotics. Think characterization and scene enhancement.

In the animal kingdom, the sender and receiver of communication may be part of the same species or from different species. Crows, for example, warn the chippies, squirrels, and numerous small birds when dangerous predators are in the area. They do this with a vocal alarm, and every animal pays attention. When crows are around good people and animals they’re comfortable with, they blink several times per minute and have a relaxed, roaming gaze. If a predator prowls or coasts into their domain, their unblinking, hard stare at the threat warns other wildlife in the area.

Warning Coloration

In species such as wasps that are capable of harming potential predators, they’re often brightly colored, and this modifies the behavior of the predator who either instinctively knows to be wary or has learned to use caution through past experiences. Some forms of mimicry fall in the same category. For example, hoverflies have similar coloring to wasps. Although they’re unable to sting, wasps avoid them.

Coloration changes in characters include reddening or flushed neck and/or face (anger or embarrassment) or the lack of color i.e., pale (fear, anxiety, or nervousness).

Behavioral Changes

Canines such as wolves and coyotes may adopt an aggressive posture, such as growling, head leveling, or baring teeth to warn a potential predator to stay back, that if they approach, the canine is ready and able to fight. Rattlesnakes use their telltale rattle—it means, if you come near me, I will strike. Certain amphibians with a bright colored belly and a back that blends into the environment, flash their belly when confronted by a potential threat, indicating they are poisonous in some way.

Behavioral changes in characters include a snarled lip, clenched fists, pitching forward, or lunging at the threat (anger), mouth dryness, licking lips, avoiding eye contact, clenched hands/arms, jerky steps, fidgeting, defensive posture (fear, anxiety, or nervousness), slumped shoulders, tears, flat speech (sadness), raised eyebrows, eyes widening, slacked jaw (surprise), open body language, smiling (happiness) etc.…

Stotting

An example of prey to predator communication is stotting, a highly noticeable form of running shown by some antelopes such as a Thomson’s gazelle. Stotting indicates the animal is healthy and fit, thus not worth pursuing.

Stotting behavior in characters: Think about the difference between jogging and running for your life. The feet may be sloppy or the character zigzags, trips, or falls (fear).

Predator to Prey

Some predators communicate to prey in ways that change their behavior. The deception makes them easier to catch. Take, for example, the angler fish. Fleshy growth protruding from its forehead dangles in front of its jaws. Smaller fish try to take the lure, thereby positioning themselves directly in front of the angler fish’s mouth.

Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture. 😉

Human & Animal Communication

We are all part of the Natural World. Various ways in which humans interpret the behavior of domestic animals and/or wildlife fit the definition of interspecific communication. Although dogs can use vocal communication, they mainly display nonverbal communication through the use of body language, such as tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Recognizing the correct nonverbal cue will help decipher what the dog is telling us.

More character nonverbal cues include sweating, trembling, damp eyes, muscles tensing, crossed arms or the drawing in of limbs, the body recoiling (fear, anxiety, nervousness), sudden backward movement (surprise), relaxation of muscles (happiness), etc….

While observing a dog’s body language it’s crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation or context. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean Fido’s happy. A tail in motion is often noticed first, but the rest of the dog is board-stiff, and the ears are back and the dog’s in a couched position, the full picture tells you Fido’s not happy with the situation.

5 Common Groups of Canine Signals

Keep in mind, a dog could use more than one response at a time. Hence why it’s important to analyze the entire dog, not just one body cue (the same applies to characters).

Fido may start with a display of excitement, then decide the stimuli is a threat and switch to aggressive posturing, or send fear signals, or both.

As we review each group, notice the similarities to us (characters).

Fearful Communication

When a dog is frightened, he’s likely to react with his whole body. He may lick his lips, yawn, keep his mouth tightly closed, cower or lower his body, lower or tuck his tail, or flatten his ears. He may also tremble or shake, avoid eye contact, or lean back to avoid the frightening stimulus.

The body language may be a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies. Sometimes, the complete absence of active signals can speak volumes. A dog that won’t eat food or treats, is avoiding people when they approach, or freezes when someone reaches for him—a “shut down” appearance—is demonstrating fear. Sadly, we often see this behavior in shelters if the dog doesn’t get adopted. Shelter dogs also may display high arousal or excitement.

Arousal Communication

The arousal in shelter dogs could be due to many factors, including age, confinement, lack of physical and/or mental outlets, and personality. An arousal/excitement response could indicate joy directed at a certain person, another dog, or toy. If the context is a favorable one, the dog should have soft, relaxed body and eyes and mouth, along with a wagging tail that jumps for attention. He may also play-bow—rear end in the air, front end lowered—to demonstrate excitement. Other cues are jumping, mounting, and mouthing. Mouthing should be soft (no teeth).

Arousal behaviors can also be directed at unfavorable stimuli, such as an unwanted human, animal, or situation. Arousal signals in this context may be coupled with fear signals, such as trembling or a low/tucked tail. Or the arousal signals are paired with aggression—barking, lunging, anxious pacing or spinning, or biting of leash, clothing, or the unfavorable stimuli. The dog’s fur can pilo-erect (hackle), his ears bent forward or at attention, his stance upward and erect. The tail is often up and wagging stiffly, and the eyes are wide-open and focused on the target. He could also bark, growl, and/or lunge.

Anxious Communication

If a dog becomes stressed, he may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and lack of focus. Similar body language to a fearful dog, when in reality, he’s filled with anxiety. Which is why context is key. A dog that jumps at the kennel door as a person approaches is displaying arousal/excitement. Whereas a dog bounding off the side walls of the kennel displays anxious communication signals.

Aggressive Communication

Aggression is a normal and natural behavior in animals, triggered by a perceived threat. Aggressive vocalizations and body posturing are warning signals.

In dogs, we understand aggression through body language that includes stiffening or freezing, eyes wide with the whites visible (called whale eye), tense mouth or curled lips, wrinkled nose, bared teeth, barking, growling, and air snapping.

Relaxed Communication

We all love dogs in a relaxed position, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted. A smiling appearance. Head and ears relaxed in a neutral position, body loose, eyes soft. His tail may be swishing back and forth, or even wagging in a circular motion. My favorite is when a dog’s lying in the frog-leg position. Those froggy legs are hard to resist!

Over to you, TKZers! You may be using animal communication and not realize it, because many behaviors are similar to our own body language. If you’d like to give an example from your WIP, go for it. Otherwise, please include different animals and how they communicate.

 

 

MS Word Keyboard Shortcuts

Whether you’re working today, grillin’, or hanging poolside, Happy Memorial Day! For those outside the U.S. a belated but heartfelt Happy Remembrance Day!

I hope the following shortcuts will help save you productivity time when you return to the keyboard. I’ve broken the keystrokes into two sections — Windows and Mac — to act as a quick and easy reference guide.

