How Much Tension Do You Want?

I’ve been yakking about Ilona Andrews’s SAPPHIRE FLAMES since I finished reading it.  The book and the writing have stayed me with a while.  It made me think about a lot of different things.  And tension is one of them.

Since I’ve been writing cozies for a while now, I’ve been working on making page turns rely on different dynamics than fighting terrible odds, supernatural monsters, serial killers, or ticking clocks.  Cozies have a quieter tension–discovering clues and adding them up, ignoring red herrings, and discovering the killer before the protagonist does.  Every story has to have conflict, but in cozies, it could be trying to worm a secret out of someone you’re questioning, trying to add up evidence to get closer to finding the killer.

One of the reasons I like writing Muddy River is because the tension is about trying to survive or help someone else survive.  It’s about life and death.  Ilona Andrews uses that kind of conflict in her novels, only she ratchets it up to almost every scene.  And that’s the fun of reading her.  I can’t turn the pages fast enough to see how her protagonists are going to survive another battle against an even stronger opponent.  Muddy River doesn’t do that.  There are battles, yes, but there “down” scenes, too, because I like the people and their lives and their dynamics together.

I like low-key tension as much as I like nail-biters.  Literary tension might be the one I struggle with most.  Inner conflict doesn’t grip me as much as it does my daughters.  My younger daughter says it’s her favorite.  Anyway, I’ve spent some time thinking about how to develop conflict and tension lately.  And these are just a few of my random thoughts, nothing deep or momentous, just ponderings:

  1.  Personal Stakes:  In literary reads, the entire plot might revolve around a person getting to know who they are and what they want of themselves and life and struggling to get that.  That internal struggle is what builds tension.  For example, a book could be about an alcoholic who’s trying to stop drinking.  No easy thing to do.  It could be about an abused child who’s trying to live an ordinary life as an adult and overcome the fears and defense mechanisms she developed to cope.  The emotional toll is high, and the stakes for finding happiness or even normalcy are high.  But they aren’t life or death.  The country won’t go into chaos if the hero doesn’t succeed.  There’s no ticking clock.  That’s why it’s personal, but we can all relate to them.
  2.   Low Stakes:  In romances, again, the stakes are personal.  The tension is driven by emotions, people hoping to find love.  Girl meets boy.  Attraction flares, but obstacles get in the way.  Can the two people overcome those obstacles and get together?  Stakes are low in cozies, too.  There’s a murder.  There’s a good reason the amateur sleuth gets involved in solving that murder.  He or she interviews people, looks for clues, and won’t be satisfied until he finds the truth.  In both of these types of books, the tension ebbs and flows.  It peaks when failure looms on the horizon, then dips when something new happens to advance the plot.  These books have rhythms and often revolve around four turning points in the story.  The protagonist might be in danger of failing to achieve his goal, but his life is rarely at risk.  There are “soft spots” for the reader to land before the next push forward.
  3. Medium Stakes:  I’d put straight mysteries in this category, adventure stories, some thrillers, and maybe most paranormals.  There’s more action.  There’s more possibility for physical harm.  The cost of failure isn’t just emotional, but maybe getting beat up, stabbed, or shot, too.  The person a cop or hero is trying to protect might die if the hero can’t stay a step ahead of the antagonist.  The hero might die trying to protect him.
  4.  High Stakes:  Every chapter brings a new danger.  There’s not one murder at the beginning of the book and maybe a second or third one later to keep up the pace.  High stakes is when the protagonist and the antagonist fight it out from the beginning of the book to the end, and the protagonist’s life is almost always in danger.  Often, there’s a ticking clock.  Sometimes, the battle starts small–like in women in jeopardy novels–and escalates to the end.  Always, the tension builds from the first chapter to the last.  Everything intensifies.  Often, the protagonist loses someone he’s close to or cares about.  The stakes have to be high.
  5.   Ilona Andrews’s Urban Fantasies:  The stakes are off the chart.  The opponents take off their gloves at the beginning of the book and duke it out over and over again until the stakes are so high, you’re wrung out by the time you finish the last page.  And everything in the stories create tension:  a.  almost every conversation is fraught with tension.  People disagree, argue, threaten each other, try to outmaneuver each other, and try to worm information from one another.   b.  romantic tension:  the attraction between the protagonist and her love interest almost feels like sparring; the physical attraction is off the charts, but one or both of them resist it  c. the clashes build bigger and more dangerous from the first to the final, BIG do-or-die battle.

