Creating and Sustaining Suspense

There is an article on suspense in the Writer’s Digest online blog by Steven James, one of the Writer’s Digest editors, that was recently featured but dated nearly seven years ago.  He discusses six techniques for crating and sustaining suspense, which I think are quite good.

1. Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy

Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension.

We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathise, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.

2. Include more promises and less action.

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t typically mean that no action is occurring, but rather that no promises are being made.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is payoff. You don’t increase suspense by “making things happen,” but by promising that they will. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”

Stories are much more than reports of events. Stories are about transformations. We have to show readers where things are going—what situation, character or relationship is going to be transformed.

3. Keep every promise you make.

In tandem with making promises is the obligation of keeping them. The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff.

When stories falter it’s often because the writers didn’t make big enough promises, didn’t fulfill them when readers wanted them to be fulfilled, or broke promises by never fulfilling them at all.

Here’s a great way to break your promise to the reader: Start your story with a prologue, say, in which a woman is running on a beach by herself, and there are werewolves on the loose. Let’s see if you can guess what’s going to happen. Hmm … what a twist this is going to be—she gets attacked by the werewolves! Wow. What a fresh, original idea that was.

How is that a broken promise? Because it was predictable. Readers want to predict what will happen, but they want to be wrong. They’re only satisfied when the writer gives them more than they anticipate, not less.

Make big promises.  Then keep them.

4. Let the characters tell readers their plans.

I know, this seems counterintuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen? Doesn’t that give the ending away?

I’m not talking about revealing your secrets or letting readers know the twists that your story has in store. Instead, just show readers the agenda, and you’ll be making a promise that something will either go wrong to screw up the schedule, or that plans will fall into place in a way that propels the story (and the tension) forward.

Simply by having your characters tell readers their schedules, you create a promise that can create anticipation and build suspense:

•         “All right, here’s what I have lined up for the rest of the morning: Follow up on the fingerprints, track down Adrian, and then stop by the prison and have a little chat with Donnie ‘The Midnight Slayer’ Jackson.”

A story moves through action sequences to moments of reorientation when the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. We do this in real life as well—we experience something moving or profound, we process it, and then we decide how to respond. Problem is, in those moments of reflection, a story can drag and the suspense can be lost. During every interlude between scenes a promise must be either made or kept.

And, if you resolve one question or plot thread (that is, you keep a promise you made earlier), introduce another twist or moral dilemma (in other words, make another promise).

When a story lags it’s almost always because of missing tension (there’s no unmet desire on the part of the characters) or not enough escalation (there’s too much repetition). To fix this, show us how deeply the character wants something but cannot get it, and escalate the story by making it even more difficult to get.

5. Cut down on the violence.

The more violence there is, the less it will mean.

A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.

The scariest stories often contain very little violence.

And, of course, different genre elements dictate different means of suspense. In a mystery you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing suspense, the characters in the story will find out that someone is going to be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it.

Reader expectations, and the depth and breadth of what is at stake in the story, will determine the amount of mystery, horror or suspense you’ll want to include. Nearly all genres include some scenes with them. As a writer, it’s vital that you become aware of how you shape those sequences to create the desired effect on your reader—curiosity, dread or apprehension.

Also, remember that valuing human life increases suspense. Because readers only feel suspense when they care about what happens to a character, we want to heighten their concern by heightening the impact of the tragedy. Show how valuable life is. The more murders your story contains, the more life will seem cheap, and if it’s cheap, readers don’t need to be concerned if it’s lost.

6. Be one step ahead of your readers.

Here are some ways to amp up the suspense:

→ As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. (Phobias are irrational fears, so to be afraid of a cobra is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all snakes is.) Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

→ Make sure you describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the storyIn other words, let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.

→ Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.

→ As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Remove his tools, escape routes and support system (buddies, mentors, helpers or defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

→ Make it personal. Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let Grandma live there.

No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense. Follow these six secrets, and you’ll keep your readers up way past their bedtime.”

