What makes a story suspenseful?

Reality makes fiction writing suspenseful. That may sound like an oxymoron, but fiction also includes science fiction and fantasy, both of which skirt reality, and in so doing also skirt suspense.

For example, ever met Superman? Me neither. His character is suspenseful though, and great fun to read or watch.  But I know it is fantasy, it can’t really happen and I don’t feel any compassion for sidekicks Lois and Jimmy because, well, he’s Superman! I am strictly a tourist on a bus. But take a character clayed from mortal man and make him the hero instead. Now successful rescue becomes only one of several outcomes. Suddenly the bad outcomes take on new tension and you can feel this time it really will not end well. Like your favorite uncle, the hero is a little flawed. When everything is at stake, it’s their blemishes that must be cleansed first before they can save Lois and Jimmy, or their house from falling into foreclosure.

At the end of each story, the characters walk off arm-in-arm into the sunset, but which hero stands taller now? It is much more gratifying to take ordinary people, thrown them into extraordinary circumstances and then watch them try to wiggle out of it.

From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, it is the common man facing unsurmountable odds that holds our interest and keeps us turning the page. If Stowe’s Uncle Tom had been treated like a white man, would we still choke up when he dies? If Stein’s Danny wasn’t a suffering, single-parent would we still root for him to get custody of his daughter over his rich ex-in-laws?

Ian Flemming’s James Bond Series is nothing short of suspenseful, but it is suspense hung 15 minutes into the future. Fun stuff. We’re blown away by all his gadgets, but are we really sitting on the edge of our seat when the sharks smell blood? No, we’re waiting for him to pull the Shark-B-Gone out of his perfectly pressed suit. At no time do we feel for 007 because we know he’s always got something up his sleeve. Fifty years on, he’s still good fun to read and watch — and very collectable I might add — but it’s the author’s techno-candy that keeps us coming back, not the car chases, sharks and men with razor teeth.

A word about why.

I want to write this blog for two reasons. I hope to be able to pass along some of the wisdom I’ve learned over the past twenty-odd years to those just coming into this sport. In the beginning, I had three wonderful mentors who took hours-at-a-time out of their busy schedules to help me, without ever asking for compensation. It’s time for me to start to pay that forward.

I also hope to advance my own publishing success by finding enough folks who think my writing is entertaining and want to buy it and recommend it to others. I am on the lookout for a good agent and publisher, too, someone who can help me turn modest sales into moderate or more.

Next Month.

Can you envision a future where reading — and by that extension writing — is strictly digital? A time when all printed books are antiquarian? A day when everything ever written by every man will live long and prosper in cyberspace? We’re facing that future. Next month, we’ll take a look at what this means to the suspenseful writer.

Finding Something to Write About

I think one of the hardest parts about writing is finding something to write about, especially if you decide to start thinking of a topic at your computer. There’s nothing like that large, blank, white piece of paper staring back at you from the screen to drive all the ideas that were playing at the edge of your consciousness straight out of your mind. It’s the quickest way I know to get your mind to go completely and utterly blank.

When I go to bed at night I find it hard to fall asleep right away, so I’ve read a lot of articles on “sleep hygiene”. “Sleep hygiene” is all the things you can do to help yourself fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling refreshed in the morning. There are a lot of articles out there. But they all start the same way, even if they use different words: Empty your mind, don’t think about all the things you meant to do that day and didn’t, don’t think about all the things that are wrong with your life and you need to fix, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve never been able to empty my mind. There’s always a thought or two buzzing around: I need to get the car washed tomorrow. I forgot to buy lox. I need to start rereading this book for my presentation to … You get the idea. My mind is busier when I’m trying to fall asleep at night than it is during the day when I can actually do something about these things.

So the one thing I’ve learned from all this is: Sitting down in front of that big, blank, white piece of paper on the screen is not where I should go when I’m looking for ideas.

I’m curious. When you’re looking for ideas for something to write about, what do you do? Where do you find the spark that gets you going?

The Writer’s Life

I have been a writer since age 5, but it has taken years for others to realize that.

I was always a writer, or, more directly, I was always writing.  The act of writing does make one a writer, but the subtleties of that are profound.  Writing is an activity that kids do as a school assignment or what adults do in their serious job.  Writing is an element of something else, not a stand-alone profession.  Why should writing be considered anything more than a hobby?  It is for the reader.