Please note: Today is all about MS Word. For other shortcuts, such as inserting advanced symbols/characters, WordPress, or YouTube, see Writing Hacks: Keyboard Shortcuts. Please ignore my wonky columns. 😉

COMPOSING & EDITING                          WINDOWS                MAC

 

Create a new document                              Ctrl-N                          ⌘-N

Open document                                          Ctrl-O                         ⌘-O

Save document                                           Ctrl-S                         ⌘-S

Open “Save As”                                           F12                            ⌘-Shift-S

Close document                                          Ctrl-W                        ⌘-W

Print document                                            Ctrl-P                         ⌘-P

Select All                                                     Ctrl-A                         ⌘-A

Copy to clipboard                                        Ctrl-C                         ⌘-C or F3

Paste from clipboard                                    Ctrl-V                          ⌘-V or F4

Delete selection & copy to clipboard             Ctrl-X                          ⌘-X or F2

Undo last action                                           Ctrl-Z                         ⌘-Z or F1

Redo last action                                           Ctrl-Y                         ⌘-Y

Add comment                                             Ctrl-Alt-M                    ⌘-Option-A

Turn revision tracking on/off                          Ctrl-Shift-E                  ⌘-Shift-E

Run spelling/grammar check                        F7                              ⌘-Option-L or F7

 

TEXT FORMATTING

 

Bold                                                         Ctrl-B                         ⌘-B

Italics                                                        Ctrl-I                           ⌘-I

Underline                                                  Ctrl-U                         ⌘-U

Double underline                                       Ctrl-Shift-D                 ⌘-Shift-D

Underline words, not spaces                     Ctrl-Shift-W                ⌘-Shift-W

Strikethrough text                                       Alt-H, 4                     ⌘-Shift-X

All caps                                                     Ctrl-Shift-A                ⌘-Shift-A

Superscript text                                         Ctrl-Shift-+                 ⌘-Shift-+

Subscript text                                             Ctrl-=                        ⌘-=

Increase font size                                        Ctrl-Shift->                ⌘-Shift->

Decrease font size                                      Ctrl-Shift-<                ⌘-Shift-<

Insert hyperlink                                           Ctrl-K                        ⌘-K

Open font dialog box                                  Ctrl-D                        ⌘-D

or Ctrl-Shift-F

PARAGRAPH FORMATTING

Left-align text                                              Ctrl-L                          ⌘-L

Right-align text                                            Ctrl-R                         ⌘-R

Center-align text                                         Ctrl-E                          ⌘-E

Justify text                                                  Ctrl-J                          ⌘-J

Indent paragraph                                        Ctrl-M                         Ctrl-Shift-M

Remove indentation                                   Ctrl-Shift-M                 ⌘-Shift-M

Change to single spaced                           Ctrl-1                          ⌘-1

Change to double spaced                          Ctrl-2                          ⌘-2

Change to 1.5 spaced                               Ctrl-5                          ⌘-5

Remove paragraph formatting                     Ctrl-Q

Open Apply Styles task pane                     Ctrl-Shift-S

Open Styles pane                                     Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S              ⌘-Option-Shift-S

DOCUMENT NAVIGATION & VIEWS

Move up one paragraph                           Ctrl-Up arrow            ⌘-Up arrow

Move down one paragraph                       Ctrl-Down arrow       ⌘-Down arrow

Move right one word                                 Ctrl-Right arrow        ⌘-Right arrow

Move left one word                                   Ctrl-Left arrow          ⌘-Left arrow

Move to top of document                          Ctrl-Home                ⌘-Home or ⌘-Fn-Left arrow

Move to bottom of document                    Ctrl-End                    ⌘-End or ⌘-Fn-Right arrow

Go to dialog box                                       Ctrl-G or F5              ⌘-Option-G or F5

Switch among last four places in doc        Ctrl-Alt-Z

Switch to Print Layout                               Ctrl-Alt-P

Switch to Outline View                              Ctrl-Alt-O

Switch to Draft View                                  Ctrl-Alt-N

Switch to Read Mode View                        Alt-W,F

Split document window/remove split          Ctrl-Alt-S

Display Help                                                 F1

FIND AND REPLACE

Find                                                           Ctrl-F                          ⌘-F

Find and Replace                                       Ctrl-H or Alt-H-R          ⌘-H-R

Find tab (inside Find and Replace)              Alt-D

 

SPECIAL CHARACTERS RECOGNIZED BY FIND AND REPLACE

Type these special characters into the Find box to search document:

  • Em dash
  • En dash
  • Em space
  • En space
  • Copyright symbol
  • Registered symbol
  • Trademark
  • Section symbol
  • Paragraph symbol
  • Ellipsis
  • Double opening quote
  • Double closing quote

SPECIAL CHARACTERS IN DROP-DOWN MENU

Within the Find and Replace dialog box, choose one of the following special characters:

  • Em dash
  • En dash
  • Nonbreaking hyphen
  • Optional hyphen
  • Nonbreaking space
  • Section symbol
  • Paragraph symbol

I find it easier to create my own shortcuts for special characters and symbols I use on a regular basis. For example, if you want to create a shortcut for the em dash, go to Insert > Advanced Symbol > Special Characters. At the bottom of the dialog box click Keyboard Shortcut and a new dialog pops up. In the Press New Keyboard Shortcut box, type Ctrl-E or whatever is easy to remember. Click OK and you’re done. Easy peasy. The same applies to symbols, only you’ll choose Symbols instead of Special Characters.

FORMATTING IN FIND AND REPLACE

Click Replace, then More to expand dialog box

Click Format and a list of different formatting types appear. Search by font, paragraph, tab, language, frame, style, or highlight.

Select the type of formatting you want replaced. A dialog box opens, showing all the formatting options available to search for in that category.

For example, the Find Font dialog box is a copy of the Font Formatting dialog box, with all the same formatting options.

Specify formatting type. Then click OK

Repeat these steps to find additional types of formatting. You can even search for text with both specific font formatting and paragraph formatting at the same time.

Click Replace With

Click Format

Select formatting type (font, paragraph, tabs, language, frame, style, highlight)

This is especially helpful if you need to highlight italicized words for the publisher. In my career, I’ve worked with five different publishers and every house required it be done during final edits.

Click OK

Select replacement option: Replace, Replace All, Replace Next

Click OK

Click Close

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

I’m curious if highlighting italics is an industry standard.

Where are my Indie authors who do their own formatting? Do you highlight italics? What program do you use for formatting? Is highlighting italics a requirement for that program?

Traditional authors, does your publisher ask you to highlight italics during final edits?

 

A BUT Means Complications and Obstacles

As an animal lover, wildlife documentaries are my jam. My husband and I often joke about one particular aspect that is true in the natural world—there’s always a “but.”

Wolves are fierce hunters, but they need to take their prey on the run i.e., predate.

 

Bears can kill with one strategically placed swat of the paw, but they have terrible eyesight.

