Distilling the Essence of a Story

I have an interview on BlogTalkRadio on Saturday, September 5 at 11:30am ET. We’re going to be talking about back story — where I got the ideas for A Spark of Heavenly Fire and More Deaths Than One. Although one of the hosts of the show has read at least one of my books, I’m sure at some point he will ask me, “What are your books about?” And I will give the same answer I give to everyone who asks. A blank stare. Though, being radio, it will come across as blank silence.

How does one encapsulate a three-hundred-page novel with subplots and subtexts, themes and scenes, complexities and ironies into a minute of description? This distillation is commonly called an elevator speech, and after five months of being published, I still haven’t figured mine out.

I can talk around the story — More Deaths Than One is a thriller/mystery/suspense novel that explores what it is that makes us who we are. Is it our memories? Our experiences? Our natures? A Spark of Heavenly Fire is a thriller/suspense novel with a strong romantic element. It tells the story of ordinary people who become extraordinary because of the trauma they must endure. — But neither of those descriptions gives an idea of what the stories are about.

I can relate a bit of the story — More Deaths Than One tells the story of Bob Stark who sees his mother’s obituary in the morning paper, which stuns him because he buried her two decades ago before he the country to live in Southeast Asia. So how can she be dead again? A Spark of Heavenly Fire tells the story of how Kate Cummings, an ordinary woman, gathered her courage and strength to survive the horror of a bioengineered disease let loose on the state of Colorado.

The problem I’m finding is that I don’t know the essence of either story, the emotional triggers. What do the books do for readers? Why should people read them? Perhaps the books will bring romance and adventure to readers’ lives. By showing ordinary people rising to horrific occasions, perhaps readers will feel better about themselves, knowing they too have the potential for heroism. And, in the case of A Spark of Heavenly Fire, people will know what to expect if ever the Swine Flu or any other virulent disease spreads so rapidly that an entire state needs to be quarantined in an effort to curtail the deaths.

So, how do you distill the essence of your book (or any book!) into a few words and make a reader desperate to read it?

More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire are available from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.
You can also download the first 30% free at Smashwords.

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When Writing Suspense, More is More

The other day I broke my rule about giving critiques (I’ve lost too many friends by being honest) and responded to a writer who asked my opinion of his work. I gave him a few suggestions about comma usage and speaker attributes, then I put my foot in it. I said there was no suspense, no reason for me to read further. (To create suspense, a writer must raise questions in readers’ minds, and he didn’t raise any questions.)

This got me a long email explaining that of course there was suspense — we didn’t know who the killer was, who he was going to kill next, and if the detective would catch him in time. True, these were unanswered questions, but simply posing questions does not create suspense.

To raise questions and to make us worry about those questions, a writer must show us readers why we should care. Just a thought flitting through the killer’s mind that he was going after an unspecified “her” does not create any sense of immediacy or concern. If we know that he planned to kill a little girl that he (and we) saw playing with a kitten, we have someone specific to worry about.

Also, if we’re supposed to care if the detective catches the killer, we have to know the detective’s stake in the matter. A cop doing his job is completely different from a father worried about spending too much time on the job and not enough time with his daughter. And if it turned out the little girl with the kitten was the cop’s daughter, we’d worry about the characters even more .

The moral of the story is, when it comes to suspense, less is not more. More is more.

And the moral for me is, no more critiques.

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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Writing Discussion: Playing Fair With Your Readers

A novel is a writer’s contract with readers. The author promises to keep readers interested, to not waste their time, to play fair. The reader promises nothing, except perhaps to read the book if the writer fulfills the contract.

To a great extent, genre is about fulfilling the contract of reader expectations. In a romance novel, the story conflict revolves around the romantic relationship between two people and is characterized by romantic tension, desire, and often an ending that unites the couple. In mystery, the story conflict revolves around a crime and is characterized by clues leading to answers, increased tension, and often danger as the solution nears. If a story strays too far from the reader’s expectations, the reader will feel as if the author is reneging on the contract and might not finish reading the book. Even worse, they might not buy the author’s next one. That isn’t to say a writer can’t follow unexpected storylines, but somehow that difference must be conveyed to readers so they know the author is playing fair.

Suspense is considered a genre, yet suspense should be part of every novel, part of the contract with the reader. If readers are not at least bit curious about the outcome, if the story or the ending is obvious, readers have no reason to read. On the other hand, if the author withholds vital information to release at the end, it creates suspicion, not suspense, and the reader feels cheated.

So, let’s discuss playing fair with the reader. How do you create suspense in your genre? How do you gradually release the needed information, so that at the end, your reader feels surprise mingled with “Of course!” What is your contract with your contract with your readers, and how are you going about fulfilling it? How do you keep from cheating your readers? And for the reader in all of us, have you ever read books that made you angry because the authors did not fulfill their contract?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about playing fair with readers during our live discussion on Thursday, November 6 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

On Writing: Muddling Through the Middle

Novels generally have a three-part structure: beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings connect the reader to the main character, present the story world, establish tone, introduce the opposition, and compel readers to move on to the middle.