Writing a Good Book Blurb

Boob blurbs are on the front line of battles for book sales.  The Reedsy website defines book blurbs as: “a short description of a book that is written for promotional purposes.  For a paperback book it usually appears on the back cover. Generally, 150-200 words are more than enough for a full blurb.  In the modern publishing landscape, where more books are being purchased online than in bricks and mortar stores, you are more likely to encounter blurbs on the product page of Amazon or any other digital retailer. Sometimes, you will hear them referred to as ‘book descriptions.’”

“The opening of your blurb has to be incredibly precise and dynamic,” says editor Rebecca Heyman. “For a lot of first-time authors, I think there’s an instinct to make sure readers understand everything that happened in the book’s universe before the beginning of the actual story. That’s generally a mistake.”

So if it shouldn’t set the stage for a reader who’s about to dive into your book, what should the blurb do?

Reedsy recommends a four step process as follows:

1. Introduce your main character(s)

“Your blurb has to be about characters. Consciously or not, readers check out the synopsis to see whether they want to spend time with your main characters. They don’t need to know their entire backstory, though — just enough to understand how they figure into the story’s primary conflict…

2. Set the stage for your primary conflict

“The primary conflict is what drives your story.  Without a real-world conflict, you don’t have a story readers can sink their teeth into.

“It‘s tempting to talk about “interior journeys” in your blurb, but that’s something best avoided in most cases. While a character’s compelling internal conflicts might turn out to be an aspect that reader enjoy once they read your novel, they don’t work well in a blurb.  “Your primary conflict has to exist in the physical world of your manuscript,” says Heyman. “That’s not to say that character arcs are not a critical part of what makes a plot dynamic, but they are certainly not going to hook most readers.”

3. Establish the stakes

“Without consequences, a conflict lacks drama. A blurb that says “Jack Ryan has 24 hours to rescue the Russian ambassador,” isn’t as impactful unless we know what’s at stake: “…his failure will result in certain nuclear war.”

“In JoJo Moyes’s Me Before You, a young woman becomes a caregiver for a quadriplegic millionaire and begins to fall for him.  “When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.”  This single sentence not only establishes the external conflict (“Louisa must convince Will to live”), it also lays out the stakes, which are literally life-and-death.

“To show your story’s full potential, the reader must be aware that something hangs in the balance for your characters.

4. Show the reader why this book is for them

“Most readers have an idea of the book they’re looking to read next. A well-tuned blurb won’t try to sell everybody on the book — it will help people who already want a book like yours see that it’s for them.

“It’s important subtly highlight how your book is familiar by including elements that readers are already excited by,” says Sione Aeschliman, an editor who regularly helps authors through events such processes. The key is to imply similarities between comparable books without sounding derivative: ensure you also distinguish what makes your book unique.”

In my experience, it’s best to be quite choosy about the words you select: they should be clear and they should convey the feelings you want the reader to have about the book.  Set it aside and keep improving it.  The first shot is never good enough.

What Makes a Great Protagonist?

I’m returning to Janice Hardy and her Fiction University website for her thoughts about creating a strong central character.

Protagonist

She says: “At the heart of every story is a person with a problem, and the more compelling that person is, the better the story will be. Flat, boring protagonists lead to flat, boring stories. And no one wants that. We want ‘jump off the page and grab the readers by the throat’ kind of characters. The ones you keep thinking about long after the book is over.  Here are ten ways to turn your protagonist from good to great.

1. She has a problem that needs solving

You’d think this would be obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts where the protagonist could have died on page one and the story would have continued without missing a step. Make sure the protagonist is the one with the problem that has to be solved. No one else can solve this problem (or solve it as well as she can) and she’s central to the entire issue.

2. He has the ability to act

Protagonists who do nothing but react to the situation are boring. A good protagonist makes things happen and moves the story along through his actions and choices. If your protagonist isn’t in a position to affect change, consider how you can adjust it so he is.

3. She has reasons to act

Plenty of people might be able to do something, but unless they have a good reason, it starts to stretch credibility why they would get involved in something that clearly doesn’t matter to them. Imagine how unrealistic Die Hard would have felt if John McClane hadn’t been a cop and hadn’t had a wife being held hostage by bad guys. Why on earth would he have risked his life if there wasn’t a good reason? If your protagonist is risking her life or happiness, make sure it’s for a reason readers will understand.

