I’m going to be speaking locally on Monday, January 23rd at 7:00 at the Katonah, NY, library. If anyone would like to come, the event is free, and I would love to meet you in person! The audience will mostly be adults, so I’ll be pitching my talk that way. Teens will certainly be fine.

The library is putting out a press release to promote the event, and the press release includes this quote from Ella Enchanted, which made me laugh:

I wished I could spend the rest of my life as a child, being slightly crushed by someone who loved me.

Do you remember my recent inveighing against adjectives and adverbs that weaken, like slightly. So I’m delighted that I’ve learned a thing or two in the twenty-plus years since I wrote the book. Today, instead of slightly crushed, I’d substitute squeezed, or I’d just delete slightly–if I noticed. I’m still capable of making this sort of mistake.

Onto the post!

On August 9, 2016, #writingstruggles wrote, I struggle to write suspense. I just can’t seem to make my readers feel scared, like my characters, or build up the tension.

In response, Christie V Powell wrote, If you’re up to it, you could try reading a thriller or watch a scary movie to get ideas. I’ve only watched one true horror movie in my life, and I was amazed how my emotions were reacting like crazy even though in my head I didn’t care for the plot.

One thing is to make sure to pace it so that you have both constriction and release leading up to the moment. In some books, especially the last of a series, they try to keep the pressure on all the time, but after awhile it just gets old. “Okay, the world is in danger. The world is still in danger. The world’s in even more danger. I get it already.” If you break it up with some light moments, it makes it much more intense.

You can also do a lot with description. The setting, and how you describe it, can have a big impact on mood. So do details, if you draw in and focus on just a few small things. Here’s examples from my climax:

The jagged teeth of Whiterocks Pass pierced the overcast sky.

The girls stood at the edge of a valley surrounded by sharp cliffs. Ruins of old buildings and deep, open pits spattered the entire valley floor, and every single space in between was taken up by statues.

Her foot snagged on a rock, and to keep from stumbling she instinctively grabbed a hand offered in front of her.

The hand was smooth and cold and definitely not alive. Keita looked up, and screamed.
A statue of a young girl stood beside her. Her arm was held out, in supplication or perhaps to deflect a blow. Her face was wrinkled in an ugly silent scream. Keita scrambled backward and bumped into Sienna. The girl stood just outside the tunnel, still as if she’d been turned into a statue herself.

I love the hand surprise, which is nicely creepy.

So that’s one strategy, to set reader’s expectations up and then have them play out unexpectedly in a bad way: warm, living hand expected–cold, lifeless, and useless one received.

When I was little, I liked to go to horror movies, which didn’t scare me much–until Creature With the Atom Brain. I had nightmares for months.

I don’t remember much of the movie, just that a girl character about my age at the time, which may have been eight or nine, adores a family friend, who plays with her and her dolls–until his brain is replaced with the atomic one. I still remember a frame of the movie in which this formerly nice man holds the doll by one foot, and you can tell it and the child no longer have any significance for him. Aaa!

What got me was the loss of affection. I don’t remember if he killed the girl. He may have, but I was lost to horror the instant the doll thing happened.

Then I saw the movie a second time and induced nightmares all over again. (What were our parents thinking? Both times I saw it at our neighborhood movie theater with friends–and no adults.)

So this movie gives us something else to use to create suspense. If we care about the MC, we’ll want others to be decent to her. Threatening that will create suspense.

Along the same lines, I’m not fond of violence in movies or on tv, but I can bear it and even like the movie or tv show if the violence isn’t nonstop. However, I’m not capable of watching or even reading about harm done to an animal. It’s the animal’s innocence that does me in. Character innocence can create tension, too. The reader sees the threat, but the character doesn’t. She’s having a perfectly fine time. Maybe she’s telling the villain things she absolutely shouldn’t because he’s charmed her. The ax is about to fall. The reader has chewed her nails right up to her elbows.

And that’s another strategy: make the MC clueless–sometimes, of course. She can’t always be out to lunch or the reader will lose patience.

Underlying all suspense is one principle: the reader has to care about the character who’s in jeopardy. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, although that makes the task easier. The reader just has to want bad things not to happen to her.

In the end-of-the-world/end-of-the-series scenario Christie V Powell writes about above, we may be able to keep the suspense going through reader caring. I haven’t written this kind of thing, but I’ve seen examples. I used to love Star Trek (I  watched only the original series). I desperately wanted the entire wonderful crew to be okay. I assume that in a series of books, there are at least a few characters the reader cares about. We can keep the suspense going by making each aspect of the coming apocalypse endanger a different character. Then once that danger has been dealt with, on to the next danger and character.

