Suspense – what keeps the pages turning

All stories involve suspense. In a Romance, it is whether the girl and guy will make the relationship work, in a quest, will the heroes make it, and who will live or die? In a mystery, well it’s obvious.

One way to create suspense is a time limit. The problem must be solved within a certain time or the world will end. Or they may wish it had. That puts pressure on the character to make choices and it makes the wrong choices more poignant. It is important for you character to experience failure because that makes it believable that they might not succeed. The previous failure adds to the suspense of this attempt. Think of a pole vaulter trying for a world record. People are much more intent if they’ve already missed twice. Do not artificially try to pump up the suspense. Having a character debate at ten seconds on the clock whether to cut the red or the blue wire is a sure fire way to lose your reader. If I were a mad bomber I’d make all my wires hot pink and it wouldn’t matter. The colour is not important, it is the path the wire takes. The same goes for last minute remedies from poison etc.

Another way to create suspense is through secrets. One character knows more that the other, or the reader knows more than the character.  The secret needs to be something that will significantly change the dynamics of the plot. Hating pizza is one thing, Admitting that you’re a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy is quite a different thing. The more difference between what some people know and what others do will build suspense. One note about secrets. They have to significant to the plot. If you have a spy novel and the big secret is that one of the characters is a double agent, at some point it needs to come out and create a huge mess. If it doesn’t your reader will wonder why you bothered.

What is less obvious but even more important is the difference between what the character thinks they want, and what they will want at the end of the book. Those two should almost never be the same thing. Usually even the reader won’t know what the end might be until close to the conclusion though they will know that the character is getting it wrong.. That is what keeps the pages turning. It is this dissonance that fascinates the reader. If you balance it right you will have them up all night to find out what your character learns.

Suspense is about both character and plot. You need to pace your plot so that suspense builds gradually and occasionally lessens. Even the most intense thriller needs some relief. But all that careful plotting won’t matter if the reader isn’t cheering the character on and hoping that they figure out the puzzle before it is too late.

Suspense is also created when what the reader knows is different than what the characters know. If there is a bomb under the table (wired all in hot pink) the reader knows it’s there because they saw the colour blind bomber put it there. But the characters don’t know it’s there. They bumble about pouring tea, dropping spoons, getting close to discovering the bomb until the reader wants to shout at them. When it is discovered, the tension is already at a high enough point you don’t need artificial suspense to add to it. This dichotomy between the reader’s knowledge and the characters is not only about individual scenes, but can carry through the entire story.

Like everything else, suspense needs to serve the story. If the object of suspense doesn’t matter in the end, there is no pay off and the reader will be disappointed. If you don’t work on building up the tension around an object, it won’t carry the weight it needs at the climax.

Use suspense and tension to create an ebb and flow in the story. Edge of your seat moments and relaxed interludes. Also use it to reveal character and the inhabitants of your story work through the plot. Your reader will thank you for it.

Head Hopping and POV

The person that you write your story in will have a big effect on your Point of View. Person is whether you tell the story as if it were happening to you – I pulled up my gun and yelled “This is a stick up!” The advantage of first person is the immediacy. The reader is right there with the character and knows everything the character knows. Though sometimes the narrator is untrustworthy and withholds information. The challenge with first person is the character can’t read minds or know what is going on in the next county, so you have to use a lot of dialogue and other tricks to show the story in its fullest to the reader. While there are a few first person novels that switch POV to another first person narrator, they are few and far between. The ones that do it well are even fewer. If you are going to change into a different first person POV, you not only have to change the POV, but you need to change the voice of the narrator so it doesn’t read like one character with two different names. It is possible to mix first person and third person, but again, voice is essential as is making clear whose head the reader is inhabiting.

Third person is when we sit back a bit further and use ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’ – Jim Bob ran into the bank waving his gun and yelled. “This is a stick up!” You have to work a little harder with third person to achieve immediacy because the reader is at greater distance from the character. The advantage is that you have a wider field of view. You can have the bank guard pull his gun to shoot Jim Bob in the back, and Jim Bob doesn’t know it. You can’t do that in first person.

There are a range of options in third person stories. You can stay pretty close to ol’ Jim Bob and just describe the action in the bank. Or you can pull back and watch the bank robbery in progress, but also comment on the action further away. The danger is that you lose even more connection with your character. There is also a style that is even further back called the omniscient narrator. In that case the narrator knows everything including what is going on in other people’s heads. Omni POV is the subject of great debates on critiquing boards everywhere. Done well, it is transparent as any other POV, done badly and it keeps the reader from engaging in the story.

There is no right POV to write in. You will use what is comfortable, or what your story demands.