Unrelated fun fact: If an ant is decapitated during a battle, the disembodied head can continue to fight for hours.

Penguins live in huge colonies—there’s safety in numbers—but they have to swim past their greatest enemy (sea lions) to reach the open ocean to feed.

 

A giraffe’s long neck helps them reach leaves at the top of trees, but that same neck that aids them in gathering food also causes the highest blood pressure of any animal.

 

 

A rhino’s horn is their greatest asset in a fight, but that same horn makes them targets for poachers.

 

Mongooses are carnivores, but their favorite prey is venomous snakes, including cobras, adders, and vipers, and one good strike could kill them.

Boreal Owls are usually monogamous, but when prey numbers peak, males cheat with up to three females and female boreal owls often have at least one beau on the side. So much for monogamy, right?

Using sharp claws on their fore-flippers, seals punch out 10-15 breathing holes in the ice and maintain the openings all winter but using these holes can mean sudden death if a hungry polar bear is nearby.

Fun fact: Sea ice is as important to the Arctic as soil is to the forest. It supports the entire Arctic food chain. When ocean water freezes, it expels salts, causing channels to form inside the ice. As sunlight filters through the ice, algae grow within these channels, creating an underwater garden that forms the foundation of the food chain.

Mudskippers are fish who live in the ocean, but they need to walk on land and dig mud burrows to mate.

Skunks use an overpowering odor for defense and can spray six times in succession, but once their foul-smelling liquid runs out it takes up to 10-14 days to refill the glands.

Roadrunners can sprint at 40 mph, plenty fast to outrun prey, but food is scarce in their dry, desert environment, so they hunt venomous snakes—like rattlers who feed on roadrunners—and risk death.

Fun fact: A rattlesnake can shake its rattle twice as fast as hummingbird wings flutter.

Wildebeests need to migrate to find food once resources dry up, but to make it to the promise land they need to cross croc-infested water.

Corvids are some of the world’s most intelligent animals, but that same intelligence is what attracts ignorant people to hunt them for sport. (Yes, I’m bias. #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter)

Cuttlefish can change shape, color, and texture—20 million pigment cells create a magnificent light show—but they can only mate once in a lifetime.

Gray whales can submerge for 15 minutes at a time, but a mother’s calf can only hold its breath for 5 minutes, so when under attack by orcas the mother will flip onto her back to create a platform for her baby to lay on, but Momma can’t breathe upside down.

See where I’m going with this? All these complications and obstacles make the natural world even more interesting.

The same is true for writing.

So, while crafting your storyline—plotted or pantsed—keep “but” in mind. Because without complications and obstacles, you risk boring the reader.

Over to you, TKZers. In your WIP or recent book you’ve read, give us an example of a “but.” Or share a “but” found in nature.

 

Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

Full Disclosure: Jump cut may not be the correct term for the advice that follows. Years ago, the late great John Yeoman, beloved writing coach and friend, called the cinematic technique a jump cut during one of our lengthy craft discussions. Thus, it’s the term I’ve always used. Then I reread JSB’s 2018 article to prepare for this post. Jim’s correct use of the term is more widely known. Nowhere could I find the description of what I call a jump cut. Nonetheless, the two techniques are basically the same. When I use the term, I’m referring to the macro-level. Jim’s post focused on the micro-level.

Clear as mud? Okie doke, moving on…

The macro-level jump cut is a technique where the writer drops the reader into a harrowing situation—in media res—conflict builds, tensions rise, all without the reader knowing what proceeded this scene (aside from a few hints). The scene ends at a pivotal moment. Next scene rewinds the clock to the days or hours leading up to the opener. We’ve all seen this play out in movies and net-streaming series. Novelists use it to ensure readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist wound up there. Inducing curiosity and/or fear in the opener strangleholds the reader, forcing them to keep flipping pages.

The payoff that follows must live up to the hook. All my Grafton County Series novels (except the first book) open with the first half of the jump cut scene. Chapter One rewinds the story. It isn’t necessary to label this scene as a prologue. I do, but it could also be the first chapter. If you choose to include it as a prologue, Chapter One still needs its own hook.

Remember the pivotal moment where we left the reader? No matter where the payoff is—first plot point, midpoint, or climax—continue the jump cut scene from there. Newer writers may be tempted to copy/paste the first half of the scene. Resist that urge. Trust the reader to connect the dots. They’ll recognize the setting and situation.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Prologue of Pressure Points by Larry Brooks opens like this…

It was the echo of gunfire that kept him running. His body had long ago abandoned hope, pushing on faith alone through a fog of pain and fatigue. Logic screamed that this was pointless, while another voice whispered it was all a lie. Both were old friends that had served him well, and like Jesus on his fortieth desert night, he was tempted.

But neither voice was real. The gunshot had been real. The echo of it was real.

And so he ran. For his very life, and for those left behind. He knew that precious little time remained, and what was left was as critical as it was dwindling. Everything he had ever learned or believed or dreamed was at stake. He was out of options, down to a final chance that, win or lose, would be his statement to the universe.

It was his time. He had come full circle.

It is not paranoia when they are really out to get you. When they are right on your ass, downwind of the scent of your blood, closing fast.

Whoever the hell they are.

He ran all through the night’s relentless downpour. Low branches whipped his forehead and cheeks until they bled. He could feel his heart pounding in every extremity of his body, his vision clouded by sweat and rain. Both elbows were bloodied from a fall when his foot caught an exposed root, sending him skating wildly across a patch of decaying leaves. Leaping over a rotting log, he felt his right ankle turn impossibly inward, and the ensuing bolt of pain seized his leg like a pair of gigantic hands twisting with the enthusiasm of a gleeful sadist. But he had no time for this or any other distraction, not on this night, when, one way or the other, his past would finally and conclusively catch up with him.

Chapter One rewinds to 41 days earlier. I can’t show you the payoff scene without ruining the ending. Trust me, it’s amazing.

Please excuse my using an excerpt from one of my books. I searched my Kindle for other examples but couldn’t find any that jumped out at me.

The Prologue of RACKED opens with…

In the vast openness of the snowmobile trails, solar-powered Christmas lights danced across pine needles on the branches I separated while the lanky silhouette of the Serial Predator tossed shovelfuls of dirty snow on a mound. Was he digging a fresh grave? My calf muscles jumping-jacked beneath my skin, begging me to run. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

A row of thin birch trees bowed over the makeshift grave, thin branches curled like the skeletal fingers of a demon protecting its prey. The overcast sky blurred the hazy moon into non-compliance, its glow hastened by gathering storm clouds.

Who did he plan to bury here? My gloved hand clawed at my throat.

Please tell me Noah’s still with Mrs. Falanga. All the saliva in my mouth dried, my insides squirming, screaming for release. What if Childs left his post long enough for the Serial Predator to sneak past him? What if he murdered everyone in the house? What if he abducted my son after Mrs. Falanga tucked him in bed? She might not realize he’s missing till dawn.

