The dance of suspense

Suspenseful writing is a dance between plausibility (what makes sense to readers), and the unexpected. Not just any unexpected events, such as inheriting a million dollars, but ominous ones, such as discovering that the previous person who inherited that same fortune did not manage to survive the six weeks. It is a dance because that kind of revelation causes the reader’s adrenaline to rise, but after the initial thrill, it will start to waiver again. The unexpected events must be carefully paced, without seeming predictable.

Suspense often originates from hints of what the unknown holds. But that unknown has to make its presence known to the readers somehow. What are some techniques to do this?

Showing the antagonists viewpoint in addition to that of the main character works to build suspense, if it is done sparingly. The reader will tend to agonize over the person lurking in the dark as the protagonist arises from bed to start a morning routine, unaware of the danger. Only showing the viewpoints of the two characters creates a cat and mouse game. Increase this number of viewpoints, and the reader will have to start keeping track of the characters. This may lead to a more cerebral and less emotional, and therefore less frightening, view of the situation.

A paranormal vision, in which scary but clouded glimpses of the future appear, is a frequently used technique. Perhaps too frequently used. Many readers realize this is an easy kind of foreshadowing that occurs when not much is happening in the actual story. Therefore, using premonition requires some finesse. If the foreshadowing is too heavy handed, it smacks of amateurism–especially if a horrifying vision is simply used as a kind of jump scare.

Even though the reader’s adrenaline may rise with this first supernatural vision, it will lower with each repetition. Limit the amount of time spent on the visions by limiting their number, rather than having a lot of short vague ones. It should leave the reader with some apparently concrete information but still questioning how events will all unfold. The response of the character to the premonition can show how unnerving it is.

The writer has to continually raise the threat, which usually means outlining the plot to plan the rising arc of danger. This might occur if the character misinterpreted the vision or it turned out to be reality and not a premonition. But, you can’t use those twists more than once, either.

As the author you know very well what will happen. So, expect to recruit a second and third, or even fourth person, who is ignorant concerning you and your plot, to read your work. Take their critiques seriously. As the author creating suspense, you are always “the man who knows too much.”

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Searching for the perfect quest

A friend of mine who had a desk cluttered with Star Wars memorabilia, raved about each movie. Yet, she admitted sheepishly that she never finished Lord of the Rings because she just couldn’t get into it. When I read the trilogy, it was so popular that I couldn’t get the first book from the library. I started with the second, and then finished the third book. Because I was enamored with this tale, I went back and read the first, and found it still thrilled me, even though I knew how it would end.

 Obviously, you can’t write the perfect quest for all people, because their expectations differ. But most quests, even those not in fantasy or science fiction, share similarities. First is that the trip is not aimless, but has a goal, whether it is reached or not. Sometimes the treasure that the adventurers seek, is not the one they bring back to their home. Some things are more valuable than wealth.

The goal may be one of the following:

  • Find a fabled treasure or another rare thing, such as a substance to stop a plague or prevent another kind of disaster (very common).
  • Locate a new place to live; often the initial part of the story describes the conflict that led to the need to find a new home (somewhat common).
  • Find a special person, or kind of people; the most frequent source of this quest is discovering that they have something, often knowledge, that the main character needs (also somewhat common). Less frequently found is the protagonists who seeks people to give them an item, or information, that they desire.
  • The idea of taking an item to its destruction, as in Lord of the Rings, or finding an item that must be destroyed is not used often but worked well for Tolkien. You may also be able to invent a quest around a more unique storyline.

No matter which you choose, the writer must indicate the value of the quest before the characters start trekking for weeks on end. Which brings us to the next problem. What kind of trials and obstacles will your characters face? This requires a variety of trials over a period of time, and not just repeated fights and skirmishes. The danger can come from surviving dangerous terrain, severe weather, wild animals, or the deceit of friends, as well as armed enemies.

How do you find inspiration for all of these ideas? Borrow events, from the present, from past history and from mythology. Myths are not always restricted to ancient civilizations. People continue to produce and be enthralled by them. (Why do you think the superhero movies are so popular?) Many secretly have a grand desire to be strong enough to be in charge of their destiny. You don’t just see this train of thought in the old myths. It’s quite popular in predictions of scientific advancements for the future.

However, you’ll need to make sure your characters are not that strong. Otherwise their ability to defeat any obstacle unassisted will quickly become boring.

