Adding Suspense to Character Development

Joules looking up at a peachA little over a year ago, I landed wrong after hopping a fence and sprained my ankle badly. Although it doesn’t hurt anymore, it didn’t quite heal right, so my left ankle is much knobblier and more puffy than my right. This kind of thing happens to people all the time. We’ll get through some calamity – minor or major, physical or mental – without severe permanent damage, but we’ll be marked by it in some way for the rest of our lives.

Fiction writers will frequently create characters who have been shaped by a traumatic event in their pasts. These characters may have strange mannerisms or attitudes; they may be difficult to get along with; they may even show impulses that shock the reader at first viewing. It’s tempting to explain these quirks as soon as humanly possible, but giving into that temptation might not be a good idea.

When you have a main character with a troubled past, you have the opportunity to add a degree of suspense to your character development. The character’s behavior becomes a mystery that the audience wants to solve – but not too quickly. In real life, people carefully set boundaries about the parts of themselves that they see as the most vulnerable. The audience expects your characters to behave the same way, only letting their guard down and revealing the secret to the mystery when they’re talking with someone they trust completely.

Ideally, the moment when a characters’ old wounds are finally explained to the audience is dramatic and satisfying. The reader finally has an explanation for behavior that has mystified them throughout your story. To pull this off, however, you need to be sure to realistically portray your character keeping their guard up until the moment is ideal for an important revelation which has a significant effect on the plot.

A Little Goes a Long Way with Noun Phrases

Toad against the wallEvery sentence has at least one noun phrase, which includes a noun and a modifier or two. I say one or two, because by using multiple, repetitive, unnecessary modifiers to a noun phrase, you can wind up with ugly, bloated, miserable sentences (see what I did there?). Strong writing features well-constructed noun phrases which are used well.

The thing about noun phrases is that they don’t do things the way that verb phrases do. Your writing is not carried on your noun phrases; if you try to make your noun phrases carry it, then you need to stop. Unless you have a truly interesting and important interesting noun phrase, it doesn’t need to be made longer than the verb phrases. Pronouns and unadorned nouns are typically all you need to use for the majority of your sentences.

Not only should noun phrases be short, but they should also be distributed sparsely throughout your sentences. Although it’s occasionally acceptable to use a brief list in your sentences now and then, you can confuse your reader by stuffing your sentences full of noun phrases one right after the other. If you have problems with stacking your noun phrases on top of each other, you might also have a problem with sentences that are too long in general. Practice writing shorter sentences, and try to give each noun phrase the attention it deserves.

Noun phrases are an important structural element of every sentence, and a good writer knows how to use them effectively. By using short noun phrases and distributing them sparsely throughout your sentences, you can tighten up your prose and make it much clearer. This helps keep your readers interested, and it helps you tell your story more effectively.

Keeping Your Promise to the Reader

Forget-me-notI’m currently in the midst of a fantasy novel I’ve been wanting to read for years, and I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about it. I try to avoid naming and reviewing books I have yet to finish, but I will allow them to inspire a rant or two about how to treat your readers.

In general, I’ve found that the casual reader is a very forgiving person. They want to like your book; once you have convinced them of its entertainment value or academic worth, they tend to go into it with a certain willingness to believe that it’s really very good. However, you need to remember that you only have so much reader goodwill to work with. It might be fifty pages in, or it might be a hundred pages in, but it will happen eventually: that ‘new book smell’ will wear off, and the reader will start expecting you to actually deliver what you promised on the back cover.

“Don’t mess around with your reader’s expectations” sounds much more basic than it is. It requires you to look carefully at your work every so often and ask yourself how you’re delivering what your reader wants. For every section (and what these sections are depends on your story), there needs to be a ‘payout,’ and all of these small ‘payouts’ need to eventually come together to produce the grand prize that drew your readers to the book in the first place.

At my current place in the novel I’m reading, I have found these ‘payouts’ to be few and far between. The language is lovely, the jokes (when they’re made) make me chuckle, and I get the sense that something might actually start to happen if I’m good and patient and stick with it for just another fifty pages. Trust me when you say that you do not want to hear this about your novel – particularly if you’re trying for a commercial success. Your readers are generally kind and patient and willing to believe in your premise; however, if you fail to deliver on that premise, you will eventually lose their interest.

Active vs. Passive Voice: A Matter of Agency

View from the back doorTime and time again, speakers and writers of English find themselves thinking of sentences in terms of actions and actors. Typically, we prefer to organize our sentences so that the sentence’s main actor is identified in the subject. This organization, known as the active voice, is widely preferred by writers for its clarity and its compact structure.