Beyond the tree a flashlight balanced on its end, a smoldering yellow glow pointed toward the heavens. Cigarette smoke billowed through the haze. Hot ash tumbled into the darkness when he flicked the filter into the arctic December air.

I backed away from the tree.

Crunch.

My right heel froze on the pinecone.

The Serial Predator slung his portable spade over one shoulder and stalked toward me. “Hello?”

Male voice. Almost familiar. Where had I heard it before?

Holding my breath, cramps squeezed my calf muscles as I crouched behind the conifer, flames tunneling down my sciatic nerve to my partially raised foot, bent at such an angle mind-numbing pain riddled the whole right side of my leg.

The Serial Predator hustled back to the shallow grave, and I lowered my wet boot to the snow. The moment he turned his back, I nosedived toward the base of the tree trunk, slithering beneath the branches like a frightened garter snake. Snow piled around the bottom helped shield the top half of my body. I pulled my legs out of view. A glacial breeze swept across my wet hair, and I could not stop shivering, the icy snow soaking through my jeans and wool coat.

With one smooth motion, he swiped his flashlight off the snow and aimed the beam toward the pine tree. “Hello?”

After the blinding light struck my eyes, I would never be able to describe his face or any distinguishable features, the black hoodie masking his identity. He could be anyone. Or no one.

With both gloved hands covering my nose and mouth, I held back icy breath that threatened to reveal my hiding spot.

“Is someone there?”

A cylindrical sphere lasered through the pine needles, and I ducked, my bare cheek trembling against a clustered mass of icicles. Snow boots clomped around the tree, then stopped—inches from my face.

Dear God, don’t let him find me.

Chapter One rewinds to 26 hours earlier.

Have you used this technique in one of your novels? There’s nothing wrong with writing a linear storyline. This is just another option. Let’s discuss.

The Opening Chapter Reveals a Secret Vow

A novel’s opening chapter makes a promise, a secret vow that says, “This is what you can expect from me.”

The chapters that follow better fulfill that promise, or the author will suffer the consequences with low-ratings, bad reviews, or their name on the Don’t Not Read list.

Yes, the promise is that important. It’s how we build and maintain an audience. It’s how we climb the proverbial ladder of success. It’s how we keep readers hungering for more. This solemn vow can NEVER be broken.

So far this month I’ve read three novels (all 5 stars). I average about one novel per week, along with nonfiction (craft books or true crime). None of my recent reads landed within my preferred genres of psychological thrillers, dark & gritty mysteries, and serial killer thrillers, but I feel it’s important for writers to venture outside their genres from time to time.

For my next read, I wavered between WIN by Harlen Coben or Book 2 of a serial killer thriller series from one of my auto-buy authors. I devoured Book 1 in a couple days, and I’d been dyin’ to read Book 2 for a while now, so I bought the $9.99 ebook. Immediately, the author transported me to a serial killer’s lair with the protagonist bound and helpless. I was enthralled. As I said, I’d been looking forward to this novel for a while and the opener didn’t disappoint.

Without sharing the title, I’ll show you how the writer sucked me into the scene.

Darkness.

It swirled around him deep and thick, eating the light and leaving nothing behind but an inky void. A fog choked his thoughts—the words tried to come together, tried to form a cohesive sentence, to find meaning, but the moment they seemed close, they were swallowed up and gone, replaced by a growing sense of dread, a feeling of heaviness—his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

Moist scent.

Mildew.

Damp.

[Protagonist] wanted to open his eyes.

Had to open his eyes.

They fought him though, held tight.

His head ached, throbbed.

A pulsing pain behind his right ear—at his temple too.

“Try not to move, [Protagonist’s name]. Wouldn’t want you to get sick.”

The voice was distant, muffled, familiar.

[Protagonist] was lying down.

Cold steel beneath the tips of his fingers.

He remembered the shot then. A needle at the base of his neck, a quick stab, cold liquid rushing under his skin into the muscle, then—

Gripping, tense, love the story rhythm, the way he pauses at just the right moment. I could not flip the pages fast enough. Lovin’ every second of it!

And then…

In the next chapter, I find out it was all a dream. Infuriated, I almost whipped my Kindle across the room. One of my auto-buy authors wrote this thriller, and I expected him to fulfill the promise he made to me. Instead, he cheated. I was so disappointed, I refused to keep reading. He’d broken my trust. He let me down.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly how I felt.

The emptiness he inflicted left me hungering for a visceral, gritty, serial killer thriller, one that would fulfill its promise.

I downloaded thriller number two.

Without revealing the title or author, here’s a small sampling of that opener.

            I woke up from a gentle shake. My sister’s face hovered a few inches above mine, her eyes glistening wet. A grinding sound came from her jaw as it moved back and forth.

I shivered.

[Sister] put her fingers against my lips. “SSSH. Nod if you understand,” she whispered.

I nodded.

My room was freezing from the cold wind blowing in through my open window.

“The monsters are coming for us. Be very quiet. We’re escaping,” she whispered.

I nodded again, biting my lip hard to not cry.

Was there a monster in my closet? Behind my closed bedroom door?

My heart thrashed against my ribs like a bird trying to escape its cage. Why were the monsters after us?

We learn the protagonist is a child and her older sister is rescuing her from an imminent threat. Other than a few writing tics, like SSSH instead of Shh…, the author did a terrific job of showing the action. Finally, I could sink into a gripping read. Or so I thought.

The next chapter (Ch. 1) consisted of pages and pages of backstory. No plot, only backstory. The premise still intrigued me, so I kept reading. Then I hit a flashback that dragged on for several pages. The worst part? It added nothing to the main storyline.

Still, because the prologue was so good, I read on. The prologue had raised many, many story questions, and I wanted answers. But in Chapter 2, I read more pages and pages of backstory and another flashback. The next chapter was equally disappointing, with more pages of backstory and a third (fourth?) flashback. I lost count.

Whiplashed from being thrown forward, then backward, I couldn’t take it anymore and closed the book. A good premise will only take you so far. At some point, you need to deliver on the promise you made to the reader.

The third novel I bought—all in same day, I might add—began with a slow burn opener. A girl is emptying a bucket of oil into the dumpster behind Burger King. It doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but the co-authors held my interest. Which, after being burned twice in a matter of hours, wasn’t an easy task.

Here’s the opening of DEAD END GIRL by L.T. Vargus & Tim McBain:

            Corduroy pants swished between Teresa’s thighs as she crossed the parking lot. She had a headache. That drive-thru headset gave her a headache every damn time. The band squeezed her skull like an old man trying to find a ripe cantaloupe in the produce department. Pressing and pressing until her temples throbbed. When the headaches were really bad, she got the aura. And it was gonna be a bad one tonight. She could already tell.