So now we’ve defined the different persons a story can be written in, and some of the varieties of POV. Let’s look at that bank robbery and see what head hopping does.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention.

Frank was cleaning his nails when the idiot ran into the bank yelling about a stick up. Somebody high on something. He didn’t even have a gun. Then the idiot pulled his gun and blew a hole in the ceiling. Plaster dust wafted down on the screaming customers. Frank pulled his gun and took careful aim at the bank robber’s back before pulling the trigger.

Marion was counting hundred dollar bills for Mr. Smythe when she heard a shot, but she felt a sharp pain in her chest before she could push the alarm. Her legs gave way and she fell to the floor.

Mr. Smythe didn’t know what to do. Was the money on the counter still the bank’s, and thus insured, or was it his and not covered? He felt the hot steel of a gun barrel poke the back of his neck and decided that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.

Jim Bob grabbed the rich dude and spun him around to be a shield between him and the bank guard. He fired two shots at the guard.

Mr. Smythe’s ears rang. He might be permanently deaf from the noise.

Frank forced his shaking hand to be still and fired back.

Dang it, Mr. Smythe thought, that’s going to ruin my suit. Then he fell dead to the floor.

Jim Bob put both hands on his gun and emptied it at the blasted guard.

Frank knelt on the floor and steadied his hands before emptying his gun at the robber.

“Freeze,” shouted Sheriff Jones as he ran into the bank followed by his deputies. The bank robber and some old geezer in a guard uniform were pointing guns at each other and pulling the triggers though only the clicks of a dry fired gun sounded.

It was Deputy Bill’s first day on the job and he was pumped that they were responding to a bank robbery. That is until he saw the bloody corpses of employees and customers sprawled on the floor. He staggered outside to lose his donuts in the bushes.

I got confused about what was happening and I was writing the scene. That’s an extreme example, but even if you had several paragraphs for each POV it would be hard to follow. The problem is that we aren’t inside someone’s head long enough to empathize with them. If you re-wrote the scene all from one character’s POV you could create some emotional connection. The way I have it, it is more like telling than showing, even without the usual markers for telling. You can get much more out of the story that way. I’ll show you what I mean.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention. The customers were screaming and running around in a panic. He was THE MAN. There was a teller counting out bills for a guy in a suit. They looked like hundreds. He wanted some of them.

Jim Bob pushed his way to the counter. He heard a shot from behind him and the teller made this funny gasp as red blood stained her blouse. As she slipped from sight, Jim Bob grabbed hold of the guy in the suit who looked like he was dithering over the money. The guy would be a good hostage. Jim Bob poked him with the barrel of his gun, then spun around.

There! An old geezer in a uniform was pointing a gun at them. Jim Bob fired a couple of rounds at the old guy. This gun thing was harder than it looked. He missed the old guy completely though a customer that was hiding behind the guard swore softly and fell to the floor. The old guy fired back and the suit grunted and fell to the floor. Jim Bob had nowhere to hide. He had to take this guy out. He put both hands on his gun like they did on the shows and pulled the trigger.

The sound of his shots and the old guy’s were deafening. But he couldn’t stop. It was kill or be killed. He was still pulling the trigger when the Sherriff barrelled in through the door and shouted.

“Freeze!”

Jim Bob stopped pulling the trigger. He didn’t know how long his gun had been just clicking instead of banging. The bank looked like a battle zone. Dead and injured people lay on the floor and he could smell the blood, and other things. One deputy went white and ran out the door faster than he came in.

It is possible to write a good story with quick multiple POV, but it is a challenge. Check this story for an example:  The Drive Past Devil’s Butte

Nobody likes a Passive Hero

This article represented a colossal mistake on my part, and now I am fixing the mistake. Gooshy tomatoes are available at the end of the article for tossing at me for my failure.

Was + verb does not automatically count as a passive voice sentence. Dive in and let me explain what passive voice really is. Why you still should avoid ‘was’. And when you want to use the dreaded passive voice.

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets. I was looking for trouble and didn’t have to look too hard. I saw a mugging in progress. One of the thugs saw me and soon bullets were whizzing past my head.

Sounds exciting, right? So why are my eyelids drooping and my hand tossing the book on the floor? Take another look at our hero. He doesn’t do anything. Stuff happens around him. Try this version.