Endings wrap up all the strands of the story, give the outcome of the final conflict, and leave a sense of satisfaction and resonance.

Middles develop the confrontation between the main character and the antagonist, deepen character relationships, keep us caring about the main character, and set up the final conflict.

Middles keep the main character and the antagonist in conflict. If one or the other can simply walk away, there is no reason for the reader (or writer) to muddle through the middle. Duty can be the adhesive keeping them in conflict (a detective needs to solve a case). Moral obligation can be the adhesive (a character exacts revenge or a mother fights to save her child). Physical location can be the adhesive (a blizzard makes it impossible for the characters to leave a place).

Middles have a rhythm of action, reaction, more action, and how these beats are controlled determines the pace of the novel. Lots of action, little reaction gives a breathless pace. Little action, lots of reaction slows the pace.

Middles should have a sense of suspense, a sense of death hanging over the main character (can be physical, psychological, professional, or moral), and a sense of increasing risks and rising stakes.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you muddle through the middle of your novel:

What adhesive do you use to keep your characters from being able to walk away?

How do you vary the rhythm of action and reaction to create the pace of your novel?

Does your novel have suspense, some question to be resolved, something that will keep readers paging through the middle?

Do you have a sense of death hanging over your main character?

How do you keep increasing the risks for your character?

How do you keep raising what is at stake for your character?

And the Tension Builds . . . Yawn

Alfred Hitchcock is often referred to as the master of suspense, but I find some of his movies dreary. The tension rises at a leisurely pace and there is nothing to relieve the single grey note of suspense. By the time I am halfway through one of his films, I hope that everyone dies and gets it over with.

For me, the problem with these movies is that they have no sense of humor. A bit of comic relief would give the films color, would make the suspense more surprising by comparison and the revelations more shocking. Anyone who is familiar with color knows that this works. Yellow is brighter in the presence of purple, its direct opposite on the color wheel, than in the presence of any other color, and purple is more vibrant in the presence of yellow.

I am trying to cultivate humor so that I don’t turn out to be a single-grey-note writer. I’m not planning to add slapstick to an otherwise serious story; nor am I planning to use a lot of clever quips and one-liners. They get annoying after a while, and overshadow the plot. A touch of quiet humor works just as well and makes readers (or film watchers) let down their guard so they are more susceptible to deadly thrusts.

There are many ways of being humorous. One can juxtapose different character types as I did in Daughter Am I. I did not intend for the book to be humorous, but parts of it ended up that way because of Mary’s relationship with the old gangsters. The humor did not come from the age difference but from value differences. The old gangsters had no problem breaking the law, and Mary did.

One can also have a character say or do the opposite of what is expected. The classic Lou Grant remark from Mary Tyler Moore is a good example: “You’ve got spunk,” a pause, then, “I hate spunk.” Or one can have a character struggle to come up with a witty remark and finally come out with a simple “Hi.”

Humor does not come naturally to me, but then, even funny people have to work at it. Agents and editors have rejected me because they say they don’t fall in love with my characters. Maybe a bit of humor will make my characters more lovable. It will certainly make writing them more fun. At the very least, they (and my books) will not be colorless.

Writing Suspense: More is More

Suspense is a hard thing for most authors to write. They don’t want to give away the story too soon, yet if they don’t tell enough, they will bore us readers. We need to know where the author is going, we need enough clues to be able to participate in the journey, and we need a stake in the outcome. If a character agonizes for pages about a decision she has to make without us knowing what the problem is, we won’t care. We will skip ahead or, even worse from the author’s viewpoint, toss the book aside.

For example, while getting dressed for an appointment that she’s dreading, a character is dropping things out of nervousness and arguing with herself or another character about keeping the appointment. We might have empathy with her indecision, might even wonder what’s going on, but there is no real suspense because we have no stake in the matter.

If we find out she’s getting ready to go to the doctor to learn the results of some tests, the suspense is a little greater, and we have a little more empathy, but the scenario is still not detailed enough to build tension.

If we find out she has uterine cancer and needs to meet with the physician to decide on a course of treatment, that raises the stakes for both the character and the reader. And the tension level rises.

But if we find out that her mother died an agonizing death even after undergoing years of treatment for uterine cancer, and she is trying to decide whether she is willing to undergo the same treatment or whether she would rather live out the remainder of her days the best way she can, then the author has created real tension, and we care. We wonder what she will do, what we would do in her place, how we would feel if we had to make the same decision. It gives us a personal stake in the outcome, and we keep reading to find out what she is going to do.

As an added bonus, we get to know her better and can empathize with her even if we don’t agree with her final decision.

So, by not withholding story points, the author can create tension, develop a character, and please us readers. Not a bad day’s work.