Author Archives: panhandleprofessionalwriters
I admit it. I like to be in control. My house, my family, my job… this list goes on. I like to pilot and navigate. That doesn’t always pan out for me in real life. Mostly because in real life, stuff happens. Family and friends get sick. Vacation plans get thwarted. The recipe doesn’t work. The gift isn’t as great a hit as we expect. Transmissions go out. That’s real life. I mope.
Even reading books or watching movies and television, I talk back to the page or screen or characters. “No! He can’t die! He still has to tell her how much he loves her!” And then he’s dead. And I mope.
Perhaps that is what I love most about being a writer. I get to be the creator and designer of a world where things go as I plan. That is not to say that life is perfect where I write, either. My characters often get their plans thwarted. (I really like that word.) There are storms, crashes, fires, disease. People still die. But the difference is that I know it’s going to happen. I’ve planned for it.
I will confess that occasionally, one of my characters might say something that is completely unexpected, sending the whole story into a hard right turn. Sometimes I’m left with a terrible decision whether to cut or keep. I may agonize for days. I may even mope about my choice. I may have to make a sacrifice to work it all out. But even then I am in control. It’s my world—my creation.
Writing is not only a way for me to feel in control, though it’s a big part of it. It’s also a way for me to remind myself that even though bad stuff happens—a lot—all the time—that is the very meat of what makes a story wonderful.
Once upon a time there was a princess that lived in a castle and had everything she ever wanted. Everything was beautiful and she lived happily ever after. The end.
It’s what we say we want, but of course that’s not what we want at all. Without dragons knights aren’t necessary. There are no warriors without battles. Without conflict there comes no strength.
Yes, I am a control freak. And yes, I am a writer. And being the latter helps me to deal with being the former. So in the midst of my moping, I write on.
by Kimberly Black
Remember our post about the six major conflicts that can be used when you write your novel? It’s now an infographic. Click the image below for full-size viewing and pin it or share it on Twitter or your other favourite social platform.
If you like this infographic, check out these other useful infographics on writing and publishing, and let us know if there are any others we should include in the comments below or on our Twitter or Facebook pages.
Infographics on Writing and Publishing
Novel Conclusions also has this interesting side-by-side comparison between eBooks and print, a long-standing point of debate between book lovers.
The Write Life has this question-filled infographic on the debate between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Think you’re ready to publish? Then first consider the hard truths about the process acknowledged here.
The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.
Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.
The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real.
In one of the earliest studies on personal story editing, researchers gathered 40 college freshman at Duke University who were struggling academically. Not only were they worried about grades, but they questioned whether they were intellectual equals to other students at their school.
The students were divided into intervention groups and control groups. Students in the intervention group were given information showing that it is common for students to struggle in their freshman year. They watched videos of junior and senior college students who talked about how their own grades had improved as they adjusted to college.
The goal was to prompt these students to edit their own narratives about college. Rather than thinking they weren’t cut out for college, they were encouraged to think that they just needed more time to adjust.
The intervention results, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, were startling. In the short term, the students who had undergone the story-changing intervention got better grades on a sample test. But the long-term results were the most impressive.
Students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grade-point averages and were less likely to drop out over the next year than the students who received no information. In the control group, which had received no advice about grades, 20 percent of the students had dropped out within a year. But in the intervention group, only 1 student — or just 5 percent — dropped out.
In another study, Stanford researchers focused on African-American students who were struggling to adjust to college. Some of the students were asked to create an essay or video talking about college life to be seen by future students. The study found that the students who took part in the writing or video received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.
Another writing study asked married couples to write about a conflict as a neutral observer. Among 120 couples, those who explored their problems through writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems.
“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,” said Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and lead author of the Duke study.
Dr. Wilson, whose book “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” was released in paperback this month, believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.
Much of the work on expressive writing has been led by James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. In one of his experiments, college students were asked to write for 15 minutes a day about an important personal issue or superficial topics. Afterward, the students who wrote about personal issues had fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center.
“The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go,” said Dr. Pennebaker. “I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”
At the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, life coaches ask clients to identify their goals, then to write about why they haven’t achieved those goals.
Once the clients have written their old stories, they are asked to reflect on them and edit the narratives to come up with a new, more honest assessment. While the institute doesn’t have long-term data, the intervention has produced strong anecdotal results.
In one example, a woman named Siri initially wrote in her “old story” that she wanted to improve her fitness, but as the primary breadwinner for her family she had to work long hours and already felt guilty about time spent away from her children.
With prompting, she eventually wrote a new story, based on the same facts but with a more honest assessment of why she doesn’t exercise. “The truth is,” she wrote, “I don’t like to exercise, and I don’t value my health enough. I use work and the kids to excuse my lack of fitness.”
Intrigued by the evidence that supports expressive writing, I decided to try it myself, with the help of Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute.
Like Siri, I have numerous explanations for why I don’t find time for exercise. But once I started writing down my thoughts, I began to discover that by shifting priorities, I am able to make time for exercise.