The city slept, her snoring kept me awake. Foetid air rose from grates as the subway passed. I grew up on these streets. I know the sounds they make, also when the space between the sounds means trouble. Some sap was making a gift of his wallet and gold watch to a pair of thugs. I stayed on my side of the street. The sap looked like he could afford a donation. Then the gun came out. Who pulls a gun after they mug someone? I pulled my own gun-not as big, but I knew exactly how to use it. Thug one took a bead on me, so I hit the pavement. The bullets made sure some body shop would be working overtime. I checked the window to get a location on Thug One. Our eyes met, his beady ones with my tired peepers. I shot out the window and the alarm shrieked. Funny how shots got my juices flowing, but alarms just gave me headaches. Thug Two showed up on my side of the street. He had me cold, so I followed my bullets through the window. I felt the brush of death as a bullet tugged at my coat. I kept going deeper into the store. Maybe I’d find a back door.

Now the second paragraph is longer. It usually takes more words to show the action than to tell about it. The advantage is that all those words do double duty. The action holds the reader’s attention, but they are also learning about the character of the hero.  A lot of the time the writer knows exactly what the story is about. They tell us the story and when you tell the story it is easy to slip into passive voice. It becomes about what happens to the character instead of what the character does. You do need things to happen to the character, but if you can attach those actions to something or someone it will be a stronger story.

The form of the verb ‘to be’ with a gerund after it creates a static situation. This is happening and continues to happen. There is no change. You want your characters to be actively shaping the world around them. Action is one of the triumvirate that reveals character. If you write with ‘was’ too often, you are muzzling your character. It will distance the character from the reader. It feels like the character is being moved instead of moving themselves.

Another problem with gerunds is that we try to load too many of them into a sentence.

Standing, wiggling his eyebrows and juggling watermelons, Bozo the clown waited his turn to pay for his groceries.

Poor Bozo is standing, wiggling, juggling and waiting all at once. That’s impressive, but we don’t learn much about Bozo from all that. The standing, wiggling and juggling aren’t really part of the action. It’s hard to imagine him doing all that simultaneously. Let’s get active and see what happens.

Bozo stood in line at the grocery check out. The child in the cart ahead of him looked very cranky so Bozo wiggled his eyebrows. Was that a smile? He picked up the two tiny watermelons and a squash. He started to juggle them. Everything went well until the child’s mother turned, saw Bozo and let out a piercing shriek. The child clapped its hands and laughed.

The two sentences give the same information, but the second one pulls you in and makes you feel like you’re a part of the action. Each of the verbs has it’s own object and subject. The gerund as an extra sneaky helping of verb is really one useful if the actions are all happening at the same time.

“I’m sorry,” Bozo said, wiping watermelon juice from his eyes, “It must be hard to be a coulrophobic,”

I can see him talking while he is wiping juice from his face. Using too many gerunds is another way of telling rather than showing the action. Try to give each action its own sentence. It will help to keep things straight and the reader will be able to follow the story better.

The goal of the writer is to entice the reader to enter the story’s world. That requires active characters who participate fully in the story. There are so many good words to use, so many interesting verbs. Let’s put them to work.

But ‘was + verbing’ is not passive. I made a mistake in the original article and am finally getting around to fixing the problem. My apologies.

Now on to when you do want to use the was + verbing. This construction is for when action is interrupted. I was walking down the street when the shooting started. The sentence begins with one action and ends with another. The other use for was + verbing is for action which continues through a scene. The birds were chirping in the woods. It made the place sound much too cheerful for a murder scene.

The passive voice is when things are being done to the subject of the sentence instead of the subject acting. Sound confusing? Yup, guess why I goofed up. A great many writers (and readers) think that any construction with ‘was’ is in passive voice.

But the first sentence in my example:

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets.

is not passive voice. The city is acting, I am walking. Boring, yes, passive, no.

Try this one

The city streets were walked by hordes of zombie clowns.

That is passive voice. The city is not acting. It is being acted upon by the horde of zombie clowns.

This sentence gives us the simplest test of whether your sentence is passive or active voice. Believe it or not it is called the zombie test. (Google it, I did not make it up.) Very simply you add ‘by zombies’ after your sentence. If the sentence makes sense, you are writing in passive voice. If it doesn’t it is not.

The city was sleeping by zombies. Does not make sense, thus not passive voice.

So, when do you want to use passive voice? Because if it were truly the ultimate evil in language, we wouldn’t have it.

You use passive when the object of the action is more important than the subject. In the passive voice example above, the hordes of zombie clowns is more interesting and probably more important to the story than the city streets. You want passive voice here.

When you are using a character as the passive subject it is trickier. Your character is important. Most of the time you want them acting, not sitting passively around being acted upon. Where passive voice comes in useful is to accentuate situations when your character, for whatever reason, is unable to act. They are tied up, unconscious, dead or whatever.

So there you have it folks, the real goods on passive voice.