Thus the one the reader worries about doesn’t always have to be our  MC. Doesn’t even have to be a person or even alive. The reader can be made to care about a work of art, a building, a city. Anything.

In the case of Star Trek, the tension was undermined a bit by my certainty as the series progressed that the writers would never bump off a major, beloved character. We can learn from that too. If we allow dreadful things to happen to our MC, the reader will realize that this book takes no prisoners. The worst really can come about. Eek!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about a plastic cup. Threaten it. Create tension over the cup.

∙ Write from the perspective of the evil queen in “Snow White.” Make us care about her, whether or not you keep her evil. Make us see her tragic ending coming.

∙ Time pressure is a great tension builder. Your MC is on a journey. Her mission, whatever it is, has to be accomplished before the destination is reached. Use the time pressure to make us worry.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Rainy Day Misery

Thanks for weighing in on the changed blog! If you have more thoughts, please post them. By the way, what used to be called labels are now categories.

Now a little pre-post before the main event:

Without being specific, a writer recently asked on my website about advancing controversial opinions in stories that might offend some readers. This has come up before, and I’ve written a couple of posts on the subject. Basically, I’ve said that we shouldn’t stifle ourselves, and we don’t know whom we’re going to offend or not offend, anyway. The most seemingly bland scenario may trouble someone.

A fresh idea has occurred to me, however. I still don’t think we should worry about our readers. There is literature in the world putting forth every take on every topic in the universe. But we may want to protect ourselves.

Something like this was addressed not long ago in my poetry school in a master class about writing about actual people in one’s life (which I’ve also written about here). One of the poets teaching the class had published a collection that revealed troubling family history. The response from his relatives was less than positive. I think he had every right to publish, but he also had the right to not publish and shield himself if he felt that he wouldn’t be able to deal with the hurt.

This doesn’t apply just to life experiences. If we put forward an unpopular position, whether our readership is broad or narrow, we need to be prepared to accept the response. I’m not saying not to do it–maybe we should do it–but we should brace ourselves. If we’re not ready for criticism or even anger, we can hold off and wait for a better moment.

Now for the regular post. On January 15, 2015, KLC wrote, I had been writing short books that had good ideas, but were not suspenseful at all and leaving me with absolutely no reason to turn the page. Then I started planning for other books and as I started to write them, I realized that the only way I knew to make my books suspenseful was to add in lots of drama and people dying. The problem is that that’s not how I want my books to be like, so how do I make a good, suspenseful book without making it a blood-and-gore horror story. (Perhaps I have been taking your advice “make your characters suffer” a bit far…)

At the time I wrote, I’m adding your question to my list, but it will be a while before I get to it. In the meanwhile, readers will be in suspense if they care about your main character and if he or she needs something or wants something or is in trouble. No one has to die.

And this is what I’m writing now: I love to walk but not in the rain. On most Tuesdays I commute to New York City and while I’m there I like to get in a long walk of about three miles, because I especially enjoy striding through the bustle and along the interesting architecture. The endorphins kick in after a while, and I feel like the healthiest old lady on the planet. Starting on the previous Wednesday, I anxiously watch the weather predictions. It’s silly. My health won’t be damaged if I miss a walk or two, and it’s not my only form of exercise. Usually I’m lucky and get sun, but I worry that I’m wasting my wishes on weather, and when something really important comes along, they’ll all be used up. Still, I care a lot. If I were a character, and the reader sympathized with me, he would want the sun to shine whenever I wanted it to.

Could this desire for a sunny day be a suspenseful part of an interesting story? I think so. Let’s make me a lot younger than I am and let’s call our MC Abigail, since no modern young person is named Gail, alas. Abigail is an outdoorsy person, and things haven’t been going well for her lately. Let’s say her Geology teacher seems to have it in for her and she’s failing, even though she loves the subject. Her best friend has texted her with accusations that make her feel awful, even make her feel that their friendship since they were toddlers may have been a sham. Oh, and let’s top it off: The friend’s accusations are true, because the most misery comes when we are guilty (and, I think, the most reader sympathy).

Abigail needs a break, so she plans one for the next day, because today is shot. It’s spring. The dogwoods are in bloom and she hasn’t seen them yet in her city neighborhood. She packs a picnic lunch the night before and decides to leave early for the big park a mile from her house. If the day is clear, she’ll be able to outstrip her unhappiness or walk into it and figure out some strategies. She goes to sleep visualizing sunshine.