No matter what kind of book you write, the stakes have to keep getting higher.  The protagonist has to have more to lose.  Unless you write humor.  And in all honesty, I’ve never done it, don’t read much of it, and I just don’t know:)  (Except I did read Mae Clair’s IN SEARCH OF McDOODLE and loved it).  But whatever you’re working on now, good luck and happy writing!

Hooks!

I’ve been posting words for #1linewed on twitter for a while now.  Do they help me sell books?  Maybe.  I have no idea, but once a week, Kiss of Death chooses a word that you’ve hopefully used in your WIP, and you can post that tiny section on twitter with the hashtag #1linewed.  I think it’s fun to share them and see what other authors have shared.  For example, for last Wednesday–the 5th–Kiss of Death posted:  Something different for our 12/5/18 THEME. Give us your best end of chapter **CLIFFHANGER** line. Hooks make a reader turn pages so show us what you’ve got! 

I have to admit, my wonderful critique partner, M.L. Rigdon, often catches mushy chapter endings in my manuscript and I have to beef them up, so the idea of LOOKING for cliffhangers worried me, especially in a first draft.  But bless Scribes, they’ve expounded the idea of hooks at the end of chapters so many times, I did better than I thought.  And they were easier to find than I’d first thought, too.  I just printed FIND for my manuscript and typed in Chapter, and ta-da!  I scrolled up to the end of the previous one and found my hooks pronto–something I should start doing on a regular basis when I polish my manuscripts.  For the end of chapter 1 in The Body in Apartment 2D, (what I’m working on now), I found:

 “Are you going to be okay?”

            Radley shrugged.  “You know Bain’s temper.  He’ll stew and grumble, then get over it in a while.”

            That’s when they heard a gunshot.  They all looked at each other, then raced for the stairs.

Not too shabby.  I posted it.  But I was curious now.  I looked at more of my chapter endings.  For the end of chapter 2, I found:

Jazzi’s heart sank.  She felt it shrivel and weep.  Bain.  Living with them.  And he’d be in a worse mood than usual.  But he was Ansel’s brother.  They couldn’t just leave him on the streets.  Could they?  No.  Shame on her.  But she wasn’t looking forward to spending time with Ansel’s oldest brother.

Not brilliant, but it would do.   At least for now.

Anyway, the whole exercise was a good reminder that EVERY chapter should end with some kind of hook, something to encourage the reader to turn the page.  I hope all of your chapters end well:)  I’m checking mine from now on.

Happy Writing!

It Takes Two

I tried–really hard–to kill only one person in my third mystery.   I wrote plot points for every chapter and scene, had enough suspects and witnesses–I thought–to keep moving the plot.  I had two subplots to add depth.  I was happy with what I had.  The thing is, I got to within fifty pages of the end, and I just wanted more.  I wanted something dramatic, something I didn’t expect, something that would throw all of my carefully placed clues into turmoil.  So I killed someone.  And it just felt . . . right.

Having only one victim would be a challenge for me, I knew–a challenge I wanted to meet.    But I didn’t.  Maybe I wrote urban fantasy one time too many.  I got used to having battles that kept escalating in danger the longer the novel went.  Maybe I missed that adrenaline rush.  I thought about Elizabeth George’s latest mystery, and there was only one body near the beginning of the book.  BUT, there were two crimes, and the second crime felt worse than the first.  It provided the oomph that made the ending pages stronger.