By the time she got home, she’d be nauseous from the skull throb along with the stink of fryer grease clinging to her clothes and hair and skin. Sometimes she swore she could feel it permeating her pores.

She placed a hand under the lid of the dumpster and lifted. The overhead lights in the parking lot glinted on the surface below. It looked like water, but it wasn’t. It was oil. Every night they emptied the fryers, dumping the used oil into this dumpster. It was a disgusting task. Worse than taking out the trash on a 90-degree summer day, when the flies got real thick, and the meat went rancid almost as soon as they put it in the bin.

It was dead out. No traffic. No noise at all but her fiddling with the dumpster and the bucket.

Her skin crawled a little whenever she was out here this late. In the dark. In the quiet. A feeling settled into the flesh on her back and shoulders, a cold feeling, a feeling like after watching one of those scary movies when she was a teenager. It might have been a thrill while she was watching, but later on that night she’d always get spooked. She’d tremble in bed, too terrified to walk down the hall to pee. The house never seemed so ominously still as it did on those nights. Anyhow, she couldn’t stand to watch horror movies anymore. Her weak stomach couldn’t handle the gore.

Bending over the metal cart she’d wheeled along with her, Teresa scooped one of the buckets of used fryer oil and balanced it on the edge of the dumpster. She tipped the bucket and watched as the gallons of brown grease oozed into the dumpster, disrupting the smoothness.

Settled at the bottom of the bucket, there were clumps and chunks. Burned bits of fries and chicken tender crumbs. They splatted and splashed into the pool of liquid that looked black in the night.

That’s when Teresa saw it. Something rising out of the oil, disturbing the otherwise unblemished surface.

Intriguing, right? Most importantly, the authors kept their promise. Elated, I could not flip pages fast enough, savoring favorite passages, the story rhythm and pace pitch-perfect. And now, I have a new favorite series. 🙂

Come morning, I felt bad about dissin’ my auto-buy author. Maybe he had a reason to break the don’t-open-with-a-dream rule. Could the last line of the first paragraph indicate a dream?

…his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

In hindsight, maybe. Probably. But it’s too subtle. Nonetheless, I grabbed my Kindle and kept reading. Sure enough, he used the dream sequence to show the affect it had on the protagonist, who’s been suffering nightmares after a serial killer slipped through his grasp. The dream relates to the plot because that serial killer is back.

Do I agree with the dream opening? No, but I’ll keep reading because I know this author delivers each and every time and his writing speaks to me. But what if I wasn’t a fan? What if I’d chosen the book at random? He would’ve lost me. See what I’m sayin’? It’s a risky move.

We spend a lot of time perfecting our opening pages, polishing them till they shine, but our job doesn’t end there. We must follow through in subsequent chapters by setting up scenes, paying them off, setting up more, paying off more.

Other than that crucial promise, your solemn vow to the reader, a few other takeaways are…

  • Don’t start with a dream sequence unless the reader knows it’s a dream AND you’ve got a damn good reason to do it.
  • Go easy with backstory. Sprinkled it in over time.
  • Avoid flashbacks unless they’re absolutely necessary. Most times they’re not.
  • Don’t tell the reader what happened in the past. Trust us to figure it out on our own.
  • A great premise only works if you deliver on that promise.
  • If a slow burn opener works for your story, use it. Every novel doesn’t need a lightning-fast opener to draw and hold interest.

If you missed Jim’s post yesterday, read it (and the comment section!) for speed bumps that stop the reader.

How many chapters do you read before giving up on a novel?

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His name is Paradox and he poses his victims in RED cocktail dresses, RED roses replace the eyes, and their hands hold a riddle wrapped in RED satin. He will kill again if his cryptic clues aren’t solved within 24 hours.

Can Niko and Sage stop him before the clock runs out? Click here to look Inside SCATHED.

Craft Lessons: @HarlanCoben STAY CLOSE #Netflix

When I’m not reading or watching true crime or nature/wildlife documentaries, I search for net-streaming series based on novels. Why? Because they’re the next best thing to reading, if the series preserves the craft beneath the storyline. Harlan Coben’s STAY CLOSE on Netflix is the perfect example.

The Limited Series is split into eight episodes. In a novel the dramatic arc is split into four quartiles (25% each), called Parts.

  1. Part I: The Set Up: The first quartile (25%) of the story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that follows. We need to accomplish a handful of things, but they all fall under the umbrella of that singular mission. If we choose to show the antagonist, we only want to include jigsaw pieces of the puzzle. Most importantly, Part 1 needs to establish stakes for what happens to the hero after Part 1. Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care. The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake—what they need and want in their life and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict—the more we care when it all changes. They’re like an orphan, unsure of what will happen next.
  2. Part II: The Response: This quartile shows the protagonist’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point. They don’t need to be heroic yet. Instead, they retreat, regroup, and/or have doomed attempts at a resolution.
  3. Part III: The Attack: Midpoint information, awareness, or contextual understanding causes the protagonist to change course—to shift—in how to approach the obstacles. The hero is now empowered, not merely reacting as they did in Part II. They have a plan on how to proceed.
  4. Part IV: The Resolution: The protagonist summons the courage and growth to come up with a solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonist. They’re empowered, determined. Heroic.

In the Netflix series, every two episodes represent one quartile. Keep the dramatic arc in mind.

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” —Chekhov

Chekhov’s Gun is the principle that every element in a dramatic work must either be relevant or removed, that we must not hold “false promises” out to readers. Consciously or not, we’re always loading Chekhov’s Gun. Every sentence is a rifle hung on the wall. Sooner or later, it will—must—go off.

Also known as setup and payoff. We’re always either setting up a future moment/scene or paying it off. Let’s see this principle in action…

*Spoiler Alert* of the first 15 minutes of Episode One

The HOOK takes place at a strip club called Viper’s. Fleeting images show a young man, drunk, stumbling outside and into the woods behind the club, in pursuit of…someone.

We don’t know who he’s chasing or why, so we’ll keep watching…

Then we’re in Suburbia and introduced to a mother of three, Megan, and her fiancé. That night, Megan, the bride-to-be, is the guest of honor at one of the tamest bachelorette parties in history.

At the party, a friend says, “It’s about time you two are getting married after sixteen years together.”

That one line of dialogue shows us a sliver of Megan’s backstory: the fiancé is also the father of her three children.

The same friend addresses the flock of women and our bride-to-be, Megan. “I know it’s not a traditional hen night. We’re way too classy for strippers, however, we do have—(man in a bathrobe enters the scene)—a model!”

The women shriek.

The camera pans out to show easels set up in a circle, and the women laugh, drink white wine, and attempt to draw. We like the bride-to-be. Megan’s fun, respectable, and clearly in love with her fiancé. Even with her wealth, we can easily relate to her.

After the fun drawing session, Megan chats with the same friend at the bar.

Friend: “I think it’s wonderful you and David are getting married after all this time.”

Megan: “We should have done it years ago.”