Character Assassination

I need a character for a story. Lets call him Fred. Fred is 5’11”, weighs 185 lbs and has blond hair and blue eyes. Do you love him yet? What if I tell you he has a six pack? No? Neither do I really. I mean who names their character Fred, you’d always be waiting for him to yell “Wilmaaaa”. (Sorry, old guy joke,)

Lets make Fred a vampire, nope, that’s been done, maybe a… nope. Let’s see, what kind of story I am putting him in? Let’s go for a good slasher horror story. So Fred’s a mechanic. He’ll be able to whip up any kind of machine to slaughter bad guys by the dozens.

So Fred, the mechanic goes out to slaughter bad guys. He meets Wilma, neither of them have seen the Flintstones, so it’s OK. What isn’t OK is that they have nothing to talk about. She’s a hairdresser and he’s a mechanic. He does have nice hair, but there only so many times a girl can run her hand through even the best head of hair.

So I’m going to give Wilma a secret passion for muscle cars. Now she can talk shop with Fred and they’ll be deliriously happy. My readers, not so much. Maybe Fred needs a hobby. He knits sweaters. His grandmother taught him. But he’s embarrassed about it. What bad guy slaying mechanic wants to admit that he knits. Only they get chased into a wool shop by the bad guys. Fred needs a disguise in a hurry. What better disguise than a toque? (It’s a Canadian winter hat.) Wilma is delighted and impressed. She’s even more impressed when he stabs a bad guy in the eye with the knitting needle.

All this killing is working up an appetite. So Wilma whips up a steak that would make you weep, only Fred’s a vegetarian. Big problem …

Now Fred is starting to become interesting. He’s developed layers. So has Wilma. In fact it would be a good thing to give everyone a layer or two. Characters with depth are much more likely to make for a strong story. If you start hitting the doldrums, you can fall back on your characters minor traits for a plot device. Create some conflict between the kind of things that we take for granted, but only the best writers put into their books.

Next time you are looking at your characters, think about what they do in their spare time. How can you use that to create more interest in your story? People will follow characters they are attached to even when the plot feels thin. Yet even the best plot in the world won’t save you if your characters are cardboard cutouts.

I’ve seen much discussion about how much to describe those characters we’ve just given birth to. Some authors want to describe everything about the character down to what colour toe nail polish they’re wearing. Others hardly describe the character at all. When you read books, watch for how the characters are introduced. Does the story stop while the reader is given what I fondly refer to as the missing person’s description? Maybe all right if things aren’t moving quickly, but if you’re in a fight scene, you don’t want to stop for nail polish.

Personally I’m a bit on the sparse side. I get readers asking for more, so I came up with a standard to describe a character. I give two traits and a quirk. So they may be fat, smelly and talk like they’re breathing helium. Maybe they have red hair, they’re short, and have a vicious sarcasm addiction. You can always build on it later as the characters interact.

A lot of places offer detailed character creation checklists. You, the author need to know all that information, but the reader doesn’t, not all at once. Build your characters up in layers, give them quirks, flaws, and the rest. Your reader will love you for it.

Plotting to save your life

You have a great idea for a book. This guy meets a girl. So they fall in love. The End.

Sounds a little boring. Maybe the girl is in love with someone else, so the guy has to bump off the other guy so he can comfort the girl. Wait, this is beginning to sound more like horror than romance. That’s cool you can just change the category. But it is still boring.

Your story has a case of linear plot. It starts here, goes there and not a whole lot more. We already have a pretty good idea of how it’s going work out so why bother?

Your story needs a talking donkey, and no not the one from Shrek. What I mean is you need something completely unexpected that derails the trip from here to there. Think of your plot as a road. Flat boring, maybe the scenery is nice, but how long can you look at scenery. So lets shake things up. Let’s turn that plot into a roller coaster.

First thing you need to do is add some urgency to the situation. Make the passage of time count. This is your time bomb. If the hero or heroine take too long the world will end, either literally or metaphorically, your choice.

Now our hero is sweating; they don’t have forever. Good, so now we make life miserable for them. What is the one thing that they really, really want? Make it impossible. Send the girl to Antarctica, have the hero come down with something really nasty. Just as he’s ready to give up he gets a sliver of hope. She sends him a postcard with a penguin on it, oh wait he supposed to give it to his best friend.

Now you have conflict. All stories need conflict. People fight with each other, with the world, with themselves. Think of it as hot sauce for your story. It adds some punch. There is nothing better than conflict for shaping a character and plot line into something that will keep your readers guessing.

The important thing to remember is you can’t just add random conflict to the story. It needs to move the plot along. Each conflict must change something. A fight between the two boyfriends won’t matter if something doesn’t shift because of the fight.

