WriteTip: Techniques For Creating Suspense

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 8:

 

Techniques for Creating Suspense

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 
changed forever.

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 
at him.

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.

WriteTip: Dialogue and Pacing—Tips to Keep it Moving

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 7:

Dialogue and Pacing (In media res)

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 to greet him. They embraced 
and kissed as usual before she asked, “How was your 
day?”

“Boring. Usual sales calls. Nagging boss. How was 
yours?”

“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 planning to 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 
surprise.

“Yes?”

“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 
got here.”

“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.

“You answered.”

“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 
newspaper.

“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 think it’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.

Next week, we’ll talk about writing action.

WriteTip: What is Dialogue and What is its Purpose?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 7:

Chances are fifty percent or more of your novel will consist of dialogue. Dialogue is the characters’ chief method of communicating information to one another (and readers). But remember: Conversation isn’t dialogue. Dialogue is drama. It is a certain type of dramatic representation of conversation that has conflict and drama and urgency. It may imitate conversation but there is no chit chat. Dialogue involves imparting key information about plot, emotion, character, setting and more that drives the story forward. It involves building tension, pace, and foreshadowing conflict as well as expressing present conflict. Dialogue is one of the essential craft tools of good fiction writing.
  Johnny Payne writes in Voice & Style:  “Dialogue is the essence of teaching…The role of dialogue within fiction can be defined as not so different from the one it plays in learning. Ideally, it should deepen with progressive readings, leaving the reader with an increased understanding of the story’s consequences.” In some ways, dialogue exists in tension with, and separate from the authorial voice. Characters care nothing about the author’s life or concerns, just their own. When two or more characters dialogue, they are in a sense “talking back” to the author or narrative voice. They contest it at times, challenge it, add complexity to its views. This tension gives us perspective on the narrative voice while also clarifying the independence of characters in the story from the narrator. By necessity, fiction must be truer than life in order to give us different perspectives on it. Because characters always speak in opposition—conflict lies at the heart of drama, remember—the tension between character voices and author voice is a key element of the storytelling experience, adding tension and drama and upping the stakes. And while dialogue is part of overall voice, because characters and narrator can also speak in opposition, they create the kind of multiple meanings and complexity associated with dramatic irony. As narration directs and lays out the story, dialogue detonates and creates explosions that create twists, surprises, turns, and consequences that affect the rest of the story and keep it interesting. This is the essence of narrative drama.
  So how do you develop a skill for good dialogue? Let’s look at The Purpose of Dialogue.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Jack Hart writes in Storycraft: “Dialogue isn’t an end in itself; it has to do some real work. It can advance action as characters encounter and struggle with obstacles, such as an antagonist who resists a character’s progress in resolving a complication. It can help shape a scene as characters comment on objects in their environment, such as the clothes one of them wears.” Advancing action, imparting information, revealing character, increasing conflict—all of these are the purpose of dialogue and its every word should serve one or more of these at all times.
  According to screenwriter John Howard Lawson, speaking “comes from energy and not inertia.” It serves “as it does in life, to broaden the scope of action; it organizes and extends what people do. It also intensifies the action. The emotion which people feel in a situation grows out of their sense of scope and meaning.” James Scott Bell writes in How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: “Characters talk in fiction because they want to further their own ends…Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” Because dialogue can foreshadow action, explain it, or set it up, advancing action is a core role of dialogue. Also, dialogue exchanges are laden with conflict and can thus up the tension and stakes of action and confrontations, thus advancing action and leading from one action to another. The very act of dialoguing is, in effect, taking an action: to confront, to question, to ask, to discuss, etc. and in all cases, this dialogical action furthers plot, story, and character in some way (or should).
  Because, in many ways, we reveal who we are by how we speak, what dialogue does best is reveal or advance character. In the next section we will cover dialect and diction, but it’s not just the word choice that is at work here but the interaction with other characters and the world reveals much, too. Word choice can reveal education level, social stratus, historical background, genetics, nationality, etc. but dialogue with others reveals attitudes about society, setting, the world, and relationships which are also important. We talk to different people differently for various reasons, and that very act reveals much about who we are and who they are to us.
  Because much dialogue involves opposition between characters, inherent in its nature is conflict. Stephen King writes in On Writing: “It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.” Dialogue is intimately connected to character motivation. It reveals motive constantly, setting and revising their agenda. These agenda checks come in opposition with those of other characters, creating conflict and tension and leading to action, imparting information, upping the stakes. This is a key difference between conversation and dialogue. Dialogue is always about tension and conflict, whereas conversation is not. Conversation can be casual and consumed with minute details, facts, and experiences which interest the involved parties but are irrelevant to those around them. Dialogue must always function to advance the story by revealing motives, information, character, action and more, so dialogue and conversation are very different in both purpose and style. In dialogue, characters sometimes say things to inform readers of information they already know in order to advance the story. This exposition is a manufactured trait of narrative dialogue that is not common in real life except with strangers. There are things many times we don’t have to say because we are the party we are speaking to just know them, but with readers watching, in narrative, these things cannot go unsaid and must be imparted.
  Dialogue can also be external and internal. At the same time as characters engage in dialogue with other characters, they maintain an internal dialogue with themselves that can be in conflict with the external dialogue but performs the same functions. It can impart backstory, history, and details readers need to know and also things characters may not share, for various reasons, with other characters but which they know and hold in reserve but which readers need to further the story, action, and character. These two streams of dialogue go on simultaneously and intertwine with the narrator’s voice as the story unfolds.
 Here’s an example from romance author Catherine Bybee’s Wife by Wednesday:
“Kissing me is wrong?”