I was a child who was not good at sports and had no siblings to annoy or be annoyed by.  I had the time, and I recognized at that early age that I was creative.  My parents encouraged me or at least positively tolerated the hours I spent hunched over a pad of paper.  I kept diaries of thoughts, personal struggles, observations, conversation snippets and story ideas.  My middle school English teacher let me write stories for extra credit.  I continued that in high school, writing one teacher-acclaimed sequel to some book we read in class, some sort of social commentary combining 1984 and the character K-9 from the British TV show Doctor Who.  Then came the big moment: I was editor of my high school newspaper.  I made it; I was a writer.

I guess I was.

Wanting to learn more about the craft of writing, I took enough college poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction classes to obtain an English Writing minor.  Despite this, in my mind I was just a kid writing words.  I was not a writer.

Non-writers defined–and still does to an extent–that a “writer” is someone who earns enough money writing to pay the bills and put food on the table.  I had a full-time “real job”, but I did not define myself by that.  When people asked what I did, I said, “I write.”  Inevitably, the next question was, “Ooh, what do you write?”  My reply was always a bit choked: “I write in my journal.”  Because I could not point to a genre much less an actual published anything, people’s eyes glazed, they gave me a polite “oh,” and then looked over my shoulder as if at a dinner party looking for someone more interesting to talk to.  Society dismissed me.  It’s hard to argue with that; they’re right.

A coworker mentioned that she knew someone at a newspaper who was looking for writers.  The editor and I connected on the phone.  After an introduction and some discussion of my experience, the editor asked, “We really need someone to write a singles beat for us.  Do you know where all the 20-somethings go for fun?”

I was 20-something.  I was single.  I wrote.  “Absolutely!” I said.

No sooner did I hang up with the editor–my editor!–with an introductory article assignment, than I picked it up the phone, called my friend, and asked, “Hey, where do single people hang out around here?”

With a foot, or at least a pen, in the door, that first assignment led to another and then another.  My name was in print in a real publication, a free weekly newspaper.  Yes, you did not pay for it, but the paper had advertisers as well as columns on local news, sports and event.  I was legitimately published, and got paid; therefore, it counted as real.

I wanted some of that non-singles writing action, so I approached the Arts editor.  She gave me an assignment, and suddenly, I had a writing portfolio.

She called me after I submitted my third article and said, “Let’s discuss this piece.  You need to make some changes in your writing.”  She proceeded to take me through my article, line-by-line, and pointed out where my writing needed improvement.  She told me where a verb should be more active (she gave an example), where sentence length should be tweaked (gave example), where a description could be tighter and stronger (gave example) and so on.  I learned more about writing in that hour than I did all my years in college.  I followed her invaluable, free advice, and my writing got stronger.  I noticed it and so did she.

I’ve since written award-winning articles for newspapers and magazines, all a bit of luck, opportunity and skill.  I’ve had my queried ideas accepted, giving me freedom and confidence in my skills.  I published my first eBook in 2013, the first of many.  I’m here to share my perspectives and the struggles I have.  I hope you’ll learn with me as I continue my journey of writing.

I mean, my journey as a writer.

Bad Boys–Watcha Gonna Do

What is it about bad boys? Those loveable scamps who are utterly irredeemable but still attract us because their badness is so much more interesting than the good guy’s goodness. You can count on the hero to do the right thing because he’s the hero. You can count on the bad boy to be bad. Now, the bad boy may do the right thing if he feels like it, or for a selfish and egocentric reason. Or he may do the wrong thing and try to spin it as the right thing. But when he eventually does a bad thing, he can’t really be blamed because he’s “bad.” It’s in his nature to do bad and we should have expected it. Here’s an example.

SPOILER ALERT! I started thinking about bad boys after seeing the film Thor: The Dark World (IMDB) in November. My thoughts were prompted by the film’s fascinating bad guy, Loki (Tom Hiddleston – IMDb). Loki is a handsome schemer and magician who casts intricate illusions that fool even his brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth – IMDb), who should know better than to take anything Loki does at face value. While Loki helped Thor do the right thing (Thor is, after all a hero), he still manages to twist appearances to suit himself and his ultimate goal. He steals a great scene where he repairs his relationship with his brother and perhaps squeezes a tear from the unsuspecting audience. *sniff* But watch out! Loki is, at heart, a bad boy, one might even say SUPERVILLIAN, who surprises the same audience within the hour. I left the theater totally psyched for Loki’s next film appearance, ready to embrace the badness.