I’m not going to walk around, hanging my head in shame.  True, I tried something and couldn’t quite pull it off this time, but I sure love how this book came together.  It’s been so long since I read Agatha Christie, I can’t remember how many bodies she sprinkled through her mysteries, how she built tension as the clues added up.  I recently watched a TV remake of Ten Little Indians, though, retitled And Then There Were None, and she set a record for body count in that book.  I’m going to think about that with the next mysteries I read.  You can learn so much by studying authors you admire.  And maybe I’ll find something that will make one victim plenty to work with.  Or not.

In any event, I only need to write the big last chapter and then the shorter wrap-up, and THE BODY IN THE DUMP TRUCK is done.  I hope to write The End on Tuesday.  (I’m not even thinking about tonight and tomorrow).  But that’s only the first draft.  So it will only be The End until my critique partners give me their notes.  And then who knows?  I’ll find out what worked and what didn’t.

In the meantime, I wish you happy writing and reading!

 

Rules can be broken

I’m almost to page 400 in John Grisham’s SYCAMORE ROW.  I’d probably have it finished by now if I hadn’t lost time to my troublesome stomach, but I have to admit, I needed a kick in the pants to pick the book up to read every night.  It’s good.  But I’m not used to Grisham’s style of writing, and after all the pages I’ve read, the book still feels like set-up to me.  Everything’s interesting.  The characters are great, but there’s still no crunch time, no ticking clock, and I’m getting the feeling that’s not going to happen.

The truth is, I’m so used to genre writing, his style feels alien to me.  He does a lot of the things that my writers’ group tells people NOT to do, but it works.  For him.

  1.  Show don’t tell.  My group repeats this like a mantra.  Showing pulls a reader into a story, makes him feel part of it.   Grisham sets a scene–like Jake walking into the coffee shop where everyone gathers to learn the latest news and gossip–and TELLS us what’s happening.   I’ve never been bothered by telling as much as some writers.  Author intrusion?  Eh, it works once in a while.  Jenna Bennett uses it here and there, and it adds an intimacy to her stories, like she’s talking just to you, the reader.  It’s efficient, too.  Showing takes space.  You have to let a scene play out to make a point.  Telling…well, you just say what you want the reader to know.  It creates more distance between the reader and the story, but it gives the reader a quick feeling of everything important in fewer words.  Still, all in all, most writers try to avoid it.  We try to show instead of tell.
  2. POV.  My groups’ view is that there’s singular POV or multiple POV, and you don’t mix more than one POV in a scene.  You wait to jump from one person’s head to another’s.  Grisham eliminates that worry by using a sort of omniscient POV and focusing in on one person and then moving to another.  It’s not one bit confusing.  It works.  But again, it creates more distance.  The reader’s not following one person or a few important players from place to place.  We pop from Jake’s thoughts to Lettie’s to someone’s in the coffee shop.  I don’t read enough thrillers to know if this is the norm for the genre, but it very well might be.  That’s the thing about genres.  They don’t all follow the same rules.
  3. Pacing.  My group focuses a lot on keeping the reader turning pages.   We build tension and conflict into every scene we can.  We have pinch points and turning points.  And everything keeps geting worse.  Grisham concentrates on his story and lets it unfold.  It doesn’t feel rushed.  It has more of a literary feel where the characters develop more than the plot.  I’m happy to roll with that, except I have to admit, as a genre junkie, I wish some key plot point was moving a little faster.  But that’s my own hang-up, and I know it.
  4. Would I change my advice to people who come to Scribes?  No.  Because show, don’t tell works for most writers.  So does POV and pacing.  But Grisham is talented enough to pull off his style.  His sales speak for that.  But most mere mortals have better luck following the rules.  It’s hard enough finding an audience, so why push your luck?

Whatever you write, however you write it, good luck.  And happy writing!

My webpage:  https://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

My author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

Twitter:  @judypost

 

 

 

 

 

Will the World End?