Fiction writers have an additional reason to prefer the active voice. In a work of fiction, your characters will almost always be the actors in your sentences. Your characters are also your main device for getting your readers connected with your story. By using the active voice, with its emphasis on the actor, you keep your writing focused on your characters and give yourself the most opportunity to connect with your audience.

However, there is a time and a place for the passive voice in fiction. When we use the passive voice, the object of the sentence’s action is used as the subject of the sentence. The actor is sometimes mentioned afterward, and it is frequently not mentioned at all. This construction can yield weak and awkward sentences, but it is very useful when we want to call the reader’s attention to the object of an action. When we describe a vase that has been shattered, a door that has been kicked in, or a body that has been dragged into the woods, we want the reader to be struck by the dramatic image. Some ambiguity about the actor of the sentence is acceptable in these instances, and it can even be necessary to build the suspense in a scene.

Usually, we want to help our readers closely follow along with our actors as they go through our story. Because the active voice is a far superior tool for this job, it’s generally thought of as a superior sentence construction. However, don’t discount the possibility that the passive voice may be more appropriate for some of your sentences.

Following Your Bliss at the Expense of Your Beginning

Baby nectarineMany of us expect the storycrafting process to follow the flow of the story. You write the beginning first, the middle after that, and then conclude once you’ve gotten to the climax of the action. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, you get to a point in the story when you realize that your narrative has completely turned around in your hands. You might see exactly where you need to take the story, and you might love where it’s headed – but good God, are you unsure about the beginning.

In times like these, the important thing to do is to keep going. Writers can produce mediocre or even terrible work whenever they feel like it, and we so rarely get those moments of really knowing exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a novel when one of those moments hits you. Follow the good stuff, and worry about fixing your beginning once you’ve completed the draft.

Of course, fixing the beginning is much easier said than done. When my second half of a story deviates wildly from the first, I sometimes find myself completely rewriting the beginning. This is just as much hard work as it sounds; the silver lining is that I know which events I need to foreshadow, which characters are going to take priority in their development, and which themes I need to introduce as the story gets rolling.

If you’re struggling through a narrative when you’re struck by sudden inspiration, it can be tempting to ignore the bright light and keep trying to elevate your mediocre story. Make the radical change instead. It’s going to take work and time, but plodding on with your current course is probably going to take more work and more time. Go with the inspirational moment, even if it means you have to completely rewrite your story’s beginning.

Making Sure Your Writing Has a Job to Do

SainfoinNow and then, I come across a scene in my writing that I desperately want to like. It might be beautifully written, or it might contain some interesting details, or it might contain a charming minor character. Nonetheless, the scene comes across as lackluster and screams “delete me” at full volume. More often then not, this is because the scene isn’t doing enough work for my narrative.

A good story is like a well-designed machine. All of its parts work well together, and no part is left unemployed. A bloated narrative is hard to follow and tends to bore your reader. If you want to make sure that your stories are lean, mean, reader-engaging machines, you should make sure that every scene is doing plenty of work for your story.

Its is not enough for a scene to “add to the scenery description” or “add to the character development.” Your strongest scenes will do two or three different jobs for your story, and if you want to succeed as a commercial writer, your work needs to be entirely composed of your strongest scenes. If you like a scene but don’t know if you need it, ask yourself what it’s contributing to the story. Is there information elsewhere that you could convey in this scene instead? If so, then great! You can shorten a less interesting part of your narrative and help this scene be stronger and more useful.

Being efficient with your writing is more than a matter of wise word choice and effective sentence structure. It also involves making sure that every scene in your story contributes to more than one element of your narrative. Although you don’t want to overburden your scenes, making sure that they’re all gainfully employed is an important part of strengthening your writing.

To Every Story There Is a Season

Grapes at sunsetOnce you find yourself with a certain number of plants under your care, you start finding that your housework schedule is largely dictated by the seasons. Spring, summer, and fall each come with their own set of deadlines you’ve got to meet if you want to have a thriving garden.

Vegetables aren’t the only things that benefit when you take your cues from the seasons. When you’re crafting a story, you need to pay attention to the time of year when your story takes place. If you do this correctly, the seasons can be anything from a pleasant and realistic backdrop to a powerful element of your setting.

Many writers choose to have the season reflect the theme of a story. For example, if you’re writing a romance novel about a grieving widow opening her heart to love, then you might begin the story in the cold and damp of early spring. While you shouldn’t be ham-handed with the symbolism, it’s easy to use this setting to highlight the theme of romance bringing life back into your heroine’s heart.