“Yes,” she blurted out. “I mean, no.”

He chuckled, “Which is it?”

“Ugh. What if I choke? What if I don’t look convincing?” What if she screwed up and gave the camera exactly what they wanted and Blake lost his inheritance?

Blake removed one hand from the steering wheel and placed it over her cold ones. “Samantha?”

“Yes?”

“Relax. Let me take charge here.”

She wanted to trust him. But her hands shook as they  pulled into her driveway. He removed the key from the ignition and shifted in his seat. “Let’s just go      inside and start packing.”

“Are you going to kiss me the minute we’re inside?”   God, she had to know…so she could prepare herself.
Okay, clearly Blake and Samantha are lovers. And they are going somewhere important with potential consequences for Blake that Samantha is worried she’ll screw up. Notice also how Samantha’s internal and external monologue are both at play here to impart understanding of motives and thought behind her reactions and words? Also note how while she is tense, anxious, Blake’s body language and words combine to demonstrate he is not. He is relaxed, at ease. This is a very solid demonstration of effective dialogue.
   The next is example from The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson:
“What are you smiling at?”

“Leave me alone. I’m having a moment of grace.”

He stared at me. “Well, we would not want to interrupt that.”

I tossed a piece of shale at him, missing by a good   two feet. “If you can have multiple lives, I can have moments of grace.”

He grunted. “How was your moment of grace last night?”

“Not bad, as moments of grace go.” I thought for a    while. “More like a moment of truth.”

He nodded. “That is good. They are harder to come by.” He winced as he stretched the tendons in his right 
knee; maybe he wasn’t indestructible. “So, she left 
the Jeep?”

“Yep.”

“You drive her home?”

“Yep.”

He stretched for a minute more, leaned against the 
mile-marker post I was leaning against, and sighed. 
“Okay…”

“Okay, what?”

“We do not have to talk about it.”

“We are talking about it.”

“No, I am talking about it, and all you are doing is 
saying, ‘Yep.’”
Even without a lot of context, hopefully you can tell these are characters who know each other well. In this case, Sheriff Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear are childhood friends, now adults. Henry is an American Indian, Walt white. The sarcasm inherent here shows familiarity, as does the inside reference to “multiple lives.” Characters with a history spar as they talk frequently. There is a playfulness and tension to it as they test each other, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, but always in shared knowledge. Just four lines of dialogue and two of description, but you see what that can reveal, even out of context. Walt, it appears, had a date or something the night before. Also, notice that Henry uses no contractions in his syntax. He has a unique way of talking that distinguishes him from Walt.
  Dialogue’s purpose is to reveal character, plot, and story. It drips with conflict and drama, moving the story forward, upping the tension, and pushing the story along. Just by tone, phrasing, and wording, it can raise questions and evoke emotions in the reader. That is the importance of getting it right.
  Next week, we’ll talk about some other aspects of dialogue.

My Top 15 Favorite Writing Books & Why (In No Particular Order)

Today, I thought I’d list the 15 writing books I find most helpful to my writing and teaching writing and offer a little explanation as to why. Hopefully some of these are useful and helpful to you. I am doing these in no particular order of priority, but instead based on how they fit with each other.

The first 8 are part of an excellent Writer’s Digest series called ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING. These are by no means all of the books in that series. All of them are excellent, but these 8 are the ones I have referred to most often myself.

  1. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Nancy Kress — Kress takes you through not only the importance of these three pieces of any good story but also the hows and whys of writing them in a very organized and useful way.
  2. Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card — Excellent examination of building characters that spring to life and dealing with points of view.
  3. Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing) by William Noble — No good story can exist without conflict, action, and suspense, and Noble tells you what they are, how to write them, and why they matter succinctly.
  4. Description (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Monica A. Wood — one area I had the most to learn when I became a novelist. And Wood expertly helps you learn the hows, whys, and wherefores.
  5. Dialogue (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Lewis Turco — Dialogue has always been one of my strengths (or so I was always told) but this book helps examine things like etymology, accents, and more which go beyond just good every day dialogue.
  6. Plot (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Ansen Dibell — A key resource on an essential tool for any writer and something most books live or die on: plotting.
  7. Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack W. Bingham — An excellent how to.
  8. Voice & Style (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Johnny Payne — Wanna know the difference? Wanna develop your own? Look no further. Truly eye opening.
  9. Checking on Culture by Lee Killough — A tiny little tome about a huge subject that just nails it. Her checklist alone is indispensable. Not to be missed.
  10. How To Write A Breakout Novel by Donald Maass/The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass — Technically two books like the next entry, these two are by one of the most successful literary agents in the business and give you real insight into what editors and agents look for and what you need to write a sellable book.
  11. How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey/How To Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey — Two books by a top author and teacher which examine key elements of successful novels, different areas are covered in each book. Essential reading.
  12. On Writing by Stephen King — If you don’t know King, this book gives you insight into his background as a person and his approach to writing. It’s incredibly useful as a writing tool and resource in addition to being a damn compelling autobiography.
  13. Screenplay by Syd Field — The essential book on 3 Act story structure, indispensable for novelists and screenwriters alike. This one was key reading in Hollywood for decades.
  14. The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Pugliosi and Angela Ackerman — The one writing book I never write without, this one helps you nail the internal and external and mental signs of various emotions so well, you can describe them without ever mentioning the emotion. I use it daily while writing.
  15. The Ten Percent Solution by Ken Rand — The single best revision and editing book I have ever read. Like Killough, it is deceptively slim, but every word counts and it will revolutionize how to revise and edit your own work. Essential.

