Pacing and Suspense - The Opening

About a week ago, I blogged about pacing and suspense and some of the many ways I've noticed writers achieving excellent pacing and edge-of-your-seat suspense. My buddy, Annie suggested I expand on each of my points in a separate post. Great idea! Here's number one. Let's begin with what I talked about last week.

Open with tension and suspense. Do you want to grab your readers' interest right away? The best writing lesson I ever had, told me to begin the story when things change. What better way to change things for your characters than by sticking them in a stressful situation? Leave open questions, but not eight million of them.

Please note that from now on all examples I ever give will include zombie vampires, because I'm reserving zombie mermaids for my WIP. And also because I'm beginning to wonder if you can be an undead undead person, and if the two undead natures sort of cancel each other out.

Okay, onto the example. Your novel, Blood is Good, Brains are Better, features a mild mannered tax accountant named Reg. There's all sorts of information to be learned about Reg, apart from his occupation, which you can come right out and "tell", although "showing" is better. We can learn about his mild mannered nature by watching him deal with some of his more aggravating clients, or seeing him shrug his shoulders when, with nothing more than a bird flip, a Biff Tannen type character cuts him off on the highway, clipping the front of Reg's eight-year-old subcompact Chevrolet. Perhaps we'll witness Reg awkwardly, but endearingly deal with women, with whom he has zero success. We might also learn he lives with his clinically insane mother in a rundown apartment in the seedier part of town. We might see how he deals with crazy mommy, refusing to put her in a home, even though she continues her habit of collecting strays, both feline and puzzled human, but is unable to discern the difference.

There's a lot about ol' Reg that sounds intriguing, and chapter one could show us all that. The problem, though, is that what you'll end with is a chapter just chock full of back-story. Sure, it'll be interesting back-story because Reg has a fascinating home life, and seedy neighborhoods sometimes promise dark and bizarre happenings. In the end, though, the reader hasn't much clue as to how blood and brains fit, and given what genre this sounds like, they'll be expecting something to happen. So far, nothing has happened.

What if the chapter began with Reg finishing a conversation with a client whose lost all her savings, and he tells her not to worry about it. Good. We like him. Now he arrives home from work to find his mom introducing him to one of her strays--a man--who she calls Mr. Skittles. Reg is obviously concerned, but he's so used to his mother's actions, he does not protest, and after all, Mr. Skittles is extremely polite, despite his strange accent and piercing eyes. After dinner, in which Mr. Skittles does not partake, mother-nutter goes to bed, leaving Reg alone with Mr. Skittles, and Reg explains how he'll never put his mother in a home. Good. We like Reg even more, but are perhaps a little concerned for him.

The mysterious Skittles, of course, turns out to be a vampire, and he bites the bejeezus out of poor Reg. Our hero staggers out of the apartment, dazed and confused, and into a bar. There, he meets some lovely women and perhaps a Biff Tannen type who all know him and make fun of him slightly because he's acting his normally awkward and shy self. Now we feel empathy for Reg because he's nice and Biff and the ladies are mean. The inner vampire is just starting to take hold, however, and he's feeling somewhat randy. Then one woman in a dark corner of the bar comes onto him. With promises of untold pleasures and maybe a spot of blood, he follows her outside and into a dark alley where a pack of zombies attack and kill him before he's gone full vampire.

Just imagine what he'll be like when he wakes up at 4am.

That right there, my friends, is starting the novel where things change. Things move rapidly, yet hopefully we care about Reg along the way. Think of the suspense you could harness in the scenes with Mr. Skittles, at the bar, and in the alley. If the chapter ends there, your readers might just flip to chapter two. And that's what you are aiming for.


Which E-Reader?

The time has arrived, or it will in a few weeks. It's a big wedding anniversary coming up and Rona's going to buy me an e-reader. Or, I should say, I'll pick one and order it. But I'm torn. Originally, I just thought I'd get a Kindle. Why not? Every literary agent apparently has a broken one they're replacing or maybe they've just bought one for the first time.

Me and Amazon go back a long way. Back when they were simply the earth's largest bookstore, I was a devoted customer. Jeff Bezos and I are such bosom buddies that I actually have an Amazon travel mug-- a good one, too. I never even paid for it - they just sent it to me one day a long while back to go with some refrigerator magnet. Just for being me. Ho Ho Ho. I still have it.

So, there I was all pumped up about it's wireless capabilities, it's built in 3G access, when I uncovered the fact that I could not borrow e-books from my public library in a format the Kindle could handle. Yep. No library books for the Kindle, which supports a MOBI based proprietary format as well as PDF and some others. The rest of the world supports the open ePub format, which is how most libraries offer electronic media managed through Digital Rights Management (DRM).

So then, I began to wonder if I should consider the Nook, from Barnes & Noble. The Nook does support the ePub format, but then I can't buy books for it from Amazon, which, as far as I can tell, only offers media in its propriety format. You can get ePub from B&N, Borders, wherever. And now apparently B&N has reached an agreement to sell the Nook at Walmart as well as its own stores in advance of the holiday shopping season.