4. He has something to lose

Just having a reason to act isn’t enough. Losing something that matters is a powerful motivating tool and will force your protagonist to do what he normally wouldn’t. He’ll take risks he’d never take if he didn’t have this consequence hanging over his head. It’ll also make readers worry that he might suffer those consequences and lose what matters most to him.

5. She has something to gain

This is an important aspect of the story’s stakes that’s sometimes forgotten or not thought through well enough. Watching a protagonist not lose has its merits, but when was the last time you went to a sporting event to see if your team didn’t lose? Readers want to see a protagonist rewarded for all her hard work and sacrifice, and a reason for her to keep going when everything tells her to give up.

6. He has the capacity to change

Character growth feeds the soul to the story. It’s what turns it from a series of plot events to a tale worth telling. A great protagonist has the ability to learn from his experiences and become a better (though not always) person. He won’t be the same person he was when the story started.

7. She has a compelling quality

Something about the person is interesting. Maybe she’s funny and likeable. Maybe she’s twisted and fascinating. She might have an unusual talent or skill, or a unique manner about her. Whatever it is, there’s a quality that makes a reader curious to know more about her. Often, what’s compelling is also contradictory, and wanting to know how these two things work together is what keeps readers hooked.

8. He has an interesting flaw

Perfect people are boring–it’s the flaws that make them interesting. Flaws also give you an opportunity to show character growth and give the protagonist a way to improve himself. Maybe he knows about this flaw and is actively trying to fix it, or he has no clue and change is being forced upon him. Maybe this flaw is the very thing that will allow him to survive and overcome his problems. Or the cause of the entire mess.

9. She has a secret

Open-book characters are too predictable, and predictable usually equals boring. If the protagonist is hiding something, readers will wonder what that secret is and how it affects the story. Let your protagonist be a little cryptic until readers are dying to know what her secret is.

10. He has someone or something interesting trying to stop him

A protagonist is only as good as the antagonist standing against him. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Professor Moriarty? Dorothy without the Wicked Witch? Buffy without Spike? A great protagonist needs someone worth fighting or his victory is meaningless. Think of your antagonist as the opposite of your protagonist. The dark to his light, the evil to his good. Match them well for a villain readers will love as well as hate.

A protagonist who knows what she wants and makes the story happen is a far more compelling character than one who sits around and waits for the story to happen to her. Make sure your protagonist is more than just someone in the middle of a mess.

Plotting Your Novel

Plotting Your Novel – Ideas and Structure is a book I bought to help me make progress on a novel I started last year, but couldn’t finish.  It had some very interesting characters, a fascinating setting, and pieces of a plot that had great promise, but after about 30,000 words it ran out of steam.  So, I think this book has rescued me.  It was written by Janice Hardy, who has also written Understanding Show Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It), Understanding Conflict (and What It Really Means). and a teen fantasy trilogy.   She lives in central Florida with her husband, one yard zombie, two cats and a very nervous fresh water eel, according to her website.

Janice Hardy

The book is divided into ten workshops:

  1. Finding your writer’s process
  2. Finding ideas to write about
  3. Developing your ideas
  4. Developing your characters, point of view, theme and setting
  5. Developing your plot
  6. Determining the type of novel you’re writing
  7. Determining the size and shape of your novel
  8. Turning your ideas into a summary line
  9. Turning your summary line into a summary blurb
  10. Turning your summary blurb into a synopsis

Each workshop has brainstorming questions, exercises, and discussion in which she clarifies the meanings of the terms she uses and explaining the importance of each term.  For example there are various points of view in which a novel can be written: first person, and various third persons: a particular character, a neutral observer, limited point of view, and omniscient point of view; and there are various multiple points of view.  Each POV has advantages and disadvantages, and the choice will depend, in part, on what the author wants to reveal to the reader when.

The section on characters was helpful to me, asking me to think about the character’s objectives and his/her arc (how the character changes during the story).  This prompted me to think about the strengths and vulnerabilities of each character, a point not covered by the book, but it helped clarify his/her arc, and some plot details.  I now had a rather lengthy paragraph that describes each character.