A long, long time ago, I bought a book by Donald Maas about how to write a bestseller.  WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.  His advice?  The higher the stakes, the higher the demand for your book.  I’m writing cozy mysteries, and a few people have told me I’d sell more if I wrote thrillers or suspense.   They might be right, but I’m an Agatha Christie fan, and I like what I like.

When I wrote urban fantasies, the entire plots hung on good vs. bad.  If the good guys didn’t win, all things horrible would break loose.  The world would end, as we know it.  Okay, in truth?  That was a lot of fun.  But then I wrote six romances, and the stakes changed.  If the guy didn’t win the girl, there wouldn’t be a happy ending.  Enough to make me sad, so those stakes worked for me, too.

If as a reader I come to truly love and care about a character, I want him to survive and to be happy.  I just finished readng WHAT ANGELS FEAR, and the stakes were high.  If Sebastian couldn’t find the real killer, he’d be blamed for a crime he didn’t commit and probably hang.  Did that make me turn the pages faster?  I got every bit as hooked by Catherine Bybee’s FOOL ME ONCE, because I got totally caught up by the characters.  Yes, there was a lot at stake.  Secrets needed to remain hidden.  Could Reece win Lori after she found out he was a P.I. who was tailing her for info?  Before he fell for her?

Every book has to have high stakes, one way or another.  Maas would say, the higher the better.  What happens if the protagonist fails?  How devastated will the reader be?  But there are all kinds of stakes.  Emotional.  Political.  Career.  Reputation.  Books are filled with little setbacks, chapter after chapter.  After all, we don’t want to make it too easy for the protagonist, do we?  We try to end each scene with the protagonist wanting more, feeling a little defeated, until the very end.

I read Caleb Carr’s book, THE ALIENIST, when it first came out.  I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I want to.  His protagonist worked hard to catch a serial killer, using psychology to understand the murderer.  The stakes grew higher and higher, knowing that if the detective team didn’t catch him, someone else would die.  A ticking clock is a great way to add tension.

Mae Clair uses past events to heighten the stakes in her Point Pleasant series.   The Mothman rescued Caden Flynn, and the “monster” and Caden have a weird bond.  When strange sightings start again in Point Pleasant, the past and the present collide, and Caden knows he’ll be visitng the Mothman again.  Is he meant to save the cryptid or destroy him?  (If UFOs and the Mothman legend appeal to you, here’s a link:  https://www.amazon.com/Thousand-Yesteryears-Point-Pleasant-ebook/dp/B0138NHJ4A/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1517091001&sr=8-3&keywords=mae+clair

Whatever you’re writing, may your stakes be high enough to keep the reader turning the pages.  Happy Writing!

My webpage:  https://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

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Twitter:  @judypost

 

 

Hooked

I mentioned once before that I’m studying cozy mysteries again.  I read them for years, and then sort of got sidetracked by urban fantasy and then romances.  Now, I combine them all in a big stew of happy reading and watching with an occasional steam punk thrown in.  I’d never watched the Hallmark mysteries, so I’m catching up on those, and it’s fun to see that a romance subplot is thrown into almost every single one of them.

I’ve read some mystery authors who are new to me, too.  And that’s what got me in trouble.  I stumbled onto Jenna Bennett’s Samantha Martin series.  The only time that I’ve been able to read one author, back to back, over and over again, was when I discovered James Fenimore Cooper when I was in middle school.  I admit it.  My young teenage heart fell in love with Natty Bumpo, also known as Hawkeye.  He was so brave with so much honor.  This quote might prove it.   It takes a Mohican only minutes to bury his dead…but many moons to bury his grief. He’ll wander the hills alone until he’s ready to come down.  If anyone could walk in another man’s moccasins, it was Natty Bumppo.

It pains me to admit that the reason I’m reading one Samantha Martin mystery after another is because I’m crushing on her romantic interest–Rafe Collier.  Rafe is brave, too, with honor, but it’s buried under many layers of sexy bad boy.  And what a combination that makes!  If Rafe Collier quirked his brow at me and drawled the word “darlin’,” my knees might melt.  Now bad boys, in general, don’t interest me, but GOOD bad boys, who are heroes under all the naughty things they do….well, they’re pretty darn hard to resist. At least, on paper.  And it’s so easy for an author to get them into trouble.  Talk about tension waiting to happen.