So those are my Top 15 Writing Books and briefly why. What are yours? For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: A Trick Every Writer Should Know About Writing Scenes (In Medias Res)

When I went to screenwriting school, the key thing they taught us about writing scenes was a concept called in medias res: to enter a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible after that. Forget the niceties. None of this:

Bob walked in the room to find Guy sitting on the couch, chilling.

“Hey, dude, whassup?” Bob asked.

Guy shrugged, not even glancing over. “Nothing. You?”

“Meh. Me either.”

No. You’d better have something more interesting. We can assume they’re nice, normal people but we don’t need to see their mundane, routine, room entering banter to prove it.  Show us that and you’ve lost our interest. Why? We can see that every day. And when  you write it out, it’s quickly apparent how boring our lives have become.

Instead, you want to start with as dramatic a spot as possible.

           “Why am I here?” Hachim choked out. Sweat dripped off the arms of the chair as it soaked through his robe. After twenty minutes alone in the interrogation room, he looked like he’d fallen into a lake. Tarkanius and Aron shook their heads, and Aron was thankful he wasn’t present for the odor. They watched through the one way glass as the Major Zylo stopped across the table from the sweaty Lord, staring at him.

            “You know why you’re here,” Zylo said.

            Hachim coughed. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

            “So you always sweat this much when you’re innocent?”

            Hachim grabbed the towel Zylo tossed across the table at him and began wiping the exposed flesh of his face, brow, neck and arms. “It’s hot in here.”

            “I’m perfectly comfortable.” Zylo sat in the seat across from him and leaned back, watching as the Lord cleaned himself. “You’re gonna need a new robe.”

Are you hooked yet? I hope so. This scene should be a lot more interesting. If not, go back to your boring life. I hope you’re very happy there.

The difference between scene 1 and scene 2 is that when scene 1 starts, nothing is happening. The characters aren’t even all that interesting. In scene 2, the drama has started before we’re allowed in the room. Hachim’s already sweating, Zylo’s already hostile. It’s obvious right away Hachim is guilty of something, at least as far as Zylo’s concerned, and Zylo intends to get to the bottom of it. We’d like to as well. To me, this illustrates well the craft of getting into a scene as late as possible. Something interesting is already happening. No wasted space. No chit chat.

Now let me show you the rest of the scene so we can talk about point two: getting out as soon after.

  “What is this about? You have no right to detain me without cause!”

            Zylo nodded, then slid a datapad across the table, watching as Hachim set down the towel and began to read.

            “Conspiracy? Assassination?” Hachim’s eyes darted up from the screen. “I had nothing to do with it.”

            “You knew about it.”

            Hachim shook his head. “If you could prove it, you’d have already arrested me.” He smiled smugly.

            Zylo laughed. “The Alien Leadership Summit.”

            Hachim’s eyes raced to finish the charges. “What about it?” Hachim slid the datapad back across the table and shot him a confused look that wasn’t very convincing.

            “What’s the location?”

            “That’s classified for the Council.”

            “I have clearance, trust me. I’m on the security team.”

            Hachim hesitated, then melted under Zylo’s stare. “Idolis.”

            Zylo shook his head. “Buzz! Wrong answer. And it was all over the news.”

            “So? I am not the only person privy to that.” Hachim leaned back in his chair, attempting to appear bored, but Aron saw the fear in his eyes. And Zylo saw it, too.

            Zylo chuckled. “Yes, you were.”

            Hachim looked at him again, startled. “What?”

            Zylo nodded, smirking. “Each Lord was given a different location.”

            Hachim frowned. “A different location? They can’t hold the Summit in more than one place…” His voice trailed off as the implications sank in. Zylo raised a brow as their eyes met. “Lies? A trap?”

            “A security precaution. How many people did you tell?”

            Hachim shook his head. “No, I’m innocent. I’m not going to tolerate this abuse.” Slowly, he stood from his chair and took a step toward the door.

            Zylo shoved Hachim back into the chair. “Sit down and start answering.” Hachim looked offended at the treatment. Zylo wasn’t even phased. “Now!”

            Aron looked at Tarkanius, wondering if it were time for them to join the interrogation. Tarkanius shook his head. “No. Let him suffer.”

            “Then their fate will be yours.” Zylo shrugged and turned to casually stroll toward the door. Hachim’s eyes widened.