 Are you ready to start your search for the perfect quest?

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The human factor in science fiction

Hardcore science fictions readers may mourn the loss of science fiction writers whose keen insights led them to glimpses of the future. Jules Verne created novels in which characters sailed under oceans throughout the world and traveled to the moon. Ray Bradbury with his prescience about technology predicted wall size TVs in a kind of theater room and “clam shells” that a people stuck in their ears to replace the world’s noise with music in Fahrenheit 451.

However, the past writers were taking potshots when guessing about new technology. No one has traveled to the center of the earth, and considering the heat and pressure that exist there, no one probably ever will. Neither have we seen advancements to colonizing Mars or creating androids indistinguishable from humans as recorded in The Martian Chronicles.

We have yet to see humans on another planet or a computer with truly independent thought processes, even though Arthur C. Clarke wrote stories making these events seem plausible. Tales of space travel to distant solar systems (or even galaxies) are entertaining. However, the amount of time it takes for light from these places to grace our skies is mind boggling. If is doubtful humans will ever be able to span these distances. Therefore, travel in outer space is being usurped by journeys into inner space. The new frontiers in science-fiction literature are virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

The VR and AI that exist today are used in very prosaic ways, such as recalling steps while working as a mechanic or teaching your phone to recognize your voice. These are not exactly thrilling plot lines. Jaron Lanier, one of the founders of virtual reality, argues that computers will never become masters of matter and life. As humans we don’t have the intelligence to produce ones that run programs that are not cumbersome and error-prone, because we are error-prone. Science fiction authors are again taking potshots at predicting the future by creating virtual reality and artificial intelligence that is sophisticated far beyond human cunning.

The real threat, according to Jaron Lanier, is the belief that our collective wisdom can spawn ideas superior to that of a few individual humans. The “hive mind” relieves individuals of responsibility for actions. A pack of anonymous people online can turn into a vicious mob. So, if an author is looking for a new twist on the use of artificial intelligence in fiction, one only has to look as far as the errors made by masses of mislead people in the past. It may not be the dangerous self-perpetuation of artificial intelligence that drives the new science fiction plot towards the crises. AI only amplifies the biases that humans already have. Crowds using their new technology in recklessly irresponsible ways are likely to be the villains of the new breed of science fiction novels.

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Don’t let your main character get away

One item that agents and editors expect—or demand—is that the author provides enough about the main character to draw in the reader from the very beginning. They don’t want a detailed description of appearance, education or employment. However, the text should reveal the character’s name, age, sex, major motivations and level of savvy. 

The other requirement for submissions is that the novel open with the major character or a close friend on the edge of death—or at least in a volatile conflict that cannot be easily resolved. The beginning must drop readers into action to keep them going forward for pages to uncover how this event will transpire. If the author offers a promising hook, and then retreats into a backstory, that is a bad sign.

Both of these techniques are assumed to engage readers. The reason why authors struggle with beginnings is because building the character and ratcheting up the action in a plot are basically opposite ways of developing a story. It is an extreme challenge to do both at the same time.

if the inciting incident occurs on the first page, the movements and thoughts of the main character focus on the goal of getting out of trouble. There is scarce time for self-reflection on one’s life. Revealing the protagonist so the reader can relate requires internal thoughts, conversations with others, or responses to more normal troubles. It’s a poor tactic to simply dump information about a character’s background, motivations, or level of sophistication in their society. Doing this right consumes precious reading time.

I have often experienced this conflict of expectation. In an attempt to show readers the inside of an adolescent named Maria, I included interior thoughts in which she considered what her younger sister was likely to think. A reviewer dismissed this with, “That’s not normal in a teenager!” Another person wanted to dump this young adult protagonist into immediate danger, but then questioned why her mother sent her outside to check on her younger brother when she heard gun shots.

Neither of these people obtained much understanding of Maria from the basic information about her. Of course, she is not a normal American teenager, her Hispanic roots collide with expectations of living in an southern American town. She takes her responsibility seriously as the “little mama” in her family. However, there is little time to follow this character around to demonstrate who she is, if I must grab reader’s attention by introducing danger immediately. For the person who is unfamiliar with Maria’s culture, her actions will not seem to make sense.

