Down With Length, Up With Thrills

Before I start the post, tomorrow evening I’ll be speaking and answering questions on Zoom about A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, hosted by Belmont Books. I’ll also be happy to take questions about writing and any of my books. Bookplate signed books will be available. Here’s the link: You need to register to participate–it’s free. I’d love to see some of you in the little boxes!

On December 23, 2019 Alyce wrote, My book has a kidnapping plot, but it’s nearly 100k words. I’m trying to make it shorter and up the tension. Do you have any ideas?

Three of you weighed in.

Katie W.: What I would do is look at each chapter individually and examine what happens in each chapter. If you write a single sentence summary of each one, you can see where stuff does or doesn’t happen. This makes it shorter by removing the boring stuff, so you solve both problems at the same time. If that doesn’t help, I would take a look at subplots, backstory, and exposition, looking for places that are too long or too boring. Either way, the goal is to remove excess that’s slowing down the plot and extending the word count.

Erica: If it has a kidnapping plot, then you probably have a time limit. In those situations, tension can be added by putting a countdown at the top of each chapter, something like “Chapter 11: 25 hours left”. Although it makes your story marginally longer, it does increase the tension.

future_famous_author: And even if stuff is happening, like the scene isn’t boring, it can still be excess. I’m sure there are plenty of scenes in my WIP that don’t matter to the plot but are still fun to read and write. Things about what the reader needs to know, what pieces are necessary to reach the end, and take out anything that isn’t helping you to reach the climax and THE END.
Also, that’s a lot of words!!! My WIP right now only has 30K, and it’s the most I’ve ever gotten!!! I tend to get tired of stories before I’m even a fourth of the way done, but it sure sounds like you’re just in the revising and editing stages! Nice work!

These are terrific! I agree about taking the book apart and examining each scene. And time pressure is a great way to increase reader worry. And, of course, writing so many pages, whether or not they are too many, is an achievement. Congratulations!

There was a brief but thrilling bidding war over Ella Enchanted at the start of my writing career. In the end, the advance turned out to be the same from the two publishers, but one wanted me to cut a third of the book and the other, HarperCollins, said nothing about that.

I went with HarperCollins. But before I did, I thought about what I might cut, and I decided the book could do without the elves–no night in their forest, no Agulen pottery.

With HarperCollins, happily, I kept the elves–but I cut a third of the book anyway.

I was inexperienced, and I didn’t realize how much could be stripped off just by snipping here and trimming there. Nowadays, my revision process always involves a lot of deleting. No major amputations may be required, though hundreds of pages wind up on the cutting room floor.

So we can start there. I’ve said before (and I didn’t make this up) that the strongest parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs, and the weakest are adjectives and adverbs. We can scrutinize each sentence for culprits. As an example, in my last sentence, the verb is scrutinize. Instead of scrutinize, I could have written look closely at–three words instead of one and the result has lost power. Especially, we should question words that emphasize, like very, and ones that dilute, like almost and slightly. I’m often guilty of very, but usually we don’t need it. Pretty is just as intense as very pretty, and if we want to turn up the volume, we can use stunning or gorgeous–or one of the many synonyms.

I took a little side journey in thinking about the question and found this fascinating article about readability: I’d take the readability gauges cited with a grain of salt, though. The level seems to depend greatly on number of three-syllable words, and many of those are easy. Terrific has three syllables, for example, and I wouldn’t call it a hard word.

We can also check for repetition. I think it was Christie V Powell who mentioned in a recent comment that we should watch out for scenes that accomplish the same plot objective as other scenes. More than one isn’t necessary and can go. But it must be saved somewhere else!

We can check for repetition at the sentence level, too. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve been astonished at how often I say exactly the same thing twice in entirely different words, so I fool myself. One sentence should be nixed. (I save even these.)

As some of you know, I’ve been reading from my books every day on Facebook. So far, I’ve read Ella, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and Writing Magic. Last week, I started The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Except for Lost Kingdom, these are books I wrote a long time ago, and I’ve noticed how my writing has changed. There’s a scene in Fairest in which Aza observes zhamM, who is a judge in the gnomish courts, decide a case. As I read, I thought, What do I need this for? It adds nothing to moving the plot forward. I don’t remember if my editor wanted me to ditch the chapter. If she did, I must have refused. Its only virtue is that it does a little world-building (and it’s somewhat interesting), but it comes late in the book when the world is established.

Please learn from what I say, not what I did. Beware of self-indulgence!

Scenes should develop our characters, advance our plot, and build the story’s world (mostly at the beginning). Best of all is when one scene does more than one of these. Keeping that in mind as we revise will naturally heighten tension.