If our story has been very tense up to now we may give her a break and blue skies. If not, we make it pour. She’s cooped up at home because it’s the weekend. What does she do? She obsesses about her friend. She composes an answer, then thinks it won’t do, tries again, gives up. Next, she picks up her geology textbook, reads a paragraph without comprehension, shuts the book with a thud. Desperate to do something positive, she decides to cook dinner for her parents and make her favorite recipe, which they also like, but it turns out that a crucial ingredient is missing, and the deluge is still going on. We’ve set it up that she doesn’t deal well with frustration. So far she’s been cautious and positive, but we know that isn’t going to last. She starts curling her hair around her finger, always a bad sign. The reader wonders in what way she’d going to go off the rails–and keeps reading.

So what have we done? We’ve taken a trivial wish and surrounded it with unhappiness, because we do need to make our characters suffer, even if the suffering is unlikely to kill or maim them or anyone they love. I don’t think I’ve made Abigail sympathetic enough in just this summary, but we need to do that, too, to persuade the reader to turn the page. One possibility for that would be to put her in the presence of her friend, who’s ignoring her. We reveal her thoughts, as she wonders about the right approach, as her friend smiles and talks with other people, maybe even glancing in Abigail’s direction and looking away.

A great example of all of this is Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Nothing more violent happens than Anne cracking Gilbert Blythe over the head with her school slate. There’s death, but it’s not the focus of the story, and a baby gets the croup, but Anne saves her. What draws us in is how unloved Anne feels herself to be, with some reason, her ardent desire for whatever she wants at any point in the story, her wry self-awareness, and maybe five other things I can’t think of. Certainly the voice of the narrator is engaging. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. You don’t have to be eight years old; it’s worth studying.

Although no lives are at stake, the themes can and should still be big. In my example of Abigail and the sunny day it may be friendship, self-worth, self-understanding, empathy, personal growth, honesty. That we touch these grand motifs will also keep readers reading.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about your character’s wish for one of these: a melted cheese sandwich, eyeglasses, quiet, a single good idea, a set of watercolors. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Show Abigail at home after receiving the hurtful text. Make her sympathetic through her thoughts and her preparations for the longed-for sunny day.

∙ Write the argument between Abigail and her friend when it finally comes. Make the emotional wounds deep, as if this were a battlefield and the words were swords. If you like, then bring about a reconciliation. If you don’t like, use the argument and the injuries sustained to launch your plot, in which the pain is never physical. You can end finally with renewed friendship or separation and growth, or, tragically, just separation.

Have fun, and save what you write!


If you’d like to see spring in all its glory at our house, just click on my husband’s website on the right. And scroll down to see the latest (two) photos of Reggie. The second one shows his maniacal glee in a play fight with his BFF Demi.

On to the post. On February 11, 2013, Kenzi Anne wrote, I have trouble finishing stories because I get my characters into pickles and I’ll think “wow! this is great!…snap, now how do they get out of it?” In other words…I’m not clever enough to get my characters out of their pit. If I’d been in most of my characters’ situations, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do, and probably would have just thrown up the white flag–not a very interesting story! So I guess my question is, how do I write a character that’s cleverer than I am?

And writeforfun replied, I tend to have that problem, too! My current story is a spy novel, so I have to get my characters in and out of pickles all the time, and it gets tricky! Lucky for me, I have a genius brother who can usually think of a way out when I can’t. So, although this may not be an option for you, my first piece of advice would be to find someone you can trust (that won’t tell you “forget it – this is terrible!”) who could help you brainstorm a way out. Another method I’ve found is to give the characters objects in advance that will help them out of the tricky situation. I have one character who always carries a file with him (long story), and when he was put into an old jail, he used the file to break out. It would have been weird if he had been in the jail and said, “Oh, well would you look at that? I have a file in my pocket!” but he’s been carrying around a file since he first showed up in my last book. Since it was already there, it doesn’t make you think, “Seriously? A file?” but rather something like, “Wow, who would have thought that would actually come in handy?” It seems that if you mention the thing (or person, or animal, or whatever) that will help them out BEFORE they actually need it, it seems clever instead of cheesy. And, if all else fails, I usually alter the situation a tad so that my impossible situation has one little escape hole in it to work with. I know, all of these suggestions might not necessarily help – maybe even none of them will – but I hope this gives you some ideas. Good luck!

I’m entirely with writeforfun. I don’t have a brother, genius or otherwise, but I do use her other two ideas: arm my MC in advance with something that will get her out of trouble, and build an escape hatch into any pickle I put her in.

You don’t have to see ahead to do either one. If she doesn’t already have a file in her pocket, you can go back fifty pages and give her one. The file in writeforfun’s example works especially well because it was planted in an earlier book, so it’s really well established.