I’ve never written a bad boy.  I don’t think I’m frisky enough to pull one off.  My protagonists are always pretty squeaky clean and above board.  They win the heroine because they’re so dependable and good–like Natty.  So it’s fun for me to read someone whose character is used to people assuming the worst of him, and who’s fairly happy to reinforce that opinion.  In fact, Rafe has a natural gift for it.  If you have a thing for bad boys, here’s a link for Jenna Bennett’s:  jenna bennett savannah martin series.

I’m about ready to do rewrites for my first mystery, and as usual, my protagonist falls for a good guy.  I got comments back from my critique partners, so I’ll finish it way ahead of my Oct. 2nd deadline.  And Ansel Herstad, the tall, blonde Norwegian who’s Jazzi’s love interest, got good reviews.  I like him–a lot.  Will he make female readers swoon like Rafe does? Probably not.  But like I said, I don’t think I can write a bad boy and pull it off.  So I’m happy with Ansel.

Do you write mostly “good” characters?  Do you have a favorite love interest who makes you keep buying books?  Did you ever write a “bad” boy/girl for one of your stories?

It’s hotter than blazes in Indiana.  If you’re sweating, too, hope you get to hibernate–like I have–and write.  Happy Writing!  Judy

 

Webpage:  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

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Tension

Okay, I just read a blog post by James Scott Bell, and he explained very well what I’ve always felt, but in a vague–somewhat nonverbal–way.  And he made it SO clear.  Every book has to have tension, or no one would turn the pages.  It’s easy to point to the tension in a thriller or suspense novel.  The bad guy might kill someone or lots of someones if the hero doesn’t stop him.  Same for horror, only who knows who or what the villain might be.  In a mystery, a hero is trying to solve a crime and restore justice.  But what’s the tension in a romance?  Or a literary novel?

Bell says that conflict is best if there are “death stakes” for the protagonist/s.  But he divides death stakes into physical death, professional death, or psychological.  That makes so much sense!  In a romance, every time the hero and heroine can’t work things out, it builds tension.  If they can’t get together at the end of the book, they suffer psychological death–the death of happiness:  http://writershelpingwriters.net/2017/03/conflict-and-suspense-belong-in-every-kind-of-novel/?utm_content=buffer7ce91&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Conflict drives a story, moves it forward.   And the stakes have to keep getting higher every time the reader turns a page.  That’s why there’s the old adage:  Things can always get worse.  They have to, or your story stalls.  During the set up, the author says what the protagonist wants, and he spends the rest of the book making sure he has to work harder and harder to get it.  Here’s a good link by Samantha Stone to build conflict:  http://www.creativewritingsoftware101.com/articles/how-to-create-conflict-in-your-story.php

I used different types of tension in my romances than I’ll need for my cozy mystery, but I still want a romance subplot, and I want to work hard at developing characters readers will care about.  I enjoyed writing Babet and Prosper so much for urban fantasy that I’d like to do something similar for my River Bluffs novels.  I want my characters and setting to be as fully formed as the mystery.  We’ll see how that goes:)

At my writers’ group last week, one of our members tried to decide what each of us needed to do to write a bestseller.  I give him credit.  He believes in all of us, bless him.  And I think we’re all good writers, too, but I have less faith in finding the “secret” that makes a book sell.  Lots of advice says that you need to write a “big” book.  The higher the stakes, the more readers you’ll attract.  That might be true.  I don’t know.  I think the heavens have to align and there’s a lot of luck involved.  And I found this article that sort of agrees with me.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-winkler/how-to-write-a-bestseller-formula_b_1542587.html

In the meantime, happy writing!

 

My webpage:  (a free snippet from SPICING THINGS UP–our March 21–and a free short mystery):  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

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