The idea isn’t to make it impossible to know for certain what is going to happen next. We don’t want totally random. Drop hints about the big blow up ending.  The story is as much about the journey as the ending, so make sure you make the ending worth the ride.  Remember that time bomb? Now your story is more roller coaster than road. People are screaming and hugging each other and it’s flying around corners and doing loops. Your story has life. It has a talking donkey, it has a PLOT.

Now once you have a plot, you will need to understand the mechanics of story. Inciting incidents, plot points, pinch points and all the rest. The good thing is if you tell a really interesting story, those mechanics will pretty much take care of themselves. The reason you want to understand them is for editing and revising. If your story is off balance, go back and check to see if you have all the pieces.

Instead of explaining it all here, I’m going to point you to K.M. Weiland’s super fantastic blog where she explains everything using movies and books to illustrate. Check it out.

Helping Writers Become Authors

Cliches, let’s not think about that.

What is cliche, what isn’t? It’s a discussion which comes up in almost every critiquing group I’ve belonged to.

I am not going to try to come up with an exhaustive list. I don’t think that’s possible. We all like to poke fun at cliches, but when was the last time we considered what made a cliche a cliche?

I’m going to attack the issue from a slightly different perspective. Rather than declaring that vampires with speech impediments are cliche while twinkly vampires are not, I’m going to suggest that if you don’t have to work very hard at creating a character, plot line or setting you are in danger of being cliched. That’s because cliches are short cuts allowing us to move ahead without much thought.

Let’s look at bars, bars are a good example because they cross genres, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, even romances have bars.

So John is going into a bar, the reason isn’t important at this point, but we may come back to that. He walks into the bar and he has to stand in the door while his eyes adjust to the dim light. Recognize that? That’s the feeling that you’ve been in this bar before. There may be a bouncer cracking his knuckles and eyeing John suspiciously. The barkeep may be polishing the glasses or maybe talking to the customers. Maybe there’s music, perhaps live, maybe a jukebox.There will be a shadowy little corner where it may be possible to get in a little noogy or get away with murder. The acoustics will be such that John can hear the conversation in the booth behind him, but nobody will be able to hear what he says or does.

That’s a cliched bar. We’ve all been there in dozens of books. This bar is a useful little plot device. Maybe John will fall in love, maybe get in a fight, maybe die. We know all these things are possible because we’ve seen it happen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the bar is going to be more than a brief stop on John’s journey of self discovery, we will need to dress it up.

So why is John going into a bar? If he is looking for love in all the wrong places we will want to loud music and louder women, or men. He probably won’t have to pause to let his eyes adjust because it will likely be night. A little commentary on the decor will be useful.

John entered the bar and winced a little at the volume of the music pumping out of the speakers. He could see a distorted version of himself in the chrome bar rail. But he didn’t take the empty spot at the bar. There was a mirror on the wall there and he didn’t want to look himself in the face just now. He selected a wobbly litte table on the edge of the dance floor. Bodies gyrated under the strobes looking like so many mating octopi. The waitress placed the beer in front of him and he downed it with a gulp. If he was going to do what he came here to do, he would need something stronger.

Maybe he’s looking for a whiz-bang magical sword. We need a different kind of crowd and not so sleek an ambiance.

John pushed his way in through the crowd. Most of the crowd were dwarves. It was a dwarfish bar. He was careful to be polite, when a dwarf elbowed a human, it wasn’t ribs that got bruised. He made it to the bar where a troll handed him a drinking horn.

“Two bits,” it said.

John passed over the money and leaned on the rough wood that spanned the empty casks.

“I’m looking for…”

“Over there,” the troll said. “Two bits a pull, double if you break anything.”

He passed over more money and made his way toward a crowd that surrounded a sword that was stuck in an oak log.

“Hey, look where you’re stepping!” A pixie kicked him in the ankle.

John tried not to limp as he made his way to the sword. It was the ugliest sword he’d ever laid eyes on. The blade that wasn’t buried in wood was chipped and pitted. The leather of the grip was rotted. There was a dwarf that was pulling on it. He looked like he was in danger of rupturing something. One of the dwarves looked up at John.

“Yo, Thornpiek, gi’ it a rest. We got a live one!” Rough hands pushed him over to the sword.

“Gi’ you hands a good spit,” a dwarf said, “let’s see if you be t’ one.” The dwarfs all laughed while John stared at the sword. He took a deep breath and gripped the sword.

Perhaps John is meeting an intergalatic snitch.

John paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light of the bar. He felt a sharp pain in his back and looking down he saw the point of a Thr’xian dagger sticking out of his chest. He crumpled to his knee and a rough kick pushed him to the floor.

“Blasted humans,” the Thr’xian said, “always stopping and blocking the doors.

So while the concept of a bar might be deemed cliche, if you make it your bar it won’t be cliche. It will be a seamless part of the world that you are creating.