“When you get to that confrontation of truth with what matters to you, it creates the greatest opportunity for change,” Dr. Groppel said
I am often asked how much editing I do before I know a manuscript is ready to shop or publish. This question is tricky, because I know how paralyzing it can be to wonder if your work is ready for others’ eyes. There is always something that can be tweaked, reworked, reworded. I am blessed to have a critique partner and a close friend who happens to be a professional editor, but not everyone is so fortunate.
I have put together a check-list that I use, but I also rely on my friends’ advice and critique along the way. Another great tool that I use is a group of beta readers—volunteers willing to tell the truth about my manuscript before it goes to publishing. I ask them to provide feedback about content and clarity. Of course, anyone who finds typos or mistakes is asked to mark or correct them, but I find betas to be really great for finding inconsistencies or omissions.
My editing checklist consists of six stages. I advise other writers to go through these steps before sending their manuscripts to any publishing professional, like an agent or publisher. You want to look as professional as possible before it goes to their editors. I recommend for everyone to use a professional editor before self-publishing. One of the worst mistakes a writer can make is to put out a wonderful story that is filled with mistakes, inconsistencies, and confusing dialog. If a reader puts down your book because of these things, they probably won’t pick it up again.
Here is my checklist; I hope you find something in it to help you construct yours.
( ) First Draft—No Editing
Just get it all out there in writing.
Seriously, don’t even think about editing as you write.
( ) First Round—Content and Clarity
Make sure your manuscript says everything you think it says.
Read out loud, or have someone else read it aloud, to be sure.
Make sure your research is thorough and accurate, even for fiction.
Make sure your story is easy to understand.
Remember to include sensory imagery on every page.
( ) Second Round—Point of View (PoV)
Make sure each chapter is told from the appropriate character’s point of view.
If PoV changes from one character to another, make sure the shift is obvious.
( ) Third Round—Voice
Make sure each character uses his/her specific and unique voice.
If you read a quote out of context, would you know who was speaking?
( ) Fourth Round—Spelling, Grammar, and Vocabulary
Make sure that your narrative is grammatically correct.
Do NOT rely on spell-check and grammar-check to get it right. It won’t.
Dialog doesn’t require proper grammar, as long as it suits your character’s voice.
Are you using the most precise words for the situation?
Don’t send your reader to a dictionary more than twice in one book.
( ) Fifth Round—Format
Make sure your manuscript is formatted according to your publisher’s guidelines.
Double-check your publisher’s guidelines—really.
By Kimberly Black
visit KimBlackInk.com for more from Kimberly
Here’s a great blog post from one of our multi-pblished author members! Thanks, Dianne!
Most writers think that once your book is written, published, and the copyright is established that your concerns about copyrights are done. You don’t have to worry about it. That isn’t necessarily true in the multimedia world we live in today. In this the first of several posts about copyrights, I’d like to provide a few tips to writers that will help you keep track of what’s going on with your books after they are out there in the world.
First, set up Google alerts for the title of your book and your name or the name you use as the author of the book. Do this for each of your books. Have Google alerts notify you daily. If someone publishes your book title (which by the way you cannot restrict), then you can find out if they have just used the same title or infringed on your story line…
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Please welcome guest author Marcy McKay with her top secret for successful writing.
You finally muster the courage to let someone else read your work. A live human being, a person who is actually qualified to share his or her opinion on your writing (unlike your Great Aunt Edna who thinks everything you do is perfect).
This individual reads your piece and gives a vague response. “It’s good. I mean, I like it, but something is missing.”
It’s similar to when you try to duplicate that delicious pizza from your favorite restaurant on your own. It tastes okay, but something still seems off – just not quite right.
So, what’s that certain spice for your writing? The recipe for literary success?
The secret ingredient is you.
That’s right. In order to succeed at writing, you must be 100% yourself on the page. This is true for fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, whether you pursue publication or not.
Are You Missing from Your Writing?
However, the obvious point so many people miss is that the more you write, the better you become. You’ll excel faster, too.Writing is a process. It takes time, patience, and practice to excel at your craft. In fact, much more time, patience, and practice than we’d like. Sometimes, that means years. I wish I could say exactly how long it takes, but writing is an art, so it’s not defined. Everyone’s journey is different.
There are many reasons why you may be missing from your writing. They’re all variations of fear, but here are a few:
- Newbies: You’re still getting know yourself as a writer. Stop playing it safe. When you honor your dream to write, your words will thank you for it. They will be stronger, bolder, and more like the real you.
- Smarty Pants: You’re trying to sound more intelligent to impress others. Know this: you’re smart enough, right now. I’ve read amazing authors with little formal education, and I’ve read authors with MFAs in writing whose books were so bland I couldn’t finish them.
- Copycat: You’re trying too hard to imitate your favorite author. The world already has one Michael Cunningham, and he already won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. He’s amazing, but we don’t need another one. What readers need is you. Nobody else sees life exactly like you do (even if you have an identical twin).
Your Own Secret to Success
To be the best writer you can be—to be the real you—comes down to just one word: honesty.
If writing came with a recipe it would be one part you plus one part honesty. Mix well and enjoy success.
You, the real you, is simmering inside, waiting to be poured onto the page. Whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.
- Your Readers Will Like You More: Your writing needs to reflect your true self. It shows when you’re faking it on the page. If you don’t like or care about what you’re writing, your readers will know it. Passion, on the other hand, is contagious. We like people who keep it real.