Next week, I’m going to start revising the first draft of my novel about the Trojan War, which is roughly three hundred pages long. When I wrote it, as a pantser, I was finding my way, not sure what I would need. Now that I’m done, I know. That perspective will guide my revisions. If a scene doesn’t do anything, I’ll kill it.

But sometimes increasing tension adds words. When we reveal our MC’s worries, the reader will worry too–and won’t mind the length. When we paint a scene in rich detail, the pressure will mount. Say our MC has to descend a cliff, and we show her experimentally toss a stick ahead of her and see it break into bits. The reader will be silently screaming, Watch out! as she puts a leg over the edge.

• Below are the first four paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When I read the novella a few years ago, I was amazed at how wordy it is. Your job is to shorten this part. If you feel like posting what you come up with here, I’d love to see it.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole[12] administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s Church-yard, for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

• Some of Dickens’ novels were serialized before they came out in book form. He had to produce thirty-two pages each month, which may have made a habit out of the prolixity (look it up, if you don’t know it–a great word!) we see here. The first four paragraphs, in my opinion, don’t do much in terms of plot and just a little in the way of character development. If you’ve never read the story and aren’t in the mood, you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia. Write your own first scene that does develop Scrooge’s character and begins the action.

• In Greek mythology, Hercules, in a fit of madness, murders his sons. To atone, he undertakes twelve labors. If you don’t know the myth well, you can google the twelve labors of Hercules. In my opinion, twelve is too many! Write the story condensing to the ones you think are the most important.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek! Stabbing the Raised Stake

On August 3, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, I have a problem spot here. The book I’m working on concerns the relationship between my main character Keita and her twin brother’s fiancé. My beta-reader suggested a wedding scene right before the climax to heighten the stakes when the couple is in danger. I like the idea but I don’t want to add more than a few hundred words to this chapter. So, any tips on cramming something as culturally significant as a wedding into a few paragraphs? Or should I skip it? So far I have this build up:

Zuri tried to look serious but she was bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It’s been a year since we were betrothed,” she said, “and without your parents here, you’re the head of the family…”

“You want to marry now?” Keita demanded. “Your people do all sorts of fancy stuff you couldn’t do here.”

“I know.” Zuri sighed. “But Glen said we can have more elaborate celebrations at the next festival.”

“You just have to give permission,” Glen said, “and…”

“Just give permission,” Keita repeated scornfully. “If I’m in charge, we do all the old traditions… the one where you’re chained together until the next festival…”

Zuri paled. “Three weeks?”

“And you can’t keep your bride unless you defend her from all the cousins carrying arrows…”

“No,” Glen said.

“Then the kidnapping…”

“Keita, come on. We’re at war, remember?”

“In that case, I say no.”

She let them squirm almost a minute before she said, “You’ve forgotten one thing. I’m not an adult yet. You’d have to ask Aunt Laurel.”

Keita tried to smother her laughter but it burst out anyway. Both gave her dirty looks before they fled the courtyard.

A back-and-forth followed:

Melissa Mead: A wedding right before the climax sounds like drama on top of drama, with no time to let the first one sink in. If the wedding’s important, maybe have all-out fun describing it in the previous chapter, then have the newlyweds enjoying some quiet domestic bliss when BANG! Danger happens. Unless the wedding scene is just a quiet happy interlude, with no great drama? Then the climax WOULD be a contrast.
And if they’re newlyweds and get separated to who-knows-what fate, ouch!

OTOH (just brainstorming here) maybe if they’re NOT married before the climax, and they’ve been planning it for weeks or months, and then they’re in danger, we’ll have an extra reason to root for them to survive and have their wedding. What kind of danger are we talking about?

Have you read Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic? That’s got a wedding contrast to break your heart.

Christie V Powell: I have read it, but it was years ago and the details get fuzzy.

I think this chapter is going to start with the wedding and end with a battle in which Keita and Zuri are captured. I’m just not sure how much of the wedding will occur before the battle begins… or if there’s a small ‘bliss’ scene in between. I don’t want it to be too melodramatic or cliche (I just showed the kids ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and thought about ‘Harry Potter 7’: both weddings get interrupted toward the end). Glen and Zuri have been romantic through the book and Keita finds it disgusting/annoying the whole time.