The hook in my novel needed more thought.  Ms Hardy describes the hook as the element which catches the reader’s attention and motivates her to read more.  Hook is generated by conflict between the characters or between a character and the external environment.

Now, I think I’m in a position where I can describe the plot in more detail.  This, for me, will consist of writing out the principal kinds of events which occur in the first part (establishing the theme, the principal characters and the hook); the middle of the story in which the characters and the conflict are further developed; and the conclusion in which the conflicts are played out and the characters’ arcs are completed.

When I’ve done that, I’ll be able to write a summary line, or two, and a catchy summary blurb.  The synopsis will come when the first draft is complete.

I’ve found this book particularly useful in better organising my outlining of a novel, so that when I start writing, I rely less on imaginative story-telling and more on writing to a specification. In this way, the intensity of the novel increases and diversions decrease.

Deciding on the Point of View

There is an article of the Writer’s Digest website, ‘Writing Multiple Points of View’ by Wendy Heard which caught my attention because the novel I’m completing now will have two narrators.  Ms Heard holds a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, emphasising painting, and a Master’s degree in Education.  She is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America, is a contributor at Crimereads.com, and co-hosts the Unlikable Female Characters podcast.

Wendy Heard

Ms Heard says, “When a story calls for more than one narrator, it’s exciting (at first). In a way, starting a new book is like diving into a new relationship—a potentially abusive relationship with a high-maintenance narcissist who demands you spend every moment obsessing about them.  I’ve now been in two multiple points of view relationships, one with The Kill Club, a thriller released December 2019, and one with She’s Too Pretty to Burn, a YA thriller out in 2021. Going through the rounds of revisions on these two projects taught me a lot, and I hope what I’ve learned is useful to you.  That said, let’s dive into some suggestions I have for writing multiple POV projects.

  1. Determine your primary POV.

Even if you have just a couple of narrators, one of them will likely carry the theme of the book and serve as the dominant POV. I spent a lot of time figuring this out with She’s Too Pretty to Burn, where I had dual narrators with almost the same amount of real estate. If you’re not sure who your primary narrator should be, consider the logline for your book in terms of the following structure: “X person must do Y or [some bad thing] will happen.” For example, “Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort or the wizarding world will be ruined forever.” Sometimes putting your logline into this sentence frame will help determine who’s carrying the central conflict in the story.  In general, I’ve heard from many different people that it helps a reader orient themselves in a multiple POV story when the primary narrator goes first and gets Chapter One.

  1. Distinguish your characters’ voices.

First, figure out if you’d like to differentiate the POVs by making one first person and the other(s) third person, one past tense and the other(s) present tense, one limited and the other(s) omniscient, etc. Going back and forth between limited and omniscient in third person is high art, and I admire anyone who can pull it off.

Next, consider the characters themselves. If you have a character who is musical, they’ll likely be quite auditory and their descriptions of settings will include sounds as much as imagery. If you have a character who’s younger, their internal cultural references, comparisons, and slang will be different than an older character. If one character is a doctor, they might notice physical aspects of the people around them more than, say, a glass blower.

I’d also recommend journaling a list of sayings and phrases used by each character. As you do, consider making each character’s thinking style vastly different. One person can be more poetic, with longer sentences containing more clauses. Another character might be a more direct person who tells it exactly like it is with no embellishment. The more work you do here, the more authentically each of these voices will read.

  1. When working with many points of view…

First of all, I recommend pouring a stiff drink and staring at your computer moodily. This is the only way to commence writing more than three points of view.

Some stories must be told from many perspectives. In this case, you’ve already determined who your protagonist will be, so now you’re trying to figure out how to fit all the other perspectives into the story. I was in this position for The Kill Club, and I developed a strategy that helped me stay organized: I considered the main character’s POV as the primary and all the other ones a secondary POV I called a “composite” POV. When I was outlining the book (see next bullet), I had one list of plot points and story beats for the protagonist and one for the composite, and I plugged narrators in based on who would be the best narrator for the story beat in question.

  1. Beat sheets and outlines for multiple POVs

I work with Save the Cat beat sheets, but I know there are many other outlining tools in use. Regardless of methodology, a question arises: How do I know which character should tell which part of the story?