- Your Soul Will Like You More: Life happens 24/7 all around us—personal problems, stresses at work, financial difficulties, health struggles. Words save us; they show us and others how we feel. In return, we need to bravely write about the good, the bad, and the ugly for either our imaginary characters or in the real world. We must be true to ourselves.
How to Bring More of You to the Page
There’s a saying, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
In order to achieve such intense vulnerability, you must do the following:
- Check your Gut: Our best writing comes from a deep place inside us, a place not all writers have discovered yet, but it’s there for us all. That’s where the truest, rawest, purest form of ourselves resides and where we’ll find the best writing.
- The Double T: If whatever you’re contemplating writing both thrills you and terrifies you, then you’re on the right track. It may frighten you to do so, but keep going. Otherwise, it’s not the right subject for you.
- Practice Means Progress: The more you write with such brutal honesty, the less you care about the outcome (did they like it or not?). You’ve honored yourself, and your readers will love you for it.
I hope this post helps you bring success to the page each and every time.
How honest are you in your writing? If you’re not, what do you need to do differently for greater success?
About the author: Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard and important. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her brand new and totally FREE eBook, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook!
In this post-modern world where everyone is encouraged to express their opinion to the universe—in 140 characters or less on occasion—we should all strive to be better at articulating our thoughts in writing.
I laugh along with everyone else at the cartoons about the Grammar Police and the proper use of “there, their, and they’re,” but why is it funny? When did poor grammar become a joke?
This morning I was interviewed about a fundraising event our writers’ group is hosting. It’s sad to think that we needed a fundraiser. Why would a non-profit organization that promotes better writing not be filled to the brim with members? You can’t throw a stick without hitting a blogger. Most people do some sort of writing every day in their job.
Whether one writes reports, articles, direct mail copy, blogs, marketing material, novels, instructional pieces, web copy, emails or even personal correspondence by hand (gasp!), it’s important to present oneself as an intelligent person. We rely on spell-check and grammar correcting programs too much.
Being part of a group that teaches when to use “further” instead of “farther” helps to make you a better writer. It makes for better reading, too. It’s not about looking like a smarty-pants. It’s about making the reader’s experience more enjoyable or more informative, without making them get out a red pen to correct you.
When a reader decides they know more than you, they stop reading. Period. Your article, blog, instructions, or story is no longer relevant to their needs.
If you’re a writer (and you certainly are) join a writers’ group. Take a class. Learn, grow, and improve. If you’re the one who already knows it all, then join a group to help others. Please. The universe needs you.
For information about my local writers’ organization, visit www.panhandleprowriters.org.
by Kimberly Black
Kimberly Black is an award-winning author of both fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. She is the President-Elect of Panhandle Professional Writers in the Texas Panhandle.
To learn more visit https://kimblackink.com.
41 WAYS TO CREATE AND HEIGHTEN SUSPENSE
According to top New York literary agent Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens), if a writer can maintain suspense throughout the story, many readers will keep reading even if the characters are undeveloped and the plot is weak. Clearly, suspense is a vital tool, yet most books on writing only mention it in passing and few devote much space to its creation and development.
I’ve written 27 novels, and some of them have been rather successful, but Lukeman’s observation came as a revelation. Accordingly, I’ve scoured my writing notes for the past quarter century, and the books and articles I’ve read on storytelling, in order to compile a comprehensive list of ways to create suspense. Here it is. My sources are listed at the end.
At its simplest, a story consists of a character (the hero) who wants something badly, and an adversary (the obstacle) who is trying equally hard to prevent the hero from getting what he wants. In each scene, the hero attacks his problem in a new way, the adversary fights back and the hero either fails or his initial success leads to a bigger problem.
Readers read to lose themselves in the story and, hopefully, to become the hero through identification (see Jerry Cleaver’s excellent book, Immediate Fiction). But before readers can identify with a character, he has to reveal his true inner self. Character is revealed most clearly through adversity and conflict, when the hero is desperate and has to give everything he has. When he’s forced to the limit, the reader will identify strongly with the hero. The reader’s hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where the hero’s goal or problem is resolved.
Suspense comes from readers’ anticipation of what’s going to happen next. Therefore, never tell your readers anything in advance when, by withholding it, you can increase suspense.
Following Brown, I’ve grouped the suspense creation tools into these categories:
- The viewpoint characters;
- The problems these characters are facing;
- The plot of the story;
- The structure of the story.
For simplicity I refer to ‘the character’ or ‘the hero’, though many stories will have a number of viewpoint characters and more than one hero.
For maximum suspense, you should not use any old character. Readers are only going to worry about, and identify with, characters they care about – ones who are both sympathetic and interesting.
- Sympathetic characters are (after Brown):
- In trouble, or suffering in some way;
- Underdogs. It’s difficult to empathise with a hero who is strong, powerful and has everything going for him, but everyone cheers when the underdog wins;
- Vulnerable, ie they can be killed, trapped, enslaved, destroyed politically or professionally, or ruined financially or socially. Vulnerability can come from the character’s own physical, mental or emotional shortcomings and conflicts as well as from the machinations of the adversary; and
- Deserving because of their positive character traits (optimism, courage, steadfastness, selflessness, compassion etc). A character can be in trouble, an underdog and vulnerable, but if he’s also lazy, selfish or a whining liar readers won’t identify with him or care what happens to him, and his troubles will create little suspense. This doesn’t mean the character can’t be a villain. If he’s acting for the best of reasons and the good outweighs the bad, readers will identify with him.
