Thursday, April 26, 2012

Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change


by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

Do you have a scene in your novel where nothing much really happens? Where there’s not a lot of tension and no major developments or setbacks? If so, rewrite that scene or take it out, with any essential bits from it inserted somewhere else. If you leave it as is, that could well be the scene where your readers decide the story is lagging and they put it down — and don’t pick it up again. Today’s readers are much more impatient than readers of the past. Every scene needs to grab them with lots of tension and intrigue. Whatever happens needs to be “shown,” not “told” (for the most part), and the events and dialogue need to move the plot along and result in a significant change in the characters and their situation.

Every scene needs tension.

As James Scott Bell says, “Every scene in your novel should have tension, whether that comes from outright conflict or the inner turmoil of character emotions.” How do you create that needed conflict? According to Bell, “You create outer tension by [first] giving the POV character a scene objective. What does he want, and why? It has to matter to him, or it won’t to us.

“Next, what keeps him from the goal? It may be the opposing action of another character, or a circumstance in which he finds himself.

“Finally, make most scenes come out with the character suffering a setback. This ratchets up the tension for the scenes to follow.”

Of course, not every scene is going to have a fight or a screaming match. Depending on your genre, some scenes may be quieter than others. But even in those scenes, it’s important to show the inner tension of your viewpoint character — worry, concern, irritability, anxiety, doubt, indecision. Also show the tension of other characters by their words, tone of voice, body language, etc.

Each scene needs significant change.

As Hallie Ephron says, “In the course of each scene, some change should occur to move your story forward. It’s not enough for a scene to just introduce a character or convey lots of fascinating information about the setting. In every scene, something has to change. This means that something has to happen that changes the situation, or a character’s perception of it, and that change propels the story forward.”

The change that occurs in a scene can be a shift in either a character’s emotional state, their relationship with others, or their situation — usually for the worst. And the change needs to result in character growth or plot change.

Write tight, compelling scenes:

Besides making sure every scene has conflict and change, and events are “shown,” not described or “told,” another tip for keeping your readers turning the pages is to start each scene as late as possible. In other words, don’t spend a lot of time with description and scene setup – start just as things are getting rolling. However, it’s important to remember that, as Ephron counsels, “Even though you want to start late, don’t forget to orient the reader at the start of each scene by establishing, right away, when and where the action is taking place, and who is present.” This can be done in a sentence or two, or even a phrase.

Also, as Ephron notes, “Where to end a scene is also an important choice. A good rule of thumb: End as early as possible. In other words, don’t let the scene dribble off. End it at a strong moment and leave out any unnecessary final bits.”

A blueprint for writing strong scenes:

Jack M. Bickham gives us some specific advice for writing powerful scenes: According to him, any time you start to write a scene, you should go through the following process (reworded slightly for brevity, and my italics):

  1. Decide specifically what the main character’s immediate goal is.
  2. Get this written down clearly in the copy.
  3. On a separate note to yourself, write down, clearly and briefly, what the scene question is. Word it so it can be answered by “yes” or “no.”
  4. In your story, after the goal has been shown, bring in another character who now states, just as clearly, his opposition.
  5. Plan all the maneuvers and steps in the conflict between the two characters you have set up.
  6. Write the scene moment-by-moment; no summary.
  7. Devise a disastrous ending of the scene – a turning of the tables or surprise that answers the scene question badly.” [ends badly for the protagonist]

Bickham concludes, “Please note, however, that none of this can happen – nothing can work – if the scene does not grab your readers and intensely involve them. To accomplish that, the scene must be lifelike. And the greatest danger to this verisimilitude is summary [as in telling instead of showing]. Fix it by playing out that part of the scene in detail. Nothing less will do.”

What about you? Do you have any good tips to share for writing compelling scenes?


James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor, specializing in suspense/thrillers, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as well as YA and historical fiction. Jodie’s craft-of-fiction articles appear regularly here and on five other blogs.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Blockbuster Ending


by Ian Walkley

I recently read an enjoyable thriller by a NY Times Best Selling writer, but felt let down by the ending. If this can happen to those guys, imagine what it would do to a debut author in terms of future readership.

Most writers I’ve spoken to say they spend most time making sure the beginning of their novel is sufficiently honed to hook the reader. But it’s also important that time be spent ensuring the ending is strong. Which raises the question: what function does the ending of a novel perform? And what can writers do to ensure readers are not disappointed?