I’d advocate for giving the largest story beats to your protagonist. If the heart of the book happens away from your hero and with someone else, the question begs to be asked: why not make that other person the hero?

Some other things I’d advocate for doing in your protagonist’s POV: major relational beats, plot-altering twists (unless the point of the twist is that you’re showing something that will add suspense if hidden from the protagonist), thematic beats, and moments that could contribute to character development if given to the hero.

If you have dual POVs, with both being almost equally weighted, I’d recommend huge plot points such as the inciting incident, the midpoint, and the dark night of the soul happen in both perspectives. If possible, the two narrators could be in scene together when these moments happen, or, if they’re carrying parallel narratives, such as in past/present tense books, they could each experience separate major plot points.

It’s important to remember that all POV characters need to go through a full plot, and the character growth needs to be well-developed in each, even if they only get a handful of chapters. By designating someone as a point of view character, you’ve said they are crucial to the reader’s experience of this story. This brings me to my final piece of advice.

  1. Sometimes, maybe it’s not necessary.

I wrote a book that started out as multiple POVs and ended up a single-narrator project. Sometimes, after you’ve sat with the outline for a minute, you might realize that being inside the head of one of these characters, or some of them, is not necessary for a reader to fully experience this story. While it’s hard to reconsider the structure of a project once you’ve fallen in love with it, just like in relationships, it’s important to be open to all possibilities in those early drafting stages. Readers can sometimes find themselves bored or alienated by extra points of view.”

This discussion was interesting to me as it was suggested that having two POV’s in the novel I’m currently working on, instead of a single narrative by the protagonist, could increase the tension in the story.  This turns out to be correct, particularly as the two POV characters are very different, but they share a common interest in telling the story.

Emotional Danger

On the Writer’s Digest blog there is a discussion by Amy Jones of the book by Jordan Rosenfeld, How to Write a Page Turner, about the use of emotional danger in writing.  Ms Rosenfeld is author of the suspense novels Women in RedForged in Grace and Night Oracle as well as seven writing guides,

Jordan Rosenfeld

In her book, Ms Rosenfeld says, “Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.  Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

“Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

“What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is ’emotional danger.’ This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorises, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

“Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

“But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

“Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

“Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.”

The example seems a bit too contrived for my taste, and I believe I might have put the book down thinking that Louise is an idiot.  However, I think that the basic point about emotional tension is a good one.

Creative Writing Tips

The Writer’s Relief website has some worthwhile points about making the best use of one’s writing skills.  I have extracted some of the best points be]ow.

Sentence Length: Today’s reader tends to favour short sentence lengths—clear and direct writing rather than flowery, convoluted prose. It’s a busy world full of information, and simple, easy-to-read sentences with powerful verbs are appealing. Sentence length can have an enormous effect on your readers.  An example of effectively using short, powerful sentences to create an impact can be found in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved.  But this paragraph, from A Farewell to Arms, shows Ernest Hemingway’s skill with more complex construction, giving the reader a sense of the character’s languor:  They left me alone and I lay in bed and read the papers awhile, the news from the front, and the list of dead officers with their decorations and then reached down and brought up the bottle of Cinzano and held it straight up on my stomach, the cool glass against my stomach, and took little drinks making rings on my stomach from holding the bottle there between drinks, and watched it get dark outside over the roofs of the town.

More Powerful Verbs: He ran through the crowd. I didn’t like my coffee.  These phrases might come off as emphatic when they’re uttered in conversation. But when text is our medium, the primary way we can emphasise the tone of the words is by making stronger word choices, like this: He sprinted through the crowd.  I hated my coffee.  Sometimes amping up a verb requires restructuring a sentence: He darted among the pedestrians. My coffee nauseated me.  And other times the verb choice will need to reflect a character’s dialect or personality:  He bullied his way through the crowd. I’m not relishing my coffee.  One other “problem area” to work on when you’re ramping up your verb choices is the dreaded adverb. Overusing adverbs is the equivalent of trying to do crunches by pushing yourself up with your hands—it’s a way of “helping” the main action, but it makes the results less dramatic. Sometimes adverbs are absolutely necessary, but when you can get rid of them, you should.