- Characters are likely to be interesting if (see Brown for a detailed analysis) they’re important, unusual or extraordinary. One reason we love to read about such characters is wish-fulfilment – living our lives through the story, feeling the characters’ hopes and fears, and being awed by their achievements. Characters may be more interesting if they’re:
- Powerful – because of noble birth, wealth, high office, rank or position, intelligence or strength;
- Naturally gifted or highly skilled at something important or useful;
- Unusual (in appearance, a rare ability or an amazing life experience), extraordinary, strange, eccentric or downright weird;
- Physically attractive, funny, dangerous or mysterious; or
- Surprising (they don’t fit the stereotype of their character type).
Your characters should also be as different as possible, since they will often be working together. Having highly contrasting characters maintains reader interest, multiplies the potential for conflict with the hero and will suggest many new subplot possibilities.
To build suspense through your characters:
- They must have goals.
- Common goals are: to survive, escape, win the contest or battle, become the leader, achieve their destiny, master the art, free the slaves or change the world;
- The moment your hero forms a goal, readers will hope she achieves it – and worry about what will happen if she doesn’t;
- Sometimes the goal (eg to survive or escape) will only appear after the character is confronted with the problem (being stalked by a killer, trapped in a bushfire).
- A strong hero needs a strong opponent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a villain. It can be a good person who strongly disagrees with the hero, a force of nature (flood, forest fire, epidemic), a beast or alien, or an uncaring society. But when it is a villain:
- He should be at least as strong as the hero, and preferably stronger. You can’t make a strong story when the hero’s opponent is weak;
- Evil villains are a cliché, and pure evil is both boring and predictable, so make your villain human. Reveal his admirable side, make his motivations clear, show why the bad things he does make perfect sense to him, and you’ll create a far more chilling antagonist;
- If the villain is largely in the background, strengthen him by revealing how much and why everyone fears him. Show his power growing via his victories, one after another;
- Give him advantages the hero lacks, fanatical supporters, and the power to lure away the hero’s allies.
- Tailor your characters to maximise suspense (for details, see Lukeman and the other refs):
- A cautious hero won’t go down the crumbling mine shaft, but an impulsive or reckless hero will plunge in. A coward won’t jump into the sea to rescue drowning passengers, a brave man will do so instinctively. If the hero has a phobia, such as a fear of rodents, send her into a ruin full of rats;
- Often the hero’s biggest limitation will be himself. Does he have the strength of will to confront the woman who betrayed him, or will he keep putting put it off? Is he plagued by self-doubt, or a cock-eyed optimist who believes things will come right in the end despite all evidence to the contrary?
- Does the hero have a destiny, eg to become the next lord, president of the company, or to be the catalyst for revolution? Is this destiny foretold in the story, or is it something he’s known since birth? Is it a positive destiny, an unbearable burden or a dark and dangerous threat? Will he achieve it, or fail? And either way, what are the consequences to him and to others?
- Create loose cannon characters. No one knows what they’ll do next and their unpredictability heightens suspense. Will the reformed drunk crack under pressure and start drinking again? Will the self-effacing heroine snap when pushed too far, and explode?
- Take away the hero’s ability to defend herself (or others) and you create intense suspense:
- She’s being stalked in the dark, but drops her only weapon and can’t find it; she’s injured and can’t escape her enemy; her foot is trapped in a crack and she can’t get it out; or she’s paralysed by terror or self-doubt;
- She sees her friend heading across the rotten bridge but is too far away to warn her; she rides to the rescue of an ally, knowing she’s going to arrive too late;
- He fails under pressure – he could save the day with a magic spell but forgets the words, or gets them wrong with disastrous consequences;
- His efforts are in vain – his son is suicidally depressed and he can’t get through to him;
- She believes that her fate (or a friend’s, or the country’s) is fixed by destiny and nothing can change it.
- Use rapidly changing emotions to build suspense. By showing the hero’s emotions changing rapidly in response to some threat or confrontation you can build suspense to a crescendo that will bring your readers to the edge of their seats, eg:
- Vague unease becomes fear becomes terror becomes shrieking hysteria;
- Irritation becomes annoyance becomes anger becomes murderous rage.
- Create anticipation and expectation.
- The more your hero dwells on or worries about some forthcoming event (good or bad) the more suspenseful it will be when the event is about to occur – a shy girl fretting about her wedding night; a young recruit marching to battle, sick with fear;
- Have the hero make a complicated plan and be rashly confident that it will succeed. This will worry your readers because they know it’s going to go wrong;
- Build up the hero’s anticipation (of winning the contest, gaining the prize, getting the girl) into expectation. Then, when he fails, the blow will be bitter. He hasn’t been beaten by the failure, but by his defeated expectation.
