Which was awesome, by the way. I took a different approach this time around; rather than just attending panels, I remembered why I was really there, and so I took some more time to focus on pitching. What I said last post still holds true: I need to focus on sending my manuscript out. So I don't have *as* many notes to share this time around, and I'm okay with that.
The first set comes from a request I received from another attendee of the panel, who had to duck out to pitch his own novel. Could I send him my notes? I had to clean up these notes before sending them, so I thought it would be a great kick in the pants to get me to post them, too.
This class actually took place on the Sunday, the last day of the conference, but I love the subject matter. I found it very useful. Pacing is one of those things I know intuitively, but can't put into words very easily. And the tips here are great for doing what Donald Maass recommends, "Increase tension!"
A great rollercoaster ride is as much about the buildup of suspension as it is about the thrills. You want to know what’s going to happen next to the characters.
Suspense can be used in *any* type of fiction.
First rule: There are no rules.
- Writing is subjective. You may hate the book I love, you may love a book I can’t stand, and that’s okay.
- Everybody has a different writing style and method.
- But when you’re doing something that many others caution against doing, be sure you know why, and make sure it’s for the right reasons. (And make sure you do it well!)
- Take all pronoucncements you hear in a writing seminar with a grain of salt (e.g. “You must never outline” vs. “You must always outline”. Think about them critically and decide whether the guidance works for you. Will that criticism make the story better, or is something important to the story you’re telling?
- Think about how you tell a story verbally to someone you know – imagine the reader yawning, rolling their eyes, looking art their watch. Anything that would make you do these things, leave it out.
- Elmore Leonard: “try to eave out the parts that readers tend to skip”
- Exclamation points not necessary unless a character is shouting. Esp not in narrative. The words should convey the excitement of the action.
- Everything in the book should advance the plot. By knowing where you are (describing settings), who the characters are (show how characters react and the reader will get what kind of person they are), and by conjuring mystery about what will happen next.
What does “Fast Paced” mean?
- It’s about rhythm and momentum. Building momentum as the story goes.
- A thriller should be like a roller coaster: Build-up of suspense going up the first the first hill. The release and exhilaration fot ehfall. In a novel, the biggest hill should be the end of the ride.
- Give breathing room after an action scene. Allow the reader to build up adrenaline stores for the next action scene. Without the quiet scenes between the action scenes, it will be too much. Pull back and catch up – how does the action change the characters, change the plot, what do you need to know for the next action scene? Eg. in the video game Halo – the music gets fast-paced until the last bad guy is killed, then the music slows down. When he writes, he listens to movie soundtracks for this very reason. (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Inception)
- Vary the sentence structure of writing depending on the type of scene. Shorter sentences and paragraphs speed up the pace. Your eye flows down the page very quickly. You have the sense that you don’t have time for long sentences. They're trying to not get killed! They don’t have time to look at the pretty scenery. Long descriptions will seem inappropriate in a gun fight.
In media res
- In media res: In the middle of things.
- Start the story already in progress. Begin by presenting a scenario that invites questions from the reader.
- Start from character. A sentence that doesn’t orient you to character doesn’t drive the reader.
- Don’t begin with backstory, character descript, weather, or scene setting. Start with evoking a question.
- Dreams of waking up in bed are cliché. If you have them wake up, it has to be in a very weird situation. Unless it’s unique, it will be rejected. And dreams? You’re cheating the reader by giving them a sense that something didn’t really happen.
- Explain things later. Keep questions in readers mind.
- A prologue is fine as long as it directly affects the story that follows. Sometimes if the rest of the book answers what happened in the prologue, then it can work. But if it doesn’t relate to the rest of the bk, then it shouldn’t be there.
- Kurt Vonnegut: “Start as close to the end as possible.” The latest you can start the story and still make it work.
- Setting the rules. The reader should understand what’s at stake, who the players are, and what the consequences of the action will be. Suspense results from the reader understanding and caring about what happens to the characters. What are the consequences of the character not succeeding? Explain the rules to the reader. And give your readers a reason to care about the character. “To make them immediately sympathetic, make them kind to a puppy or kitten” You also want the reader to feel relief when the villain is defeated.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: Surprise is when a bomb blows up in a restaurant; suspense is knowing the ticking bomb is under the table when the character sits down for dinner. Surpise is shocking and the aftermath is tragic, but suspense does so much more.