So, what is to be done? Often the author is stuck with listing the character’s name, age, sex and major identifying traits within the first page while launching the action. There is no time for showing; I have to tell. At least, I should choose unique words and poetic phrases, so that this telling seems somewhat intriguing. Or, I could be brave and go against the current. I might spend delicious time to unfold my main character so that the reader has a deeper level of involvement as the threat looms on the horizon. Most often, I choose the second path.

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The illusive pervasive theme

A website for identifying my writing doppelganger named Cory Doctorow when I used a sample from a short story and Kurt Vonnegut when I used one of my articles. As I tested different parts of a novel, the analysis said my writing was like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Cory Doctorow, who showed up more than any other author. I do a bit of blogging and have just begun to dabble in science fiction. But, the website uses measurable writing traits such as syntax, frequency of parts of speech, length of sentences, and reading level. My content is not the same as his. According to critique partners my fiction is closer to the work of Catherine Ryan Hyde or Melody Carlson.

My writing style is simple and straightforward with a few of my favorite nuanced words thrown in the mix. Some of these are higher level vocabulary. I tend to use phrases ironically and describe characters through their dialog. The style is not hard to read, even though I’ve been told by more than one person that it borders on poetic. However, I show much more than I tell, which means longer amounts of text are required for each scene. Sometimes I feel like I must go back and carve my stories out of the monolith I have created.

Reader’s preferences are subjective. Readers of my short works either love them or ask to be told exactly what is occurring. This second group of readers struggle with understanding what others pick up easily. My challenge is to figure out what kind of person prefers my writing style and substance as this doesn’t seem to be defined by age group or favorite genre.

Finally, I settled on the idea of looking at the themes in my writing. Those are the cohesive elements found throughout my poems, short stories, essays and few longer works. The following were the themes repeated throughout my work:

· Becoming mature as an adolescent/young adult

· Adapting to not fitting in to society

· Repaying for the damage one has caused

· Dealing with atypical mental processing or personality disorders

· Sacrificing for another person/group of people

· Approaching old age and death as an adult

A theme is the underlying main idea that is integral to the story. It makes no statement and is not the same as didactic writing in which the reader is told what to think. People may not even consider the themes of their stories. But, they all have at least one, whether the author realizes it or not. So, take the time to review your work and discover the focus of your themes.

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If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for a memoir

If you wish to write what you know, or the story of part of your life, you must come to grips with the fact that your life is not a page turner. What is well written memoir for you, may not be interesting to the general public. However, a person who lives with edge of the seat excitement often doesn’t have time to reflect enough and write the story of their own life.

Therefore, you have to be an excellent writer to satisfy readers with an examination of a more mundane life. How do you determine if your writing is excellent enough to carry your memoir? For me there are four major traits of good writing.

  1. The first characteristic is original content. You will be telling a story that is probably not unique. But what you have to say should not be frequently heard. If your situation is a common one, it helps to regard it from a unique point of view.
  2. Another important item is a recognizable goal or problem to be solved in the account of your life. There is no reason for it to be given away in the first few pages. However, the narrative needs to work towards a definite resolution. The author should follow the path to this goal through diversions and detours. If the action keeps looping around it should form a spiral that shifts to another level with each revolution rather than becoming a flat circle.
  3. Good writing needs a touch of reality. This would seem to be a requirement for a memoir, but I’ve read ones that dwell on only the most fantastic events, and sometimes embellish these to keep the excitement going. At that point the characters no longer possess a touch of reality. As a reader, I need to understand the characters, their motives, and their struggles.
  4. Even in prose, I am attracted by the music of words. I enjoy sentences that play with repetition and variation in a poetic style. Sentences that are not what I’ve heard often but are still comprehensible. Is your world depicted in unusual phrases? Is it shown in a manner that the reader can envision? Good writing should flow with a kind of beauty and play with language.

Be aware that what draws in one reader is often over the head of another. So, when you write your memoir do it both for yourself and the readers searching for a book that is not ordinary and may not be like their own life. However, it should be a book with a very real life of its own. The quality of the ideas and content is what makes or breaks a piece of writing for me.


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Should I write what I know?

According to commonly given advice, the popularity of a memoir rests on the fame of a person writing it. However, the argument against “writing what you know” is often refuted by an excellent rebuttal in the form of a well written memoir about a mostly ordinary life.