            “It was Niger’s idea,” Hachim began. Zylo turned back as Hachim’s shoulders sank with his weight in the chair.

Can you see how fast it moves? And the whole thing is fairly dramatic. In fact, you don’t even get to know what he tells him. Why? Because talk is boring. It’s more interesting to show that in the scenes that follow. In context, this opens Chapter 12 in my forthcoming novel The Returning, so readers will actually know more coming into it than you did. They’ll know, for example, that Hachim has been betraying his trust as a public servant. That people’s lives are at risk if he’s leaked the data as suspected. People we care about’s lives. Still, it illustrates my point well. It’s tight. It’s dramatic. It sets up the character’s relationship quickly. The characters are revealed through action and dialogue. There’s tight pace. And it holds your interest. Plus, even both pieces combined, it’s short. In late, out early.

Try it. Not only will your pacing automatically be better. Your readers are likely to turn pages faster. And your writing is even going to be more fun. Yes, this is an interrogation scene. But you can do the same thing with any scene where there’s conflict, and, frankly, most of the time, if you scene doesn’t have conflict, you shouldn’t be writing it. Seriously. Conflict is the heart of good fiction. If you don’t have conflict at the heart of a scene, find a way to dismiss it with a couple quick telling sentences and skip to the next dramatic moment. Your readers will thank you for it.

In any case, that’s how you get in late, and get out early. I hope it helps you improve your craft. Feel free to comment, ask questions, dialogue about it. I won’t bite…well, then, part of the dramatic tension is your not knowing for sure if that’s true. For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: 8 Things You Must Know About A Character To Write Them Well

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

Readers want your characters to seem like real people, whole, alive, believable, and worth caring about. People become, in our minds, what we see them do, so first thing first, your character is what he or she does.
But just seeing what someone does isn’t enough in good storytelling. To truly know a person, we need to understand their inner self, their motives. Motive is what gives moral value to their actions. And what a character does, no matter how good or bad, is never morally absolute. A character is what he or she means to do, but we all make mistakes, we all have flaws. So, the intention they have and the ideal they desire to be and will become by the end of your story is even more important. Even if their motive is concealed from readers for much of the book, as often is the case with the antagonist, and even if they themselves are not always certain what is driving them due to some psychological trauma or issue, you need to know their motive clearly as you write, and they need to have one.

Here are some key things you need to know about your characters to write them well:
Their Name—This may seem obvious. But every once in a while, you get some person who thinks they are clever and decides to write a mysterious unnamed character. This is very hard to pull off and poses and number of problems, but even if you try it, you still need to know their name. Names tell us lots about a person, from their background and history to ethnicity, culture, age, and more. A name is invaluable to helping know your character and to helping readers know them as well.
Their Past—Our past, however we might revise it in memory, is who we believe we are. It shapes our image of ourselves.
Their Reputation—Characters are also restricted and affected by what others think of and expect of them. How are they known? Who do others think they are?
Their Relationships—Who is important to them? Who do they love? Who do they have relationships with that are good, and who do they have bad relationships with and why? And how does this affect their motives and actions and their self-perception? Not all of these relationships will be used in the story or appear on screen, so to speak, but they are part of who the character is and is becoming and what drives them, so you need to know them.
Their Habits and Patterns—Habits and patterns imply things about a person. From personal tics to emotional patterns, we form our expectations based on these characteristic habits that suggest how they will behave in any given situation; often these traits communicate unspoken things about the character’s state of mind, emotions, and more. Many story possibilities can emerge from these. And they make the character seem more well-rounded and realistic because every real person we know has these aspects if we take time to study them.
Their Talents and Abilities—Talents do not have to be extreme to make them a part of a character’s identity or even important to their fate. But what they do well and don’t do well does matter to us, to them, and to those around them, and also to how they take action and respond to the world around them throughout the story.
Their Tastes and Preferences—Someone can like all the same things you do and still not be someone you want to spend time with or would trust to care for your pets or kids. Tastes and preferences tell us a lot about someone while also opening story possibilities and potential conflicts that can help drive the story and build characters and relationships.
Their Appearance—What color are their eyes? Do they have any handicaps? What color is their hair? These are not characterization alone, but they add depth and they can affect self-esteem and how characters are perceived by readers and by other characters, so they matter.

In filling out a character profile that identifies all these characteristics, observe people you know. Think about people you have seen and encountered. What stands out about them? What annoyed you? What did you love? And can any of these things be used to make a real, interesting, dimensional character?

There are three questions readers will ask that must always be considered. And they expect good answers at some point to hold their interest. In fact, your honeymoon with readers lasts only a few paragraphs, so you must constantly keep such questions in mind.

  1. Why should I care about what’s going on in the story?
  2. Why should I believe anyone would do that?
  3. What’s happening?

Fail to answer these questions at your own peril. It may sound harsh, but do your job and it will almost never be an issue. Uncertainties can be part of storytelling, but even intentional uncertainties must be clear, so readers will know you meant it to be that way and continue to trust you to pay it off later. Trust between reader and author is key to any novel’s success. As always, you need to know a lot more about your characters than readers may need for understanding the present story. Some of this stuff may never get written directly into your book, but knowing it may profoundly impact how you write your character and will be very useful in keeping clearly in mind who they are and how they move through the world and interact with it.