Other writers like to use the season as part of the conflict driving the story. Someone driving through a blizzard to escape a bad situation or see to a loved one, for example, is facing a conflict that is largely driven by a seasonal event. Each time of year has its own variety of calamities associated with it. Picking one that adds to your story’s theme makes the season doubly important to the story.

Every element of your setting should be thought out carefully, and the season when your story takes place is no exception. By setting your story in different seasons, you get access to different kinds of symbolism as well as different kinds of interesting conflicts.

Perfect Pacing

SnailWhether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, the speed at which a story moves is very important to us. A story that crawls along is not likely to be interesting enough to hold our interest, while a story that whips past us at light speed is liable to confuse us too much to keep reading it. Many beginning writers struggle with pacing, but it’s easy to fine-tune your skills by thinking about your story as a collection of blocks of information.

Some of us have learned in school to think of a story in terms of introduction, exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. While this formal division can be useful, there’s no reason you shouldn’t customize it to fit your story’s narrative. Try describing your story as you would to a stranger in ten sentences or less. Each of these sentences will represent a block of information that your reader needs to understand in order to grasp your overall narrative.

Once you have a good idea of what your reader needs to know, give yourself a strict budget of words you can use to get that information across. Sticking to this budget can be hard. You’ll soon discover which parts of the narrative you tend to gloss over and which parts you tend to overburden with language. Once you’ve recognized these weak spots, you can practice writing them until they come a little more naturally. This will help you even out your pacing, and the overall effort of sticking to your word budget will help you get a feel for pacing.

A short story will move at a different speed than a long novel, and many writers find they need a little practice when working on a story much longer or shorter than they’re accustomed to writing. Fortunately, working in sections and sticking to a word budget make it easy to improve this important part of story crafting.

A Matter of Perspective

Pool with hills beyondThe third person omniscient mode is an excellent choice for writers who want to show us the perspective of more than one character. This can help us build suspense, create a mystery, or give us insight into characters who are not what they seem to be. However, the third person omniscient mode can also confuse readers and tie your story into knots. The trick to using the third person omniscient voice is learning when and how to switch perspectives.

Typically, you want to switch perspectives when you end one discrete section of a narrative and begin another. This can be a chapter, a segment marked with a line break or a page break, or a scene. Paragraph breaks, although they do divide your narrative into small sections, are not a good place to switch between perspectives; rather, they should be used to divide one character’s ideas from one another. When you switch perspectives, make it clear within one or two sentences that a new character is speaking. Generally, you should name the character when you do this. Your reader will appreciate the heads-up, and you can proceed with the confidence that everyone knows what you’re talking about.

Although most writers choose to use different perspectives to describe different moments in time, there are occasions when you want to describe the same moment from two different characters’ perspectives. It’s perfectly acceptable to describe the same action twice, so long as you begin at a point that the reader can readily identify and make it clear that a new character is speaking. Also, you’ll want to be sure that the reader gets something genuinely new and interesting, rather than just a recap of a scene they’ve already read.

Many successful writers use the third person omniscient mode to narrate complex stories and help the reader get to know a number of characters. As long as you take care to give your reader strong cues as to which character is speaking, your writing can also benefit from this narrative mode.

Writing About What You’re Writing Before You Write It

DCP_0420It’s been said many times that writing a novel is a bit like driving at night without your brights on – you’ll get to your destination eventually, but until then, all you need focus on are the events that are within your little illuminated sphere.

Writing a long work has another important similarity to driving at night – if you don’t know where you’re going or what road signs to look for, you’ll likely spend a lot of time completely lost. Before you begin a larger work, it’s important to give yourself a sort of ‘road map’ reminding you where you need to be at which points of the narrative. Drafting a synopsis or a chapter-by-chapter summary of your story is an important step toward completing it.

Your synopsis should give you a general idea of what your story will be about and which events will move your narrative along, but it does not need to be meticulously detailed. In many of my synopses, for example, my characters are referred to by nicknames like Cupcake or Adventureboy, and the phrase “they do stuff for a while I guess” pops up like toadstools in a manure pile. Save the specificity for when you’re actually composing the story; leaving out all but the largest of details will help you work more efficiently and make it less heartbreaking to change parts of your plot that don’t make sense when you look at the big picture of the narrative.

A well-written synopsis is like an artist’s sketch of a model or a landscape. It doesn’t give you all the information that will make up your narrative, but it at least shows you where this information will be. This makes it easier to get started on a long work and focus on your writing instead of where you’re going next.