- Employ romantic and sexual tension. For variety or to further the plot, action-related suspense can be alternated with suspense arising from romantic or sexual tension between characters. Heighten suspense by:
- Creating barriers to the relationship – love between enemies, between a human and an alien, a lover with a dark past or terrible secret;
- Or by using obstacles to keep the lovers apart.
- Use micro-tension – the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in suspense over what’ll happen in the next minute. (See Don Maass’s terrific book The Fire in Fiction for details). Micro-tension comes from the ’emotional friction’ between characters as they try to defeat each other. The characters aren’t necessarily enemies, though. There should be tension between any two characters, whether they are opponents, servants, friends, allies or lovers. There should also be tension within the character due to inner conflicts.
- In dialogue, show: the hero’s doubt or disbelief about what the other character is saying; the disagreement about goals or plans; the disdain, dislike, contempt or concealed hatred; the power struggles, and ego and personality clashes; bring out inner conflicts in what each character says and does;
- Often action can be lacking in tension because we’ve seen it a thousand times before – there are only so many ways two people can have a sword fight. To make action suspenseful, get inside the head of the hero to show his conflicting feelings and emotions during the struggle. Then, break the action cliché by showing subtle visual details that give the reader a clear and vivid picture of this particular scene rather than any generic action scene;
- Use similar techniques when writing sex or violence. Show the key moments with a handful of striking visual images. Bring out the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions at each moment, focusing on subtle emotions rather than the obvious ones such as (in sex scenes) passion, lust or tenderness;
- When the character is thinking or emoting, create suspense by (a) cutting restated thoughts, feelings & emotions and (b) making thoughts and emotions realistic. For instance, the hero may be outwardly happy, but is concealing or fighting some niggling worry. Or struggling with an inner conflict (justice versus vengeance, duty to an bad leader vs personal honour);
- In descriptive passages and quiet moments, show little details that make the setting vividly real and establish the mood of the place. Describe the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions, focusing on subtle emotions rather than obvious ones.
The story begins when your character confronts a problem she has to solve, or forms a goal she’s determined to achieve. Problems can be of three kinds: a danger, a want or lack, or a puzzle or mystery. Dangers and lacks arouse suspense because the reader hopes the character will solve her problem, yet fears the consequences if she fails. Puzzles and mysteries create suspense through curiosity – the reader wants to know the answer.
- Put your characters (or their friends or allies) in danger (for details see the references, especially Brown, Lyon and Lukeman).
- Dangers can be: physical (a threat to life, health or vital functions such as eyesight, mobility or intellect); sexual (assault, pregnancy, disease); psychological (abuse, bullying, brainwashing); emotional; or moral (being led into crime, corruption or depravity);
- Dangers can also threaten: the character’s relationships (love, friendship, family, clan, group or society); her profession, trade, career or art; her property, possessions or prospects; her sanity; her freedom;
- Alternatively, your character could be a danger to others (he’s violent, a rapist, a psychopath or just reckless), or to himself (depressed, suicidal or reckless);
- Expose the hero to his darkest fear – if he’s claustrophobic, trap him in a lift or a dungeon. Alternatively, make the imaginary seem vividly real (eg someone who is paranoid or psychotic).
- Give your character a want or lack that she’s desperate to fulfil.
- To find love or romance, support or friendship;
- To escape from a blighted community or life;
- To master a skill, disciple or art, or realise a dream.
- Pose a mystery or puzzle. In some kinds of stories, particularly crime and mystery, suspense mainly comes from the puzzle the author has set, and readers’ curiosity about how the hero will solve it and what the answer is (see (26 and (27)).
- Force the hero to face the problem. Either:
- She has no choice because she can’t get away. She’s trapped in a locked building, slave camp, spacecraft or bureaucratic maze;
- She has a choice but walking away would violate her own moral or ethical code. Eg, she’s on the run but sees a child in danger and has to help, no matter the risk to herself;
- He has a choice but walking away would violate his professional duty to act – a munitions expert who has to defuse a bomb; a priest who must exorcise a demon;
- He initially refuses but is talked (or talks himself) into it.
- Raise the stakes.
- You can either raise the prize for succeeding, or raise the price of failure – or, preferably, both at the same time;
- These consequences can either apply to the hero, to people he cares for, or those he has a duty to (eg a doctor looking after a critically ill patient);
- Remember that both the prize and the price are relative – if the emperor wins or loses a skirmish it may be trivial, whereas winning or losing his first battle will change the life of a young lieutenant.
- Make the problem more difficult to solve.
- Increase the likelihood that the character will lose, then show what the specific personal consequences will be;
- Threats to the viewpoint character and his friends and family will arouse far more reader anxiety, and create more suspense, than problems facing people he doesn’t know, or people in another province or country.
- Shorten the deadline.
- Constantly remind your hero of the time limit;
- Then cut it in half;
- Slow down key scenes to heighten suspense. Show them in greater than normal detail to bring readers right into the moment.
- Break reader expectations.
- Readers are constantly guessing what’s going to happen next, based on stories they’ve read before, but if they know what’s going to happen, suspense dies;
- Analyse the hero’s problem and come up with unusual twists and reversals, new problems and difficult conflicts that will confound reader expectations of what’s going to happen.