Write Tip: How To Register Copyright For Your Prose

NOTE: This is a reprint of an old post which wasn’t a WriteTip but should be. Still relevant. Hope it’s useful.

In the current climate of instant everything, protecting your work is important. Anything you post online or email to a friend could potentially be stolen. So how do you protect yourself? One important method for serious creatives is by copyright. Now copyrighting is handled by the Library of Congress a Federal agency. It’s not the best approach in all cases, because it’s not inexpensive. At a cost of $35-65 per written work, that can really add up. But it does provide security. By law, copyrights last the author’s lifetime plus 50 years and can be renewed indefinitely by legal heirs. You’re also listed and a copy kept on file in the archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. which can be used as evidence in legal proceedings should you face the misfortune of having to sue to protect your intellectual property. So there are advantages to this but it may not be right for you in every case.  Much information can be found on the Library of Congress sites at www.loc.gov and www.copyright.gov.

By law, Copyright exists from the moment of creation. So protections are already in place under the law. However, registration of copyright can be important in providing stronger proof and enabling you to sue for more damages in the case of infringement. This post examines how to go about officially registering a copyright claim and when it might be a good idea to do so.

How To Determine If Copyright Registration Is Necessary:

1) Is your creative work at risk?  If you post it online, the answer is yes. If you turn it in as a class assignment, the answer may be no. Most professors would never violate your copyright. And in most cases, when you are first learning, school work isn’t going to have serious potential for marketing. So the likelihood of your work being stolen and distributed is pretty minor. What is the intended audience and how is the work being distributed? If your work is really at risk, then copyright may be a good idea.

2) What is the type of prose? If it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction on a significant topic, copyright is wise. But how do you know it’s significant? What’s the subject? If it’s scientific with unique contributions to the study of the topic, involves a subject of great interest (celebrities, political issues, religion, etc.), then perhaps it’s worth copyrighting. Some raw scribbles, probably not. It’s up to you to determine and in this day and age, caution should be the watch word, but do use wisdom.

3) Do you own it? If your work is a work for hire, you have no right to claim it. A work for hire is a creative work instigated by someone else but created by you on their behalf. In most cases, your contract stipulates that they own all rights. If not, that should be worked out. If you are writing technical manuals for a product owned by a company, the copyright will belong to them. If you are creating something original from your own mind for them, that’s another question. But you must own a work to claim the copyright. If your work is derivative of another property, such as a Star Trek tie-on novel, you likely cannot copyright it. If you can, you can only copyright the original portions which were not previously created by the originator.

4) Is Your Work Valuable? If you are just an unknown person posting on a blog, putting copyright notice (c) on the blog itself should protect you. The law states that your copyright is owned by you the moment you publish the work and suggests putting appropriate notice. Registration through the Library of Congress is merely a formality for extra protection in court or legal matters. It’s a way to prove definitively that your claim is valid. If you are a celebrity or you work will be significantly distributed, then the chances are it will come to be of such value as needing extra protection.

Once you’ve determined that it’s appropriate to register a copyright, then you need to get the materials necessary together.

What You’ll Need:

1) A clean copy of your manuscript--Typed for clarity is best. And make sure it’s the version you want to protect. Do all editing and other adjustments. Formatting itself is not copyrighted, only content, so layout is not the concern, just the content itself. Also be sure and put your name, address, phone number and other relevant information, including a copyright notice on the work. Don’t put a date as that won’t be official until you actually file.

2) Form TX–the official copyright form, which can be found here: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formtx.pdf

3) A check or credit card–to pay the filing fee which is currently $35 online and $65 by mail.

4) A stamped envelope–if you intend to mail your submission.

Once the materials are ready, then you can file as follows:

 1) Fill out the appropriate form in detail. List all pertinent information as concisely and clearly as possible. Be sure and save a copy of the form for yourself in case it 1) gets lost in the mail; b) you need it for reference, etc.

2) Paperclip the form to your work and place in envelope. Mail it. No need for Priority, Registered or Express or tracking. All of these cost extra. You will get confirmation that it’s been received by mail when your copyright certificate arrives. However, if you have the money and want reassurance, you can pay for these as you wish.

To file online,

1) Find the Electronic Copyright Office online at: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/ and register yourself. Read the relevant information about acceptable file types, etc. When you are ready, fill out the form here: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/help-registration-steps.html

2)  Once the form is filled, attach your document. You will be prompted. Again, view the list of acceptable file types above to verify yours will be accepted in its present format.

3) Make electronic payment. This can be done online with credit or debit card or electronic check and you will be prompted.

4) Submit. Click the button to submit when you are finished.

Processing time can vary, and the Copyright Office site issues the following warning:

 The time the Copyright Office requires to process an application varies, depending on the number of applications the Office is receiving and clearing at the time of submission and the extent of questions associated with the application.

Like everything else in life and especially when dealing with government, you will have to wait, but you will receive a copy back of your registered form signifying recognition and acceptance of your claim with the official date of copyright. This can be kept in a safe deposit box or file.