Don’t think, don’t feel

In my article on Show, Tell and Narrative Summary, a reader kindly pointed out to me that using words such as thought/felt/saw/heard are a form of telling. They are ‘filtering’ words in that the experience is filtered through the MC rather than coming to the reader direct.  Filters add distance between the reader and the story.

________________________________________________________

Dang, Rebus thought, the Sheriff’s going to be able to smell that mash all the way out to the highway. He ran in the moonlit woods like a deer through corn. He didn’t know what he would do, but he had to try.

A strong arm gripped his shoulder and pulled him back from where he saw the still steaming in the stark white light. The hand over his mouth felt like old leather and steel.

Rebus relaxed and watched the inevitable. His uncle John wasn’t a man to be messed with, and he’d lay a beating on Rebus soon as look at him.

The Sheriff crept into the clearing gun in hand.

Rebus heard a rumble of laughter from behind him.

“See what happens to anyone who crosses me,” Uncle John said.

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When you’re writing you want to avoid the words in bold they weaken the immediacy of the story. That isn’t to say you never use them, but it is worth looking at each one and deciding if that is the way you want to leave it. Let’s have a go at removing the filter words.

________________________________________________________

Rebus’ eyes watered.

Dang, the Sherriff’s going to be able to smell that mash from the highway.  He ran like a deer through the moonlit woods. Likely it was too late to do anything about the still, but he had to try.

The still steamed in the stark white illumination. A strong arm gripped Rebus and pulled him back. The leather and steel of Uncle John’s hand covered his mouth. Rebus gagged and the leathery palm moved slightly.

“You be still, boy,” Uncle John said, “Pay attention to what happens to them that cross me.” Laughter shook the crazy old man.

The Sherriff crept into the clearing, gun in hand.

________________________________________________________

That’s better. You want more interaction with the senses, but without labelling the sense. We get the smell from Rebus’ watering eyes. We don’t need to label who’s thinking as the POV is Rebus, so he’s the only one we should be able to hear thinking. When he gets to the still, we know he’s seeing it. So you don’t need to tell the reader he’s seeing it, watching it, noticing it, or any of the other ways we try to make it clear that our character is taking in the scene in front of them. The feel of the hand and laughter works the same way.

I’m not happy with the scene yet, but at least I’ve removed the screen between the reader and what is going on.

Like everything else in writing this is not a hard and fast rule. You can’t just go through your book cutting every filter verb. Sometimes you need the filter verb to maintain the rhythm of the prose. Sometimes they aren’t truly filters but deliberate action. Telling us someone remembers a scene from the chapter before is filtering. Give us the scene and we know they’re remembering. But if the character is trying to remember something, then you need to tell us when they succeed. The rest of the filters work the same way, when it is a deliberate action, not a flag post for the reader, you need to keep it.

You’ll know which are which when you find you can’t possibly write around the verb.

Show, Tell and Narrative Summary

Here’s a scene I wrote some time back.  A scene is a little bit of the story. You string a bunch of them together like pearls in a necklace to make your story.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Sculpted beauties gazed at him. He was out of place with his middle age sag and his wrinkles. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. Since the death of their youngest son she had taken comfort in food. You could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing. But Harry knew what it was like to lose yourself, only he had chosen drink over food. She saw the buffet and gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He started to mingle with the others. He held a drink and pretended to drink from it. He was just thinking that it was time to leave when a woman came up behind him and took his arm. He knew immediately that she was three parts intoxicated.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said starting to get annoyed.

“What, you prefer her?” the woman sneered.

Harry looked at his wife. For a moment he saw what everyone saw. A fat woman with an over full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce. Then he looked deeper and saw the woman who still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. The woman who had brought his four children into the world. He saw the woman who on the day he married her outshone any two woman in this room.

“I do.”

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,” said Harry and he went to join his beautiful wife.

I’ve highlighted the parts of this story that are telling rather than showing. You can see that they are most of the parts that are meant to show emotion. The problem is that the emotion is being pushed at us. They aren’t attached to Harry, rather they are about Harry.

Here is the scene rewritten to show rather than to tell.

Harry walked into the party with his wife on his arm. Everywhere he looked sculpted beauties gazed back at him.  I don’t belong here, he thought, not with my wrinkles and sagging body. If he didn’t fit in, Faye stood out like a minivan at a Porsche convention. He figured he could make dresses for any two other woman in the room from what she was wearing.  She gave Harry’s arm a squeeze and headed for the food.

Harry shook his head and smiled. He fetched a drink and pretended to drink from it as he  mingled with the others in the room.

Maybe it’s time to leave, he thought a short time later, I shouldn’t have to work this hard to smile.

