Tag Archives: tension

Hiding Information From Readers

writing in diary August_Müller_TagebucheintragFrom time to time I read advice that says novelists should create characters who have secrets. One such article, “5 Secrets about your Characters’ Secrets,” lists out ways that a writer can use characters’ secrets: to develop a plot twist, create conflict, for descriptive texture and intrigue, to use as part of the character reveal, and I’d add, as a source of on-going tension.

In fact, novelist L. D. Alford includes secrets on his list of tools to create tension. He explains the process:

The protagonist’s secrets are wonderful secrets—the trick is that the author can’t reveal them too early. This is an example of not showing (or telling) everything. I don’t like my readers to know anything that is not revealed through showing. To effectively use protagonist’s secrets, the author must only use showing to reveal and must not show everything.

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets—not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations.

Secrets create questions, both for the other characters and for the reader. As other characters react to the existence of a secret or to its revelation, as the main character struggles to keep the secret, tension abounds. But the natural reaction to not knowing is wanting to know, so secrets generate curiosity. What are those marks on her arm which she keeps hidden? Why hasn’t she told her boyfriend that her parents died?

Mr. Alford also says in one post, “The most powerful use of secrets are those that are kept by the protagonist . . . and not shared immediately with the reader.”

Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only character who can have a secret.

Dobby2I think, for example, of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in which a character named Dobby goes to Harry’s home in order to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. Harry can’t imagine why Dobby wants to keep him from going back, and the reader is just as much in the dark.

Later Harry learns that Dobby, a house elf, is trying to protect him from another wizard, one to whom Dobby is bound and who he cannot betray. Dobby’s secret turns into a full-blown “who wants to harm Harry” question which in turn creates tension throughout the book as one person after another falls under suspicion.

There is a limit, however, to the use of secrets. The author should not withhold the information from the reader that reveals the protagonist’s goal or plan. What the central character wants, drives the plot. If that desire is a secret, readers will be left out of the true quest.

Likewise, if the protagonist makes a plan to achieve his goal, a secret plan which the readers don’t know, they have no way of cheering for his success or fearing when obstacles crop up or enemies plot countermeasures.

In other words, if readers aren’t in the loop when it comes to the goals and plans the main character makes, the tension, which is the point and purpose of keeping secrets, will be lost.

Keeping secrets can powerfully aid a novelist when it comes to creating tension, but a line should be drawn when it comes to the goal of the protagonist and the plans he makes to reach his goals. These are essentials that readers must be aware of if they are to care for the character and hope for him or fear for him. They should not be withheld in the effort to give the protagonist an intriguing secret. Rather than creating tension, withholding the key to character motivation creates indifference.

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What’s At Stake?

Yeah, not that kind.

Yeah, not this kind.

If a story needs tension on every page, it seems logical that authors writing fiction need to learn how to create tension. One technique is to increase stakes, that is, to make the action urgent.

Unfortunately, it seems this idea of upping stakes is too often equated with saving the world from aliens or stopping a terrorist attack. After all, what are higher stakes?

The problem, of course, is that not every story is about aliens or terrorists. And even in the stories that accommodate those elements, repetition has reduced these high stakes to a shrug unless there is more involved.

Not this kind either.

Not that kind either.

So how can a writer bring urgency to her story without threatening to blow up the White House or start a pandemic that could wipe out the human race? First, we need to look at what’s behind the stakes.

At the heart of a story is a character with a need or a goal–he wants to win the love of the princess or get a promotion at work or make his dad proud. To evaluate the stakes created by any actions these characters might take, the author must simply ask, so what?

What will the character lose if he doesn’t win the love of the princess? Well, the princess! some will answer. And that matters, why? Can’t he simply find another girl to love, one he can win?

Or what happens if he doesn’t get the promotion he wants? Won’t he simply continue working at the job he has? How about making his dad proud. If he doesn’t, what will he lose? A chance for better self-esteem? And that matters because . . .

The point is, stakes are built, in part, upon creating consequences for failure. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, equated their love with life. They chose dying rather than living without the person they loved.

However, in addition to creating consequences, these consequences must matter, and this is accomplished by creating a character the reader will care about.

As long as the reader merely has a nodding acquaintance with the protagonist, the stakes of a novel will remain low. Only when the reader cares deeply what happens to him will the stakes begin to soar.