That’s it. Allow a few weeks for a record of your copyright to be searchable in the Library Of Congress database.  But you can rest assured you will soon have a legally registered copyright protection for your work.

An example of a listing can be found here.   I own several copyrights to musical works as listed. Not everything under “Bryan Thomas Schmidt” is mine, however.

I hope his helps you better understand the copyright process.


WriteTip: Using The Five Senses

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

Many of us are guilty of falling into the habit of using one or two senses and ignoring the rest. For most of us, sight is the dominant sense—the sense through which we first encounter and examine the world. So how things appear will dominate most narratives naturally, closely followed by sound. But we have five senses, and all have the power to bring useful imagery into your storytelling.

Good description employs all five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing—and employs at least one every two pages, sometimes more. A few well-placed details can totally embody a character or place and make them come alive for the reader. And nothing takes us deep inside the character’s mind and experience like sensory details. All good settings are rich with detail, so you should have plenty to choose from. From the appearance and smells of a restaurant or grocery store or market to the touch and sounds of the outdoors to the taste of food, there are numerous opportunities to add color and vividness to your prose using these kinds of details.

Here are some suggestions for aspects of each sense to consider:

Sight—Color is usually one of the first things that comes to mind, but studies actually show that spatial dimensions tend to be picked up first by the brain. How large is the area? How high is the ceiling? After dimension, the source of light tends to be noticed next. What is lighting the scene, and what is its source—artificial or natural? Is it bright or white or mixed hues? Then, color impressions form. The dominant color tends to take on significance. Next comes texture, like shadows or rough and smooth surfaces, etc. Finally, there’s contrast. Superimposition of colors and other aspects affects how much objects, people, and places draw our attention.

Sound—Sound can be described by the loudness or complexity—simple or multiple sources—tonality (soft or hard, harsh or gentle, etc.), and the location of its source and distance from the hearer. Also, is the sound unknown or familiar?

Smell—While smells can be often overlooked by both writers and in real life, smell can reveal a lot. Is the odor pleasant or unpleasant? What emotions does it evoke—fear like smoke from a fire, or is it the steady everyday scent of vehicles, animals, or insects in the environment that almost goes unnoticed because it is so common?

Touch—How do things feel—rough or smooth, hot or cold, sharp or dull, etc.?

Taste—Does the character notice sweet or bitter, salty or acidic, pleasant or unpleasant, etc.?

If you’re like me, these kinds of details may not come naturally. So, I recommend two key resources that have really helped me up my game on writing sensory content. The Emotion Thesaurus by Pugliosi and Ackerman and Setting by Jack W. Bingham. These two resources are so invaluable, I often keep them with me on trips and beside me as I write and refer to them often, because writing such visceral descriptions is not first nature to me, and it can be very easy to fall into personal clichés and patterns that repeat the same details and descriptions over and over, which quickly becomes repetitive and glaring to readers. The authors also discuss body language and internal sensations, which can be described to show, not tell, the emotions of characters, the atmosphere of rooms, etc. Additionally, author David Farland describes this as the Kentic, Audio, Visual Cycle and offers useful tips on his website at https://mystorydoctor.com/the-kav-cycle-part-1/.

Sensory experiences and emotions evidence themselves in three ways: internal sensations, external sensations, and body language, and all three are important ways to describe them and help readers experience them too. For example:

Butterflies danced in her stomach as she entered the audition, and she fought to control her face as she took in the other dancers. There were famous faces she’d seen in numerous Broadway shows and performances. What was she doing here? She swallowed and licked her lips, which had suddenly grown parched. Her arm was twitching. She had to make it stop, but it wasn’t listening to her internal commands, so she shoved it tight against her side in an attempt to control it.

I don’t have to tell you she is nervous and intimidated. The descriptions do the work. This is what you are aiming for. If you are unsure about a particular smell or taste or even sound, Googling can provide impressions others have had of familiar things that can be adapted for your prose. I also recommend practicing by going to a mall or price club or anywhere else and sitting down to take notes of all the things your senses notice as they occur to you. This will give you practice not only at writing visceral (i.e., instinctive and emotional) details but also in noting how they naturally affect you and might also affect your characters.

You’ve probably deduced by now that description is the art of picking the right details at the right time. Stories are about movement, so be wary of stories where your characters reflect and remember a lot. Instead, action and discovery go hand in hand. As your characters go and do things, they discover sensory cues that provoke memories, emotions, and reactions and inspire further action. People move through life on two levels simultaneously: physical and emotional. Physical movement follows plot and events that unfold A, B, and C, while emotional movement follows character. The physical tends to move with the emotional. So meshing plot and character is the key, and good description is key to your ability to do that well. As Monica Wood writes in Description: “A story’s pace is controlled by the physical and emotional goings-on in the story, and those goings-on are controlled by description.”

Another element where description is especially important is context. Establishing the scope of a story can be vital to making it work, giving characters a scope in which to love and hate each other, to conquer or fall to adversity, discover or lose themselves. Context uses metaphors and symbols to reinforce emerging themes and organize the movement of a story into beginning, middle, and end. Wood writes: “The breadth of the story should dictate the breadth of the context.” Contextual details, small or large, reveal character and can serve to contrast with the story itself, adding power. The order in which details are noted can tell us much about a character’s values and priorities as well as how they view themselves in relation to those around them. Are they rich or poor? Powerful or weak? Confident or insecure? These details can reveal so much about them.