Plot is made up of the hero’s successive actions get what he wants (ie to solve the story problem) and the opponent’s corresponding actions to stop him. To build suspense to an explosive pitch at the climax of the story, each new action by the hero needs to be blocked by his opponent, and either fails or leads to an even bigger problem – until the climactic scene where the story problem is finally resolved one way or another.
- Make the story problem clear. A surprising number of manuscripts fail to set out either:
- What the hero’s real problem or goal is;
- Or the nature of the obstacle or antagonist that’s trying to stop him achieving this goal;
- Or only do so many pages into the story.
The real story doesn’t begin until the hero formulates a goal and takes action to get it (see Cleaver, Immediate Fiction). Until this happens there can be little suspense or story interest, so make the hero’s goal clear as early as possible.
- Put the hero at a disadvantage. Examples:
- At the beginning, the hero may not know how to solve her problem; or may not understand what the real problem is (eg, she’s mistaken about her real enemy);
- She lacks the skills to solve her problem (eg needs magic but doesn’t have any; has a gift for magic but doesn’t know how to use it);
- She has critical personality flaws, eg her obsession with gaining justice for her murdered mother blinds her to vital friendships; his violent past leaves him paralysed with guilt; his racism leads him to refuse the aid of the one person who can help him;
- She’s handicapped physically, mentally, emotionally
- Increase the pressure in unpredictable ways (for details, see the references, especially Lyon):
- Test the hero’s abilities to breaking point. Take away her friends and supporters, undermine her assets and any options she’s relying on, block her escape routes, cut the deadline in half, devalue her strongest beliefs or the things she most cares about. Anything that can go wrong, should go wrong – not just for her, but for everyone;
- Give her more simultaneous problems than anyone can handle, so she makes damaging mistakes. Distract her with an unexpected sexual attraction. Have disagreements escalate out of control. Give her an impossible dilemma that will trouble her for ages.;
- Thwart her at every turn. If she’s relying on aid, information or some object or talisman, have it fail to appear, or be stolen, lost or destroyed when it’s almost within her grasp. If she has a vital talent or skill, rob her of the ability to use it when she needs it most;
- Arouse suspicion about some of her friends or allies, or use dramatic irony (see (23), below) to make readers suspect them even if the hero does not. Have a trusted ally betray her, desert her or go over to the enemy;
- Foreshadow her fate or peril, to the audience and other characters even if not to herself. Use mysterious documents or eerie settings or symbols to create uneasiness, or show that things are not as they seem;
- Have the hero lose contact with her mentor; injure the hero; use forces of nature (weather, fire, flood, difficult terrain) to block her;
- Plant red herrings. Have the hero jump to false conclusions that lead her in the wrong direction or to make disastrous mistakes, or to fall into a trap. Have failures caused by misunderstandings or poor communication;
- Set the action within some greater conflict (cultural renaissance, political drama, social upheaval, war, religious persecution) or tailor social institutions to make everything more difficult (paranoid government, martial law, police state, secret society);
- Create an emotional time bomb (something vitally important to the hero) then, at some critical time, have it destroyed or lost;
- Lull the hero (and readers) into a false sense of security by having things go too well for a scene or two, then create a disaster;
- Show the hero thinking over past events and seeing something she missed that’s worrying or ominous. Or, when it’s too late, coming to a dreadful realisation.
- Create conflict with everyone and everything.
- With the opponent – see (4) above;
- With family, friends and allies – see (10) above;
- With people the hero meets on the way – they may be hostile, unreliable, treacherous, incompetent or give false or incorrect information;
- With the setting (see 25) below, including landscape, weather, culture, politics, bureaucracy, religion;
- Inner conflict – see (22) below.
- Create inner conflicts and dilemmas.
- Give the hero impossible challenges or agonising choices that test his courage, skill & moral fibre;
- Force a good man to make invidious choices, eg between informing on his corrupt mother or betraying his country;
- A girl sees two friends in danger and can only save one. How does she decide whom to save and whom to let die?
- Make the hero choose between strongly held ideals (duty/honour, family/justice). Force a pacifist to fight. Require a reformed drunk to drink.
- Use dramatic irony (ie, your readers know something vital that the characters aren’t aware of):
- The heroine is enjoying a glass of wine by the fire, unaware that the killer is looking in through the window. She’s not anxious, but readers are on the edge of their seats;
- The hero doesn’t realise that he’s got things disastrously wrong, but it’s obvious to the reader (and perhaps to other characters, too);
- Write some scenes from the villain’s viewpoint so readers can worry about the trap closing on the unsuspecting hero;
- A character bears vital or troubling news but events conspire to delay (or prevent) its delivery to those who need to know.
- Use the unknown to create anxiety.
- Set a scene where some terrible disaster or tragedy once occurred. The place need not necessarily be dangerous, but fear of the unknown or the past will make it seem so;
- Arouse fear of some danger the character has to face – this could be a real-life danger (fighting a monster, swimming a flooded river) or an uncanny one (spending the night in a ghost-ridden graveyard);
- Or an everyday ordeal (a daunting interview; meeting the girlfriend’s parents; sitting a difficult exam).