Writing instructor Donald Maass states this principle clearly in Writing the Breakout Novel:

The wishes, needs and objectives of strangers are, to most of us, of little concern. The same is true in a reader’s relationship to a character in a story: That character’s stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. If the character feels cold, distant or veiled, it is impossible to care. The personal stakes in the story feel low. Reader interest is weak. On the other hand, when characters are strong and appealing, and better still are portrayed warmly and with intimate candor, the stakes feel high and reader interest runs high, as well. (p. 74)

In short, personal stakes for the protagonist hinge upon how well the reader gets to know this character. Maass again:

we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults. Understanding leads to sympathy. Sympathy in turn gives power to stakes.

A corollary to this principle is that readers will care about circumstances that a sympathetic character cares about. To raise the stakes, however, the author must withhold what the character wants, must take him through a minidisaster that forces him to regroup. Each failure reminds the reader what’s at stake.

Besides personal stakes, a novelist should present public stakes–what will society lose if the heroine fails? Again, it’s easy to jump to the large failure–death and destruction. But there are different kinds of destruction. A writer should consider exploring moral choices, ethics, corruption, spiritual well-being and their affects on society.

One character, of course, is most likely not going to impact a government to wipe out all corruption or turn a society away from a questionable ethic, but this is where a novelist can allow the character to represent “everyman” and establish a universal principle by showing a particular life and situation.

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_2The old movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” comes to mind as this type of story. When corrupt politicians tried to manipulate a Junior Senator, Mr. Smith, appointed to office to complete the term of the deceased incumbent, the young man ends up embroiled in false accusations and dishonest dealings. His efforts to do what is right eventually cause one old family friend to confess his wrong doings.

Is all of Washington cleaned of corruption? No, but Mr. Smith illustrates what an honest man willing to stand for right can accomplish. The stakes in this story involve the good of society, not just Mr. Smith’s reputation–though there is that, as well as his standing in the eyes of the woman he’s attracted to.

Perhaps this intertwining of personal and public stakes is the ultimate method of elevating both.

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Creating Tension

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

breakoutnovel-coverI’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.

Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.

Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).

He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.

In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.

In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.

It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.

In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.

elevator-200538-mThe conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.

You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.

Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.

Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.

Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.

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Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

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Who Hooked You And How?

466523_jamaican_fisher_manLast week we looked at the opening paragraphs of ten novels to see which hooked readers most often. I find these exercise informative. What was it that grabbed readers’ attention and why?

The poll results are in. Only one vote separated our top two entries.

In the top slot was Choice B
I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

In second place was Choice C:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

And now the big reveal: who are these authors and from what books did these openings come?

Choice A Storm by Evan Angler
Choice B Fathom by Merrie Destefano
Choice C Prophet by R. J. Larson
Choice D Cracks in the Ice by Deanna Klingel
Choice E Crosswind by Steve Rzasa
Choice F Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard
Choice G The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell
Choice H Soul’s Gate by James Rubart
Choice I The New Recruit by Jill Williamson
Choice J Beckon by Tom Pawlik

Here are my general observations about openings that hook:

The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected–warm snow, seeing a ghost.

They also created tension. The middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, and the protagonist starts awake. The tension is palatable. Perhaps less so, but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash “like menacing shadows.”

The openings that hook also created a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?

Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: “… the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away.” And “some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.”

In Prophet: “Tarnished snow” and “mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square.”

The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.

Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She’s observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.

I think it’s fair to say that the other openings shared some of these same elements–but perhaps not all. They may have included things these top two did not.

In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but I don’t think you can go wrong if you surprise your audience, create tension and questions with evocative language while introducing them to an interesting character.

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Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

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After The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages alerted novelists to the need to create an intriguing opening. But the truth is, writers need to keep readers interested beyond that first scene. After the initial intrigue, what will keep them turning pages?

A number of pitfalls can work against this goal: glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in a prologue (quotes from Hallie Ephron, The Writer, October 2008).

“Gore, profanity or explicit sex” seem self-explanatory. These things pull readers out of the story.

“Glumps” or Long paragraphs of backstory or even of description work against the story because there is little tension, the element agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) says is necessary on every page.

Newer writers often believe it is vital for readers to understand what came before, what the character or story world is all about, or the story won’t make sense.

The problem is, if readers are bored with these “necessities,” they won’t stick around. Instead, writers need to trust their readers and unfold the backstory and descriptions as the story takes place.

Regarding the flash forward, Ephron says it is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz. An exciting flash forward, however, will simply serve as a sharp contrast to the lackluster events that put the story in motion–not a proven way of keeping readers turning pages.

Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, what should writers be sure to include after the first five pages if we are to keep readers engaged?

First we must create characters readers care about. Quirky characters may be interesting, but they may also be hard to connect with. On the other hand, bland characters that are floating through the life of their story aren’t interesting. The writer must find the balance.