Unusual Words: Examples of creative word usage abound in The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. This novel is first set in Paris on the brink of World War II. The young Jewish protagonist, Andras, learns he must quit school and return to his home in Hungary. He’s bummed out. When he gets to Hungary, he thinks, “Budapest was cobwebbed with memories…”  Most of us think of the word cobweb as a noun. “Look at those cobwebs! That corner is full of cobwebs!” However, Merriam-Webster notes a lesser-known usage of cobwebbed as an adjective. Few of us would say, “Look at that cobwebbed corner.” It feels awkward.  But in Ms. Orringer’s hands, cobwebbed is a revelation. Could she have written that Budapest was full of memories? Of course.  But cobwebbed is so much more powerful and evocative of Andras’s frame of mind. First, cobwebbed is more visual than full. Second, it’s more specific. Third, it evokes age—something forgotten, despairing, and maybe a touch repulsive. It also provides some eerie foreshadowing for what could, and does, happen to this young man during the Holocaust.

Setting: The settings or locales of books, stories, and poems can be just as important as characters, plot, and prose style in making a creative work bloom.  Does your story or book have a setting that comes to life? That is a character in and of itself?   In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s renowned 1884 novel, the Mississippi River and its environs come alive under the magical pen of Twain—a pre-Civil War pilot on that waterway. Twain contrasts the beauty of the Mississippi’s southern portion with the racism, scamming, and other not-so-beautiful things that happen in and near there. But the river is also a place to have fun—and for Jim to possibly find freedom from slavery.

Point of View:  Point of view can be defined as the narrative perspective from which a story or novel is told. Many editors and publishers will tell you that a novel written from the first person point of view (I, we) is often a sign of an inexperienced writer, and—toss!—into the trash it goes. Check your local bookstore and take note of how many best-sellers are written in first person. They exist, but novels are far more often written in third-person narrative, and for good reason. In first person, the character is also the narrator, either playing a central (active) role or a peripheral (sideline) part. As the first-person narrator, you have but one point of view to offer, and this can be limiting. There’s simply less opportunity to bring depth to the story. On the other hand, a first-person narrative creates an undeniable intimacy with the reader.  The second person point of view is a difficult and uncommon style to pull off successfully. Imagine an entire novel where the character, narrator, or even the reader is referred to as “you.”  Often considered an experimental form, this type of narrative would be nearly impossible to sustain through a full-length novel and would be more successful in a short piece.  Storytelling from a third person point of view (he, she) offers a clear distinction between the author and the characters, allowing the author complete freedom to travel through the story and its characters. The narrator is not a character and can therefore comment on every aspect if so desired.  There are several alternatives to the third person point of view: the omniscient point of view, where the narrator is all-knowing; the limited point of view, where the narrator knows only one character; and the objective point of view, where the narrator offers no opinions or value judgements.  Once you’ve chosen your point of view, consistency is a matter of importance. Switching POVs can cause confusion for the reader and interrupt the flow of the story. If you do choose to use multiple POVs, make it obvious when a new character takes over the storytelling.

 

Creative Writing Classes

I have decided to take two courses on creative writing at City Academy in London.  One is a full week, full day (10-5) class in advanced creative writing.  In addition to providing the students with a sharper writing tool kit, it covers the specific skills of novel writing, script writing (film or television) and play writing.  There is a good deal of emphasis on creative techniques and structure.  There were four instructors on this course, all of them freelance writers, some of them take commissions from the BBC and one is a children’s book writer.  All of us (six) on this course were impressed with both the knowledge of the tutors and their skills in transferring the knowledge to us.  We completed many specific writing assignments in class, ranging from five to twenty minutes, and we would read out our work to the class.