It’s particularly nice if the instrument comes as a surprise, if it’s not obviously a weapon or a means of escape. For example, suppose our MC, Rona, is wearing a ceremonial sash that has to be tied in a particular way, and it’s very long because it has to go over her shoulder, around her waist three times, and over the other shoulder and then hang behind her almost to the ground. The reader has seen the tying-of-the-sash ceremony and worried with Rona that it will slip off her shoulder and trail through something disgusting. There may even be taboos about this. In the next chapter, she’s imprisoned. Despondent, she thinks of hanging herself with the scarf until her own thoughts frighten her, and it occurs to her to use the sash as the means of her escape. There’s a grate overhead and one in the floor, and the window is barred. Plus, the guard comes in once a day to bring her bread and water and remove the chamberpot, and he has a neck the scarf could wind around and – mnah hah hah – tighten.

This scarf has more charming possibilities. Suppose Rona, in preparation for her ceremony, whatever it is, has learned The Dance of the Sash, which involves snapping it, making it ripple in the air. She could even have mastered tricks that cause the sash to tie itself into knots in the air, potentially weaponizing it.

Or maybe she’s even been taught how to turn it into a python!

But we don’t want to make things too easy for her, either. The snake may do that, unless the reader knows that it’s just at likely to strike Rona as her enemies.

Or the escape hatch. Rona is imprisoned in a cell with a tin roof, solid wooden door, solid plaster walls, and windows too high to reach. No scarf. Nothing that could be a weapon, not even a spoon. Through the high-up windows, she sees the sky darken. Rain starts, and the cell ceiling leaks a lot. She realizes this has happened many times before, and it occurs to her that the floorboards may be rotten. She takes it from there.

We writers have one advantage that enables us to write characters who are cleverer than we are. It’s time. Our characters can snap out sharp comebacks in an instant – because we’ve taken hours to think them up. They’re definitely smarter. In real life we could never answer so fast.

I bump into this constantly with my dragon detective, Masteress Meenore, who is totally brilliant, which makes IT great fun to write. I’m always figuring out ways to make IT shine. IT’s teaching my MC Elodie to deduce and induce and use her common sense, and when IT questions her, she often gets a headache.

Here’s an example from Stolen Magic. The background is that this item, the Replica, has been stolen from within the Oase, which is like a museum, with many rooms of shelves and cupboards. If the Replica isn’t found the consequences will be terrible. I won’t say what they are. This little bit includes Masteress Meenore, Elodie, and another character her age (twelve), Master Robbie. The three are in a stable outside the Oase. Masteress Meenore is the first speaker:

“When you return, do not waste your energy searching shelves, although there are many and a month could be spent combing them. Let others do it, because it must be done, but the thief, who is no fool, will not have hidden the Replica there, not even in the most shadowy corner of a cupboard in the most distant chamber. Why is that?”

Can you think of the answer? Close your eyes to think, think, think.

You may have come up with something else, but this is my solution:

The two were silent. Master Robbie’s face wore a strained look, which Elodie recognized.
“Think, Lodie, Master Robbie!”
She wanted to be the one to realize. Think! she thought. Prove I have an original mind!
Ah. “Because, Masteress, the thief couldn’t guess where the searchers would look first. Anyone might stumble on the Replica in an unlikely spot just by luck.”

We’re forever giving our characters powers we don’t have. Ella in Ella Enchanted has an amazing talent for languages. I don’t. Areida in Fairest can throw her voice beyond the ability of any ventriloquist. Why not intelligence?

Here are four prompts:

• You were expecting this. Imprison Rona and get her out using nothing but her sash.

• Try an underwater rescue. Your MC, who doesn’t know how to swim, is tied up in the trunk of a car that goes off a bridge into a river. Write a preceding scene or two to set up what will make her able to survive, the escape hatch or her special ability. Then get her out of there by her own efforts and have her save herself. I mean, she can get an octopus on her side, who can open the trunk and untie the knots, but she has to persuade the octopus.

• This one is sad. Write an argument between two characters, maybe they’re romantically involved, maybe they’re siblings, whatever. One of them feels betrayed; the other feels falsely accused. Make them both brilliant, much smarter than any of us. The fight never gets physical, but have them wound each other emotionally, because neither holds back. Depending on where you want to take it, you can bring them to reconciliation, or they can wind up estranged.