So, how do you choose which details to use and when? Well, that depends upon what you need the readers to know to understand and connect with the story at any given moment. Let’s look at an example from John Connolly’s Charlie Parker book A Song of Shadows:

The woman stank of cats and cookies, of piss and mothballs, but Cambion, whose sensory abilities had long been ruined by his disease, and who had grown used to the reek of his own decay, barely noticed it.

How do you not remember that? Ask yourself what you most notice about particular people, places, and things. What do you remember? What stands out about them? What did you notice first? What sticks with you most when you have been away from them awhile and remember? These are the beginnings of finding the most definitive choices to use in describing them because they hint at what stands out when you encounter those people, places, and things. Let’s look at another example from Brazilian author Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands:

Delicate, pale, with that pallor of romantic poets and gigolos, black hair slicked down with brilliantine and lots of perfume, a smile that was a combination of melancholy and allure, evoking a world of dreams, elegant in bearing and attire, with large, pleading eyes, the Prince would have to be described by very high-flown words: “marmoreal,” “wan,” “meditative,” “pulchritudinous,” “brow of alabaster and eyes of onyx.”

So much said with just a few words but very colorful, visceral, and intriguing because every word count. This is what good description is all about.

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: What Is A Premise and What Makes It Good?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

The Premise

In his bestselling book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey describes a premise as “the E = mc2 of novel writing.” The premise, he contends, “is the reason you are writing what you are writing … the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.” He defines it as “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in a story.” Agent Donald Maass defines a premise as
any single image, moment, feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps serve as a finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken.

While you might say to yourself: What’s the big deal? A premise is an idea—a premise is so much more than that. Ideas are common. Original ideas are almost nonexistent these days. Everything’s been done. So, what makes your premise special is not the basic simple idea but the unique spin and angle you bring to it. A premise is as much in the execution and unique approach to a concept as it is the idea itself.

Again, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey compares a novel to an argument and writes: “The premise of an argument is a statement of the conclusion that will be reached through the argument. Each part of the argument must contribute to the premise if the argument is a good one … the premise of a work of fiction is not provable or arguable in the real world … not a universal truth. In a novel, the premise is true only for the particular situation of that novel. But nonetheless it is proven by all that leads to it. Your novel’s premise is the conclusion everything in your story leads to.”

In his bestseller Writing the Breakout Novel, mega-agent Donald Maass writes of a premise: “Not just any idea, though, but one with soil rich enough to grow a highly memorable novel; one that will both feed the author’s imagination, and, finally, nourish millions of readers.” An idea is not enough. It must be backed up by all the details of character, setting, conflict, and theme. It’s an idea with something unique and special to say, something we haven’t seen, told in a way we haven’t encountered that pops off the page. Maass calls it “a breakout premise,” implying that truly hit, breakout novels start with something special at their core. I’m sure we’d all love to write a hit novel that breaks out. So, what is it that makes “something special”?

First, a premise should describe an experience that is unusual, one not encountered by everyone, at least not firsthand. The experience also takes place in a vivid, wholly realized world that is compelling in its details and stands apart as unique yet real and fascinating on multiple levels.
Second, a premise should involve a character or characters who are larger-than-life, who talk, think, and act in ways not everyone does or can. These types of characters have a boldness, drive, and determination to pursue journeys we only dream about and take risks and actions we only wish we had the courage to take ourselves. In the process they undergo growth and changes we admire greatly, that inspire us, embolden us, and leave us breathless with admiration.

To create such a premise takes effort. It may not arrive fully formed right off the bat. Some great premises are discovered in the course of writing and discovering a story, but all successful writers learn to identify them and cling to them with all their might when they do. The best premises have the power to illuminate and confront, challenging our most deeply held beliefs, our hopes, our fears, our faith, even our very wills and nature. They engage readers’ imaginations and emotions and raise questions, hopes, fears, and more that have them yearning to turn the pages, cheer for the heroes, boo the villains, and reach the inevitable climactic confrontation that sets everything right again and resolves the mystery and uncertainty it evoked when it began.

Such a premise is so much more than just boy meets girl and falls in love or boy sets out to save the world. There’s something unique and special about the boy and the girl, what draws them together, where and how they come together, and why they are willing to fight for their love. The boy is someone special who believes he might actually save the world, after all. No ordinary Joe would dare undertake such a noble quest. It takes a certain level of courage, even determination, a refusal to surrender to insecurity and incredible odds, and an undeterred drive to keep going no matter what. I don’t know about you, but while I have met such people, I have found them to be few and far between. And those few-and-far-between people are the heart of good, successful stories. So, your premise requires one. Character is story. Story is character. Story flows from character. There really is no chicken or the egg question here about who came first. Who always leads into What.