- Seed your resolutions from the beginning. If your character offs the villain with a drill, don’t introduce it in the paragraph before. Find a place in the book with enough distance so that the reader forgets about it, but still thinks it’s clever when it’s ultimatey used. If you show a gun on the mantle in the first act, you gotta use it by the third act.
- Coincidence can kick off a story; believability is the key.
- Don’t use coincidence ot make things better for the protagonist. It’s a cheat, and readers will call you on it. Too convenient. Eg. rain when the house is on fire. If the gunman’s shot goes awry because the sun got in his eyes, it can’t be because the clouds suddenly parted; but it *is* okay if the protagonist used a hidden mirror to shine the sun in his eyes. But the mirror has to be there for a believable reason, too. You have to put a lot of thought into making the plots work. Not just because it’s convenient.
- Coincidence can make things worse for the protagonist – just don’t overuse it. Don’t have floods, tornadoes, Acts of God, and bad luck making things worse for the hero. Have the villain make things worse.
- Have them at the end of every chapter; it's a page-turning factor.
- Avoid direct foreshadowing. “Lttle did he know, but he had less than five minutes to live”. Be subtle. Don’t clobber the reader over the head with things. Use only info the character would know.
- Pose a new question to the reader. Doesn’t have to be life or deah; should pertain to plot or character, pref both. A new discovery.
- Don’t save a character’s life at the end of a chapter. Unless it unveils a new mystery or plot problem. And don’t save the life in the first sentence of the next chapter. We know readers will skip forward. Even better, switch to a different scene, something totally different.
- Try to end chapters on a strong note, particularly the last sentence or even last word. Especially viscerals.
Enter late, leave early
- The “Law and Order” technique
- Void showing mundane activities: opening doors, driving directions, etc. Just enough to make the reader understand what’s happening. Unless it’s germane to the plot. If it’s important.
- Skip traveling scenes. Have characters teleport to the next place. Unless exposition or curuicial events happen during the travel.
- Skip all the stuff we know happens: Sleeping, eating, bathroom breaks, and any other normal routine. Unless it’s important, leave it out! If it’s not routine, include it, but only if it relates to the plot.
- Flash forward to the next part of the story that’s important. Summarize anything pertinent that happens in between. But don't have whole chapters about it.
- Only include 10% of the research you do.
- Don’t info-dump. Dole it out a little at a time.
- Don’t have a character explaining something another character should already know. E.g. “As you know, Dr. Tindale, the liver produces enzymes critical to…” – Include a character who’s new to the situation or isn’t a subject matter expert. Explaining jargon doesn’t work unless that new character’s there, to make it as simple as possible to understand.
- Long exposition and paragraphs slow stories to a crawl. Limit those, and try to put as much of that in dialogue as you can.
- Leaning things is fun for readers, but balance it with story.
- White space makes for a fast read. When people talk about a page turner, they mean that literally, because there’s a lot of dialogue and it
- Use dialogue tags sparingly. But don’t confuse the reader about who is talking. Try to crate the characters such that you could tell who’s speaking just by their style, grammar, and syntax
- Avoid spelling out a drawl or patois – usually it’s confusing or distractiogn. Can be conveyed by word choices. Eg “Alabama Accent”. And a Southern person uses colloquialisms.
- Avoid dialogue tags other than “Said” and LEAVE OUT ADVERBS modifying “said”. You can use other words sometimes, especially when it’s odd – e.g. “I’m going to kill you,” she whispered.
- Avoid monologue-ing. Can put conflict and interjections into that. Long blocks of dialogue are daunting to a reader. Short sentences work. Unless the villain has an agenda for the monologue.