Friend: “Everyone else is splitting up, but you two just keep getting stronger.”

Through the short exchange we learn about her circle of friends and Megan’s relationship. A mental image of Megan takes shape. We like her even more. She’s a good, solid person. Reliable. Trustworthy. Faithful. Nice. We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to her—and that’s what good characterization is all about. We care about Megan. We’re living vicariously through her, and we’ll stick around to make sure she stays safe.

When Megan arrives home in a taxi—she would never drink and drive; we know this from her characterization—she finds a bottle of champagne on her front stoop. A card leans against the bottle. A card addressed to Cassie [Motivation]. Who’s Cassie? The card terrifies Megan, evident by her silent gasp [Reaction]. Camera zooms in on the name again [Motivation], then on Megan, whose blank stare and parted lips shows she’s clearly terrified [Reaction]. She whirls around, her gaze scanning the dark road, the envelope gripped tight between her fingers.

In the envelope, a card portrays a bride and groom waltzing. With no note inside, the card itself acts as a direct threat to Megan. But because we have no idea why it’s a threat or who Cassie is, we’re glued to the screen.

A lack of information is often more powerful than the explanation.

Megan races into the house to check the security footage. But the person who left the card is wearing a hoodie. The camera doesn’t help her identify the interloper. (Rising tension, enhanced stakes)

This scene looks a lot like the first pinch point, doesn’t it? But it’s too early. Therefore, the placement indicates it’s the Inciting Incident.

Inciting Incident *Optional*: Not every story has to have an Inciting Incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a separate Milestone, a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but it’s a false start. A tease.

New Scene, New POV Character.

This time, a middle-aged detective, DS Michael Broome, and his female partner, DC Erin Cartwright, are assigned the missing persons case of a 20-year-old named Carlton Flynn. The much-younger superior, DCS Brian Goldberg, tells the detectives there’s already been a hit on Flynn’s car.

Camera zooms in on the car so the viewer will remember what it looks like (setting up a future scene).

Carlton has been missing about 48 hours, and this seems to aggravate DS Broome, probably because he has a big enough workload already. Besides, Carlton’s an adult who’s probably out partying somewhere.

Now, DCS Goldberg orders DS Broome to speak with the victim’s father, who is well-connected with friends in the department. The decades between DS Broome and DCS Goldberg add instant micro-tension. The viewer doesn’t need to be told anything. Instinctively, we know these two will butt heads at some point. It’s bound to happen, right? This age-gap adds another layer of intrigue, more story questions, and enhances Broome’s characterization i.e., for now, he’s on his best behavior.

In the driveway at the Flynn residence, Broome exists the car and says to his partner, “Erin, that’s weird.”

Notice how Coben purposefully leaves out the conversation preceding this remark? By doing so, he raises more story questions and piques curiosity.

“It’s not weird,” DC Cartwright says as they stroll toward the front door. “I’m not asking for details.”

“Good, ’cause you’re not getting them.”

“Just tell me, was she nice? ’Cause that’s not details. You deserve a nice woman.”

DS Broome admits, “Yes, she was nice.”

“Good, good, I’m glad.”

“A bit eager, maybe.”

“Eager,” she echoes, nodding.

“Keen to please. Like a Labrador.”

This banter is light, witty, and fun. We instantly like these two, and their partnership (characterization).

Mr. Flynn tells the detectives how worried he is, how his son would never wander off without a word to anyone. The stepmother is much younger than he, and they admit Carlton and the new Mrs. Flynn didn’t always see eye-to-eye. But, Mr. Flynn adds, nothing that would make him leave home.

When the stepmother goes to find a photograph of Carlton, Mr. Flynn asks the detectives if they have kids.

DC Cartwright: Two-year-old.

DS Broome: No. My ex-wife didn’t want them.

Broome’s is a bold statement. We find out why later. For now, we learn he’s divorced, adding another layer of characterization, but it also raises story questions. Did he want kids? The dialogue indicates he did, but we can’t be sure.

See how Coben slips in backstory and keeps the viewer engaged? Every word is strategically placed for a reason. Every sentence/line of dialogue has a purpose.

“He hasn’t been on social media,” the father says, “Nothing. It just stopped April sixteenth.”

The date startles DS Broome. “April sixteenth? I thought Carlton went missing on the seventeenth.”

“No,” Mr. Flynn says. “The seventeenth is the day we realized something was wrong.”

“Right. Huh.” DS Broome pauses. “Does the name Stewart Green mean anything to you?”

DC Cartwright stares at her partner like, Why would you ask him about Stewart Green?

We wonder why, too. Again, raising story questions, dragging us along, forcing us to continue.

When the stepmother returns with a photo of Carlton, he’s the guy from the HOOK. Remember the drunk dude who stumbled into the woods in pursuit of…someone? That’s Carlton Flynn! Not only has Coben paid off the Hook, but he’s also raised new story questions. What happened to Carlton Flynn? Why was he in the woods? Who was he chasing?

When we answer one question, we must raise another—all to set up the First Plot Point or another pivotal Milestone.

While walking back to the car, DC Cartwright says, “Stewart Green?”

“Seventeen years to the day.”

DS Broome’s dialogue adds a sliver of backstory AND implants story questions in our mind: How do these two missing people align? Or is he obsessed with an old case?

“Let it go.”

“Erin, it’s a feeling I’ve got.”

“You see connections everywhere.” (characterization detail)

“I see connections where there are connections,” DS Broome says. “It’s called being a good cop.” (characterization detail)

“Oh, don’t. The only case that’s ever beaten you. (backstory) I call that being an egomaniac.”

“Ego?” DS Broome is visibly upset, tone rising with anger. “I let them down. His family, his wife, they were destroyed. I told them I find him.” (backstory, characterization detail: he is haunted by this old case)

Snide and cold, DC Cartwright smirks. “Did sleeping with her soften the blow?” (backstory, tension)

“That was years later, as you well know.” Over the roof of the car, Broome pouts his bottom lip. “And I was brokenhearted.”

“For the record, I did want kids. Just—”

Broome fills in the blank. “Not with me.”

Bam! Those last two lines of dialogue bring meaning to all the dialogue that came before it, including why DS Broome thought it was weird to share details about his date. These two are a lot more than partners. They were married! Which raises even more story questions. Did he cheat on Erin with Stewart Green’s wife? Is that why they divorced? Give us details!

But Coben is far too clever to reveal all the juicy tidbits at once. We’ll have to wait, and keep watching… 

“Act first, explain later.” —James Scott Bell

The final POV character is a paparazzi-for-hire named Ray Levine, snapping photos outside a bar mitzvah for a young celebrity, who winds up kicking Ray in the shin. The bodyguard ushers the child star into the venue. Moments later, we learn through dialogue that the bodyguard and Ray are buddies. In fact, he’s the one who hired Ray to take photos.