So, to write your novel, you first need a really good idea with premise potential. You may not devise all the pieces before you write, but you must write looking for them to fall into place, and you will certainly need a solid concept to get you started. How you come up with it is something I cannot teach. It really is between you and your muse. Singer-songwriter John Denver used to say the ideas for his songs came from the aether—just floating out there waiting to be discovered, and he was the lucky soul who connected at the right moment to find them and give them life. In some ways, this is the way stories tend to work as well. Your ideas will come from your life, people you know, places you’ve been or want to go, things you’ve done or want to do, etc., and then your imagination should take over and start working on the rest. There is a certain magic to storytelling that can be neither easily described nor taught. That’s where the talent comes in. But it will take more than talent to write your novel. It will also take determination and a drive to push through the struggles and keep going no matter what. And so, the more passionate you are about your premise, the more likely you are to succeed. If nothing else, pick a premise that fires you up, not just the first seemingly viable one that comes in your head. Find the one that hooks you and won’t let you go. That’s where your great novel will surely come from.

Let’s look at some examples Frey gives of premises from famous novels:

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (the story of the Corleone Mafia family over generations): family loyalty leads to a life of crime.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (the story of an old Cuban fisherman who struggles against a marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the Cuban coast): courage leads to redemption.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (the story of a miserable, cheap, bitter man who is visited by ghosts of past, present, and future and learns the meaning of Christmas): forced self-examination leads to generosity.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (the story of patients oppressed at a mental hospital): even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment can’t crush the human spirit.

In effect, a premise is like an argument. A story can have only one premise, because you cannot prove two arguments well at once. Your story’s conclusion will have a cause-and-effect relationship with what came before. In most cases, the argument within the premise is about a dilemma the characters confront. If you start first with characters and think about your premise, you may come up with it as you consider the characters’ flaws and the obstacles they face, as well as their goals and needs. Frey writes: “There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or situation, give the character a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go.” By opening your imagination and letting it run, usually the possibilities are endless, and your premise will come to light in the process. Frey quotes Egri as saying: “Every good premise should contain an element of character which through conflict leads to a conclusion.” So in essence, what are your three Cs (Character, Conflict, Conclusion)? Identify them and you have your premise.

Since the story of characters changing because of dramatic conflict makes good fiction, your premise will define such a situation. Old high school friends meet after 20 years and fall in love despite her terminal illness. The coach of a small-town basketball team with a history of losses recruits the first black player to help lead the team to a championship. A tough technophobic cop must team with an android partner to solve his partner’s murder. Can you see the three Cs at work in all these examples?

A good premise will give your novel focus and power that carries readers through to the end. It will hold their attention. Keep them turning pages. Make them long to know what happens next. And it may well do the same for you as you write. In fact, it should, even for the dedicated outliners. Everything in good fiction propels and leads you to the conclusion of the story, which is also a decisive conclusion or answer to the argument of the premise. Anything else should be cut and dropped. So a well-conceived premise is inherent to a well-written novel and key to your success. You must know where you are going to successfully complete any journey. The premise is the target on the map of your storytelling journey. Start without it at your own peril.

The concept, idea, or premise is a start. Craft and work will do the rest.

Write Tip: 5 Basic Plot Elements All Novels Must Have

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies five basic plot elements that all plots must have. They are:

A sympathetic character
Conflict
Complication
Climax
Resolution

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.
We’ve already talked about how the plot is a series of questions asked and answered, so now let’s look at a key question we must always ask to make our plots stronger: What’s the worst that can happen?

You start with conflict and then consider what the complications might be. In doing so, there may be a temptation to like the character too much and not want to make things too hard on him or her. But that is the death of good drama. Instead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and consider the more dire possibilities. This is what makes good drama. Maass writes: “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” So, don’t go off the deepest end necessarily, choosing something so dire and outrageous that it seems too hard to believe. You want to complicate and create disasters and dangers, not create incredulity in readers.

What you do want to do is push your problem far beyond what readers might imagine. Maass suggests: “Push your characters into situations that you yourself would never go near in your own life.” Remember that the characters should speak and act in ways we only wish we had the courage to do. This is what inspires us to admire and follow them. So they will be capable of facing situations we wouldn’t dare take on ourselves. The key is to push things to utter extremes while still managing to make them feel familiar to readers. Not outlandish, then, but familiar. In other words, possible.

When we create conflict that is credible, relatable, and familiar, we create stories with tension on every page. These are the kinds of stories that keep readers turning pages and coming back time and again to the same authors for more. John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Graham, J.K. Rowling, Rachel Caine—these are examples of authors who have mastered this technique. If you want your plots to become breakout, hit stories, you must create tension on every page. Make us desperate to know what happens next. Create urgency in the questions the plot asks. This will drive the story forward, increasing the stakes and tension with each scene and page, until readers may feel they or the characters can’t possibly take anymore, but they do every time. And we are dying to know how they manage it and can possibly survive, so we stay up all night reading to find out. We’ve all read and loved books like that, right? Imagine what it would be like to write one.

One technique that aids this kind of tension is nonlinear narrative. Grisham is a master of this: constantly holding information back from his readers to surprise them with later. Nonlinear narrative is storytelling that increases tension by telling the story in a nonchronological fashion, using flashbacks and other such techniques. Basically, you start telling the story in the center of the action at the most dramatic place and then go back and fill in the backstory and details as necessary through the course of the novel.

For what it’s worth…