- Give the protagionist a high personal stake in the outcome. James Bond saving the country is okay, but in Casino Royale, he has a stake in the girl – and isn't just doing this because it’s his job. The best thillers have that personal reason, sometimes internal (eg a sense of justice because the hero’s family was killed and he doesn’t want other families killed; a characters being depending on how he solves a case)
- Life or death stakes are reliably gripping. But the reader has to care about the people who live or die. Without them feeling that stake, they don’t care. We can’t imagine ourselves as a hundred thousand people dying in a nearthquake, but
- The stakes should get progressively higher as the novel develops. Gets worse as the story goes on, more personal. Two steps forward, one step back. Apply frustration and conflict. They’re not fun inreal life, but they’re essential in storytelling. You don’t want to make it easy for your protagonist!
- Make it unlikely for your protagonist to survive or whin. Overwhelimg odds against achieving goasl. The protagonist’s flaw simede progress.
- Make your villain better than your protagonist in some ways. But give your villain flaws, some wof which he may not even not think are flaws. They may see them as advantages, even. (e.g. superconfidence – the theory they’ll awyas be right, something your protagonist can take advantage of to succeed.) Why are the henchmen willing to throw away their lives?
- Don’t make the obstacles occur by random chance. (e.g. a tornado randomly wiping out evidence).
- Use obstacles to raise the stakes. One flows from another.
The Ticking Clock
- Add a ticking clock, then shorten it.
- Countdowns can be extremely tense.
- Remind the reader of the timeline on a regular basis. But don’t hammer it down the reader's throat; work it in naturally.
- Orient the reader in time. Can be difficult in international thrillers with characters in multiple time zones. Try to make it natural. If one scene is happening in Vanouver and another in London, there’s a 9 hr time difference. Don’t make the reader waste time doing calculations.
- Keep track of the time.
- Make sure there’s enough time for the events and action. Can all the things happen in that time period? Have beta-readers double check.
- Don’t pause in the middle of the action. If someone’s shooting at you, you don’t think back to your childhood. You’re trying to figure out how not to die.
- Details, however, can seem more pronounced or intense. Memories of intense or traumatic events can be triggered by odors, so don’t forget the sense of smell, in addition to sight, sound, feel (texture of ground?), even taste (the bile at the back of your throat or the gunpowder residue landing on your tongue). Not just sight and sound.
- Make the action plausible. Make sure someone can’t keep shooting because they’re out of bullets. Factor in number of bullets and time to reload. Can build that into the suspense of the scene.
- Describe the setting beforehand so that the reader doesn’t get lost. So that it doesn’t need to be described during the action scene. Lay out in detail so it can be referenced when needed. Otherwise
- GET THE GUN INFO RIGHT. Readers hate it when you get it wrong. But does your character know about the gun? It’s more plausible if they don’t know, and you don’t describe it directly.
- Sometimes shock is fine.
Flashbacks and Dreams
- Use flashbacks with caution.
- Like prologues, they should be directly linked to the sotry.
- Keep them short.
- If you use dreams to foreshadow, don’t be heavy-handed with theme. Also, DON’T start a novel with a dream; it deceives the reader, who won’t trust you after that (Inception is a good example of an exception done well)
- When writing in third-person multi POV, change POV from chapter to chapter
- Works especially well when thera re two related but separate plot threads going simultaneously.
- BUT don’t switch within a scene – called “”Head-hopping” and can be confusing to a reader. Takes reader out of story.
- Try to limit POVs to only three or four main characters. You can add in minor characters’ POV, but do it sparingly.
- Don’t rush it. This is what readers have spent 400 pages waiting to see.
- No deus ex machina – the protagonist cannot be rescued, the protagonist has to use resourcefulness, skill, stamina, or willpower to defeart the enemy. That’s satisfying to the reader.
- Make the villain get an appropriate comeuppance. Make sure they know they didn’t succeed before they die.
- Answer all the big questions and resolve all the plot threads.
- Leave the reader wanting more.
Donald Maass uses lots of thriller novels for examples in Writing the Breakout Novel; Writers Digest has a lot of books, too; How to Write a Damned Good Thriller.
More notes to follow; in the meantime, you know what month this is, folks. NaNoWriMo! 'Scuze me while I go write 50K. ^__^