I've been staring at review after recent review, and these two e-readers always ride the top of the charts, with the Kindle generally on top, but not by much. There's also the Sony eReader, Kobo (becoming the house brand of Borders if you ask me), Velocity Micro and others. And of course don't forget the iPad, but that's not really a dedicated eReader. For books and such, I'd rather have E-Ink display, which is incredibly easy on the eye, as opposed to the brilliant iPad display.

I am so confused. I'm leaning toward the Nook, but I don't know if my ePub concern is particularly valid. Everyone keeps buying Kindles! (or getting replacement Kindles). Does anyone have any recommendations? Ideas? Predispositions? Biases?


Pacing and Suspense

I was just reading an article on The Hunger Games in Entertainment Weekly -- this is my official source for all things pop culture, and by the way, Stephen King writes a column for it, so nanner-nanner-poo-poo. The overall topic was related to the movie adaptation. Lionsgate has the film rights and the scriptwriting process is well on its way. Nicole Sperling made this striking observation.

The books (which hide a compelling antiwar message behind the veneer of a tween thriller) are exceptionally well written and expertly paced, with near-constant suspense.

In particular, two phrases jumped off the page at me: "expertly paced" and "near constant suspense". I would certainly agree that in the first book, especially once they're in the arena, the suspense is nearly non-stop. The tension in the second book starts immediately because of President Snow, and then jumps through the roof when they're called back for the Quarter Quell. And if you haven't read Mockingjay, well, it's pretty much a non-stop ride on a runaway train. Nobody I know was able to put any of these books down without some form of dire threat.

So how do you manage expert pacing while keeping the reader in a near-constant state of suspense? This is tricky business because if your reader's heart is constantly pumping you run the risk of wearing them out. Here are some ideas, the basis of which require that your characters have excellent voice and are just plain interesting. You won't have much suspense if nobody cares about the people in the book.

Open with tension and suspense. Do you want to grab your readers' interest right away? The best writing lesson I ever had told me to begin the story when things change. What better way to change things for your characters than by sticking them in a stressful situation? Leave open questions, but not eight million of them.

Keep it moving. This should be pretty obvious. If scenes don't advance the plot, cut them. Whether it's commercial or literary, please don't spend a chapter in which nothing happens except the examination of a character outside the context of advancing the story. This is crucial to excellent pacing.

Every chapter needs a little tension. That's right. Every single chapter you write should have a little edge to it, except perhaps the epilogue. I'm going to mention this again later, but tension levels should read like a healthy EKG. Great big pulsating scenes followed my moments of quiet. There's nothing wrong with quiet moments, but they can never flat-line, or your patient's dead. All can seem well, but it's always good to have an undercurrent of some emotion, such as fear or hatred. Let it simmer and occasionally boil over a bit.

Cliffhangers. Often, you think of a cliffhanger in terms of the "To Be Continued" byline at the end of a book, movie or television show. Here's the challenge. Think smaller. Conclude your chapters with a cliffhanger. Clearly, you can't end every chapter that way, nor do I think you ought to. Sometimes, it's nice to end a chapter on a positive note, giving the reader some amount of closure on one particular issue. However, cliffhangers are critically important to adding suspense, especially early on when you are still trying to bait your readers (yes, they are fish, and you are trying to land them). These suckers are so important to getting your readers to turn the page rather than setting the book back down and either going to bed, or coming home from the book store or library empty-handed.

Tension in bunches. They say life's challenges occur in multiples. Stress can happen to your characters three chapters in a row. Three stressful situations can happen to your characters in one chapter. Or, if you want to go for the trifecta, beat your characters about the head by having three stressful situations occur per chapter, three chapters in a row.

Give 'em a  break. Everyone needs to take a breath. Your characters. Your readers. After a solid week of battling evil creatures with mixed results, everyone's sitting around the campfire with their age appropriate beverage of choice. Take advantage of that time. Spill a little back-story. Add some emotion. But make it interesting. Let it serve a purpose. But don't forget a teaspoon of tension. Let it be ever present. I'm also a big fan of ending one of those scenes with a major disruption. It's a great way to let the reader know that they've had a moment to catch their breath, but they better saddle up once more.

Take everything away from your protagonist(s). This works if your main character is a protagonist that appeals to your readers. Take away what they love. Leave them with nothing. Make their lives as wretched as possible. Why? Suspense. Huh? If your protagonist resonates with your readers, they're going to want to see what happens. Will Katniss overcome and survive the Hunger Games? Against all odds, will she save Peeta too?

Mix up your sentence lengths. This is such a nit, but it makes a difference to how your story reads. If every sentence is about seventeen words, joined together with a conjunction, then your reader will start to nod off. If every sentence is about six words, your reader will become irritable. Mix it up. Break up your longer sentences with the occasional short one to make a point. The short ones have a greater impact that way.

