Saturday, September 17, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense III

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about suspense, the element that can make or breaks the end of your story. To give your story a truly satisfying climax, you need to escalate the tension. You can raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, more intimate, more personal or more devastating. For one familiar example, if the shire is at risk in the first film, the world better be in danger at the end of the trilogy.  If the tension doesn’t escalate, your suspense will fade.

One technique to keep the tension high is to give us 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 usually mean no action is happening.  It usually means no promises are being made. Contrary to what you may have heard, reader boredom isn’t solved by adding action – the solution is to add apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is the payoff. You don’t increase suspense by adding events, but rather by promising that something will happen.  So don’t ask yourself, “What needs to happen?” Ask, “what can I promise will go wrong?”
My favorite scenes in the Star Wars movies grow from one inspired bit of dialog.  Han Solo looks around and says…”I got a bad feeling about this.”  Actually, five different characters say that in the series but only Han Solo says it twice.

When Scarlett swears she’ll never be hunger again, or Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited by three ghosts, a promise has been made.

Suppose a jilted lover in a romance says something like, “if I can’t have her nobody will.” Maybe he hides in the bushes until his rival shows up. The bad guy pulls his knife. The good guy looks around, looks right at the bush but doesn’t see the bad guy hidden there.  He turns his back to the bad guy...
Milk that moment. That’s the suspense.

But make sure that eventually you show us what happens in front of that bush. You have to keep every promise you make.  And the bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff has to be.  A huge promise without the fulfillment isn’t suspense—it’s disappointment. That’s why Frodo can’t simply pull off the ring and toss it, and Rocky can’t knock out Appolo Creed with a lucky punch in the third round.
And remember, every word in your story is a promise of some sort.  If you spend three paragraphs describing a woman’s fabulous shoes, those shoes better be vital to the story. The cliché is, if you show me a gun on the mantle in chapter 2, somebody better darned well aim that thing at someone before the books’ over.

Stories sometimes fail because writers don’t make big enough promises, or they don’t fulfill them. Don’t let that happen to you.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense II

Last week we talked about the importance of creating suspense in fiction. Because I think that applies to all genres it only makes sense to say that there are different types of suspense.

The most common kind of suspense is probably “will the hero accomplish his major goal?”  That can take different forms based on the genre you write in.  In a mystery, where the violence usually takes place before the protagonist is involved, the question may be “who done it?”  You maintain suspense there by keeping your villain one step ahead of your detective, and your reader.  In a thriller the reader may be anticipating the antagonist accomplishing his goal so the question is “how can this impending crisis or crime be averted.”  The reader might know about dangers the protagonist doesn’t know about – that in itself creates suspense.  In a horror story the question may be “will the protagonist survive?”  

So as we write, how do we ratchet up the suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats?  Well, part of this is why we talk about conflict and suspense together.  Because to really create suspense you need to create characters that readers care about, and then put those characters in jeopardy.

Narrative suspense is built out of four parts: reader empathy, impending danger, escalating tension and reader concern – or as i call it: worry.

We create reader empathy by giving your protagonist a goal or objective or an inner struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize the better.  Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be personally invested when they see that character struggling to get what he wants.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will succeed.  Readers have to know what the character wants so they know what’s at stake, and they have to know what’s at stake to get engaged in the story. So, to get readers invested in your novel, make it clear what your character desires, what is keeping him from getting it; and what huge, horrible consequences he’ll face if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience worry 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. That’s how you sustain suspense.

Next week I’ll share some rules for building tension in any story.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense

Suspense is what keeps people turning the pages, no matter what genre of story it is, and since no one wants a reader to put down their book before the end, this seems like a good topic to explore. We writers love to use that word – suspense – but it might also be thought of as frustration.  The reader wants to know something and the writer keep saying, “I’ll tell you in a minute” and by the time that minute is over the story is done. If you write thrillers or that subgenre we call suspense, the word worry might work better.