Before embarking on this kind of book you are supposed to ask “How unique and interesting are my life experiences?” Recently there have been a number of memoirs and memoir-based movies recounting childhoods filled with the threats of danger in an environment of political persecution or a dysfunctional family. I have found that this doesn’t guarantee a good book. I’ve watched memoir based films, such as Persepolis based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi and Moonlight based on an unpublished semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Although these were interesting films at points, there was no resolution at the end. Each main character experienced suffering as they grew older but seemed to remain immature and without goals. The end of the character arc did not exist, which left me dissatisfied.

Instead one should probably ask “How good am I at learning lessons from my own experiences?” People can suffer innocently due to the actions of others, or suffer due to their own selfish behavior. A memoir must acknowledge both of these causes. Good examples of this are Educated, an account by Tara Westover the daughter of survivalist Mormons, and Children of the Land, detailing the life of a Mexican immigrant family by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Sometimes I did feel like I waded through extensive minor details of the ordinary parts of their lives. However, as I continued reading I saw each of these memoirs was heading somewhere. I kept reading to find out what would happen and the details took on their own life.

Most importantly, you need to distill the story of your life to have plot with a conflict and a resolution. Often it is not just the story of your life, but of your family’s life, too. So, a story that is only a lurid string of dirty secrets is not a good idea. You must describe your upbringing creatively, honestly and with consideration for those around you. I should feel like I am there beside you. However, I should not sense that you are trying to force me to see things from your viewpoint.

That is the real challenge of writing what you know.

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Making criticism constructive

Using bad writing advice as gatekeeping to keep some people outside of writing circles seemed like a strange accusation to me. It was not something that I considered before, but as I continued to read the article, I recognized behavior which I had witnessed…

A group leader, one with more experience at least in their area, provided a critique on a submission that was not perfect. However, following the advice would push the piece of writing in the wrong direction. A heart wrenching memoir writer would be redirected to add a science fiction touch to make it more entertaining and less poignant. The reviewer would insist a direct explanation be part of a mystery piece in which the reader should be sifting through clues. The other oddity occurred if a “non-friend” offered a comment that was useful. It was often labeled as “not worth paying attention to.”

There are different motives for the negative comments received from others, both in formal critiques and casual discussions. When listening to my critics, I should consider which of the following is true.

1. My work lacks quality in a certain area that needs to be fixed. Critics may note the problem or may give suggestions for fixing the problem. Although providing that kind of specific advice rubs some people the wrong way, it is often still worth hearing. I may not use the fix suggested but it does help me understand the problem which was detected.

2. My work contains a particular verb tense, part of speech, or common word which a famous author has eschewed. The critic often informs me of this as a show of knowledge. Of course, no one could disagree with a best-selling author, could they? Actually, a person could easily do this. I don’t write with the same voice, or in the same genre, or for the same audience. Breaking this prohibition may actually make my work better. I may rewrite per suggestion, but I do not destroy the original. I can come back and compare these a week later with a clear head to see which is the best.

3. The critic does not like my personality and they connect what I write with me. The odd part is that I am not my main character in ninety percent of my stories. I consider my own life not as interesting as other’s. The comments may result in incorrect conclusions because the intention is not to make sense. I recall when a person called my logic-driven female character unlikeable (because they disliked me) and then explained the character showed lack of self-esteem, when the opposite was true. However, there is no reason to tell people that their criticism is illogical. That won’t make them like me any better.

4. The critic disagrees with the ideas and values embodied in my work. Artistic work always reveals the author’s values, even when the writing is not didactic. The actual ethics may never be mentioned, but this critic frequently insisting on changes for things that could be written either way. Others have their own idea of right and wrong, so I cannot force them to believe as I do. Nor do I have to force myself to do as they say.

Do the water on a duck’s back routine. Just smile and nod, and let the comments roll off. However, when the last two types of criticism occurs to others, it helps to give them the encouragement to take criticism that is constructive and leave the other kind behind.

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Your darlings may not deserve to die

When Arthur Quiller-Couch lectured on the art of writing at Cambridge in 1914, he uttered a phrase repeated frequently among authors today.

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.[i]

This phrase has been transformed into, “kill your babies” or “kill your darlings” by authors more famous than him. Few aspiring writers today would pay attention to his advice if it had not been repeated by these people. But, this almost forgotten author and academic lecturer still deserves the recognition for originating it. Although Quiller-Couch was a prolific writer in his day, the transcript of his Cambridge lectures is one of his few books that is still in print. If you desire to read his brand of fiction, you will have to hunt down used copies.