A woman came up behind him and grabbed his arm almost spilling his untouched drink. The smell of alcohol on her breathe hit him like a wave.

“Hey, handsome,” she purred, “How about you and me find some privacy.”

“I’m married,” he said trying to turn away.

“So am I, what of it?”

“Not interested,” Harry said.

“What, you prefer her?” She pointed at his wife; a fat woman with an over-full plate surrounded by the best Hollywood’s surgeons could produce.

For a moment he saw what he guessed everyone else saw, but he saw things that no one else in this room could see. On the day he married her, Faye had outshone any two woman in this room. She’d brought his four children into the world and stood beside him as they buried their youngest. She still struggled with her grief, and helped him struggle with his. Harry blinked away tears that tempted him to sip the drink in his hand.

“I do,” he said as he carefully put his drink on a nearby table.

“What does she have that I don’t have?”

“Me,”  Harry said. He walked over to the buffet and picked up a plate. He put his arm around Faye and gave her a smile and a hug.

I can hear you saying, “But you didn’t change that much!” I didn’t add much to the scene. It was written for a contest with a word limit of 300 words. I wanted to stay within that limit. What I did do was attach the emotions and memories to Harry.  Instead of narration, they become Harry’s internal thoughts. I dropped the extra words on the attributions since they weren’t really necessary.

Now say this is a scene in a much larger work. A novel about Harry whose novel has been picked up and is being made into a big budget movie. It is all about his experiences in Hollywood. There are lots of parties in Hollywood. Do we need to show each and every one of them? That would get old fast. Even though we were showing rather than telling, we are showing  the same thing each time. So we use narrative summary. Narrative summary is the string that holds the pearls together and helps the reader move from one to the next.  It could be as simple as:

Harry attended an endless string of parties, each one filled with the same sculpted beauty and the same empty conversation. He could feel the siren call of the booze that would let him fit in. He could see the self-loathing on Faye’s face as she tried and failed to stay away from the buffet tables.

That little bit gives the reader a sense of time passing, but also of the cost of that time. So when I write the next scene I don’t need to tell the reader about Harry and Faye’s despair.

So, there is no hard and fast rule to never tell, but your story does need to mostly show. And it MUST show the really important developments. To go back to Harry and Georgia, you can’t later in the book talk about Harry starting to drink at the parties or having an affair without showing that particular party.

So quick summary, showing is letting the reader experience the story through the thoughts, words and actions of the characters. Telling is dumping information that is unconnected to the characters into the story. Often, but not always, telling is in the passive voice and often, but not always, involves a lot of adverbs. Narrative summary is a form of telling that smooths the movement from one scene to the next, but you want to make sure that it doesn’t replace necessary scenes in your story.

To get more of the picture of show, not tell, Go read Don’t Think, Don’t Feel

The Joy of Nuance: The dreaded Thesaurus Rex

A thesaurus can be a writer’s best friend, but like all good friends it can lead us into trouble. When we gleefully substitute synonyms for the word we’re overusing it is essential we pay attention to the nuances of meaning. Let’s look at smile as an example.

Here are some synonyms:  beam, grin, laugh, smirk, simper

In context beam is a broad smile, especially delighted. A child might beam when given a new toy, for example. But if you simply replace smile with beam, you could end up with a something like this:

Mary greeted John with a tight-lipped beam. “You’re late, again.” She spoke in a fake, cheery voice to hide her anger from the kids.

Even if you take out tight-lipped it doesn’t make sense.

Grin is a wide happy smile, and is probably the closest synonym.

The most commonly used synonym is smirk. It is one of my most loathed words because it is used so often and so often wrong. A smirk is a nasty smile. There is an edge of meanness to a smirk. Synonyms of smirk include sneer and leer. A bully smirks when they know they have you trapped. Yet I have seen sentences like this:

Patrick lifted Lucia’s veil and smirked at her. Married life with her was going to be fun.

Ouch, I wouldn’t want to be Lucia.

Simper isn’t a word we use a lot these days, it is a weak, kind of manipulative smile. A debutante might simper at an eligible bachelor.

All this is not to say don’t use synonyms, but use them with the nuance of meanings clear in your mind.

Let’s take another word;  look. Characters are always looking at things, under things, inside of things. We can’t use look all the time. So off to the thesaurus we go, and we hit the jackpot. There are a couple of dozen words we can use in place of look. Most people use three or four of them: glance, notice, stare, and occasionally peek. 

As with the synonyms of smile, there are nuances a writer needs to pay attention to. A glance is a brief thing, a second and it’s done. So, if your hero is checking the street for wandering zombie ninjas, he’ll need more than a glance. He may want to inspect the street, or survey it.