- Put your hero in a perilous place. Analyse your scene settings and work out how you can change them to heighten tension:
- Move the scene to a dangerous or unpredictable place. Instead of a park, use a derelict factory, a minefield or a sinking ship;
- Make an everyday place seem dangerous, eg the hero must race across a rugged landscape in a fog;
- Change the scene from day to night, good weather to bad, peace to riot or war, or put the hero in the middle of a plague epidemic.
- Create mysteries. As noted above, mysteries and puzzles create suspense both because the hero has to work them out and because the reader wants to know the answer.
- How did the disaster occur?
- How did a good man (or company, or nation) take this fatal step into crime, addiction, insanity or war?
- Is this document true, or a despicable lie?
- What do these clues mean?
- Why is this device or talisman here and how is it
- Design puzzles. These can either be intellectual or physical:
- Intellectual – riddles, conundrums, paradoxes, illusions etc;
- Physical – how do I get in or out? Locked room mysteries. Puzzles requiring dexterity.
- Leave issues and crises unresolved (especially at chapter or scene endings) and tension will rise because readers long for the resolution. Uncertainty and anticipation are interlinked and create suspense:
- Uncertainty can be heightened with unexpected twists, sudden reversals and shocking disasters;
- Foster anticipation by having the characters set out their goals, then by using omens, portents and foreshadowing to arouse unease about the goals being met;
- Within scenes, heighten reader anticipation by using distractions and interruptions to delay longed-for meetings, confrontations, resolution of an important event, delivery of vital news etc.
- Use reversals. Reversals of the expected are used to break expectations, clichés and repetition.
- Lead your readers in a particular direction in order to create expectations about the outcome, then throw in a reversal that breaks the expectation. This heightens readers’ anticipation, and thus suspense, because they have no idea what’s going to happen now.
- Scour your story for clichéd character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions, then use reversals where appropriate to break the cliché.
- Do the same where you find repetition of character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions.
- Secrets. The existence of a secret creates suspense because readers want to know the answer:
- Rarely, a big secret can form the suspense backbone for a whole novel, such as: Who was the traitor? What happened to the money? The secret has to be developed throughout the story by drip-feeding clues that heighten the secret rather than revealing it;
- Smaller secrets can be used to heighten suspense within scenes, eg the Hogwarts letter withheld from Harry Potter in the first book of the series, and the mysterious event (the Triwizard Tournament) which people keep alluding to early in the fourth book.
- Use subtext (see Lyon for details). Subtext is ‘everything hidden from the awareness or observation of non-viewpoint characters’. Subtext based on rising tension will create suspense. Some sources are:
- The hero’s physical state, feelings and emotions: eg, tears forming, sexual attraction or lust, concealed hatred, a need to throw up;
- Hidden agendas, ie the character’s private thoughts, intentions and plans;
- In the natural environment: a red glow over the forest, the ground shaking, the call of a wild beast;
- In the built environment: a patch of oil on the stair, a pram on the edge of the railway platform;
- Other characters’ behaviour or body language: man sharpening a dagger, child playing near a cliff edge.
- Turn a dramatic event into a question. Beware of having the event completely answer a question or resolve a problem, as this undercuts suspense. Instead, have the event raise more questions, which draws out the suspense:
- For small events, draw out the answer over a few sentences or paragraphs. Eg, policeman knocks on the door late at night. Instead of revealing upfront that the man’s wife is dead, draw out the mystery about how the crash occurred and what’s happened to her;
- For major events, the resolution can be drawn out over pages or even chapters;
- Scour the story for questions that deflate suspense because they’re answered too soon, and draw out the answer.
- Make it worse.
- There’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, and you should take every opportunity to do so. But why would you want to?
- Because character is revealed not in good times but in adversity. The worse you can make it for the hero, the more his true character will be revealed by what he does, the more the reader will worry about him and the greater the suspense.
Readers read to identify with the characters and live their stories, suffering the ordeals the characters go through, worrying about them and dreading that they’ll fail to achieve their goals, yet hoping and praying that they’ll succeed. At the end, readers want to see the characters resolve their problems, and long for that tidal wave of relief when all the dramatic tension and suspense built up through the story is finally released. To build suspense, the novel needs careful structuring to:
- Clearly present the hero and his goal to the reader in the beginning;
- Portray the hero’s increasingly difficult struggle to defeat the adversary and achieve the goal;
- End scenes and chapters in ways that create reader uncertainty and anticipation (see (28) above; and
- Show how the hero achieves his goal (or not) at the climax, then satisfyingly release all the built-up tension.
- Structure the beginning to create suspense (see Brown for details):
- Create a hero who is both sympathetic and interesting (see (1) and (2) above);
- Set out the story problem (ie the hero’s goal) clearly, and why he must pursue this goal;
- Reveal the obstacle (the adversary or force that’s trying to prevent the hero from achieving his goal);
- Twist both the characters and the goal to break stereotypes, freshen the story and surprise the reader.
- Tailor the hero’s actions to heighten suspense: In each scene, the hero faces some problem related to her goal. The actions she takes to solve the problem should either:
- Partially succeed, though worryingly (she finds a clue to the murder, but following it will lead her into greater danger);
- Succeed but lead to a bigger problem (he kills the giant spider but now another hundred are hunting him); or
- Fail and make the problem worse (she breaks into the enemy’s fortress to steal the documents, but they’re not there and now she’s trapped).