Coben opens his 2012 thriller of the same title with Ray. Let’s take a look…

Sometimes, in that split second when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood. He knew, of course, that it was only in his mind’s eye, but at times, like right now, the vision was so real he had to lower his camera and take a good hard look at the ground in front of him. That horrible moment—the moment Ray’s life changed completely, transforming him from a man with a future and aspirations into this Grade-A loser you see in front of you—never visited him in his dreams or when he sat alone in the dark. The devastating visions waited until he was wide-awake, surrounded by people, busy at what some might sarcastically dub work.

            The vision mercifully faded as Ray continuously snapped pictures of the bar mitzvah boy.

Look at how many story questions he’s raised in the first paragraph. What’s the blood about? Did he kill someone? What happened to this man? Coben also forces us to care about Ray. The poor guy suffers from horrible visions. At the same time, we wonder why. We need answers! And so, we’ll keep reading.

Coben shuffled the POVs for the Netflix series, and it’s just as effective. 

After we meet Ray at the bar mitzvah, he treks home through the seedier part of town. Someone slams him over the head and steals his camera, making it appear like someone connected to the child star mugged Ray. Coben wants us to make this assumption, so when we find out why he’s mugged in the payoff scene, it’s a surprise. 

Employing all these techniques is how to force the reader to keep flipping pages. Or, in this case, binge the whole series.

Have you read STAY CLOSE? Have you seen the Netflix series? If you haven’t, at least watch the first episode (or even the first 15 minutes!) to see how this plays out on the screen, and witness a master storyteller at work.

First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

Another brave writer shared their first page for critique. Enjoy! My comments will follow.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. Sat across the table, she held it tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window. A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s claws away. Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself. One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table.

“Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply, the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darker when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test.

“Luke 1:47?”

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

‘When you ask, you do not receive,’ – no, not that one. ‘Come near to God, and he will be near to you’– not that either. 

I could feel her narrow gaze pinned to me now. Waiting, watching as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted by, still without an answer, still sinking. How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was.

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and-”

But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

* * *

Y’know what I love most about this first page? The scene is so complete and compelling, it could double as flash fiction. Anon didn’t feel the need to waste precious real estate by describing the room or the characters in detail. Instead, we’re dropped into the middle of a tense moment, and we cannot look away. This writer also gained empathy for the main character and showed us a lot about the relationship between Elisa and Grandma without resorting to telling. And the voice? Excellent.

I do have a few comments/suggestions, but nothing major.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. (<– Compelling first line) Sat Aacross the table, she held it the book tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the bible’s book’s cover, glinted as dawn streamed through the window.

*Side note: Holy Bible, since it’s a title, should be capitalized; the bible—not a title—should be lowercase. Some writers prefer to always capitalize Bible. If you’re consistent, I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. When in doubt, listen to your editor.

A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

*Side note: When I received the first page, Lynne noted: “UK writer.” Hence the British spelling of certain words, like favourite vs. favorite and Saviour vs. Savior. Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s its claws away. (<–Love that line!) Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself (<–we know it’s inner dialogue without this attrib.). One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table. “Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply (showing the act of inhaling implies deeply, so the adverb isn’t necessary), the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned. <–Excellent! These last two sentences say so much.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darkened when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test. (<– Slight hiccup here. As written, it implies “without another word” from Grandma. But I think you meant Elisa. Easy fix. “Without another word from me”)

“Luke 1:47?” (see below for citing scripture in dialogue)

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me (comprehend isn’t the correct word. If she didn’t understand the question, she wouldn’t be able to cite the verse. Try: Without much forethought… Or leave out altogether: Scripture tumbled out of me). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only Silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

When you ask, you do not receive,.(Removed single quotes and incorrect usage of en-dash.) No, not that one. Come near to God, and he will be near to you’–. Not that either. 

I could feel Now, her narrowed gaze pinned to on me now. Waiting, watching, as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted (drifted implies slow. Try: ticked, fled, drained, raced, sped, or another strong verb for fast) by, still without an answer, still sinking (<– Nice visual). How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was. (Suggestion: Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, her usual state of mind.)

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. (Would she really say this out loud in front of Grandma?)

And with that, I burst to the surface. (Consider deleting. I understand Elisa is metaphorically bursting to the surface, but it stopped me. Perhaps others will feel differently.)

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and—” (Use em-dash, not en-dash, to indicate cut off speech. For more on em-dashes, see this post)

But before I could complete the verse (Redundant since you went through the trouble of showing us the verse had been cut short), aA whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed (rushed?) towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth, and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprang open, just in time to see catch Grandma lowering the bible back to the table.

The Editor’s Blog has a fantastic article about numbers in fiction. For citing scripture in dialogue, they recommend the following:

For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

Brave Writer, I really enjoyed this first page. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

I’d turn the page to find out what happens next. What about you, TKZers? Any suggestions/comments for this brave writer? Favorite line?

How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

“I did not think this series could become more compelling, oh how wrong I was! Coletta delivers shock after shock and spiraling twists and turns that you will never see coming. I was glued to the pages, unable to stop reading.” 

Look Inside ? https://buff.ly/3hmev0C

Merry Misdirection

Misdirection is the intentional deflection of attention for the purpose of disguise, and it’s a vital literary device. To plant and disguise a clue so the reader doesn’t realize its importance takes time and finesse.

The most important thing to remember is to play fair. Clues must be in plain sight. We cannot reveal a clue that wasn’t visible earlier. That’s cheating.

A few years ago, I read a novel about [can’t name the profession without giving away the title]. The protagonist located the dead and solved every mystery with invisible clues. After I whipped my Kindle across the room, I took a deep breath and skimmed the story searching for the clues. Never found one. Not one! The author’s name now sits at the pinnacle of my Do Not Read list.

A key feature of good misdirection means you brought attention to the clue, and the reader still missed it.

A magician uses three types of misdirection:

  • Time: The magician has the silk scarf balled in one fist before he begins the trick.
  • Place: The magician draws your attention to his right hand while the real trick is happening in his left.
  • Intent: The magician leads you to the decision he wants, but afterward you’ll swear you had a choice.

Notice any similarities to writing?

Misdirection can be either external or internal. External would be when the author misdirects the reader. Internal is when a character misdirects another character.

Misdirection is different than misinformation. We should never outright lie to the reader. Rather, we let them lie to themselves by disguising the clue(s) as inconsequential.

How do we do that?

When you come to a part of the story where nothing major occurs, slip in a clue. Or include the detail/clue while fleshing out a character’s life.

Examples:

One character chats with another as they drive to a designated location. Is the locale a clue in and of itself?

What about the title of the book? The reader has seen the title numerous times, yet she never gave it much thought until the protagonist reveals its meaning to the plot.

Clandestine lovers meet in a hideaway. While there, one of the characters notices a symbol or sign. Later in the story, she finds another clue that relates to the sign or symbol. Only now, she has enough experience to interpret its true meaning.

