Join the Suspense/Thriller Writers Group on Facebook

I accidentally became administrator of the Suspense/Thriller Writers Group on Facebook (just goes to show you need to be careful what links you click!), but now that I am in charge of the group, I intend to make it a resource for all writers. If you don’t think you write suspense, think again. Whatever genre you write, you still write suspense. Suspense at its most basic is making readers worry about what is going to happen to your characters. If they don’t worry, they have no reason to read. Besides, all genres make use of the same basic story elements: plot, characterization, scenes, description.

So I am extending an invitation to all writers, published or unpublished, neophyte or master, to join the group. If you’re like most people who join Facebook to make connections, you don’t have any idea how to go about it, so this group will help you get to know people, and it might teach you something — or give you a chance to tell others what you know.

Here’s where you find the group:
Suspense/Thriller Writers 
Here’s where you find my profile (add me as a friend):
Pat Bertram
Here are some of our discussions:
How Real Life Experiences Influence Fiction
Using Facebook for Promotion
Gifts From the Muses
Layering, The Art of Building an Onion From the Inside Out
Titles: What Makes a Good One
What is a Storyteller’s Obligation to History?
How Do We Make Our Writing the Best We Can?
How Do You Promote Your Book When You’re Shy?
What Makes a Story or Scene Suspenseful?
Fan Fiction: Parody or Tribute?

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Where Do You Insert Dialogue?

Someone asked me where they should insert dialogue into the novel they were writing. I went blank for a moment, unable to comprehend the question. Insert dialogue? To a great extent, dialogue is the story.  The most personal way people interact is by dialogue, and a story is or should be about people interacting,  about relationships. Even  action-oriented stories come down to a basic relationship: the hero vs the villain. 

A better question might be where to insert exposition, but even that is a specious question. Nothing in a novel should be inserted. Each element should flow one into the other, making a cohesive whole. I’ve heard people say that they’ve finished writing their novel, now all they have left is to go back and insert the symbolism. If you have to insert something for the sake of inserting it, it’s better to leave it out. Symbols, like other elements should flow out of the story. 

Novels need to balanced. Dialogue interspersed with exposition or action makes for a more interesting story than dialogue or exposition or action alone. A novel that is mostly dialogue seems lightweight; a novel with too much exposition feels heavy-handed; a novel that is all action gets boring after a while. 

One way to make sure the elements flow together is to know what you are trying to accomplish. What kind of story are you writing? What is your story goal? What is your premise? What is the core conflict? Once you know the core of your story, you can make sure every element connects to it. Sometimes you won’t know the core until you’ve finished the first draft. In which case, just write, let the words flow out of you and into the story. Then, when the draft is finished, read it to see what you have. Do any themes jump out at you? What is the gist of the story (the core conflict)? How can you use the various story elements help you bring out that conflict? Does every action have a reaction? Does every reaction have a cause? Which element will bring the conflict into sharper focus? If a particular conflict is a physical one, then action interspersed with terse comments is best. If a particular conflict is personal, then dialogue interspersed with bits of action is best. 

Where to insert dialogue, then, is not the real question. The real question is what do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?

On Writing: Flashing Back to Flashbacks

In my post on finding a beginning to a novel, I mentioned as an aside that if you have many flashbacks in your book, you should move the story backward in order present those scenes as they happened chronologically. It’s good advice — my advice on writing is the distillation of the hundreds of writing manuals I have read coupled with my own experience as an unpublished novelist — but reading the comments people left on my blog made me wonder where I really stand.

I do think that ideally a story should begin at the beginning and go to the end with few backtracks. Telling it chronologically gives the story impetus, making us want to read further in order to find out what is going to happen. But the ideal way of telling a story is not always the most practical way.

If I have any reservations about my novel More Deaths Than One, they come from its five long flashbacks. Two flashbacks are told as stories. Scheherazade-like, the hero seduces the heroine with the stories so, as in all elements of a good novel, they do double duty. Two other flashbacks introduce the hero when he was younger and introduce a friend who is murdered. The fifth, I’m embarrassed to admit, is there simply because I like the story it told, though it did introduce a minor character. (And the heroine asked for a story. What can I say? She was insatiable.)

Originally I wrote the book in three parts: present, past, then present again. That didn’t work — the past was so boring it slowed the pace, even though much of it was important. Then I tried using a prologue. That didn’t work either; it seemed as if it were there merely as a hook and not an integral part of the story. So I began the novel in the present and added flashbacks as needed. I don’t know if it works, but right now it’s the only way I know to tell the story.

In my other books, I let the characters tell each other their life stories. It’s a cheat, really, a means of making the past seem more immediate, but at least the characters get to know each other at the same time the reader does. The flashbacks in my work-in-progress are true flashbacks, momentary musings by the hero. I do not plan to write any scenes in the past. I want this one to have as much forward movement as possible to mask its real character — an allegory. (I mean, really, an allegory? Who reads allegories?)

As a reader, I prefer anything that keeps my attention. Often, flashbacks disturb the flow of the story, making me aware of the construct. In the minutes it takes for me to get into the flow of the back-story, I lose interest. But I admit, I have become something of a philistine and no longer admire writing solely for its artistic and intellectual achievements.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

On Writing: Rocks, Rocks, and More Rocks

There are no bad drivers on the road. All drivers consider themselves to be good drivers, because whatever skill they possess — fast driving, adhering to all traffic rules, weaving in and out of traffic — that is their measure of a good driver. Writing is the same. We use our own skills to determine what is or is not good writing, hence we are all good writers. But some skills supersede opinion: the basic elements of story telling, for example.

The granddaddy of all story elements is conflict. Without conflict you have a story statement, you have a description, you have meaningless dialogue. What you don’t have is a story.

Because of the contests I have been involved with, I have been privileged to read the first chapters of many books by new authors. I’m sorry to say that most of them couldn’t hold my interest. Perhaps reading a chapter or two is not a fair way to test a book, but it is the only way. As readers, we need a book to capture our interest at the beginning then give us a stake in the story and its outcome so that we continue reading. Otherwise, we put the book aside and forget to come back to it.

Most of the new writers offered rebuttals, trying to prove me wrong. To them, their first chapter was important: it set the scene, it introduced the characters, it gave vital information. Perhaps that is all true, but to me, as a reader, the chapter was meaningless. I didn’t know the characters, didn’t care about them, developed no interest in them because there was no conflict. Unless characters want or need something, have something they care about, we don’t care. And if the characters get what they want or need without working for it, we don’t care, either.

Even if your first chapter has no other purpose than to set up the story or to introduce characters, it still must have conflict. According to Donald Maass, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, there should be some conflict on every page. Sometimes authors use arguments between characters to show that conflict, but unless the argument changes the character in some way, no matter how small, the argument comes across as verbiage. If the argument is important to the book, then make it important by tying it to the characters needs and wants or move it to a less crucial part of the book.

One author described a story as getting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at it, then getting it down.

So do yourself and us readers a favor. Get your character up in that tree in the first chapter and throw a rock at it. Then we’ll read further to find out what happens next. That’s all we want. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.

Lack of good driving leads to road rage. Lack of good writing leads to reader apathy. Both conditions are dangerous.