I first learned about suspense when read the Tarzan novels.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an interesting technique for holding his readers’ attention.  After the first book the stories involved Tarzan AND Jane.  They always took off on some adventure, and they always got separated. So you might see Tarzan running thru the jungle – he comes face to face with a lion – the lion roars – he pulls his knife.  The lion jumps at him and…

The chapter ends and we’re following Jane.  She’s lost so she climbs a tree.  She finds herself on the limb with a huge snake.  It gets closer.  She’s about to fall out of the tree.  The snake rises up, about to strike and…

The chapter ends. Suddenly we’re watching Tarzan grapple with the lion. And the whole time we’re watching Tarzan, we’re worrying about Jane. As a kid I found this kind of thing very frustrating – but fun. As an adult I learned that people like to be frustrated this way.
More technically, suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered.  In my own work i use three different kinds of suspense.  There is “what’s going on here?” suspense.  If you watched the television show Lost, or more recently Colony, you know what that is.  You came back every week trying to figure out what the heck was going on. 

There is also “why is this happening?” suspense.  This is what writers mean when they tell you to start the story in the middle.  Page one opens with someone holding a gun in your hero’s face, saying “This is what happens to people who go poking their noses into my business.” Of course, then the writer has to answer the obvious questions during the action. 

Btw, in my opinion, Stephen King is the best novelist alive and King writes suspense - not horror. Every King novel is a master class on how to write the “why is this happening?” kind of suspense. If you haven’t time to read one of his giant books, Rent the first season of his TV show “Under the Dome.” You’ll get the idea.

We’ll talk about other kinds of suspense, and how to create them, next week.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Conflicting Conflicts

Last time I told you that giving your people more than one conflict helps the reader care about them.  Usually one is more personal than the other, although they can be related. 

In my plot class I talk about the secondary plot. In that context, let’s consider the movie Die Hard.  The big, obvious conflict is between a cop – McLane - who wants to save a group of hostages, and a terrorist whose true objective we don’t get to know until almost the end of the film. But note that McLane is also wrestling with a more personal conflict with his wife and we are not allowed to lose sight of that conflict throughout the film.  It’s easier for us to relate to that more personal objective. That helps us relate to the character.  Just like in Rocky (the example I used in a previous blog) I have never wanted to get punched by a heavyweight champ but HAVE wanted a woman to love and respect me, so that goal helps me relate to the character.

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  It might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis.  Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, of course he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but SHOULD he?  Yes, many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Remember, conflict is about character.  In a good novel, or movie for that matter, the protagonist will grow and change during the story. It is the conflict that makes that change. Overcoming each challenge forces our protagonist to show the strength, or determination, or quick wits we want to see in a heroes, and the challenge the conflicts present force him to change.

And since conflict makes a story, so you need more than just conflict between the primary protagonist and antagonist. There should be some sort of conflict in every scene. What if everyone in the scene agrees on what they want to do? Then they can still disagree on how to do it, or when.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Punch Up Your Writing with Conflict

Last week I talked about the importance of conflict in your fiction.  Conflict, as I stated then, is a function of your characters’ motivations. Your protagonist and antagonist must need to have or do things, and those things must be in conflict. These motivations can appear to be simple at the beginning of your story. The characters may even think so themselves at first.  But you, the writer, need to know the deep down reason why their opposing goals are important to these people before you begin to build your plot. If they don’t care deeply about these goals, your reader won’t care either.  And if only one is deeply invested, readers will wonder why the other one doesn’t just give up.

As an example, let’s consider Rocky – Sylvester Stallone’s first sold script. Yes, it’s a boxing movie, but how much of the film is actual fighting?  That’s good evidence that, as i said earlier, conflict is not violence. What does our protagonist, Rocky, really want in that film? He wants a shot at the title.  Keep that in mind, because his actual objective is important. But he also wants to prove he’s not a loser. And he wants his girl to respect him.

Our antagonist – Apollo – wants to prove once again that he is the best ever. There’s another lesson here: note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain.  He doesn’t have to be evil.  And I prefer stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist have worthy goals and are both absolutely determined to attain them.

In that context you can see that the plot of the movie is not about who’s the best boxer. It’s all about what Rocky is willing to do to attain his goals.  Each beat in the script is about Rocky facing some obstacle to achieving one of his goals. And really, he’s not particularly good at much of anything.  Consequently, each beat in the film contains a conflict that shows us how badly rocky wants these things he is driven to have. 