I’ve heard many authors interpret this phrase as referring to writers who cling to their creations as if it were their child. The writer is told to sacrifice the most excellent part if it doesn’t serve to further the story. However, as most authors aren’t reading Quiller-Couch currently, do we really know what he meant by “Murder your darlings?” If you look at this phrase in context you will find he criticized a writing style which contained “extraneous ornament.” He described it as inauthentic, like a man who hires someone else to write an exquisite love letter for him. His point was that beautiful and expansive writing was not necessarily good writing.

If you want to understand Quiller-Couch’s advice, look at the lush descriptive writing of Pat Conroy’s novels The Great Santini and Prince of Tides. Now, compare Conroy’s work to the sparse, lean prose found in the works of Ernest Hemingway and the more recent author, Tove Jansson. Aspiring authors should look at their own work critically. But they don’t need to rip their best work from the novel. It should remain. However, they need to remember that the ornate writing style prized at the beginning of the twentieth century is not widely valued among readers today.

Do recent authors who repeat their own version of “Murder your darlings” mean the same thing? Let’s look at the context of their comments. Stephen King insists that writers:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.[ii]

This does not refer to the use of an ornamental or expansive writing style. Stephen King’s work actually contains many digressions and doesn’t always emulate the direct style preferred by Quiller-Couch. In this context the quote seems to deal with authors who hold their work above criticism.

King apparently disapproves of amateur authors’ egotistical attachment to their “scribbling.” Maybe it also concerns their reluctance to dispose of well written characters who need to die to keep the story traumatic (at least if you write horror). However, it should not be aimed at the amateur author but the professional one. Unfortunately, those who can write what they want based on sheer reputation must be careful about producing florid or meandering writing and actually having it published. Few people are willing to mention such faults to a famous author.


[i] Quiller-Couch, Arthur. On the Art of Writing, Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914

[ii] King, Stephen. On Writing (A Memoir of the Craft) 2000

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Showing too much

Carefully polishing my piece for a writing critique, I attempted to picture every detail of a tense scene. Two indigenous boys scavenged through a village ravaged by mudslides, only to encounter unscrupulous men searching for labors to conscript. The boys hid in a half collapsed structure. The large one was strong enough to move rubble, but he had to depend on the small one. The small one was smart enough to cover their tracks, but fearful of burrowing into confined spaces. Of course, I did not tell any of this. All of the tension was shown through description of characters movements, facial expressions and snippets of conversation.

 The self-appointed expert in this critique liked to harp on “adding more details” and “showing not telling.” What was his response to my work?  “This is confusing, and I cannot figure out what is going on. Can you rewrite this and explain what is happening?” He wanted the events of the story to be told and not shown.

 Does any of this sound familiar? When a person says, “show don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? Writing is very abstract in itself, so providing this kind of instruction requires bringing the abstract to a more concrete level. When authors give examples of this kind of writing they often demonstrate a fifty/fifty approach. They intersperse detailed descriptions and realistic conversation with exposition that simply tells the reader what has occurred.

Writers who show more than tell lose the ability to convey subtlety in their work. Often a reader will not comprehend what is occurring when a character shuffles his feet in the dust or makes a gagging noise. For actions to be easily interpreted they have to be dramatic enough for some readers to pick up the meaning. Facial expressions must be exaggerated to ensure that the reader detects the happiness, anger, or fear. However, characters should be able to display subtle emotions, too—anxiety, restlessness or boredom. Showing lets us know what a character does; telling makes us aware of intentions and interior feelings.

A novel that is pure showing, such as La Jalousie by Alain Robbe-Grillet, describes every detail: the light through the blinds, the scent of the lilacs, the indolent movements of the people outside. It takes keen perception to realize that the unnamed viewpoint character who perceives all of this may be imagining part of it. Many readers will simply give up as they are unable to deduce what is occurring.

The majority of readers really want an author to tell them what is happening but include enough description of a scene so that they feel they are present. “Show not tell” should be used for key scenes. However, when a scene seems to drag on and become boring, this may be a sign that you should truncate this information and simply tell the reader what has occurred. Telling takes far fewer words than showing. As you write you have to learn the balance between explaining what is happening and displaying events through description of sensory details.

When unsure, write the scene in question in two manners—one that shows the action, and one that tells what is happening. As you review your writing, choose the one that works best.

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