Place foot on neck, don't remove. a.k.a. Climax. This is the EKG where the patient is undergoing a stress test. They're jogging on a tread mill, working like hell to keep up. I like big, multi facted, multi-chapter climaxes. The tension should be high. The resolution shouldn't be easy. You need more than one mountain to climb. Once your characters reach the zenith of one mountain, they should discover that there's another bigger one, this time with irritated and generally peckish cannibals waiting halfway up. Even better, they should discover that one among them is a spy for the evil king of the irritated and generally peckish cannibals, and has been leading them to their slaughter since day one. Finally, once they get past those guys, it might be a good time for an asteroid to burst through the atmosphere and set fire to everything. By the way, this is a great time to think in terms of plot twists or the big reveal. Hence, the spy.

Satisfying Resolution. Don't cheat your readers. How you resolve everything--if you resolve everything--needs to make sense in the context of your book. If the reader says, "Sorry, I'm just not buying that." You've missed something. You don't want them feeling like Clark Griswold arriving at Wally World to find it's closed. Do you want to be taken on a roller coaster at gunpoint?

And there you have it: my recipe for pacing and suspense. I could have sworn there were like eighteen more concepts I wanted to raise, but they were probably boring and didn't advance my point.


Pantser Problems

I'm more of a pantser than a plotter (thanks, Authoress), meaning I write as I go -- no multi-page outlines setting forth the entire novel where I just have to connect the dots. Outlines are like those friends with whom I love to hang out, but if they don't shoot me an eMail asking me to have lunch, it'll be three years before I see them again.

For each story concept, the big picture is up in my noggin, floating between my ears. If you were to look at my outline at any given time, you'd find perhaps the next three to six chapters laid out, each with only four or five bullet points describing what I expect to happen. Because I'm a pantser, not all those points will wind up in their designated chapters. My imagination, my muse, my whatever-you-call-it takes the book where it needs to go -- the journey. While pantsing my way through a novel (I now have a vision of a dog dragging itself across the carpet by its butt for some reason), the two things I keep in mind journey-wise include developing my characters the way I want, and getting those crucial plot points to occur, even if they don't happen when I'd planned.

I've often wondered what suffers because of my seat-of-the-pants writing style. The most obvious weakness for me has always been weak setting in the first draft. The focus is still all about characters doing and saying stuff so that the following occurs (in no particular order):

a) the plot moves
b) we know who they are
c) we know what they want
d) we know why they can't always obtain their hearts' desires.

Do I care if you can see and touch the scenery? Do I care if you know what the location smells like? Do I care if you know what color jacket somebody's wearing? I'll be honest. Not right away. I should, of course, but in the first draft I am so busy trying to get the nuts and bolts of the story into words before they fly out of my brain forever. I'm better than I used to be, mind you. As I've become more experienced and developed my writing muscles, setting comes more naturally and winds up in the first draft.

So what else suffers? If the plot is sufficiently complex, character development may suffer. I may be so busy trying to make the plot hang together, I forgot that the overall story arc requires a certain number of deeply developed characters. If you don't know the cast very well or care a whole lot about them, that they're in danger or that they overcome obstacles just won't resonate with you.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I might spend so much time with my characters that the plot does not, in fact, hang together. I can't just have the characters evolve throughout the book for no coherent reason. People don't change without some impetus. Events must occur to kick inertia in the pants. And those events - those crucial plot points - have to make sense. Conversely, events can occur because of the character as opposed to the character changing because of those events. In the end, it all needs to fit.

As a fantasy writer, world building is important. I do not pen richly detailed high fantasy, so I've no need to invent languages and complex societies. However, even in contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism -- all the genres that take place in the familiar world, there's a degree of world building required to get the reader grounded in the time and place, and above all, the RULES. I'm going to follow up with another post on "retroactive world building", but another weakness of being a pantser is that the elements of world building suffer. World building requires a high degree of planning and attention to detail. Depending on when the story takes place, you may need to introduce the world as the story unfolds, through back story or a combination of both.

More to come.


Mythos, Fishing for Ghosts and the query kick-around

Revising. Writing. Plotting. Research. Revising. Writing.

As soon as I post this entry on the pen, I'm whipping out my sasquatch notebook and laying out my firm plans for revising Urban Mythos. I touched on the essential points in my previous blog entry. There's some trepidation about these revisions, but enough people seem to agree they're needed, so it's the real deal. Off I go.

I'd been holding out on the revisions until I completed the true "opening" for Ghost Fishing, my current middle grade WIP. This weekend, words and story flowed and the first two chapters are done. It's in a good state - the story is now launched. It probably took a little longer than it should have to get to that point, but I'm pleased with the bit of character development that's included.

I've also got some heavy location research to do for this middle grade adventure. I'm after small islands off the east coast of the United States with some unique scenery and local flavor. Mind you, I'll create the flavor if I don't find it, but my preference is for the concoction to taste somewhat authentic. If you have any ideas - preferably south of New York's Long Island - please drop me a note, either here or by email - eckertnj at gmail dot com.

For those of you who have enjoyed what you've read of Urban Mythos, or if you're just checking it out for the first time, it would be so cool of you to swing by the YALITCHAT Query Kick-Around contest, where I've got a query for my YA urban fantasy entered. Simply search for "Urban Mythos", and if you think my query sounds promising and you can find it in your heart, soul, or just your fingers, I'd be thrilled if you voted for it. Thank you!