In my reading, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun–even funny–and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can cheer for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

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Books That Last

Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.

Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?

I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.

Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years — busy-ness, bosses, the mortgage. So the take-charge Nancy, the clever, self-sufficient sleuth, still resonates.

Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy or her friends, captured and tied up. How will she or they escape this time? A hidden staircase, a mysterious letter, a secret in the old attic. Will she find the clue she needs? Tension. Each story utilized something of the unknown and something of the dangerous to create suspense.

The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what Nancy Drew’s goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month. But despite the formulaic nature of the plot, Nancy Drew books are still around.

Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates or tension that propels the action. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike Nancy Drew books, no one will be buying them forty years later.

Some authors actually aim to write long-lasting books. These must have an added dimension: depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.

And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page. Depth isn’t achieved by telling the reader what to think but by giving them a reason to think about the ideas central to the story.

These are the books that can stir readers to believe or hope or try. They go beyond showing the lives of the characters and the events of the story to showing the reader how he is to think and to live. In other words, they have impact.

If books with depth are to last, though, the ideas have to be timeless and universal. They have to connect with their readers year after year. A story, then, like The Octopus by Frank Norris, about the abuses of the railroad in nineteenth century America, may have resonated in its day to its target audience, but fifty years later or a continent away, it makes little impression.

In summary, books with larger-than-life characters and an abundance of tension can last. Add depth and the books that last can impact readers for generations.

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Story Triage

In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?

The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.

In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.

When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.

So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?

1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.

This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.

Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.

The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.

As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.

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After The Inciting Incident

In last week’s post “Plot Weaving – Where To Start” we looked at where to begin the plot of a novel, often called the inciting incident — an event the protagonist responds to by forming a plan and taking action.

What comes next?

In the process of putting a plot together (either in outline form before writing or by piecing together scenes after writing, depending on the preferred work style), the novelist should remember three things.

First, every scene needs to move the story forward, that is toward bringing the protagonist closer to change or toward showing why change is impossible. Scenes that do not contribute to this end slow the pace and may cause the middle of the novel to drag.

Second, every scene — in fact, every page of every scene — needs tension. But where does tension come from? Some professionals have said when the story stalls, pull a gun. But that kind of solution is why novels become episodic rather than organic. Instead, a novelist can create tension by raising the stakes for the protagonist, by adding natural and believable complications, and by creating situations in which the character actually may fail.

Recently, Writer’s Digest offered a free download of Donald Maass exercises from his latest work The Breakout Novelist. A number of these will help a writer create more tension. Take, for example, Exercise 13: Raising Public Stakes or Exercise 14: Making Complications Active. In these assignments, the novelist must consider what will make the story problem worse and what might actually cause the protagonist to fail.

Scenes must move the story forward and there must be tension on every page, but there’s still a third element that helps the writer craft what comes next. Each of the events must be connected causally.

In other words, in a linear telling of the story, the inciting incident takes place, causing the protagonist to react. He must take action, put a plan in motion, establish a goal. His first step then becomes the cause of the next event which in turn causes him to react. His step then causes the next event which in turn causes him to react, and so on.

See how this cause-effect cycle works out at the beginning of the plot of the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile”:

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree. [Inciting incident] ‘Hello’, called the monkey, who was a friendly animal. [Protagonist Reaction] ‘Hello’, replied the crocodile, surprised. ‘Do you know where I can get some food?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t had anything to eat all day – there just don’t seem to be any fish left in the river.’ [Next event]

‘Well,’ said the monkey, ‘I don’t eat fish so I wouldn’t know – but I do have plenty of ripe purple jamuns in my tree. Would you like to try some?’ He threw some down to the crocodile. [Protagonist Reaction] The crocodile was so hungry that he ate up all the jamuns even though crocodiles don’t eat fruit. He loved the sweet tangy fruit and shyly asked whether he could have some more. [Next Event] ‘Of course’, replied the monkey generously, throwing down more fruit. ‘Come back whenever you feel like more fruit’, he added when the crocodile had eaten his fill. [Protagonist Reaction]

After that the crocodile would visit the monkey every day. [Next Event]

By utilizing this cause-effect means of determining what happens next in the story, the plot arises naturally out of the personality, wants, and needs of the characters. The writer does not appear to be imposing his will from the outside, though of course he is. After all, he has given the character her strengths and weaknesses, her goals and plans, and the inciting incident that starts all the dominos falling.

In addition, the writer keeps back a few twists that will still arise organically but will nevertheless surprise even the most astute reader. We’ll look at plot twists another time.

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