From the author’s point of view the role of bad guy, or villain, or antagonist, can be a lot of fun to write. Most modern fiction writing guides suggest that the hero needs to grow and change in some manner by the end of the story, but the bad guy can get away with staying the same. No one expects the villain to be redeemed, only subjected to justice in some form. This means that an author can write his or her bad boy as sneaky, lying, and irredeemably bad as wanted–and most people won’t mind. What a rush that is, right? The antagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic, yet he is. His backstory might include tragedy, drama, and loss suffered at a formative age, but remember you’re hearing the story from a bad boy. Can you believe any part of what he tells you? The author doesn’t have to make a charismatic villain logical or even give him a solid motive. The reader will accept him because he’s charming. The author doesn’t have to spend time researching the psychology of badness; he can make the villain sink from bad to worse to worst.

While the mindless and indestructible killing machine type of bad boy like Freddy or Jason may strike horror in the minds of filmgoers, a reader needs a different type of villain. A charming, cultured bad boy can heighten mystery and sexual tension in a story while fulfilling his role as someone for the protagonist to fight. Think about that the next time you’re writing a bad guy. Instead of writing him greasy and disheveled, try making him debonair. And then he can kill dozens of people, or sell the international secret, or betray the unsuspecting hero and we’ll accept him for it.

Oh, and apparently the makers of Jaguar automobiles agree with me. Check out the Superbowl commercial called British Villains Rendezvous (british villains rendezvous) which features Hiddleston, Ben Kingsley and Mark Strong. Then let’s have a spirited discussion about the bad boys you find irresistible.

P.S. I wrote my post weeks before seeing this ad, and I can prove it.

 

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Normal Becomes Paranormal

Paranormal romance ideas can spark from many places and ignite into something wondrous. You as the writer can light that flame of imagination and let it grow into a wildfire. From the simplest things like a key or even a pen, ideas can flourish from ordinary into something amazing.

An example of an everyday item turning into something extraordinary is the use of a book. In Jennifer Probst’s, Marriage to a Billionaire series she uses a book entitled The Book of Spells. Jennifer has her female heroines write the same list with the most important attributes of their ideal man on two pieces of paper. They’re directed to put one copy under their mattress while the other is burned. As the stories progress characters are astounded the magic book gives them their happily ever after. Isn’t that what all romances try to do? We’re just trying to add that one little twist of magic or something extraordinary that would make it paranormal.

Let’s do a little writing exercise. Look around you, on your desk or out your window. What do you see? I see a tree out my window and a knife on my desk.

Ask yourself, what would happen if the two things you chose somehow influenced or have a direct affect on the objects you’ve chosen or the people that encounter them? Once you pick the two items write what comes to your mind regarding the items. It could be a word, words, phrases, anything. It doesn’t matter what they are at this point but how they can become something else to the characters that would be developed around them. Use the old standby of who, what, why, where and when. After you do this, narrow your choices down to your favorites.

The below is a result of my choices and adding magical elements to the everyday.

A wide eyed little girl that only wants love etches a heart into a weathered maple tree in front of her house with her initials and the initials of the boy next door. What if the blade she uses isn’t an ordinary blade (one she’s found in a box buried in her attic) and the tree is no ordinary tree? What if the knife is really an Athame (a knife used in Wiccan ceremonies), and the tree turns out to be an ancient tree and the objects are imbibed with magic from generations of little girls finding their happily ever after because they carved their initials of the one they loved into the tree with the sacred knife? Now, the knife the little girl thought was ordinary when she found it and the ancient tree are something that drives the story of that little girl into adulthood.

Driven away by the bitterness of her mother’s hidden contempt for her family’s tradition of carving in the tree, the daughter only returns to her childhood home because an intruder has killed her mother. As she uncovers more of her family’s secrets in the attic, her life becomes threatened and the boy next door, now a man and cop, reenters her life.

What I’ve done is create a thread of content that causes the main character to delve into her families past, which leads to her Wiccan heritage and the threat that someone wants the Athame. This puts the hero in place to help the heroine, creates tension from the added protagonist (the intruder) and adds magic. Most importantly, it allows the love between the two to kindle that the heroine has been dreaming about since she was a little girl who carved their initials in the ancient tree.

Obviously, this is not the whole story but the spark I talked about earlier. If you can take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, you have what you need for a good start, making that bit of flame into a blazing fire as the story heats up, giving the reader the happily ever after.

Happy writing!