April: It’s kind of difficult to give advice without more context. But basically you need to make Keita and Zuri have a rocky relationship, right? So give lots of little opportunities to have them cut at each other, with increasing intensity. So here, Keita threatened Zuri (and Glen) with a dangerous wedding, but then revealed the joke so as not to seem mean (but still clearly passive aggressive). You need more passive aggressiveness from Zuri to Keita, and from Keita to Zuri. The characters need to go from “is she just teasing me?” to “oh, no, she didn’t” and retaliation.

Off topic, but why the names Keita, Zuri, and Glen? Glen seems very Caucasian, whereas Keita is a Japanese masculine name (in fact, when I read these excerpts from your story posted here and there, I have trouble remembering that your MC is female, not male).

Christie V Powell: Thanks for the tip. The girls were good friends and they still want to be, so this divider is really hard for both of them. I’ll see where I can add more conflict between the two. Thanks.

I was going for name meanings over origin. When I first chose the name Keita, the baby-name website I preferred listed it as a female Sanskrit name meaning forest. That was years and years ago and the site has changed, but the name stuck. Glen is also a forest term. Zuri is short for Azura, because she’s from a different kingdom with water abilities.

Me: I’m adding this question to my list–mostly in terms of stakes-raising, which is super important! In the meanwhile, though, I’m not sure chapter length is the most important factor in making a plot decision.

Christie V Powell: Thanks. I don’t usually base things on length, but I’m in the final stages and have already designed the cover (including spine width).

I was working on this scene today and I think I’ve got it where I want it. I had to move a couple scenes around that I hadn’t planned on, but it’s smoother. The women are still preparing for the wedding when the attack begins.

I’m glad the problem got resolved and the resolution came for plot reasons not chapter or book length or other mechanical considerations. For any of us who think about this mechanical stuff, length shouldn’t be determined, for example, by word count for a particular genre or age range. A story needs to be as long as it needs to be in order to be told, no longer or shorter.

Having said that, a chapter book for a seven-year old who isn’t a genius can’t reasonably be 200 pages long. But achieving a proper length will come organically from considering the kind of story that’s in synch with the level of sophistication of a child at that age. We’re probably not going to have so many plot twists that the result is a long book. We’re also going to read other books for that age group to prime ourselves for getting it right.

And I’m in favor of as few words as we need. My manuscripts always shrink in revision as the verys, the reallys, the almosts get the boot. Do you guys know The Elements of Style, AKA Strunk and White? It’s a gem of concision. I just copied this snippet of a Boston Globe review: “No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume.”

Hah! The review is backwards! I’d say, No book in more space, with more words, will help any writer as much as this persistent little volume.” It’s a 105-page style-and-usage book that came out in its present form in 1959, and its Amazon sales ranking, as students set off for college, is 38! I hope I’ve internalized most of its precepts. I used to read its sentences out loud for the pleasure of their economy and elegance.

Onto the crux of Christie V Powell’s question. I love raising stakes!

I applaud Christie V Powell’s decision to bring on the attack before the wedding. We can hike the tension just as much before as after, but the former gets us there quicker.

I’d even argue that stakes are intrinsically higher before the wedding–before fulfillment rather than after. I think this goes for any uncompleted versus completed goal. Suppose our MC Sami is the first in her family to attend college. She’s doing well in her senior year, completing a double major in international finance and Chinese. Do we want disaster to strike just before graduation or just after?

I say just before. As she’s in the middle of the crisis she thinks, I was so close. Almost made it. I find that more poignant and wrenching than her thought, At least I got my degree–though both activate the worry part of my brain. But with the first, she has more to lose as she makes choices in the story climax.

In general, how do we raise the stakes?

1. The reader has to care about our characters. In the excerpt Christie V Powell shared, I find it endearing that Zuri bounces on the balls of her feet, which is such an exuberant, young person’s gesture. As a reader, I don’t want anything to destroy that enthusiasm.

And the affection these characters feel for each other is appealing and helps them be likable. I don’t want their connection broken by separation or (gasp!) death.

2. We can strengthen a connection between our characters with thoughts, which will also raise the stakes. Going back to Sami, we can have her call her dad to tell him that she may not graduate. She can notice how grumpy he sounds when he says hello and how that changes as soon as he hears her voice. She thinks about how revealing his voice is and dreads hearing it change again when she delivers her news. As he speaks, or before she dials, she can think of the treasured box in which he keeps mementos of her academic achievements: report cards, A+ papers, debate team trophies, graduation photos. The reader can’t help loving them both–even before the conversation starts.

3. When it does start, dialogue can up the ante. Sami can start the conversation ominously by asking her dad if he’s been taking his heart meds. Oy! She cares about him so much that’s the first thing she asks, rather than launching into her problems! Oy! He’s fragile. He can reassure her that he never misses a pill, and besides doctors always try to scare patients. He feels fine. She isn’t to worry. Then he says, “What’s the good news?” A dagger enters the reader’s heart.