Don Maass, in his wonderful resource The Breakout Novelist, states that the main function of the ending is to satisfactorily resolve both the inner conflicts of the main character(s) and the outer, plot-driven conflicts. Sometimes, he says, authors rush the ending because of story fatigue or a looming deadline, perhaps both.

Preferably, Maass suggests, a story should be structured to make the inner and outer conflicts converge at the climax. No mean feat, given the numerous subplots to resolve, the main storyline to bring to a climax, character arcs to keep track of, and outcomes to tie back to the storyline in order to wrap things up for the reader.

Al Zuckerman (Writing the Blockbuster Novel) believes that the key element to the climax is an obligatory scene of great emotional power. In his book Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer James Smith suggests the following elements for a story ending:

  • · A final, titanic, climactic struggle, with the climax the most powerful scene;
  • · An element of surprise, even if minor;
  • · Resolution that offers redemption to the hero;
  • · Recognition that every element in the story pointed to the end (even better if you can plant a clue to the ending in the first one thousand words);
  • · Lessons learned, for both characters and readers.

Excluding edits, I changed the ending to my novel, No Remorse, five times. To keep the action and suspense going right to the end I included several plot twists and a small surprise in the wrap-up chapter. To create scope for the sequel I had the readers realize that some evil forces were still out there, while keeping the protagonist sufficiently heroic and resolving the main threads. Feedback has been positive, with one reader writing that it was one of the best ending twists she has read.

Here are my ideas for ramping up the volume of your ending:

  • · Write the last few scenes early on, rather than waiting until the end. You’ll change the scenes later, but at least you’ve got some material to work with and a destination to journey towards;
  • · Write two or three alternative endings;
  • · Write an ending from another character’s POV (even a non-POV character);
  • · Write an ending as though you are setting up a sequel;
  • · Rather than doing yet another edit from the beginning, review only the climax and resolution. Are they exciting enough? Do they plausibly resolve the storyline? How can tension be held right to the end?
  • · Try an unintended consequence, like killing off a character you hadn’t, or letting one survive you had killed off. (Even if you don’t use this, it might give inspiration to change something else);
  • · “Do a Donald Maass”––reverse the obvious, or reorder priorities or motivations;
  • · Use index cards with descriptions of actions, conflicts and character emotions to brainstorm a new mini-climax;
  • · Write your own checklist, like the one above from James Smith, and vet the ending against it. Does it tick all the boxes?

If none of the above give you a satisfied feeling, it might be a good idea to put the manuscript in the drawer for a few weeks, and come back to it with fresh eyes. I would also strongly recommend the use of a professional editor, even before you’ve even submitted your manuscript to a publisher. A pair of experienced editor eyes is invaluable.

Hopefully, you’ll have your Jack Reacher type character walking off down another lonely road, without a reviewer complaining that you didn’t explain what happened to the dog.

Ian Walkley switched to thriller writing after a career as a social and consumer researcher and marketing consultant. He is a published travel writer and has previously authored and edited two books on small business. Ian's debut conspiracy thriller, No Remorse, is the first in a series, and he is currently working on a crime thriller set in Australia. Visit Ian at

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A thin line between Crime and Horror Fiction

by Richard Godwin

I was invited to share my thoughts with you about the line between crime and horror fiction. Many purists argue that they are two distinct forms. I disagree. My own writing has often been dMr. Glamour A-format Coverescribed as a blend of crime and horror fiction, and I want to look at what the connections are.
What do we mean when we talk about horror? What is it that horrifies us?
The genre evokes a painful or intense fear, dread or dismay. Douglas Winter said it is an emotion. It is also connected to the irrational.
As a writer I believe people are often motivated by irrational urges they seek to understand. Some of those urges may be criminal. Extreme criminality involves psychopathology.
I explore these areas in my novels. Mr. Glamour, my second novel, published in paperback this week by Black Jackal Books, is about a wealthy and beautiful group of people targeted by a killer who is watching everyone. These people have irrational habits that threaten their security. And they can buy anything, except safety as the killer strikes.
Horror undermines our certainties, inasmuch as crime threatens our securities. There is recognition and alienation wrapped up inside horror. Extreme crime evokes a horror that is more real than something a reader knows does not exist. More horrors exist in the history of the atrocities committed by the Nazis than in any novel.
I believe Thomas Harris is another author who mixes the genres to great effect.
Stephen King observed that in horror there is a tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian. This stems from Nietzsche’s “The Birth Of Tragedy”, where he examined art in terms of a dialectic between Apollo, seen as light and structured, and Dionysus, seen as dark and chthonic.
In crime fiction, on a simplistic level, we have the struggle between crime and law. The narrative thrust is towards restoring order. To that extent the genre is conservative. And arguably in its resolutions it is unrealistic.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         My novel Apostle Rising is about a serial killer crucifying politicians. The narrative takes you deep you into the killer’s mind and the final revelation about his identity is a shock. It is a shock because it subverts identity. It leaves you questioning. It changes the lives of the people who came into contact with the killer’s acts, especially the police, and it leaves them altered.
Obsessions drive men and women to dark places, places where horror breeds.
Mr. Glamour is a crime novel with elements of horror in it. The killer has unusual powers. He steps inside the minds of the investigators. He changes their lives and they engage in acts that may be deemed questionable for police officers. They lead double lives and it is in their double lives that they find something they lost, some aspect of their beings their notions of identity precluded.
I hope it conveys what it is intended to, a great story, and one which shows that people may not know themselves as well as they believe they do.
My debut novel Apostle Rising did well last year, got great reviews, and sold foreign rights in Europe. I hope Mr. Glamour does as well. It’s about a glamorous world of designer goods, beautiful women and wealthy men and a killer who is watching everyone. It was released last week by Black Jackal Books and is already picking up great reviews.
You can find out more about me here .