• Too bad Easter is over. This is an armchair Easter egg hunt. You have rivals or two teams of rivals. Twelve eggs have been hidden. The challenge for the contestants is to write down – without going to look – where each egg is hidden. The winner is the one (or the team) who predicts the location of more eggs than the loser. You can make the stakes high even though they’re just eggs. A life may hang in the balance. You probably should use a setting you know very well, either a fictional setting you’ve been writing about or a real place. The place will help your characters guess and so will the nature of whoever is doing the hiding, but the contestants will have to be very clever.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

After my last post, Hope commented in a way that made me think of suspense more than of time, so this new post is about ways to create suspense, eleven ways in no particular order:

1. Time pressure, which I’ve already written about. However, mere time pressure isn’t enough. The reader has to be reminded of it. The deadline, whatever it is, has to loom. You can make it loom in lots of ways: with count-down chapter headings; in scenes that show how unprepared your main character is; in dialogue, when the teacher repeatedly reminds his class of how many days are left until the exams that will determine your main character’s future forever.

2. Distance. Distance can operate a lot like time. Susan, your main character, is traveling toward some critical destination – a long-lost parent, a trial, someone who once hurt Susan. The chapter headings can be miles remaining or train stops to go. The history that makes the destination critical can be told in flashbacks along the way. In this case the destination has to be made to loom.

3. Thoughts. If your main character worries, your reader is likely to worry. The scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the tin man, and the scarecrow repeat “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” is a great example. The words are spoken because it’s a movie, but the refrain could just as well be Dorothy’s terrified thought loop. You don’t want your main character to worry ceaselessly – unless he has an anxiety disorder – but you do want to drop in a few thoughts about possible disaster every so often. As an added benefit, worries are a great way to end a chapter when you don’t have an actual cliffhanger handy.

4. Nonstop action. A crime novel called Slayground by Richard Stark, obviously not for kids, is a book-length chase through an amusement park that has only one exit. I finished the book in a single sitting. I didn’t like the main character much, but I hated the goons who were after him, and I had to find out how and if he escaped. The amusement park setting provided a zillion opportunities for inventive booby traps and narrow escapes.

Your story may not allow the action to be this quick and pounding all the way through, but you may be able to rev things up here and there.

5. Separation from the problem. Suppose your main character, Lucy, has an enemy, and suppose Lucy has to go on a class wilderness week. What is the enemy doing while she’s away? What’s going to greet her on her return? If you aren’t writing in first person, you can even show what Lucy is going to walk into. Of course, the wilderness week has to be interesting too.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the main character, Addie, sets out to find the cure for her sister’s incurable disease. While the two sisters are apart and when Addie is deprived of her magic spyglass, she keeps worrying that her sister’s condition has worsened. I wanted the reader to worry too. What if Meryl has already died?

6. A flaw in your main character. If you’ve seen the Back to the Future movies, Marty cannot tolerate being called a coward and always loses control when he is. The audience cringes, waiting for his next implosion. In Two Princesses again, Addie actually is a coward. The reader fears that she won’t find the courage to help her sister.

7. A flaw in an important secondary character. Suppose your main character’s boyfriend is treacherous or unpredictable – affectionate one minute, hateful the next. His character flaw is a source of tension. Any sort of flaw can work: forgetfulness, clinginess, selfishness, stinginess, and so on, but you have to set it up so that your main character needs something that the flawed character can’t be counted on to supply.

8. Isolation. Your main character can wander away from the other campers in her wilderness group and get lost. Wild cats live in these hills. Their habitat is shrinking, and they’re hungry. In the backwoods there’s no cell phone reception. Aaa!

9. Expectation. Mom expects her son to be a brilliant student in every subject. Or, going the opposite way, Mom expects him always to fall short. His best friend expects him to sacrifice his needs for hers again and again. Or the main character can have hard-to-live-up-to expectations of himself. His efforts to break away from expectation can have your reader chomping on her fingernails.

10. Injustice. Your main character has been falsely accused. She’s misunderstood. She’s been ripped off. In my Dave at Night, Dave’s precious carving of Noah’s ark has been stolen. Much of the book’s tension comes from the search for it and worry about the repercussions that may follow its recovery.

11. A terrible situation, such as slavery, war, an internment camp, abandonment. A story can still go slack in this kind of environment, but the cruel camp guard or hunger or disease can help you get back on track.

It will probably be worthwhile to reread a few books that you couldn’t put down long enough to brush your teeth. Study the author’s suspense techniques and consider how you might apply them to your story.

And here are two prompts:

Think of five more suspense builders. You can remember exciting stories of your own or by other people. Consider how they or you ratcheted up the excitement. Write down the techniques. Or think of new stories and come up with your own fresh builders.

Use one or more of your or my suspense makers in a new story or in a story you’re working on. Have fun and save what you write!