4. Sami can react physically to her father’s question. Her toes curl. Her fingers clutching her cell phone turn a lighter color. Her stomach seems to turn over. The reader’s stomach clenches, too.

5. As she speaks, Sami looks around her dorm room at the school pennant, the posters she brought from home, the throw blanket that her grandmother crocheted–this beloved setting.

6. We ratchet up the threat level as our story progresses. At the beginning, we establish the conflict, whatever it is. Maybe there’s a scene in which the problem appears. Let’s say Sami’s best friend catches her in a little lie, nothing consequential; the lie doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings or get Sami herself out of any difficulty, but it does give her credit in a situation that she doesn’t entirely deserve. Her friend just says, “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and the story moves on. However, the reader notices. As the plot progresses, the lies pile up. The reader loves Sami for all her great qualities and her humanity and becomes more and more worried about the web she’s tangling herself up in.

To take off from Christie V Powell’s story, the reader finds out about the enemy early in the story, while peace talks are going on. There is an enemy, but it’s likely to work out. Then the peace talks dissolve, but the enemy is disorganized. However, gradually, the threat looms more and more.

7. Details bring it all together. The noise of the wedding prep covers the enemy’s approach. Pots clatter. Drummers practice their rhythms. Children shout and babies wail. Glen receives a gift that means a lot to him and distracts him from his usual vigilance. Keita says something she shouldn’t to Zuri, and a chasm opens between the two. Just then, the dogs start barking in alarm.

Finally, and this has nothing to do with stakes-raising, I enjoyed the humor in Christie V Powell’s excerpt, especially the bizarre wedding rituals!

Here are three prompts, though you can spin prompts from lots of the situations above:

∙ Write the conversation between Sami and her dad. Break the reader’s heart.

∙ Write the scene that sets the stage for her being denied graduation. You can use my idea that a lie she’s told is behind it, or any other reason.

∙ Write the scene when Snow White’s evil stepmother is told for the last time by the magic mirror that she’s the fairest in the land. Foreshadow that trouble is on the way.

Have fun, and save what you write!


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!

Aaa! Action!

As you see above, the website is up and running.  Please let me know what you think if you haven’t commented already or have more to say.  It’s still a work in progress.

Announcement: Yesterday was Betsy Red Hoodie Day, when my second Betsy book (the first was Betsy Who Cried Wolf!) was released.  You can read about both books on the website.

And check out my upcoming appearances on the “What’s New” page.

When you ask a question on the blog and I say I’m going to add it to my list, the list is a document called “blog ideas,” and each week I mark off the last question I answered and go on to the next.  Today when I went to the next question, it was this from Sami: “How do you write a love story if you have never been in love?!?!? I want to but don’t know how..”  I realized this was one I already covered – on Wednesday, June 9th, in a post called “Un-sappy Romance.”  So Sami, I’m not ignoring your question, and please take a look at that post.  If you – or anyone – have more questions on the subject, please let me know.

The next question, on May 6th from Abigail, was about covers, but I discussed covers on August 4th, “Cover Musings.”  Abigail, if you have more questions about covers, please post them.

Now for today’s topic, on May 7th, 2010, Rose wrote, …do you have any suggestions on writing action or fight scenes in books? Things that happen fast are especially hard to capture, because it takes so long to say that it happened, even if it happens quite quickly. I think I especially need help on writing large battle scenes because I have no idea where to start. However, if you haven’t done this sort of thing much, that’s fine too – I was just fishing for whatever help I could get.

I wrote a battle scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre and my recent Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, and I wrote a fight scene in Dave at Night.  In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, the battle is between the fairies, aided by a human girl, and a dragon.  It lasts a few pages in two segments and gave me more trouble than the entire rest of the book.  Speed was one problem and where everyone was was another.

The battle takes place on a plateau, so I needed to make up landmarks.  I invented a tree, the only one for miles, a petrified log, and a pile of stones.  Then I drew a map, a rough one, no work of art, and I had the three landmarks form a triangle.  No matter what happened, I knew where the action was relative to at least one landmark, because if I don’t know where the characters are and if I can’t visualize the scene, the reader doesn’t stand a chance.

In Dave at Night, the fight scene, really a beating, takes place in the orphanage superintendent’s office, a small space, but I still drew a map: desk, knickknack case, electric fireplace, door.