The other class is on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 for six weeks.  This course is taught by the head of the creative writing department, who is script writer for Casualty on BBC1.  As such, he has a flair for drama.  This course is designed to help students progress or design a piece of creative writing.  There are five students in this course; I am the only male (aside from the tutor).  One woman in her early 30’s has finished writing a middle grade children’s book about a child who is disappointed in her own achievements.  A woman in her 50’s has a musical which has been performed somewhere locally and involves repercussions from Vietnam.  These two are making final corrections.  A woman in her late late 30’s has some ideas for a novel about two female friends, one of whom has a father who has strangely reappeared.  And the other student, in her 20’s, is trying to develop ideas for a novel.  And I am there with a completed manuscript about a man who is preoccupied with fears of his death.  Agents say it is well written, it has three good reviews, but nobody has said ‘yes’, and one agent said that in needs more intensity.

So I outlined the novel last Wednesday, including the concern about intensity.  I also presented my list of ideas for ramping up the intensity.  Almost immediately, the tutor said, why don’t you make the relationship between the protagonist and his grandniece the centerpiece of the novel, having them tell the story rather than the protagonist alone.  At first, I thought, Oh, God another rewrite!, but then it began to make sense.  The current structure of the novel is around a timeline which tends to dilute the intensity of the relationships.  But, if the two narrators cover and debate each of the relationships in depth, in series, it will be much more intense.

So next Wednesday, I’ve been asked to bring a revised outline to the class.  What this involves is taking all the events of each relationship, and grouping them together sequentially, rather than allowing them to be strung out along the time line.

This will, of course involve some re-writing, some new material and deleting some existing material.  But I’m looking forward to it.

Writing Seminar/Workshop

Last Saturday, I attended one-day seminar/workshop put on at the Cambridge Writing Retreat on the subject of ‘What Does Show Not Tell’ Actually Mean?  The instructor was Emma Sweeney, a novelist and literary instructor, who was both knowledgeable and interested in the development of the four writers attending.  Aside from me, there were three female writers: two novelists and a flash fiction writer.  The particular seminar I attended is part of a novel writing course put on by the Cambridge Writing Retreat over the course of a year, and the Retreat is the brainchild of Gaynor Clements, a poet with an MA in creative writing; it is put on in her attractive and spacious farmhouse.

The day started with Emma defining the terms.  Both Showing and Telling relate to what is in a character’s mind: feelings or thoughts.  Showing is accessing the world through our senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.  Showing is describing a character’s reaction to one or more of the five senses to give the reader a clue of what they may be feeling or their attitude.  Telling describes the character’s thoughts or feelings directly.  Showing a close interaction – as for example, smelling a rose – can be quite powerful but can feel claustrophobic; showing a distant interaction tends to keep the reader at arms length. The literary preference is to use showing as much as possible, as this engages the reader in sensing the direction of the narrative, rather that being told the direction of the narrative.  Telling is best used when the author wishes to throw doubt on what a character has previously done or said; that is, to suggest that the character may be changing his/her mind.   If we are describing an emotion through telling, it is best to anchor it in an analogy or image.

Our first exercise was to go out into the garden and try to experience something close and distant with sight, smell and hearing; we were also asked to experience something close with touch and taste.  As the farmhouse garden has many herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees as well as chickens, dogs, sheep, birds and interesting vistas, this was not a difficult task.

We were then asked to write a scene in which one of our characters does something out of character using action, gesture, dialogue and a description of the setting.  This took forty minutes, during which time Emma spoke one-on-one for twenty minutes with two of the other participants about the status or their writing and any concerns or obstacles they were facing.  The two of us who had completed our scenes read them out for discussion.

When setting a general scene, it is good practice to follow it up with a more specific, detailed scene.

After lunch, we began to read and discuss excerpts as follows:

  • Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway.  This short story is almost all show and very little tell; the reader’s mind has to work to keep up with the narrative.
  • Notes on a Scandal,  by Zoe Heller.  The excerpt uses Tell to cast doubt on the protagonist’s version of events.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The beginning of Chapter 4 is used to raise a number of questions to keep the reader’s interest.
  • The Web of Belonging, by Stevie Davies.  The excerpt uses an unusual words and layout to express the conflict a character is feeling

Our last exercise was to write a scene in which a character has an epiphany, starting with the external world, moving to the character’s mind, and concluding in the external world.  I had a plan for this one, but didn’t complete it because I had twenty minutes with Emma.  We talked about my concerns: creating more tension in the narrative and being less kind to characters.