You need more than a sparse handful of synonyms to add punch to your writing. Don’t be afraid to use the Thesaurus, but at the same time consider the shades of meaning in different words. Why write ‘He took a quick look.’ when ‘He glanced’ works as well. If your character stares into the depths of a pool, and she’s been doing  a lot of staring lately, perhaps she contemplates the depths.

One of the things I find myself saying a lot is to trade in your adverbs for stronger verbs. When you are spitting out a first draft the adverbs are easy. She walked elegantly. He walked stiffly. So you end up using walk a hundred times or more in your story.

When you start the editing process, whether you go chapter by chapter or finish the draft and edit the book as a whole. Do a search for ly which will catch most of the adverbs in your story. For each adverb look at some synonyms for the verb it is modifying to find one that will send the same message without the adverb. She swept into the room. He clumped to the barn.

While I’m here in the land of synonyms and verbs, there are a couple of verbs you don’t want to mess with. Said and asked. As we covered in Boring Beats, modifying said and asked may lead to a condition known a Swiftisms. Named after Tom Swift who pranced across the pages many years ago. Tom is mostly remember now for the perhaps intentional humour of his modifiers.

“We must run!” Tom said swiftly. Google it, laugh, then deep six the modifiers you used to make said more interesting.

Now, resist the temptation to have your characters announce, state, scream, retort etc. This is one area where the Thesaurus is going to bite you. There are six pages of synonyms for say. Use them when you are in narrative summary or a character is talking about talking.

“…and so Jerry just announces he is taking charge, but Hank stated I would take over in his absence. Jerry screamed when I wouldn’t do what he ordered. ‘I’ll just call Hank,’ I retorted. That shut him up.”

There is no need to be afraid of the Thesaurus, with proper use and daily exercise it will strengthen your writing, filling it with subtlety and power.

http://www.thesaurus.com/

Shades of Nuance: Shades of Feeling

Everyone knows feelings are essential to evocative writing. Without emotions there is little reason for the reader to care about what is going on in the story or what happens to the characters.

So we write how our characters are angry, or sad, or furious, or happy or any of another dozen or so standard emotions.

Take a second and try to imagine how many different emotions we humans have.

Give up?

I saw a list of emotions that listed 101 emotions, and it stated explicitly it was not a complete list. There are emotions for which we have no words in English, but other languages do.

So how do we write all this myriad of emotions? Do we dig out the Emotional Thesaurus and expand our emotional vocabulary. This is a great book by the way. It gives you an emotion, then the corresponding physical sensations and body language. This is a good start. Using words like cranky or grumpy, or ecstatic to describe feelings will add depth to your writing. Even more so when you start using the corresponding body language to match the words.

When I was studying to be a therapist, one of the things we were trained to watch for was body language that didn’t match what the client said or expressed as feelings. Clients whose bodies said one thing while their words said another were extra challenging. When you asked questions based on the body language, you tended to be more successful working through the issues at hand.

Imagine what you could do with a character whose body language didn’t match their expressed emotions? Your reader knows something is off, but they don’t know what. It is a great device to create distrust toward an otherwise bland character.

The next step is to get beyond the basic four emotions, mad, sad, glad and scared along with their hundreds of synonyms to feelings which are further off the chart. How do you write humility? Loyalty? Disgust? How do you use an emotion which has no name? We use the physical sensations and body language without identifying the emotion we are trying to portray.

This is where the real nuance starts coming in. Stop and think for another minute and list all the physical sensations you use to show character emotion to the reader.

How many did you come up with?

From my editing these are the favourites:

Sinking or rising heart/stomach

Some form of fire/heat/cold/ice

Shaking legs, hands

Of course the smile/smirk/eyebrow and other facial movements and movements of the head

Various forms of crying/laughing

Blushing/heat in the face

and of course the ever present Sigh

As there are hundreds of emotions, so there are at least as many ways we experience the emotions. We experience them intellectually and mostly write about them intellectually. The problem with writing emotions from the intellect, that is describing them through naming and categories, is the reader will process them the same way.

If we use the standard ways to show emotion, we never get below the surface and more to the point, we don’t pull the reader below the surface either. Moving away from the usual ways of showing emotion makes the reader think about the physical experience and label the emotion for themselves. While they may end up with a different word than we had in mind, they will be pulled into the experience.

I suggest that one start with the usual expressions and gradually shift to more unusual ones as the book progresses. In essence we train the reader to dig deeper into their own emotions to understand the emotions of the characters. They feel every emotion the character does.

Writing deliberately nuanced emotions, physical reactions and body language gives us the opportunity to affect the reader in powerful ways.

A fantastic resource for writing emotion is The emotional thesaurus:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression