As writers, we all know that life goes on. And sometimes that means great times of stress and difficulty that challenge our muses and creative drives. Nothing is as stressful as a pandemic. So what do you do when you need to write but just don’t feel like it? Or when your daily life is suddenly filled with new distractions and demands from children stuck home, spouses always around, and so on? Or just when your thoughts are so filled with worries and other concerns that it’s hard to focus?
Here are a few ideas:
1) Aim Small. Whatever your usual expectations, circumstances are different. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle for words and your word count suffers. In times like these, 300 good words or 500 are better than none at all. Give yourself a break and celebrate any success. When you surprise yourself and write abundantly, enjoy and celebrate. It’s an accomplishment as always, especially on top of stressful daily concerns.
2. Write What You Feel. Sometimes the distractions make it hard to focus on a work in progress or keep the current story focused in our mind as we write. In such times, it can be helpful to vent some of what clogs our heard—and for most writers, that means writing it out. Don’t be afraid to journal, if you don’t do it normally, and write out what you’re experiencing and feeling. Open a scratch file and go wild. You may find it clears your head and heart enough that you can get back to work.
3. Write Something New. Sometimes with a change in mood or stress, a change of scenery or story will be just the trick to keep us going. If you find yourself flummoxed on your current project, perhaps trying something new will help you not only stay productive but stay sane. Feeling successful and accomplishing your goals is sometimes more important than being stuck on one project at a time, so give yourself leeway to try something more in tune with your mood or focus—some idea you have been wanting to write that maybe has spent more time in your thoughts of late than that WIP. And feel good at what you accomplish.
4. Outline. I get it. You’re a discovery writer and you like to let the story lead your organically. Refining can come in the rewrites. But sometimes, when life is unstable and distracting, it helps to set a path you can follow, and outlines provide exactly that. It doesn’t have to be in depth. It can be as detailed or scarce as you want. Just a few lines or pages. But outlining the next scene or chapter can boost your confidence and give you the focus you need to work through the stress and distractions.
5. Just Let It Flow. Sometimes outliners get distracted too and they struggle to write because the outline just isn’t coming together. Don’t be afraid to write the scene and see where it goes. You don’t even have to write the next scene chronologically in the story. You can skip to some other scene you have a clear vision for and write that, then fill in what comes before later. In times like these, it’s productivity that matters, not form.
6. Writing Is Work—Treat It Like A Job. Some of us write for a hobby. others for a job. And some write full time, while others write when they can. Regardless, the surest way to stay on task is to treat your writing like a second job (or first). That means setting time and a dedicated writing location and protecting them to keep them available when and how you need them. Whatever makes you most productive. Whether you need quiet isolation or the outdoors, a notepad, laptop, desktop, or iPad. Setting up a space, however large or small, and blocking out a time to write is especially important in times when everything and everyone else is constantly clamoring for your attention. So treat it like a job and be professional.
7. Goals Are Good. As much as giving yourself a break is necessary during times of crisis, sometimes pushing yourself can be the best plan. Don’t be afraid to set word goals, even if they vary from your usual output, and force yourself to write to them. If you never set word goals, like me, then now may be the time to try. Having to meet a goal is a great motivation to push you onward. And don’t worry, even if some of the words wind up being useless or cut, it’s writing them that counts.
8. Write With A Friend. Okay, social distancing makes it hard, but turning on Facetime or Skype may be useful as a way to have encouragement, even accountability when you’re struggling to write. For me, there’s nothing like being in a room of people busy writing to push me to do the same. Even if it’s just you and a friend, a writing buddy can be a great support to help you keep going through stress.
9. Change Your Routine. Even at the best of times, it’s possible to get stuck in a rut, but during times of stress and crises, that can be all the more true. So sometimes you need to shake things up, break out of the normal routine and patterns, and try something new. From writing in a new location or at a different time of day to switching stories to outlining instead of pantsing, to changing music, any number of things to shake up your routine might be just the change you need to find inspiration or shake the doldrums and get some words pouring out. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
10. Use Prompts. Some people love writing prompts, some hate them. Others just don’t need them at all. But sometimes writing to prompts can be really helpful. Prompts can be everything from a short concept to a photograph or painting, a list of key words, or even a line of dialogue or description. Whatever works for you and “prompts” you onward is fine. Sometimes just a little inspiration goes a long way.
So there you have it, ten ideas on how to keep writing even through a pandemic or crisis. What works for you? What tips can you offer to help others like yourselves? We’d love to hear from you in comments.
For more writing tips like this post, check out my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction. You can find it on Amazon here or download it here.
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here. For part two, Middles, click here.
A satisfying climax comes from one thing: Protagonist confronting Antagonist, preferably face to face, and winning. What they win and how depends on the stakes and the goal, of course, but getting the girl, defeating the evil empire, getting the job, stopping the takeover, etc. are all valid and potentially satisfying wins for us. Make them count but give us the satisfaction of watching the win. That’s what all the pacing and suspense has been all about: getting us to this moment. So make sure the moment counts and is emotionally and dramatically rewarding for us. This does not mean every story must have a happy ending but it explains why many often do.
The climax needs to be played out dramatically. Don’t let it happen off screen. We need to witness it. It needs to be the ultimate dramatic conflict that unfolds before us as a scene. Make sure you plan accordingly and write it well. Anything less will be a letdown from all the anticipation you have created. How would you have felt if Luke never faced off with Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars? If Frodo had never destroyed the ring in The Lord of The Rings? Or if Harry Potter had not confronted Voldemort? I imagine your feelings about any of these stories would be very different. Would you feel satisfied? Seeing the protagonist overcome their imperfections and obstacles and win is a bit part of the satisfaction of good storytelling. And you just don’t get the same affect if you tell us how it ended rather than showing us by letting it play out as overt drama. Watching the confrontation is the payoff readers have been waiting for so give it to them.
In preparing to write your climax, it is important to revisit the earlier story and make sure you have set it up correctly and put all the necessary pieces in place needed to make it feel satisfying and complete. Go back and look at your set up for major reveals. When, where, and how do you ask what questions? Is there enough foreshadowing? Note areas that need work and potential revisions you can make during editing. Don’t stop and do it now. That will interrupt your writing pace. But make sure you correct course in what you write ‘til the end and note what you can go back and fix later to make it better and where to do so. Are your three acts clear in each plot line and arc? Do the characters show growth and change? Double check to see you are on track and look at how you can improve things for better pacing and suspense in your book both going forward and later in editing.
In addition to looking at the questions, foreshadowing, plot arcs, and character arcs, don’t forget to also consider emotional arcs. Because good endings satisfy don’t just wrap up the pieces logically and neatly on the outside, they also satisfy our inner selves: our emotions. Donald Maass writes in Writing The Breakout Novel: “Why do endings disappoint? Often it is because they are rushed; that is, because the author has written it in a hurry due to fatigue or due to a looming deadline, perhaps both. Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.” The secret, Maass suggests, is to allow your protagonist the possibility of failure until the very end; maintaining the possibility that he or she can fail. He goes on to say “construct the plot so that its conflicts, inner and outer, all converge at the same time and place…A great storyteller leaves us in suspense right up to the final moments. Success is never sure; in fact, failure seems the far more likely result.” The satisfaction is in the protagonist rising to the moment and somehow overcoming the odds to succeed. Without that, victory is hollow, the ending emotionally unsatisfying and lacking in depth.
In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Kress suggests four things good climaxes must accomplish:
Satisfy the view of life implied in your story.
Deliver emotion. Readers should feel what the characters feel. If characters feel nothing, the story has not ended yet.
Deliver an appropriate level of emotion. As discussed above, it’s not just any emotion but emotional fulfillment readers are seeking, and that means we need to have been conflicted and unsure until the very end how it might go; if the protagonist can possibly succeed.
The climax must be logical to your plot and story. This last one may seem obvious but we’ve all encountered those endings that were meant to be surprises and twists but seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving us frustrated and feeling unfulfilled. Kress says, “the climactic scene must grow naturally out of the actions that proceeded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the personalities of the characters.” A satisfying climax is intimately tied to satisfying character arcs—characters we care about, root for, and want to see grow into better people. A climax must not be coincidence either. It must pretty much be inevitable, even if we doubt it will happen right until the end. Kress suggests asking yourself: “If the protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way?” The answer must be “No” if your ending is to be convincing. If it could happen that way for anyone, your ending will fail.
Who else but Luke Skywalker could have used the Force to visualize the exact target and destroyed the Death Star? Who else but Frodo could destroy the ring? I can’t imagine those endings coming out any other way, can you? And the same should be true of your climax. Ultimately, the whole story is like an arrow pointing to a specific climax and how you write it ensures that reader’s expectations emotionally and mentally follow the arrow to the exact place you lead them. That’s the only way you can ensure they’ll be satisfied with your climax.
Everything after the Climax is called the Denouement—the wrap up of the story. In most cases, the denouement is fairly short and concise, providing confirmation of closure for the characters and plot by revealing their emotional and physical fates after the climax. This is especially true for any characters not involved in the climactic scene. The denouement should give readers just enough information about the characters that they feel the story is really over and satisfy reader curiosity. So the denouement is the place to wrap up any pesky unanswered questions still hanging from earlier in a book. All except the few left over to point us to the sequel, that is (if there is one). Readers don’t want to be left hanging. They don’t want to decide for themselves, either. Readers want to know what happens definitively to the characters they’ve cared enough about to stick with the story, so make decisions and give it to them.
The general rule is, according to Kress, “the more subtle and low-key the climax in action and tone, the briefer the denouement should be.” Don’t drag it out and leach all emotion from the climax. Get it done and keep it short so it doesn’t seem too anticlimactic. The other key is to dramatize. Show what happens to your characters in action, don’t just tell us. But keep it low-key enough that it doesn’t detract from the power of the climax.
To demonstrate, let’s look at the denouements from two of the stories we looked at in the beginning of this chapter. First, The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks:
Standing on the porch, with autumn in full swing, I
find the crispness of the evening air invigorating as I think back on the night of our wedding. I can still recall it in vivid detail, just as I can remember all that happened during the year of the forgotten
It feels odd to know that it’s all behind me. The
preparations had dominatedmy thoughts for so long and
I’d visualized it so many times that I sometimes feel
that I’ve lost contact with an old friend, someone
with whom I’ve grown verycomfortable. Yet in the wake
of those memories, I’ve come to realize that I now
have the answer to the question that I’d been ponder- ing when I first came out here.
Yes, I decided, a man can truly change.
Remember the universal questions asked right at the opening: “Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?” Here we see that the character has found the answer he sought. We’ve seen it dramatized through events in the story and particularly the climax, but the denouement just serves to confirm the character’s recognition that he gets it now clearly. He’s found the answer.
What about Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand? It ends as follows:
In the kitchen, we made hot chocolate, stared over the
rims of our mugs at each other as the radio in the
living room updated us on the weather.
The snow, the announcer told us, was part of the first
major storm system to hit Massachusetts this winter.
By the time we woke in the morning, he promised,
twelve to sixteen inches would have fallen.
“Real snow,” Angie said. “Who would’ve thought?”
“It’s about time.”
The weather report over, the announcer was updating
the condition ofReverend Edward Brewer.
“How long you think he can hold on?” Angie said.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
We sipped from our mugs as the announcer reported the mayor’s call for
more stringent handgun laws, the governor’s call for
tougher enforcement of restraining orders. So another Eddie Brewer wouldn’t walk into the wrongconvenience store at the wrong time. So another Laura Stiles could
break up with her abusive boyfriend without fear of
death. So the James Faheys of the world would stop in-stilling us with terror.
So our city would one day be as safe as Eden before
the fall, our lives insulated from the hurtful and the
“Let’s go in the living room,” Angie said, “and turn
the radio off.”
She reached out and I took her hand in the dark kit- chen as the snowpainted my window in soft specks of
white, followed her down the hall toward the living
Eddie Brewer’s condition hadn’t changed. He was still in a coma.
The city, the announcer said, waited. The city, the
announcer assured us, was holding its breath.
Progress, Lehane implies, may not change the past, but it bodes well for the future. There is hope. There is a sense of movement in a positive direction. And there is a sense of renewed safety and reassurance that all will be well. For a book that started with the uncertainty and wistfulness of the random shooting of an old classmate, that makes for a pretty decent denouement if you ask me.
The battery was a lithium thionyl chloride non-rechar-geable. I figured that outfrom some subtle clues: the
shape of the connection points, the thickness of the
insulation,and the fact that it had “LiSOCl2
NON-RCHRG” written on it. (The Martian, Andy Weir)
The planet’s famous red colour is from iron oxide coat-ing everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a
desert so old it’s literally rusting. (The Martian,
Another key area of world building is always science and industry. But in science fiction, the futuristic and scientific aspects of this take on special importance and significance for both narrative plausibility and practical reasons—science and development are key elements readers expect. Science Fiction readers love cool tech and science that makes sense or even the hint of such. Even if it is not real, if you make it sound plausible, they will often find this fascinating and engaging.
What kind of transportation methods exist? Horses and wagons or buggies? Cars and trucks? Planes or space ships? Hovercraft? Each type of transportation requires the industrial and scientific development to make them possible. Given we barely have anything of the sort ourselves, a lot of thought will need to go into these aspects. Where do they get the fuel? How did they devise it? What materials are starships made of and their various parts? Do they have laser or projectile weapons? What kind of defensive armaments do people and ships have and what are they made of? Are they physical or digital? Etc.
Then there are questions of military? What type of military do they have—formal or informal? Private or government? Do they have armor? What type? What is the structure and ranking system? Where are the bases and training facilities? How do they recruit—volunteers or conscription? Do they use animals or vehicles or both? What kinds of duties and missions are they called upon to undertake usually? What is their history? What is their relationship with larger society—respected or hated? Feared or loved? Etc.
Technological dependence also says a lot about a culture and affects it in many ways and has many meanings. How advanced are they? How did they get there? If there is tech and science, there must be engineers and scientist. How did they develop these abilities and create or acquire the tools required to perform the tasks? Do they make them themselves or trade for them? How do various cultural approaches differ in performing, understanding, and approaching various tasks? Here’s an aspect where time frame, as mentioned earlier, plays a key role. If they are a far advanced society, time frame matters. For humans especially, believable time must have passed for certain technologies to be possible. And again some require sciences and engineering feats we have yet to develop so time must be allowed for those to occur as well. For alien cultures, it is possible to have societies which are advanced over our own, but again, they must have science and tech and engineering knowledge and skills that they acquired earlier which surpasses our own. Not all of this always has to be explained in detail but the writer should think it through and be full aware of the implications of it and write the story accordingly so it adds credence to the world building for readers.
Are there robots or androids? Are human cyborgs or modified humans part of it? What about animals? Are there hybrids? Is there nanotechnology? What is the state of computers and media? Is there virtual reality? What problems from our own world and times have been solved to make such things possible or to advance society? What modifications to laws, mores, etc. have been required to permit the developments, if any? What sciences are used and understood by alien cultures and how does this compare to human knowledge? What ability to exchange such information exists? Writers must consider all of this and more as they create.
I realize that at this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all that we’ve covered. But I hope you are beginning to see the complexity of world building and how one set of questions leads to many others on many different topics. There’s a reason so many authors choose to work with our existing world and its history rather than make up their own. It’s complicated to create a well-rounded world, and as I have said, you don’t always know what you’ll need until you need it, but it is also easy to overlook things that may stand out to readers as omissions that were important to questions they are asking.
The rest of this chapter, we’re going to cover some areas that get overlooked a lot in world building but may be just as important as the rest. Let’s start with Agriculture, Horticulture, and Diet.
Agriculture, Horticulture, Diet, and Medicine
On the bare forest floor, in the open space between
the trees, grew stemlessplants of colossal size.
Their leaves, four or five inches broad and eight or
nine fee inlength, sharp-toothed along their sides
and metallic of texture, were arranged in loose roset-tes. At the center of each gaped a deep cup a foot in diameter, half filled with a noxious-looking greenish fluid, out of which a complex array of stubby organs
It seemed to Valentine that there were things like
knifeblades in there, and paired grinders, that could come together nastily, and still other things that
might have been delicate flowers partly submerged.
(Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg)
Agricultural development is very much determined by geography and technological and scientific development. What types of crops and animals are used for food and clothing, depends upon the resources available like location of water supply, crops, grass and plant life, landscape, and more. You won’t grow much in a desert, for example, but if there are oases with water, some sheep herding can occur, like in the Middle East. There can be camels, horses, and other desert animals. In mountains, it is hard to farm the land, but there can be animals who live there as well like bears, venison, various birds, and other mammals which could be hunted for food. Plains are great for farming but limited as home for much beyond domestic animals, though coyotes, wild birds, rabbits, and other animals may thrive. And with each decision about animals, it is important to consider predators and prey—the circle of life. For anywhere one group of prey live, predators will arise to feed on them, and not just humans, but other animals. Additionally, landscape determines what kinds of bushes, shrubs, grasses, trees, etc. will be available and natural to the region for animals to live in and eat from, etc.
What type of crops you have and natural resources, of course, determines the diet of local humans and other inhabitants, and so plant life, crops, water, etc. all determine what people will eat in various parts of your world and how much as well as what they may trade to other areas for goods they cannot get. At the same time, what clothing they wear is determined by land and weather conditions and resources as well. Do they have technology to manufacture clothing or make it by hand? And so on. Sartorial concerns are easy to overlook. I remember one of the first editor comments on The Worker Prince, my first novel was “You’ve written 90k words without mention of what anyone is wearing. It seems odd.” Ooops. So I had to go back and work that in and think it through. I know of other authors who have had similar experiences.
Along with crops, animal husbandry and resources comes the issue of medicine. What kind of medicinal resources do they have? Formal or informal? Do they make drugs or manufacture them? Do they use home remedies or chemically devised cures? Do they have trained medical personnel or just village experts? Etc. Who treats the animals? What kind of training do those people have? Is it science or magic? And if magic exists, how does that work and what are the costs of performing the spells or using magic? There is always a cost for everything. Sometimes casting spells can only be done once every few days, sometimes it costs blood or energy that wipes out the magician, etc. These and more concerns become very relevant.
If there is technology, do they use machines to farm or just animals and primitive equipment? How industrial is agriculture? How regional is it? What about fishing or hunting or trapping? Can they make hybrid plants somehow by cross pollinating or do they just have to plant whatever seeds they can find?
As we think about landscape and natural resources like plants and trees, we must also consider architecture and design. Do they have formal architecture or is it regional and informal? Are there whole industries for construction and design or is it done on the fly? Are quarries and mining involved? How do they gather materials? What issues and regional concerns come into play to determine locations of towns and types of housing, etc.? Are there formal schools or are people educated at home? What kind of educational system and higher learning is available? Are there apprenticeships? Are there internships? Trade guilds? What kinds of tools and equipment do they have available and how are those manufactured? And then, where do they get the money to buy land and build? How is land and wealth allotted? What role does it play in society?
Beyond that, what about energy production? Nuclear, solar, wind, fusion—what kind of power will there be? What of war? What of peace? What about nuclear and chemical weapons? What will medicine look like? Will we have cured diseases, genetic defects, cancer? What new answers and treatments will have been devised? What communication devices and methods will be common? What will have faded away?
Money and Business
Figure 9-1. (Monetary exchange rates in The Name of The Wind, Patrick Rothfuss, cited on http://www.brinkofcreation.com/KKC-CurrencyExchange/CurrencyExchange.html)
Money and economy are one of the most overlooked of world building concerns. Patrick Rothfuss in his Kingkiller Chronicles, beginning with The Name Of The Wind, is an author noted for having created a sophisticated economy for his world, including different monetary systems for various people groups and conversion and even commonwealth currency for use in trade between them. The system is sophisticated enough that fans on Reddit have figured out approximate conversions to U.S. dollars and Rothfuss himself has created the above widget and can lecture on the system for an hour or more. That is a well-thought out system. And of course, along with money comes the entire business system and how it functions related to currency and trade and what types of businesses thrive and arise according to resources available as well as needs of the world. Various service industries like money changers and trade posts will arise if needed along with banks, law enforcement, security, and more, but then there are various other businesses as well taking on roles in making food, clothing, and materials, etc. and sometimes even vendors who then sell their products to the public.
The key element is what they value—what their economy is based on. In much of the Western world and the wider world today that would be minerals like gold, silver, bronze, diamonds, etc. In ancient Africa, however, much value was placed by many tribes on conch shells. They used conch shells to make everything from jewelry to clothing to even tools, weapons, and more. Once Europeans discovered this, they began trading conch shells for things they valued far more like gold, diamonds, etc. which were abundant in Africa. The Europeans found many sources for obtaining conch shells, and since the African tribesmen valued them so much, convincing them to trade something the Europeans considered worthless for things they coveted, was easy. It also gave the Europeans immense power over the Africans, particularly because conch shells were cheap and easily obtained and not valued greatly by anyone else around the world. In part, the colonization of Africa came about at least economically because of this dichotomy. The Europeans used it to establish inroads they exploited to take over mining and other industries to extract minerals and eventually conquer the tribes and their land. So what do people in your worlds and cultures value? How does that affect their trade relationships and subsequent power relationships with others? These are major concerns related to the economic system of your world building which should be carefully considered.
Economic systems can get immensely complicated very quickly, of course, but careful thought should at least be given to basics needed for the story. And then you should be prepared to address the various issues and needs these concerns raise as you go, if you want to create a believable system that doesn’t leave readers confused, frustrated, or scratching their heads.
World Building is something that every author has to do, no matter what the genre or setting. For example, here’s a passage from Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble, followed by another from And here’s another one from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle:
A sign hangs next to the cradle of Texas liberty, reminding visitors that concealed firearms are not permit-ted on the grounds…
…Within the walls, it’s like being in a shallow dish— azure sky above, the taller buildings crowded around, dwarfing the Spanish mission, which isn’t very big to begin with. She walks through the gardens, noting the placement of each plant, each bench, each sign. Changeis not to be tolerated. She picks up a cup with a lit-tle electric blue raspa juice inside and drops it in the trash, as fastidious in her own way as the Alamo’s keepers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
It is a shrine, and not only to Texas liberty. A shrine to her, to them.
And then after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered around him like fine wetfleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcroppingwhite stone overlooking the city of Pidruid. It was the provincial capital, sprawling and splendid, the biggest city he had come upon since—since?—the biggest in a long while of wandering in any case.
There he halted, finding a seat at the edge of the soft, crumbling white ridge, digging his booted feet into the flaking ragged stone, and he sat there star- ing down at Pidruid, blinking as though newly out of sleep. On this summer day, twilight was still some
hours away, and the sun hung high to the southwest
beyond Pidruid, out over the Great Sea. I will rest
here for a while, Valentine thought, and then I will
go down into Pidruid and find lodging for the night.
The Lippman establishes the setting as contemporary San Antonio, downtown to be specific. The Silverberg is a science fiction secondary world, but both have the same effect: introducing and drawing us into a living, breathing setting we can picture in our minds. This is world building.
No matter what your genre or setting, the basic concerns tend to be the same. Some require a bit more than others, like science fiction worlds requiring space travel, alien cultures, other planets, etc. but all still call for thoughtful consideration of the same categories of details. In her chapbook Checking on Culture, Lee Killough offers a great checklist which lists the relevant concerns. Here’s my adaptation of it:
Use this list by checking off the items as you go through them and think through that aspect of your world. But first things first, before you start world building, you must already know your time frame. Near future, current day, or far future? When does your story take place and where? This will determine everything else. Then your research and planning can center around things relevant to that time period. Once we know the time frame, we proceed on with the list. The order depends on your priorities, but for me, it usually goes something like this:
Existing or Secondary World
He returned his attention to Barbirike Sea, which stretched, long and slender as a spear, for fifty miles
or so through the valley below the gray cliff on which
Kasinibon’s fortress-like retreat was perched. Long
rows of tall sharp-tipped crescent dunes, soft as
clouds from this distance, bordered its shores. They
too were red. Even the air here had a red reflected
shimmer. The sun itself seemed to have taken on a
tinge of it. Kasinibon had explained yesterday, thoughFurvain had not been particularly interested in hear- ing it at the time, that the Sea of Barbirike was hometo untold billions of tiny crustaceans whose fragile
brightcolored shells, decomposing over the millennia, had imparted that bloody hue to the sea’s waters and
given rise also to the red sands of the adjacent dunes.
Furvain wondered whether his royal father, who had
such an obsessive interest in intense color effects,
had ever made the journey out here to see this place. Surely he had. Surely.
(The Book of Changes, Robert Silverberg)
Existing worlds are Earth or known planets in our solar system or even a few beyond. Secondary are inventions of the author. Are you inventing everything or building on what already exists and what we already know? Then you need to know geography, gravity, culture of lifeforms, etc. How many suns or moons? How many other planets? Etc.
If you are creating a secondary world, do not put your planet around a famous celestial body just because it is well known. Many of these are highly unlikely to have habitable planets around them and it requires careful thought about viability before placing planets there, particularly earth-like, human habituated ones. You should carefully consider the scientific realities of planetary location and solar system building before deciding upon such a course, even if writing a soft science story, instead of hard science fiction. Because believability for readers is paramount. Remember: you should create the questions readers ask carefully and guide them toward questions you can answer satisfactorily and away from ones you cannot. Not one covers everything. There will always be gaps. But try to avoid awkwardly obvious, glaring ones. Also, constellations will appear differently from various points around the galaxy, so don’t describe them as they appear on Earth when viewed from elsewhere.
Secondary or not, ask yourself what are the key geographic features and how do they effect population density, location of settlements, travel around and across the surface, economics, weather, etc.? Avoid oversimplifying but just saying a planet is all jungle, all ice, etc. because based on location from sun, rotation, geography and other factors, this is not scientifically plausible as we know it and will tend to seem unrealistic and poorly considered. Frank Herbert put a lot of thought into his desert Dune planet, but too often the results of oversimplifying come across as lazy thinking. Planets are big places and will have a lot of variety. For example, civilizations will form cities around bodies of drinking water and food supplies, and their diets will vary depending upon the area in which they live and the wildlife, plants, etc. that also reside there. Those things also choose habitats based upon location of resources and so on and so forth. There is a circle and a chain of logic that will determine much of it and thus should be considered.
Geography determines travel options. Heavily mountainous areas may not have room for landing zones for starships or local air travel. Large bodies of water may need to be traversed via boats, ships or other craft in order to avoid long delays in supply, commerce, shipping, etc. So consider these things in determining where your cities are located and how people get between them.
Gravity affects quality of life from retention of water and atmosphere to breathing to ability to run and jump, etc. But this can also affect the magnetic field and exposure to radiation from solar flares, cosmic rays, and more. High gravity worlds would have shorter mountains and require people to have thicker, stronger muscles. Air would be denser and tension on body parts might lead to premature aging, sagging faces, etc. Also accidents might multiply as objects are thrown about or pulled loose by stronger gravity and strike people, vehicles, buildings, lifeforms, etc. On high gravity worlds, rain and rivers would erode land much more quickly as well, smoothing rough edges. Oceans would be calmer and bigger, more extensive, and evaporation would be slower, leaving the air and atmosphere drier with water taking longer to boil and clouds hanging lower. Planes would need bigger wings as well. Reverse these factors for lower gravity worlds, with larger land masses and smaller bodies of water, etc.
If your planet has an Earthlike atmosphere, a very slow day will result in extremes of temperature from day to night. Wind speeds will be affected by rotation as well. Oblation will tend to occur for planets with shorter days and rotations verses longer. It will be thicker or thinner at the equator accordingly. Axial tilt will determine the seasons. Slants greater than Earth will create more extreme seasons. Weather conditions will be affected. The amount of exposure to the sun’s heat determines extremes. Wind and ocean currents will moderate the effects. Higher rotation planets will have more hurricanes and dangerous winds. Ice caps form because poles receive less heat and water freezes. Planets with ice caps will generally be cooler than those without. The skin color of people can be affected by location with desert peoples generally tending toward darker tones due to sun exposure, while people living in shadows or colder climates who spend much time underground, indoors, etc. may have lighter skin. All of these are interesting factors to take into account.
As you can see there are many factors to consider and I can only scratch the surface here. You may not use all the details but knowing them gives you the option to write the story you need to tell, without being boxed in or slowed down by ignorance.
As a professional editor, one of the questions I hear most often from writers and others is how does one go about finding and hiring a good editor. So today’s tip addresses that challenge.
First, it’s important to know the type of editor you need. This diagram breaks down the types of editing a writer may encounter or need:
Most writers will be hiring either Developmental, Line or Copy Editors for their book. Not every editor does all of them, but some do more than one. I do all three and frequently do Developmental and Line Editing together as a package because they can be combined easily. Copy Editing is a separate pass requiring different focus and skills. Proof Readers are also quite useful, although many people find volunteers who are helpful and cost effective.
If you need to hire an editor on your own you will need to do some research. For information on standard rates, check the Editorial Freelancers Association for a list of average rates here:https://www.the-efa.org/rates/. For individual editors, they should have their rates on their website as well as a list of clients they have worked with and even quotes recommending them. For me, I’d ask some of the clients about them as well as friends to see what kind of reputation they have in the community. Then most editors usually offer a sample edit to demonstrate their skills for free (usually a page or two, maybe a chapter). Submit your work to several for samples and then compare them when you get them back. You can also reach out via social media to authors you admire asking for recommendations. Most of us have been there and will be happy to point you in the right direction toward finding a good, reliable editor—one we’ve worked with or who has worked with friends. Be sure and search bookstores and online for books in print that they’ve edited and check the quality and who published them. This kind of information tells you their level of success and skill as well as their taste, which can be important, as well as their knowledge of genres. You definitely want someone knowledgeable in the genre in which you are writing to help you navigate market expectations, tropes, and other genre-specific concerns.
Once you’ve found an editor or two you are interested in, ask for full quotes and discuss their cancellation fees, timeframe and deadlines, and how they deal with cost overruns, if any. You’ll want to be sure in advance you are not charged for extra time without permission, whether they do extra passes or just one, etc. Then choose your editor and get a contract. Make sure the contract outlines guarantees to you, not just the editor. Usually there will be clauses about payment schedules, how they deal with non- or delayed payments, etc. as well as a delivery timetable. All of this is important to have in writing to avoid conflict later, as these tend to be the areas where most misunderstandings and conflict occur between freelance editors and clients.
After that, you send them you book and get started.
I would expect a decent editor to need between three weeks and six to edit the average novel well (80,000 to 130,000 words). More if your book is longer. I would also expect them to send you regular updates on the progress and even provide the first half around the time any second payment is due, so you can get an idea of the quality of their edits, usefulness, etc. Editors work for you in this case, not a publisher, so you have total control over what you do with their edits. That’s why it’s very important to hire an editor you trust and enjoy working with, then trust their judgment enough to use their advice. Your editor’s job, whether freelance or in-house, is to help you make your book the best it can be. If you succeed, they look good, too, but most of all, you look good, because your book is your reputation, your calling card. The editor has no motivation to ruin your book with bad advice or to sabotage or hurt it. So the advice they give is always intended to help, whether it hurts your feelings or not. There is a need for your editor to be somewhat blunt—though most try to point out strengths as well as weaknesses and use a sense of humor in doing so to soften the blow—so that you get a sense of how readers will react and can really dig into the issues properly. Remember, it is not personal nor is it an attack. They are all about helping you. They are on your side. So take their comments seriously, ask questions as you have them, and try to find a way to make them work if at all possible, never dismissing them entirely out of hand.
There will be times when you disagree. Some of those will be over things that are per choice, up to you. Personal taste or preference may be a part. Good editors will admit this and explain their reason for making the editorial suggestions. These are the edits you should decide if you agree with and want to do. In other cases, edits are absolutely necessary. These usually are edits about clarity and understanding, facts, character motives, story holes, story pacing, mood, tone, emotion, etc. and should be considered very carefully and every attempt made to find a solution you can both agree on, even if it is a compromise. Remember that we all have weaknesses and strengths and the writing process is a journey. Everyone wants to best book possible and is working toward that goal, because a great book makes us all look good. Keeping that in mind should make it easier to take criticisms, even when they sting or confuse, and put you in the right mindset to trust and work with your editor as a partner, not an opponent.
Ultimately, once your book is edited, it is ready to go on to formatting, copyediting, and proofing. And those stages will involve more edits, but generally focused on repetitive words or phrases, grammar and spelling errors that slipped through, italics and underlining, house style, punctuation, etc. If the items are house style, they are nonnegotiable. Everything else can be discussed and considered, but, of course, if the grammar is wrong unintentionally or you have misspellings, you need to fix them. Accuracy matters to readers and critics. It is about professionalism and presentation.
I find the editorial process with some clients can be like pulling teeth, but with many it is pure joy. I enjoy very much watching writers gel with their material as things come into clearer focus, get stronger, and take on that sparkle they always envisioned in their minds. There’s real joy in watching a good book become great and seeing the pride the author takes in it and the success that follows. I feel very much a part of that, as well any editor, and if you find a good one, hold onto them and treasure the relationship. It is like finding gold.
For the past month I have been covering Suspense and Pacing Techniques for writing. Today, we wrap it up with final techniques for Slower Moments and Narrative Pacing. For reference and context both, my previous posts in this series are as follows:
In between the more action driven scenes, you will need moments that build characters, set up conflict, and even show confrontations and events leading up to the action. Some of these may be quiet, reflective moments, some will have a different intensity. But the trick is to create a flow that lets us breathe, gather our thoughts, and regroup a bit before more action.
Earlier we talked about flashbacks for building suspense, but as I said, they can also slow things down. If a character breaks the current tension and timeline to go back and recall a key moment from their past, it can ease the pace a bit. The important thing is to make the flashbacks matter by providing key information about characters and their motives or relationships or both, while still not making the scenes too long or slow. You don’t want to stop the story dead, you just want to let up on the adrenaline a bit while still moving forward the story. Flashback scenes still need to be written in media res so they are as tight and focused around conflict as any other scene, but when used to break the pace, they can be less action and more conversational, with characters arguing or discussing points of disagreement or even replaying key moments from their past that have stayed with them, motivating the action and decisions they are making in the present timeline. I’m sure we can all think of examples, so I’ll skip that here, and move on to other options.
Love scenes, planning scenes where the characters compare notes or discuss strategy, meal gatherings, evidence gathering, interrogation, searches, even expositional moments can all can serve the purpose of slowing down the pace in your story. They still need conflict, and they still need to provide information that advances the story, but not every moment has to be high drama. Write these scenes using the tension methods discussed earlier in the chapter and insert them in between your high action scenes, and you will create a nice flow and rhythm that builds into an ascending arc through the Mid-Point and then allows for the descent to the climax in the second half, just the right structure. It takes practice, as they say, but you can see how this works in your reading if you pay attention. Then imitate it in your own work. That’s how we all learn.
Another trick is to use humor. An anecdote or humorous banter or even a slightly comedic scene can break up the tension and pace just right to allow readers to regroup for more.
Most writers learn to look at writing scenes and stories like planning a race. And to win a race, you need the right pace and rhythm. There are ups and downs, sprints and jogs, and slow scenes are your downs and jogs, not sprints, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to move. The key, of course, as already discussed, is maintaining tension. As long as the story is moving forward and story questions are coming up, even slower scenes will feel like they move. Much of this comes down to narrative pacing.
Keeping excitement high doesn’t just mean action. What it means is keeping it relevant and interesting. As discussed before, as long as descriptive passages, exposition, and character moments are still providing information that readers want to know and feel advances the story, the pace continues to move. Narrative takes up a lot of space in any novel, and many novels have action unfolding at a steady climb throughout until big crises of action occur. William Noble defines narrative pacing as “pacing without dialogue shifts or quick scene cuts or sharp point-of-view changes.” It won’t work over the long haul, but in short sections, as long as we know the action and suspense are leading somewhere, narrative pacing keeps your story moving while still giving readers breathers in between tense moments of crisis.
Noble writes: “narrative pacing works because we show what is happening; we are moving the story forward using description, anecdotes, and character development. As we depict what happens, we keep our readers involved because the story continues to unfold and the action and suspense grow taut, until we reach that crisis or turning point.” A slow build can be very satisfying; often far more satisfying than a breathless race. The trick is to create flow of movement. Narrative pacing works best, Noble suggests, when it opens a story or chapter, lasts several pages, builds to a crisis, keeps the story moving, and develops conflict early and keeps it pulsing.
Mixing It Up
Dialogue tends to move more quickly than description and exposition, so when constructing a story, writers learn to pay attention to the impact dialogue has on pace. Sometimes you need some background and information to understand character’s motives and decisions. And other times you need a conversation as they gather information, debate options, and confront others. Then they must take action. This pattern will repeat time and again in your novel and should. Well-paced novels have pages with a mix of sentence and paragraph lengths on most pages. You can just look at them and tell where the slow spots and fast spots are. Much of this is intuitive, but when you are learning, paying attention to varying sentence and paragraph lengths is important training. Keep those descriptive and expository passages broken into shorter chunks and multiple paragraphs, so the story feels like it moves. Every paragraph break and page turn feels like progress to a reader, so constructing your story with such movement in mind is essential to a well-paced experience.
As you write, description, action, exposition, and dialogue will become intermixed. Sometimes you will have a page or half-page of description before a single line of dialogue, then some exposition and action before the next line of dialogue. Other times, dialogue will move quickly, only occasionally interrupted by bits of exposition or description or action. As long as all of these parts have tension and conflict flowing beneath the surface to drive them, all will be well. This is why I spent so much time talking about creating tension at the beginning of this chapter. If you find a scene feeling static, with characters repeating themselves or chit chatting and saying nothing that moves the story forward, trim, trim, trim. Every word must count. Every moment must move. If it doesn’t, your novel will big filled with bog-like potholes that stop it dead and force readers to slog onward, risking their loss of interest.
Transitions and scene breaks can also help pacing because both cut away from the action and crisis long enough to allow a shift. Noble writes: “the scene change can cause a variation in the level of action and suspense and generate a continuing interest in what’s happening. Without the change of pace, the reader will grow weary and turn away.” Cliffhangers are a great way to build suspense. They leave us hanging, wanting more, anxious to find out what happens next. But cliffhangers make bad transitions and scene changes if used too often. They are most effective when use for effect, especially when breaking up action scenes to intersperse with other important moments—such as when two sets of characters are involved in different confrontations or actions at the same time—or to end chapters and keep us reading. Otherwise, transitions and scene changes should feel natural and make sense. We need to feel one scene or chapter coming to a natural close before we switch to a new one. This doesn’t have to involve long, drawn out narrative passages. It can be a few sentences or a line of dialogue or action or two. What we need is that sense of conclusion to the present scene or chapter.
A lot of what we are talking about here is learning on instinct. You read and absorb how it plays out in other books, then learn to imitate and apply it to your own. It is not easy to teach, and for some, it will not be easy to learn. But it really becomes instinct with time, or needs to. Your mind will create the right combinations as you go, and you will teach and hone them in editing and revision to get just the right flow. For most authors, that is how pacing works, and that’s probably how it will work for you.
When people hear the word pacing, they typically think of “slow” or “fast,” or perhaps “action,” but in novels pacing needs both to be successful. Dictionary.com defines pace as:
a rate of movement, especially in stepping, walking, etc.;
a rate of activity, progress, growth, performance, etc.; tempo.
In regards to your novel, the pacing is a combination of steady, fast, and slow passages creating a rhythm that flows for readers, engaging and holding their interest, while still pausing to let them catch their breath and regroup from time to time.
Experienced novelists tend to get a natural sense of pacing as they write. Newer writers, however, will have to learn this. Imagine yourself on a treadmill, speed slowly increasing. Your pulse begins pounding, your breathing increases, the rhythm of the humming tread and your footfalls accelerating to combine into a steady beat. Then imagine keeping that speed for ten hours straight. Do you think you’d last? Probably not. The same is true of readers reading a novel.
While it is true that readers like stories where “something happens,” and action is a big part of that, readers also need stories that stop for reflective moments, too, allowing them to catch their breath, take a sip of water, grab a snack, and regroup. In constructing your plot, you should learn to plan for such a rhythm. Two or three high points of tense, fast pace, should be followed by a slower, thoughtful point before the next two or three fast, tense points begin. There are various ways to accomplish this which we will look at next.
Since action is the driving force of drama, let’s start with action. But don’t worry, we’ll get to how to slow it down too, right after. Just like I said we should.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a fan of action. Movies like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series always entertained me. I like action in my reading, too. Space opera is my favorite science fiction genre and sword & sorcery tops my fantasy favorites, but I also spend a great deal of my time reading thrillers and police procedurals. Is it any wonder that I find myself often writing action in my stories?
One of the best action writers I know is Jonathan Maberry, the New York Times bestselling author of the Joe Ledger thrillers and several other series. Let’s look at an action scene from one of his novels, Assassin’s Code:
I struggled to get to my feet.
A minute ago I had thought that the whole world was
sliding into the mouth of hell, but now a different
kind of hell had come to this place of shadows. There were screams and Upierczi running everywhere. Flares
popped in the air, painting everything in bright white
I took a step toward Grigor and my foot kicked something. I looked down and saw the code scrambler.
I bent and picked it up.
“Cowboy—on your six!”
It was Khalid’s voice, and I turned to see one of the vampires four feet away.
I had no time to run. I didn’t want to run. As he
slammed into me I buried the pistol under his chin and
blew off the top of his head. We hit the ground and I lay there, Upierczi blood all over me. In my face, my eyes, my mouth.
I rolled over and threw up.
Grigor was still screaming. Then I heard a sharp yelp of pain and looked up to see the Upierczi fling Ghost aside. Ghost hit the side of a packing crate and col- lapsed, spitting blood onto the floor. I saw a couple of teeth, too.
That made me mad. Maybe I needed that to shake off the
damage and the pain.
I came out of my daze and finally the situation gelled
in my mind. The Upierczi were rushing outward from me,
some were seeking cover, most were rushing at Echo
Bunny and Top were at the foot of the metal stairs.
Bunny had a combat shotgun with a drum magazine and he
was firing, firing, firing. Everything that came at
him died. The heavy buckshot soaked with garlic oil
poisoned every Upier that wasn’t instantly killed by
his blasts. The ones who took a few pellets staggered away, gagging and twitching with the onset of allergic
Top was watching his back, firing a big Navy Colt automatic, the hollow points doing terrible work in the tightly packed crowd.
On the other side of the chamber, Khalid and Lydia
were behind a packing crate, using it as a shooting
blind to create a cross fire.
“Frag out!” Lydia yelled and lobbed grenades into the heart of the vampires.
The fragmentation grenades weren’t filled with garlic,
but the blasts tore the monsters to pieces.
I saw three Upierczi running along the wall toward
them, well out of Lydia’s line of sight. I raised my
pistol but before I could fire the monsters went down,
one, two, three, their heads burst apart by sniper
rounds. John Smith, firing from somewhere I couldn’t
My knife was on the floor too, and I grabbed it as
well. I shoved knife and scrambler into my pocket and tapped my earbud. “Echo, Echo, this is Cowboy. I have the football and I need a doorway out of here.”
“I have your back,” came the reply, but it wasn’t in
my earbud. I whirled, and there she was. Dressed all
in black, splashed with blood, a wickedly curved blade
in each hand.
“Violin,” I began, but she shook her head.
She lunged past me as several Upierczi rushed my blind
side. Until that moment I didn’t understand what
“gifts” the dhampyri had gotten from the cauldron of
Violin was not as physically powerful, but my God, she
She met the rushing vampires, and even though I am
trained to observe and understand combat at any level,
I could not follow what happened. Her arms moved so
fast, her body spun and danced as she threaded her way
through the pack, the silver blades whipped with such frenzy that the monsters seemed to disintegrate around
her. It was so fast that their blood hung in the air
like mist. It was hypnotic and beautiful in the most
awful way that perfect violence can be beautiful; and it was horrible because there was nothing natural
about what I was seeing.
Violin was a thing born from rape, torn from a tortur-ed mother by a monster of a father, raised in a cu—
ture of rage and humiliation. If it was possible for
the concept of vengeance to be embodied in one form,
then that’s what I was seeing.
The Upierczi did not understand the nature of their
death. I could see that on their faces. They saw a
woman— something that to them represented a thing to
be taken and used and discarded— and they attacked her
with the arrogance of habitual users. They expected
her to fall. They expected her to be weak.
They did not expect the precise and unstoppable fury
of this daughter of Lilith.
She killed and killed and killed.
And yet, with all of that, I knew it wasn’t going to
be enough. There were at least a hundred of the Upier-czi in the chamber. More of them were seeded through
the staff of the refinery. There were a handful of us.
We were going to lose this fight.
In my earbud I heard John Smith say, “Mother of God.”
And then I heard him scream.
I wrenched myself away from Violin and raised my gun, searching the catwalks for Smith. I saw him.
I saw what was left of him fall.
Grigor, bloody, torn, perhaps dying, stood on the cat-walk fifty yards away. His mouth was bright with fresh
John Smith struck the hard stone floor in a broken sprawl. His throat was completely torn away.
I heard that scream of denial fill the air. From
Bunny’s throat, from Lydia’s and Khalid’s. From my own.
Before I knew what I was doing I was running with my
gun held in both hands, firing, firing. Bullets pinge and whanged off the steel pipes of the catwalk, but
Grigor ducked away and fled out through an open
I raced toward the stairway, but Khalid was closer and
he bolted up the metal steps in hot pursuit. Seven
Upierczi saw what was happening and they leapt like
apes onto the pipes and climbed upward. I emptied my
magazine at them. One fell away.
By the time I reached the foot of the stairs I had th
magazines swapped out and I ran upward. I was still
hurt, still bleeding. Maybe inside, too. My chest was a furnace and it felt like it was consuming me, but I didn’t care.
As I reached the top deck, the last of the Upierczi
turned and blocked my way. I put three rounds through his face and kicked his body out of my way.
Behind me there was another massive explosion, and I
lingered at the doorway, knowing that the blast
signature didn’t match our fragmentation grenades. I
Smoke and fire billowed out of one of the tunnels and Upierczi bodies were flung backward. Then a wave of new figures flooded in. Thirty of them. Women.
Arklight. The Mothers of the Fallen come for justice
of a kind.
The battle below became a bloodbath.
I turned away and ran after Khalid, the Upierczi, and Grigor.
Note the short sentences and paragraphs, as well as short spurts of dialogue. The description, action, and dialogue are all short and spaced so that readers’ eyes will flow down the page at a quick pace as they take it in. Also, note the lack of exposition or great detail. This is not the time for it. As a trained martial artist and experienced bodyguard, Maberry has an innate sense of how action really works and makes his fight scenes as realistic as possible. For those of us lacking such background, writing action scenes can be a challenge. In movies, you have visual and other clues to use to inspire the tension and pacing in the audience, but when writing prose, this can be more difficult. So here are a few key tips I’ve learned:
1) Write in short snippets as much as possible. Action scenes are not the time for long internal dialogues by characters. Think about a time you were involved in a high adrenaline situation. You didn’t have time to take long pauses for deep thinking. You had to react and do so quickly and so must your characters. The same is true of long speeches. People tend to be interrupted in speaking by the need to act or react. So dialogue and even action should be described in short spurts. If you have more than four sentences to it, think twice about whether it should be split up.
2) Use action to break up dialogue and dialogue to break up action. Intersperse the two components in short segments to add a sense of pacing and tension. Writing long sections of dialogue and long sections of action will tend to read slow and thus stall the pacing. This is especially true of dialogue as noted above. Alternating them adds a sense of realism and keeps things moving.
3) Get to the point. Long descriptions of weapons and scenery don’t belong here. If things need to be set up, do it before the sequence occurs so you don’t have to interrupt the action to do it. You want to focus on sensory details–what the characters see, feel, touch, etc. Are they sweating? Are they hurting? Not on what the building behind them looks like or even the street itself. You don’t want to spend pages like Tom Clancy describing their weapon here. We need to know what it is and how it works and their skill level so we cannot be surprised by their actions, but set that up elsewhere. During the action, we should already know.
4) Don’t make it too easy. Yes, the hero will likely win. But make it a challenge. Be sure and make the opponents threatening enough that the hero is in real jeopardy, otherwise the dramatic impact will be greatly lessened. No matter how skilled your hero is, he or she must have to face obstacles. In action sequences the odds should seem stacked against him. Let them bleed from a wound. Let them misfire or miss with the sword. Let them sweat and even have to run, barely escaping. Sometimes it’s even good to let them lose one time only to have them win later on. Force them to stretch themselves in some way to succeed. Make them human or the reader’s will struggle to care.
5) Keep it believable. This goes hand in hand with number 4. Real people are imperfect. They make mistakes. They fail. Make sure your action sequences are well researched and realistic. Besides humanizing the hero, don’t have vehicles or weapons performing beyond their capabilities. You may assume readers won’t know the difference but some will. And writing without limits rings hollow. Make sure you respect the limits and use them to up the tension. A man stuck with a sword fighting men with guns will face tense moments. A man against incredible odds is a man we root for.
6) Keep it tight. Anything absolutely not necessary should be cut. This includes long descriptions and dialogue as mentioned in number 1 but also the scene openings and closings. The rule I learned in film school was to get in a scene as late as possible and out as soon as possible. Nothing hurts pacing more than disobeying this rule. Be sure you start the action as fast as possible and end it the same. Don’t drag it out unnecessarily in your desire to make it more dramatic or a “cooler” sequence. Make it exactly as long as it really needs to be to serve the story and no longer.
7) Give the readers breathing space. Be careful about putting too many action sequences too close together. Movies build to a climax which may have twenty minutes of action but before that action scenes are interspersed with slower moments. Make sure you intersperse your action sequences with moments of character building and reflection, dialogue and discovery–slower sequences which allow readers to breathe a bit before the next intense action scene. In between scenes are where you make action sequences matter. Action is not just about a character we care about surviving but about stakes he or she has in that victory. What is the character’s driving need or goal? This gets set up in other scenes and provided driving undercurrent to the action which makes us care.
8 ) Pick your moments. Action stories tend to have several sequences spread throughout. Be sure you consider in choosing which sequence to include where the overall dramatic level of them. You want the biggest action sequence in the entire piece to be either at the closing of the piece. Those in between should leave room for a build up to the major action sequence to come. Ideally, each scene builds up to those that follow but this can be accomplished in ways besides upping the stakes and tension or odds. With proper character arcs, character’s emotional stakes can be developed in such a way that each later sequence matters that much more, making the readers care more as well.
9) Make it matter. Action scenes do not exist solely to entertain readers and add tension. They have a greater purpose to serve the story. Something must happen which ups the stakes or increases the challenges with each scene in your story and action scenes are no exception. Don’t write action for the sake of action. Write action because it serves the story. Every action sequence should move the story and characters forward in their journey, if not, they don’t belong in the story.
10) Incorporate humor. Humor is a great tool for not only breaking the tension but building character during action sequences. It’s no accident characters like Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Die Hard’s McClane engage in witty banter during such moments and your characters can as well. From funny actions to funny dialogue snippets, this makes the action both more enjoyable and less tense when done at the right moments and can add a lot to reader enjoyment. Don’t be afraid to incorporate it when you can. It doesn’t have to be cheesy catch phrases either. It’s all in the wording.
Now, thinking about these tips, go back and read the Maberry passage again and see how they are applied. He uses every technique mentioned in his action scenes, and in between, he gives us breathing space. So what are some techniques for doing that?
So in addition to ratcheting up the tension every chance you get, what are some techniques to use to build suspense? The description of the bar above is a form of subtlety and misdirection known as foreshadowing. And foreshadowing is a technique all writers should use. Foreshadowing is presenting hints that will pay off in a bigger way later in a story.
For example, in Andy Weir’s smash hit novel The Martian, he sets up his protagonist, Mark Watney’s, background as a botanist to foreshadow later events:
In other news, I’m starting to come up with an idea
for food. My botany background may come in useful
after all. Why bring a botanist to Mars? After all,
it’s famous for not having anything growing here. Well, the idea was to figure out how well things grow in
Martian gravity, and see what, if anything, we can do with Martian soil. The short answer is: quite a lot…
almost. Martian soil has the basic building blocks
needed for plant growth, but there’s a lot of stuff go-ing on in Earth soil that Mars soil doesn’t have,
even when it’s placed in an Earth-atmosphere and given
plenty of water. Bacterial activity, certain nutrientsprovided by animal life, etc. None of that is happen- ing on Mars.
One of my tasks for the mission was to see how plants grow here, in various combinations of Earth or Mars
soil and atmosphere.
That’s why I have a small amount of Earth soil and a
bunch of plant seeds with me. I can’t get too excited,
however. It’s about the amount of soil you’d put in a window planter-box, and the only seeds I have are a
few species of grass and ferns. They’re the most
rugged and easily grown plants on earth, so NASA pick-ed them as the test subjects.
So I have two problems: not enough dirt, and nothing
edible to plant in it.
Later on, Watney uses materials on the ship and in the environment to grow food and extend his life on the planet while he waits for rescue. In fact, his scientific calculations and knowledge become key to making rescue possible, but the timing for the mission becomes vitally important and dramatic. He has one shot at it and complications, of course, put the timing in jeopardy. What at first may seem like backstory on the character, becomes an essential plot elements. This is foreshadowing. A seemingly innocuous mention of science that might otherwise seem boring or useless foreshadows an important skill that will later save his life and be a hinge the story’s outcome depends on.
In my epic fantasy novel Duneman, I was creating a world where parts of the lands lived in medieval like conditions, while others had started industrial development, with steam powered airships, cranes, and more. Because the story starts in the medieval-like area, at one point, I had the protagonist pass airship landing zones on his journey, hinting that this land may seem medieval and standard fantasy but somewhere there are airships. It was subtle but later became important and set up the contrast between different areas of the lands, which in itself becomes an important source of conflict between various people groups—one that soon puts them on the brink of war. Always look for ways to hint at details early on which will play a key part later. If you don’t, readers will feel like you are inventing of necessity character skills and abilities or objects just when you need them for the story, which is manufactured and doesn’t ring true, and will shake their confidence and trust in you as a storyteller.
What if your characters hear a gunshot out on the street…discover a missing letter in the couch cushions…or smell an out of place odor in an unusual place? In Conflict, Action & Suspense, William Noble describes this technique as “plot-hypers.” Plot-hypers involve “injecting an unexplained event or circumstance” to add uncertainty or raise tension. Some are accomplished via misdirection and others through subtlety. He offers two classic examples.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes book The Hound of The Baskervilles, Sherlock discovers that a watch dog did not bark at a crucial moment, an odd coincidence. But at the end of the story, it becomes a significant clue that helps solve the case. This is subtlety.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a thief places an inoffensive letter next to a crucial one and then slyly slips away with the important one in front of witnesses. Police begins suspecting the thief because of his history and assume a search will turn up the letter, but the thief tricks them and hides it in plain sight. It almost works. This is misdirection.
Both involve one little fact that leads to an assumption. The authors don’t hit readers over the head. But yet the assumptions both take the story in surprising directions.
Another technique for setting up suspense is through flashbacks. Now, some people hate flashbacks. Flashbacks are scenes that take place earlier in a character’s history which reveal important information about the character, his or her relationships, or his or her conflict and flaws, which advance the story in their reveal. Admittedly, some authors overuse flashbacks, which can be annoying and also risks killing the pace of storytelling. Like any other scenes, flashbacks should be kept short and in media res applied. Enter and exit the scene as close to the key action as possible. Also be sure you introduce flashbacks only as needed vitally to further the story. Timing is key and when used well, flashbacks are an invaluable and quite effective tool for building tension and suspense in storytelling. The catch is that flashbacks can often slow the pace because they take us away from the main tension of the story and out of the present, pressing conflict to another time. For that reason, we will discuss them again briefly under pacing. But here’s an example from Miracle Man by David Baldacci, where a flashback actually continues the suspense and tension, despite interrupting a scene.
Decker has just posed as a lawyer in an attempt to get in to see a suspect at a police precinct—a suspect in the murder of his wife and child. As the woman at the counter asks him to sit and wait while she calls for approval, this happens:
Realizing he might have just blown a bunch of money he
didn’t have on lawyer-looking attire, Decker sat down in a chair bolted to the wall and waited. The old
woman picked up her phone and slowly, ever so slowly, punched in numbers.
Numbers. Always numbers.
They had a hypnotic effect on him, sending him to
places he didn’t always want to go.
Decker closed his eyes and his mind began to whir back…back to the day, no, the exact moment when his life
The crowd went berserk every time the hit was replayed
on the megatron, and that was often, I was told later.My helmet flew five feet and rolled another six, end- ing at the feet of a zebra who picked it up and maybe checked inside to see if my head was still in there.
I think my brain bounced against my skull multiple
times like a bird trying to introduce itself to a
window until its neck breaks.
Yep, the crowd cheered and whooped whenever the mega- tron belched out the replay.
Then I was told that they stopped cheering. Because I didn’t get up. Because I didn’t move a muscle. And
then someone noticed I had stopped breathing and had also turned blue. They told me the head training was
alternating pounding my chest like a punch press
attacking metal slabs and blowing air into my mouth.
Later, they told me I died on the field twice but he
brought me back both times from the hereafter. They
told me he was screaming in my ear, “Hang on, ninety-
five. Hang the hell on.” I was such a nobody that he
knew my jersey number but not my name.
My professional football player identity was a nine
and a five printed on my chest.
Nine and five. Violet and brown in my counting colors mind. I never consciously assigned colors to numbers. My brain did it for me without my permission.
The collision changed everything about me, because it essentially rewired my brain. So I died, twice, and
then came back, essentially as someone else. And for
the longest time I thought that would be the most
awful thing that would ever happen to me. And then
came that night and those three bodies in neon blue,
and the gridiron blindside dropped to number two on
the list of my personal devastations.
“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”
Decker opened his eyes to see the woman staring down
Now that is a well-constructed flashback. Not only does he use telling language because Decker is recalling things that happened along with things others told him about them, but it interrupts the moment he has awaited for four long years: a chance to confront his family’s killer, yet still manages to maintain tension and suspense. That’s because every word drips with the character’s emotions and because Baldacci chooses the flashback placement well. It has everything to do with who Decker is and his intensity as a person and it even ties into the moment at the police station at the end. So, planned and written well, flashbacks too can be a device for upping suspense. We’ll talk about them more later. First, here’s yet another technique.
A fourth technique is reversing the rules. This technique uses contrariness to create excitement and defy expectations. It’s about having things go against the established expectations to twist plot and characters from what readers would normally expect. Noble writes: “A reader expects something to be a certain way, but suddenly it’s not. The misdirection is in the expectation, the subtlety is in the surprise.”
For example, what if a handsome man is cruel, a real jerk, or an evil character happens to have a soft heart for kids, who love and flock to him whenever he’s around? A church is corrupt and hides a criminal enterprise. A school teacher is engaged in selling students into sex slavery. All of these are twists on normal expectations that first occur to us, twists that surprise us by defying our natural assumptions. This is reversing the rules.
These four techniques are the most common tools for building suspense, but no doubt some of you—and other authors—can think of others I didn’t mention. The general rule is to use whatever works for you and betters your story and ignore what doesn’t. Also closely related to suspense is pacing—the flow of your story. It’s the combination of tension and suspense—keeping readers wondering, guessing, wanting to know what happens—that sets the pace of your story. We’ll examine that next.
Previously, I wrote about In Medias Res—the rule that you should get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon after as you can to up the tension and help pacing. This is particularly true in dialogue scenes. Dialogue, as a rule, tends to move faster than action and description, upping your novel’s pace. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey writes: “Plunging into the middle of scenes speeds your novel along and keeps the reader involved in the rising conflict…When critics say a work is fast-paced, it is often because the writer keeps his characters engaged in intense conflicts and cuts directly into scenes with rising conflict.” A lot of time can be saved by starting scenes with the conflict already happening or ending them right as it ends. The results will also make your story feel faster. For example:
Johnny opened the door and stepped into his kitchen.
“Hi, honey,” his wife said, sing-song as usual, and bounced across the floor togreet him. They embraced
and kissed as usual before she asked, “How was your
“Boring. Usual sales calls. Nagging boss. How was
“It sucked. I got fired,” she said, frowning. Johnny
hadn’t expected it, given her great mood.
Now what if it were written like this?
“Today sucked,” Johnny’s wife said the minute he
opened the door.
“What happened?” he asked as she moped across the
floor to greet him.
“My boss is an asshole,” she said, then kissed him.
“Well, we kinda knew that.”
She smiled. “Well, now we have proof.”
Which feels more dramatic and fast paced? In every scene you write, look for the best way to enter dramatically and shape the dialogue for the greatest dramatic effect. In real life, niceties like greetings and chatter might be socially expected but in dramatic narrative, they kill pacing. Just cut to the drama. Charles Johnson in The Way of The Writer: “We should remember that dialogue occurs in a context, in other words, within a specific scene. And every dramatic scene has a structure. If we have two characters, say, each enters a scene motivated by a desire or need (or conflict) that has brought him or her there.” Sometimes establishing a rhythm requires getting the characters into a scene with a greeting or set up, and sometimes they jump right into the conflict or have “a hit” as Johnson calls it, “the heightened moment in the scene where what has brought them there is finally revealed.” It depends on the needs of the story and scene and characters at that moment. It must be natural while at the same time dramatic. Still, finding ways to cut to the chase will make your dramatic narrative more effective every time.
Here’s an example of dealing with a phone call from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey:
Lucas looked up at the clock. Eleven-forty. Damn. If
the cop who took the gun was planningto call, he
should have done it. Lucas looked at the phone,
willing it to ring.
It rang. He nearly fell off his drawing stool in
“Lucas? This is Jennifer.”
“Hey. I’m expecting a call. I need the line open.”
“I got a tip from a friend,” Jennifer said. “He says
there was a survivor. Somebody who fought off the
killer. I want to know who it was.”
“Who told you this bullshit?”
Two techniques are used to increase the tension of the scene. First, Lucas, a detective, is awaiting an important call. By telling us this, Sandford allows readers to feel the character’s tension as he looks at the phone. Second, because the caller is a tv reporter and not the fellow cop he was waiting to hear from, we get more tension, despite the routine nature of the chit chat that opens the call. If you need a bit of social nicety, this is a great way to handle it while still keeping the scene as dramatic as possible. Also, note the varied length in sentences, none of which are especially long. Johnson writes: “Characters usually speak naturally or colloquially in short, crisp sentences.” Study the speech patterns of others around you and you’ll see this is true. Varied length of sentences also affects pacing and can add dramatic effect to a scene, in addition to being more natural particularly in dialogue.
Dialogue is not normal conversation. It is conversation with drama. It is a medium of performance. William Noble writes in Conflict, Action, & Suspense: “The throwaway words of conversation such as “Hello,” “How are you,” “I’m fine,” “Good” should never be thought of as dialogue…because they don’t contain drama. Don’t reproduce conversation and call it dialogue; reproduce only that portion of the conversation that has drama…Dialogue must contribute to telling the story. If it doesn’t, it’s of no use.” Dialogue needs to move in a few short sentences. Take this example from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman:
“Where was it?”
“On the floor under the bunk. Maybe it fell out when I changed the bedding.”
“What do you think?” Leaphorn asked.
“I think I never had anything that had beads like that
on it or knew anybody who did. And I wonder how it
“Or why?” Leaphorn asked.
In this scene, Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are at Chee’s trailer, which was shot up the night before, looking for evidence. The bead they discover raises ominous questions, upping the tension, and it becomes a major key to the unfolding mystery of the overall story. This is how you write effective, dramatic dialogue. Cut to the chase, the drama, what matters, and skip everything else. Noble writes: “When dialogue disintegrates into dull conversation, it destroys the forward movement of the tale, and once this happens, the conflict falls apart and the action and suspense hold no one’s interest.” Dialogue must always fulfill two purposes: Keeping the story moving and developing characterization. This is why most dialogue inevitably becomes confrontation. “Readers are interested in confrontation because the drama inherent in a face-off carries excitement and uncertainty,” Noble writes. The “Yes/No” countering in dialogue carries inherent disagreement that ups the drama every time.
Also, humans are rarely directly responsive to each other when conversing. Oblique or partial responses, especially those that ask or raise questions are common. And this keeps the pace of the conversation flowing.
“It’s cold out tonight.”
“I’ll get locked out if we don’t hurry.”
Not, “my fingers are cold,” which would be a commentary on the coldness. Instead, the reply is about the agenda of the second character. Since this is a natural human trait due to poor listening skills most of us possess, it is a great tool to utilize for keeping dialogue dramatic and moving. It avoids bogging down the story in chit chat, while also providing information about the characters: their motives, priorities, what is on their minds.
Varying character emotions is also an effective tool. If one character underplays and response calmly, while the other is tense and emotional, this has the effect of varying pace while also building the story. When we are stressed and talking to someone who isn’t, we naturally want them to share our sense of urgent emotion. Tension increases each time they respond calmly to our urgency. The same is true in dramatic scenes. Subtext—implying more than the words say directly—is a great technique for upping the drama via underplay. It makes the impact more devastating, too.
“You’re not sleeping,” Roger said.
“I’m trying,” Julie replied.
“Well, you talked to me,” she replied but left her arm
laying over her eyes just where it had been.
He rolled over and touched her shoulder. “I can’t stop
thinking about it.”
She groaned. “Damn it.”
Subtext is when something going on beneath the surface unspoken changes the meaning of a scene. Here, the subtext is that Roger has something urgent on his mind but Julie doesn’t want to talk about it. She is annoyed at being bothered. But this is never stated outright. The mystery of it allows the story to build because we are waiting to see what happens, wondering how it will play out. Will they talk or will she go to sleep? Will this lead to more conflict later? Etc. It is subtle, but very effective, and not unrealistic to life.
Stream of consciousness in interior dialogue can also be used to up tension, especially in scenes where dialogue with others is impossible because a character is alone.
She was coming toward me. I couldn’t get into it
again. I glanced around for somewhere to hide.
This kind of inner monologue adds tension, even if the “she” is someone we have not seen before by asking questions we want to know the answer to, thus upping tension and building expectation that it will pay off in a dramatic fashion at some point later.
Another technique to aid pacing with underplayed dialogue is gesturing.
“Someone’s coming,” Al said.
“Is it him?” Rick never even looked up from his
“Blonde, tall, thin, about twenty or so?”
“That’s what the boss said, yeah.”
Al watched as Rick reached down and fingered the blade
in his pocket. “I thinkit’s him,” Al motioned. This
time they both looked.
Two mobsters waiting for their victim. Plenty of tension from the implied expectation, but the dialogue itself isn’t all that dramatic. It is the subtext which adds the drama. The gesturing adds dimension by having the characters innocuous dialogue be underscored by what they are doing: waiting for a victim, knife ready. And when the body movement happens, it is almost like the start of violence. It is restrained, but we anticipate it, and the physical movement punctuates the anticipation by foreshadowing a physical response to go with the subtext.
These techniques are always effective time and again when keeping dialogue dramatic and well-paced so they keep the story moving and reveal character at the same time.
This week as I launch my latest novel, and my first thriller, Simon Says, I wanted to talk about the importance of suspense to drive a story. But before I get into how to make a story suspenseful, it’s important we first talk about Plot, because plot drives suspense, and the core of any good plot are questions asked and answered.
In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies Five Basic Plot Elements all plots must have. They are:
A sympathetic character.
So every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well developed plot.
Once you have these core elements, plot is driven by asking questions. But what makes readers keep turning the pages isn’t just the questions themselves but how and when you answer them. Some questions get answered in the same scene, some several scenes later but within the same chapter. Some questions get asked and go unanswered for many chapters or even the entire book. The weight in importance of the question usually determines how long you will take to answer it and whether you answer it in pieces or all at once. Asking intriguing questions that readers just have to know the answers to will keep them interested and compelled as they continue to read. So picking the right questions is vital.
Questions can derive from characters or conflict. They result in complications that lead to a climax or climactic confrontation and then to a resolution (unless you have a sequel and end on a cliffhanger of sorts). The questions need to be compelling but they don’t always have to be complex or deep—just something we care about the answer to. At different points in the story, our level of caring will vary. At the beginning, it takes a while to care about the characters, so while you may ask big questions that set up the story and drive the characters (and won’t be answered until the end), the full weight of them isn’t felt right away. We may be intrigued, but to make us “dying to know” we need to care about the outcome, and that means caring about the characters: what they want, who they are, what their goals are. So, as you can see, all the five core elements of plot play into the power of storytelling. It’s very important to pick the right ones: ones that will generate compelling and interesting questions that keep readers coming back for more.
For example, some things we will want to know in a good story are: Who is this character? What does this character want? How is what this character wants affected by what other characters want? Why does any of it matter? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? How is this character like me? How is this character not like me? What is this clue or object? Who has it? Who wants it? Why does it matter? What is the effect of one character having it over another? And so on.
The result of this pattern of questions and when and how you answer them is suspense—the tension that drives the story and compels us to keep reading to see how it turns out. Asking the right questions at the right time and answering them at the right time builds tension and keeps a story interesting and well-paced. Asking the wrong questions and answering too soon or not well (or not at all) destroys tension and interest and leads readers to stop reading or even throw your book against a wall in sheer disgust. So you see: the first key to good plotting is asking the right questions at the right time. The second key to good plotting is answering them at the right time in the right way.
Also key is viewpoint. Because picking the right viewpoint affects what we know and what we don’t know and how much we care about finding the answers. The question to ask yourself in choosing viewpoint is which character is the best person to tell this story or scene? In the case of singular viewpoints, everything readers learn will be what one character learns or knows, solely their experience and interpretation of people and events. With multiple narrators, you must choose who has the most to lose. Usually that character is the best one to tell a particular scene because their stakes are the highest. And as such, their questions and needs will be the most compelling and interesting for readers.
In next week’s post, we will examine techniques for building tension and suspense. The goal is to help you make your stories more compelling so readers come back for more and more.
In the meantime, if you want to see what I am talking about, perhaps check out my new novel, Simon Says, which I mentioned earlier. Readers tell me it is a real pageturner because of the suspense. The editor was so hooked he forgot to edit and kept having to go back and reread to do his edits. Free sample chapters can be found here.
Thanks for reading this far. Good luck with those questions. See you next week when we talk about how to play off them for greatest effect.