The day gave me just the ammunition I needed to defeat the mystery of Show vs Tell.

 

Writers’ Groups

Have you ever thought of joining a writers’ group?  The Florida Writers Association, of which I am a member, has a number of them, and Veronica Helen Hart leads three different groups.  In the abbreviated article, below, from The Florida Writer, she describes how the groups work.  She has written ten novels and a play.  Regarding her experience with writers’ groups, she says: “One of the most successful efforts has been participating in critique groups and leading a writers workshop for the past several years. I have learned more in these sessions than I ever did in college classes.”

Veronica Helen Hart

“The first group is the Daytona Area Writers, which grew quickly, and split off a
second group, the  Daytona Area Fiction Writers, which maintains a schedule of two
writers a week, every week, submitting a maximum of 20 double-spaced pages in advance online. This is an invitation-only group, focused on fiction with a goal of
publishing. We meet at a local Barnes & Noble store. Another group, the Ormond Writers League, is a well-established group. Individuals read five to seven
pages aloud, and members critique on the spot. I found this technique most helpful to me as a writer but difficult to do as a listener. I prefer to read, so I asked if people
wouldn’t mind bringing one printed copy for me. Now, everyone brings copies to share.

Members must respect the leader’s ability to moderate the group. There are often
occasions when the moderator is called upon to resolve personality issues before they become major problems.

In both DAW and DAFW, the meetings open with news of writing progress from each member and announcements of upcoming competitions or conferences. There is always support and encouragement for writers who submit work for competitions or to
agents.  At DAW, we frequently do writing exercises or have a mini-workshop before critiquing. At the DAFW, we start with critiques.  The guidelines for critiquing are probably the same  as for most writing groups, however, and we don’t let members stray. Critiques may not be personal and must address the writing only. This is about critique, not criticism; about critiquers, not critics; about the effect the work evokes in a variety of readers; about writers helping writers to encourage areas of strength and improve areas of perceived weaknesses.  Our critique groups allow writers to save face before offering themselves on the sacrificial altars of agents, editors, and publishers.
To be critiqued, you must be an active participant in the group, which includes submitting your writing for critique.  Start by praising strengths.  Avoid the use of the word you. Instead of saying, “You used passive voice…” you can say, “I found the
passive voice used several times …” Or, instead of, “You can’t let a person jump off that building,” you can say, “I don’t understand how a person could survive jumping off
that building.” Offer positive feedback. Highlight and emphasize what worked well in the manuscript.  When speaking, still avoid you. Try saying, “I felt completely drawn into this scene,” instead of, “You wrote a great scene.”  When the writing is not so great, offer constructive suggestions. “It might help pick up the pace of this story if the scene where she’s grocery shopping was either dropped or cut short,” instead of, “The grocery store scene is boring.” Members are discouraged from rewriting the story for the author. It is okay to suggest an alternative path for the protagonist only if the
author has asked for help.  Critiques are not meant to be copyedits.
Typos and misspellings may be marked on the manuscript rather than being used as a discussion point, although an assessment of the manuscript mechanics may be part of the evaluation.  Honesty is the best policy. Consider the most basic questions: Has the author anything to say? Has the author said it in the best possible way?  In the end, kindness counts. This does not mean a charm offensive or gushing over a mediocre
manuscript. This does no one any good. But some writers never recover from being chewed up and spit out by a cannibalistic critique group.

In our twice-a-month group where we have a large attendance, everyone may submit up to ten pages for critique. We ask for four to six volunteers to critique each manuscript the schedule is then posted on a dedicated Yahoo site.
In our weekly group, two people may submit up to 20 pages and everyone critiques. This is also posted on a Yahoo site.
One of the most important rules is that the person whose manuscript is being critiqued
remain quiet during the critiques and can then reply once everyone is finished. Generally, the responses are to thank everyone for their help. There should be no need for anyone to defend their manuscript or take exception to a critique.
If something does not apply, the author is always free to politely thank the person and ignore the comments.
The best thing about these groups are how supportive each person is to everyone else in the group.”

If there were a writers’ group near me, I think I might join if I could bring along bits of a novel I’m working on.