Building a Story from the Inside Out

Jordan Dane, national bestselling and award-winning thriller writer, is guesting my blog today. I know guesting isn’t a word, but I’m still pleased that she consented to be my guest blogger. She is also hosting a discussion on my Suspense/Thriller Writers  group on Facebook, so stop by and add your bit to the onion, or leave a comment for her here. Jordan writes:

Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out? (Come on. Humor me!!)

This little exercise of writing the dialogue first came from having to split my time between my day job and writing. On my special writing days, I’d grab lunch by myself and take a notepad with me. (I wasn’t really alone. Like Sybil, writers never are. Oh, I just scared myself.)

People would always comment that my scenes jumped right into the action with pace, sharp concise narratives and to-the-point dialogue. In trying to explain to another writer how I do this, I had to understand it myself. That’s when I realized how much my little lunchtime exercise had trained my brain to think this way-in terms of breaking down elements to any scene.

I had broken apart the dialogue from the rest of the narrative as a more efficient use of my time before I got home that night to finish the scene. Consequently, the dialogue got my full attention. And I usually tend to visualize the scene in my head as a TV program or movie. Visualizing it like a movie stirred my thoughts on the scene and helped orient me into the characters’ motivation too.

I later learned aspects of this method are called LAYERING. You can use it to build that onion as I describe below or use it to add more emotion or tension or atmosphere to your scenes-whatever you want more of-even after you think that scene or book is finished. Layering is one of the last steps I use when I’m doing my final edits on a novel. I read through the book and punch up the various scenes until I’ve come to the last page.

1. FIRST-Use dialogue as the framework for the scene (like a screen writer)

Consider writing the dialogue first so you can concentrate on it (Use this as an exercise only. Once you get this down, you won’t need to do this time and time again.)

Make the dialogue important-There’s nothing like witty banter or a clever verbal skirmish between two adversaries

If your character confronts someone at a high school reunion that they haven’t seen in twenty years when they buried a body after Prom, you better have them say more than, “Gee, nice sweater.” Chitchat would never happen in real life, given this situation, unless these two people are guiltless serial killers. Too much introspection can kill the impact of their first meeting. Personally, I like a challenge like this. And don’t get me started on the whimsical world of the serial killer. But think about it-what WOULD they say to each other?

2. SECOND-Body Language/Action

Body language can be fun, especially if it contradicts what the character is saying in dialogue-Use it! Manipulate it!

Be concise and not too wordy with action, but keep it REAL. If guns are blasting, remember your characters are dodging bullets, not witty banter. Bullets stop for no man…or woman!!!

3. THIRD-Mood & Setting-Use it to accentuate what’s happening.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the mood created with a great setting. It can embellish the emotion in a scene or add an underlying tension (ie an escalating storm or a well-placed gust of wind against a silk blouse or skirt). The beauty is in the details.

4. LAST-Emotional layering-Introspection

Give your character a journey through the scene. Don’t just repeat the same old thoughts over and over in different ways no matter how clever you are. Have their introspection grow or change.

Too much introspection, for me as a reader, slows the pace. But if an editor wants it, read my first point over again and build upon the emotional layers with new material. Insights into a character can be a wonderful gift to your reader.

5. THEN STAND BACK AND TAKE A LOOK-What’s there? Do you have a whole ONION or a lemon?

Make every scene into a tight mini-story with a hook beginning and a memorable page-turning end. Or end it with a beautiful image a reader will remember and feel long after they’ve put the book down.

Or stop in the middle of the action and continue it on the top of the next chapter.

You are in control of your story’s layout. Make it interesting.

NOTE: For more writer resources, please check out my website FOR WRITERS page for craft tips, promotion ideas, and other articles like my “First Sale” story or “How to Make a Book Trailer FOR FREE”.