A kidnapper chalks an X on a park bench to signal the drop-off spot. What if a stray dog approaches the kidnapper? If he reads the dog’s tag to find his human, the clue takes center stage, yet it’s disguised as inconsequential.

In all four examples the arrival of the clue seems insignificant at first. The reader will notice the clue because we’ve drawn attention to it, but we’ve framed it in a way that allows the character to dismiss it. Thus, the reader will, too.

False Trails

The character knows the clue is important when she finds it, but she misinterprets its meaning, leading her down a dead end.

What if we need to supply information on a certain topic, but we don’t want the reader to understand why yet? If we take the clue out of context and present it as something else—something innocuous or insignificant—we’ve misdirected the reader to reach the wrong conclusion.

An important factor of misdirection is that the disguise must make sense within the confines of the scene. It should also further the plot in some way.

“Misdirection can be used either strategically or tactically. Strategically to change the whole direction of a story, to send it off into a new and different world, and have the reader realize that it’s been headed that way all along. Tactically to conceal, obscure, obfuscate, and camouflage one important fact, to save it for later revelation.”

— The Writer magazine

Character Misdirection

Character misdirection is when the protagonist (and reader) believes a secondary character fulfills one role when, in fact, he fulfills the opposite.

Two types of character misdirection.

  • False Ally
  • False Enemy

These two characters are not what they seem on the surface. They provide opportunities for dichotomy, juxtaposition, insights into the protagonist, theme, plot, and plot twists. They’re useful characters and so much fun to write.

A false ally is a character who acts like they’re on the protagonist’s side when they really have ulterior motives. The protagonist trusts the false ally. The reader will, too. Until the moment when the character unmasks, revealing their false façade and true intention.

A false enemy is a character the protagonist does not trust. Past experiences with this character warn the protagonist to be wary. But this time, the false enemy wants to help the protagonist.

When Hannibal Lecter tries to help Clarice, she’s leery about trusting a serial killing cannibal. The reader is too.

What type of character is Hannibal Lecter, a false ally or false enemy?

An argument could be made for both. On one hand, he acts like a false enemy, but he does have his own agenda. Thomas Harris blurred the lines between the two. What emerged is a multifaceted character that we’ve analyzed for years.

When crafting a false ally or false enemy, it’s fine to fit the character into one of these roles. Or, like Harris, add shades of gray.

Mastering the art of misdirection is an important skill. It’s especially important for mysteries and thrillers. I hope this post churns up new ideas for you.

Do you have a false ally or false enemy in your WIP? What are some ways you’ve employed misdirection?

This is my final post of 2021. Wishing you all a joyous holiday season. See ya in the New Year!

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Cue Words in Dialogue

A cue word, as I call it, sends a subtle cue to the reader for who’s speaking. Using a cue word(s) in dialogue helps to establish a character and adds to their characterization. In my Mayhem Series I have a foil character who says “Woot! Awesomesauce.” These words no one else in the series would ever say. They are uniquely hers. She also says “ship” rather than swear. In my Grafton County Series, an important secondary character uses “Minga” which is Italian slang used in place of WTF? And like my Mayhem Series character, no one else in the series would say her cue word. It is uniquely hers.

Think about the people in your life. Have you noticed subtleties in their speech? We all have favorite words and phrases. Our characters should, too.

In The Darkness by Mike Omer has the perfect example of cue words in action. They jump right out. Never does Omer describe the following eyewitness in detail. Instead, he lets the dialogue form a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

“Well, like I said, me and Jeff—he don’ live here no more because he moved out with his mother because his parents got divorced, so he and his mom moved in with his grandparents down south—we were walking around a while ago, I think it was a year and a half ago, because Jeff moved away last summer and it was just before then…I remember he was talking about how his parents were getting a divorce because they were fighting all the time, and we saw this guy.”

“What guy?” Foster asked.

“A guy where you built that tent over there. He dug a pit, he had a shovel and a bunch of other tools, and he wore some kind of maintenance suit, but we knew he wasn’t maintaining shit, because there are no pipes or wires or anything there, right? Jeff’s dad used to be a plumber working for the city before he got fired, because he drank all the time, so he knew there was nothing there—also this guy didn’t look like a plumber.”

“What did he look like?”

“I don’t know, man. He was white for sure, but we were too far away, and we didn’t want to get any closer because we didn’t want him to see us.”

Notice how he slipped in race? Most “white” people wouldn’t mention the guy was “white” right away. It’s another subtle cue word that adds brushstrokes to the mental image we’re forming of Paul, the eyewitness.

“Why not?”

The author breaks up the dialogue by bringing the reader’s attention to the conversation through Tatum, the POV character, who’s not involved in the questioning.

The rhythm of the conversation was hypnotic, Foster asking pointed questions fast and short and the boy answering in long, serpentine sentences, their structure mazelike. Tatum could almost imagine this being a stage act accompanied by the strumming of a single guitar.

Did he have to bring attention to the dialogue? No, but by letting the POV character mention the contrast between detective and witness, it further cements the mental image and adds characterization for Tatum so we don’t forget he’s there. It wouldn’t be as effective if he allowed Tatum to dwell on it too long. One short paragraph, then segue back to the conversation. Notice where he places the cue word when we return.

“Because Jeff said he was someone from the Mafia and that he dug a pit to stash drugs in or money or a body, and we didn’t want him to see us—we’re not idiots—we stayed away, but we were careful to see exactly what he was doing, and this guy dug there all day, like nonstop.”

Boom — first word is because. Is there any question who’s speaking?

Notice also how Omer chose to exclude most body cues and tags. This demonstrates how to let dialogue do the heavy lifting.

“Did you tell your parents? Tell anyone?”

Now he adds a body cue, but not to indicate who’s speaking. He adds it to show indecisiveness.

Paul seemed to hesitate for a moment and stared downward at his shoes, biting his lips.

“You didn’t want to,” Tatum said. “Because you were hoping he’d stash money there.”

See how Tatum used the cue word? Empathetic people are like parrots. We can’t help but use the cue word when responding to someone like Paul. This subconscious act adds another layer to the characterization.

“It ain’t against the law to say nothin’,” Paul muttered.

“So this guy digs a hole.” Frustration crept into Foster’s voice (now that Tatum’s involved in the conversation it’s important to ground the reader). “Then what?”

“Then he left. So we waited until was dark, and we went there, because we figured maybe he stashed some money there, so we could take some of it—not too much, y’know. Jeff really wanted cash because his dad was unemployed, so he figured he could maybe help out a bit, and I wanted cash because…” He paused. His own motives probably hadn’t been as pure as Jeff’s.

“Because cash is a good thing to have,” Tatum said. “Go on.”

Even without the dialogue tag, the reader knows Tatum responded because he used the same cue word earlier. See how powerful they can be? Foster would never get sucked in like Tatum. It’s not in her character.

Do any of your characters use cue words?