To help us care about your protagonist it is good for him or her to face more than one conflict. Next week I’ll talk about how to use multiple conflicts to raise the stakes and strengthen characterization.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When Conflict is a Good Thing

At the recent writing symposium put on by the Virginia Writers Club I discussed conflict and suspense – two elements i have to lean hard on to create crime fiction. Without conflict, you don't have a story. Conflict drives your story forward. And without suspense, readers have no reason to get to the end of your story. Suspense draws your readers thru the story to a satisfying conclusion.

You may think that the genres I write makes these elements easier to use.  In fact, they apply to all fiction worth reading. But to be clear:  conflict is not violence.  Suspense is not mystery.

Conflict is a function of character.  It’s about human motivations.

Suspense is a function of plot.  It’s about pacing.

Today I’ll talk a little about the use of conflict. Most good stories are driven by some external conflict.  The protagonist – the person we cheer for – needs to do something, go someplace, get something… and the antagonist – the person we boo – has opposing goals.

In a romance, it might be as simple as the leading lady wanting eternal love and the fellow she’s attracted to not wanting to be tied down. In a murder mystery the hero wants to find the killer, and the killer doesn’t want to be found. Most often in thrillers the villain’s objective kicks off the story, and the protagonist’s goal is to stop him from accomplishing that objective.  But one way or another, whatever the goals they are pursuing, they must be very important to both the protagonist and the antagonist – and you have to let your readers know that. 

So before you start plotting your story, decide what it is that your protagonist wants so badly.  Then figure out what all he or she is going to have to do to accomplish that goal.  That effort, after all, is the plot.

Next you need to attach an emotional context to that goal. In other words, why is it so important?  What is this person’s motivation to accomplish this goal? Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation. Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations. The need to prove something to yourself or to others is a fine motivation. “it’s my job” is not a very good motivation for your hero. Nor is “because I’m evil” a good motivation for your villain. Dig deeper.

Next week I’LL dig deeper into different kinds of story conflict and offer some good examples to follow. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Verb's the Word

I don’t even know if they still teach parts of speech in grade school anymore, but back in the dark ages when I attended public school it was required learning. Back then they taught me that sentences were all about the noun and the verb, with everything else cast as helpers. And sometimes, those other words don’t help at all. But as a person selecting books for publication, and getting my own work out there, I can say that one of the best ways to upgrade your writing is to upgrade your verbs.

Genre fiction is almost always about the action, one way or another, and that’s what verbs represent. The subject of each sentence, the main noun, is pretty much fixed. How you describe what that person, place or thing is doing is the difference between an interesting statement and a boring one.

The easiest and least interesting verbs to use are forms of the verb to be. You know… it is, you are, they were, etc. Those words simply denote existence, and are almost always the worst choice.

Likewise there are the most common terms for movement that have dozens of cooler synonyms. Like go, for instance.  Sure he went home, and maybe he walked home (better) but he could have run, skipped, raced, sauntered, wandered or found his way home in several other ways. He hit the ball but he could have slammed it, whacked it, clobbered it, smashed it… you get the idea.

Here’s a short paragraph I’ve stolen and re-written from a recent submission we received:

A crystal chandelier was overhead and below, the tile floor was black and white.  Fresh sunflowers sat on a tea table in the center and beyond it an oak banister went up a marble treaded staircase. She went from this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

Now that is perfectly serviceable prose, and delivers the message – it’s real nice here but she ran away anyway. BUT here’s what the author really wrote:

A crystal chandelier hung above my head and a black and white tiled floor flowed before me. A tea table in the center held fresh sunflowers and beyond it an oak banister led the way up a marble treaded staircase. From this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

I hope you can feel the difference. This is not purple prose, not flowery or wordy. But by choosing better verbs she has made the descriptive passage much more inviting.

So after you’ve laid down your first draft go back and stare at every verb to see if a stronger one is available. This will also help you to eliminate adverbs (helpers that don’t really help your writing) and even prompt you to occasionally slip in a better noun. SO, did she speak softly, or did she whisper? Did the light shine brightly or did it glimmer? And did you write that passage succinctly or did you compose some terse, pithy prose?