- Vary the hero’s fortunes to maintain and heighten suspense throughout the story.
- If every scene runs at fever pitch and ends disastrously, the law of diminishing returns sets in – the reader becomes desensitised to the drama, and suspense dies;
- Instead, alternate tense action or drama scenes with calmer ones, and end a few scenes with the hero succeeding, and with moments of peace, happiness or hope. Variety in endings maintains suspense because the reader knows the success is only temporary; the opponent will never give up trying to defeat the hero;
- To heighten suspense, make the hero’s failures progressively worse, and his dark moments bleaker, towards the climax.
- Sequence the antagonist’s reactions to progressively heighten the hero’s troubles.
- Look at each scene from the antagonist’s point of view and ask how he can make things worse for the hero. What action will cause the hero the most trouble, and what’s the worst time it can occur?
- To heighten suspense, make these troubles progressively worse towards the climax, until it seems impossible that the hero can win.
- Heighten critical scenes. Identify the key events in the story (those moments of intense drama that are also turning points) because they need to be carefully set up and treated differently (see Lyon). Key events can be positive (love scenes, celebrations at war’s end, the award of prizes or honours) or crises (murders, defeat in battle, guilty verdicts, terrible realisations). Build suspense by:
- Foreshadowing the coming event to raise worrying questions and create reader anticipation. This can be done via characters thinking about or debating the possibility (eg of war), and making plans and preparations for the worst, as well as by omens, foretellings, signs and symbols;
- Writing a small scene or moment which hints at the coming critical scene (a burning house hints at the violence and ruin of war); a shouting match foreshadows the murder to come;
- Then a reversal – a moment that’s the opposite of the coming critical scene. Eg, in a trial, the overconfident defence lawyer has a lavish lunch with friends before returning to hear a shattering guilty verdict; immediately before the joyous wedding, the couple have a furious argument; the soldier relaxes with his family before going to bloody war. This contrast makes the critical scene far more powerful;
- In the critical scene, use all the dramatic techniques at your disposal to raise the scene to a higher peak of suspense than anything that has gone before;
- Afterwards, make sure the hero emotes about all that has happened, reviews how the event has made his problems worse, and reformulates his plans.
- Climax, Resolution and Endings.
- Vary your scene endings to maximise suspense. Some scenes should end at moments of high drama, many with unanswered questions, several with shocking twists, a few with emotional completion, and some with no more than a wry observation or pithy phrase.
- The climax of the story, where the greatest obstacle is overcome and the hero’s story problem is finally resolved one way or another, is the biggest of all the critical scenes and must coincide with the highest point of tension and suspense.
- If the greatest tension occurs in a scene before the climax, the ending of the story will be anticlimactic and the reader will feel let down.
- If the story’s resolution is weak, contrived, over too quickly or in any other way fails to match the build-up of suspense to the climax, readers will be bitterly disappointed;
- In most novels, all the key questions will be answered by the end, and the resolution provides a sense of completion plus the blissful release from suspense that readers are waiting for. Some stories may end with a dilemma, however – the main story has been resolved but there’s still a question raised in the reader’s mind about what choice the hero will make.
- Stories which are part of a series should resolve most of the story questions at the end, but the overarching series question (eg will Harry Potter defeat Lord Voldemort) remains and creates ongoing suspense until the series ends.
- In editing.
- Review the story scene by scene, rate each scene out of 10 for its level of suspense, then plot the sequence of suspense ratings. Ideally the graph should be a zigzagging line rising progressively to the climax of the story, then falling away in the resolution.
- Does the story have flat periods with little suspense? Insufficient breaks from high suspense? The highest suspense occurring before the climax? Suspenseful moments that are too quickly resolved? Critical scenes where the suspense is too low, too brief or too similar to other scenes? A powerful climax ruined by a weak resolution? Work out how to fix these problems.
- Common scene problems that lower suspense include: lack of a clear goal for the scene; stakes too low; lack of an obstacle or weak obstacle; too little conflict; too much thought or talk and not enough action; too much action and not enough thought, emotion or reflection; no twist or disaster at the end (see Lyon for a detailed analysis).
- Analyse your characters (see (2) above). Can you modify or change certain character traits to vary the kinds of suspense in the story, and to heighten it in key scenes?
Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.
Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.
John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article). http://www.sfwa.org/2010/12/key-conditions-for-suspense/ An excellent series of articles.
Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.
Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.
Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.
Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.
Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.
Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.
Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.
About me: I’m an Australian marine scientist. I’ve written 27 novels, including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence, an eco-thriller trilogy about catastrophic climate change, Human Rites, and 12 books for children, most recently the Grim and Grimmer humorous adventure fantasy series.
My next epic fantasy novel is Vengeance, Book 1 of The Tainted Realm, to be published by Orbit Books in Australia in November 2011, and in the US and UK in April 2012.
For more on my books, including covers, blurbs, reviews and the first chapters of all of my novels and my 2 novellas, see my site: http://www.ian-irvine.com/
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