Short sentences can help move things along and give the feeling of the rush of  action.  This is a snippet from the battle against monsters in The Two Princesses of Bamarre:

…Her sword flashed.  Blood spurted from the ogre’s neck.  He pitched over.  She stood and ran at the falls.
    I raced to catch up.  An ogre leaped between us, his head and shoulders swathed in cloud.  Another cloud-ogre lurched about nearby.

Short phrases in long sentences work too.  Here’s an example, also from Two Princesses:

    Rhys hovered, just higher than the ogres’ heads, pointing his baton at one ogre, then another, wrapping them in cloud.

A battle can have a cast of thousands, but of course it’s impossible to show what a thousand people are doing, so the author needs a camera with a zoom lens.  Zoom way out to show the armies assembling, then in on the important characters.  It’s been a long while since I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but if I remember correctly he’s a master of shifting in close and out again, and it may be worthwhile to read a few of his battle scenes.

You have to wield that camera even in a fight, when there aren’t many characters.  Say your main character, Jesse, is attacked by three bullies.  If you’re writing from his point of view, you can show only as much as he’s taking in.  As the bullies approach, the camera zooms out to see them all.  Once the melee starts, the camera comes in close.  Jesse may see two coming at him, but the third has circled to attack from behind.  The view may narrow next to one boy.  If Jesse falls he may see only the left sneaker of one bully or two inches of pavement.  Same for sounds.  Before the action starts, with his senses on full alert, he may hear children playing, a mosquito whining, an ice cream truck going by.  But once the first bully makes the first threat, he’ll be listening only for noises that endanger him.  If a fire truck passes, sirens blaring, he probably won’t hear it. 

Same for smells.  Once the fight starts he probably will no longer be aware of the newly mown grass a few yards away.  But he’ll be noticing the sour odor of his own sweat.

If you’re writing in third-person omniscient, the task is harder, because you have to decide at every turn where to point the camera.  But you still need to focus in here, pull back, and focus out there.

Even though the pace is breakneck, don’t omit details, because they’ll bring the scene to life.  In this, think of the camera as a movie camera.  The camera is rolling until you freeze the frame to linger on a bully’s screaming mouth, his sweaty upper lip, his nostrils, which seem enormous, his chipped front tooth or his gleaming braces.  Action rushes on again until you stop to take in the detail that may save Jesse, a bully’s trailing, untied shoelaces or, say, a tree that can be an escape route for Jesse, an expert climber.

When you choose your details, pick carefully.  You want details that increase the tension or advance the action.  To increase the tension at the beginning, for example, a bully might go a few steps out of his way to kick a cat.  Or, while they’re beating Jesse, they’re talking about what a nice house he lives in or how pretty his sister is.  Yikes!

Jesse isn’t going to stop thinking during the fight, and you shouldn’t stop reporting his thoughts, but they’re likely to be stripped-down thoughts, limited mostly to the immediate situation.  He may think about where he can move, what the bullies are going to do next.  There may be other thoughts too, depending on the situation.  If Jesse has something in his backpack that’s precious to him, he may think about how to protect it.  He may even give away his thoughts and further endanger the thing.  Or maybe he had a conversation with his aunt that morning, and she urged him to make friends at school.  During the fight he may fleetingly and ironically remember her advice.

The only exception to this that I can think of is if something devastating happened to Jesse just before he’s ganged up on.  Let’s imagine the worst: his mother died, and he just got the news.  In that case, he may hardly notice the bullies, may not care that he’s being beaten.

As for feelings, the reader needs them, wants to experience Jesse’s fear, his desperation, his churning stomach, icy feet, shallow breath.  Again, stripped down.  If Jesse deliberately breathes deep, remembering his brief martial arts training, that’s okay.  But we don’t want a digression to a martial-arts lecture.

In fact, we want no long thoughts, elaborate feelings, certainly no flashbacks – because they suck the tension out of the scene.  When I read an exciting part in a book, my reading speeds up.  If the author throws in complications I may miss them, and if I have to slow down for a detour, I may just jump ahead.  In an action scene, I’m thrilled.  I want to be on a roller coaster with nothing to interrupt the wild ride.

Two prompts:

•    Tighten an action scene you’ve already written.  Take out anything extraneous.  If you need to, add thoughts, feelings, sensations that heighten the tension.  Try shortening your sentences.  Paragraphs too.  Then put the revision aside for a day.  The next day go back to it and tighten even more.

•    Write about Jesse.  You can change his name, his sex, his age, whatever you like, but have him attacked by three bullies and make the setting an amusement park or a playground.

Have fun, and save what you write!