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April 2012 Debut Authors

Happy April and Happy Thrilling Thursday. The first of every month we will feature members of our Debut Authors Program. We are excited to announce that three members have books being released in April 2012. Please take a look and let’s celebrate their success!

Brian Andrews
April 2012

For 115 days, Will Foster has been locked in medical quarantine without his consent. The doctors claim he is infected with a deadly virus, but this is a devious lie. Encoded in Foster's DNA is an unprecedented mutation, the source code for immunity against a disease that Vyrogen Pharmaceuticals will stop at nothing to commercialize.

Against all odds, Foster pulls off a heart-stopping escape from his laboratory prison carrying a vial of bubonic plague along with him. But Vyrogen will never stop hunting him and Foster is chased across Prague and Vienna by Vyrogen’s mercenaries, hell-bent on capturing him before he can spill his secrets to the world. In desperation, Foster contacts the only person in the world he can trust—an ex-girlfriend who works for Vyrogen.

Linda Rodriguez
EVERY LAST SECRET (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne)
April 2012

Half-Cherokee Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion thought she was leaving her troubles behind when she fled the stress of being the highest-ranking woman in the Kansas City Police Department, a jealous cop ex-husband, and a disgraced alcoholic ex-cop father. Moving to a small town to be chief of a college’s campus police force, she builds a life outside of her work. She might even begin a new relationship with the amiable Brewster police chief.

All of this is threatened when the student editor of the school newspaper is found murdered on campus. Skeet must track down the killer, following trails that lead to some of the most powerful people in the university. In the midst of her investigation, Skeet assumes responsibility for a vulnerable teenager when her ex-husband and seriously ailing father wind up back on her hands. Time is running out and college administrators demand she conceal all college involvement in the murder, but Skeet will not stop until she’s unraveled every last secret.

James M. Tabor
THE DEEP ZONE (Ballantine Books)
April 2012

In this gripping debut thriller from James M. Tabor, a brilliant and beautiful scientist and a mysterious special ops soldier must lead a team deep into the Earth on a desperate hunt for the cure to a deadly epidemic.
When she was unjustly fired from a clandestine government laboratory, microbiologist Hallie Leland swore she would never look back. But she can’t ignore an urgent summons from the White House to reenter the realm of cutting-edge science and dangerous secrets.

“Potentially the worst threat since Pearl Harbor” is how the president describes a mysterious epidemic killing American soldiers  in Afghanistan—and now poised for outbreak in the States and beyond. Millions will die unless Hallie and a hastily mobilized team can recover the ultrarare organism needed to create a new antibiotic. The good news is that Hallie knows more about the organism than anyone else on the planet. The bad news is that it can be found only at the bottom of Earth’s deepest cave.
Hallie’s team is capable—especially the mysterious Wil Bowman, who knows as much about high-tech weaponry as he does about microbiology—but the challenge appears insurmountable. Before even reaching the supercave, they must traverse a forbidding Mexican jungle populated by warring cartels, Federales, and murderous locals. Only then can they confront the cave’s flooded tunnels, lakes of acid, bottomless chasms, and mind-warping blackness. But the deadliest enemies are hiding in plain sight: a powerful traitor high in the Washington ranks and a cunning assassin deep underground, determined to turn Hallie’s mission into a journey of no return.