What Is the Rush?

As you transition from your notes and/or character sketches to the actual chapter you want to write, you face choices about when to use this material. The temptation, especially with a minor character, is to use all of the notes at once. After all, you have collected them and they have to get into the book sometime, so why not now?

You may instead want to split up those notes and ladle them out in dollops as the novel goes on. That way you create intrigue by giving incomplete information. Let’s say the protagonist is trying to understand how Annika could have been murdered. She asks her sister Darlene if she had come by Annika’s house on the fatal night. Now, what notes do you have? You had Darlene projected as only a minor character, and you have only a few paragraphs. You could provide all of them at once and eliminate the “Darlene” section from your notes. After all, you know she didn’t kill her sister.

What if you break up the pieces you have, though, and string them out? Maybe Darlene at first says she called Annika that night. In a subsequent scene, however, a neighbor says he saw a car like Darlene’s, identifying three of the last letters that match her license plate, parked in the driveway. Now Darlene has to explain that, in fact, she did visit Annika that night. She just didn’t want the cops to be suspicious unnecessarily. Despite the excuse, the flavor of Darlene’s participation in the novel now is quite different.

You also wrote notes about Darlene’s being seen at a local bar with Annika’s estranged husband, Ron. You had thought that it would misdirect the reader in a minor way—because you know that’s not where the book is headed. Darlene actually agreed to meet him there because he’s such a lush that he heads there straight after work, and she wanted to discuss a birthday party for her niece before he got drunk and belligerent for the evening. You had thought that would prove her innocence. But if the protagonist first hears that Darlene and Ron were drinking together, now Darlene’s cute explanation about the niece takes on a different flavor. Oh, really, that’s what you were talking about?

All you did was break your notes into three pieces. Now someone who was not in the running could be a person of interest, at least for a portion of the book. Isn’t that a better use of your notes?

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any conversations in which a huge chunk of information about a character is spilled out all at once. If you can, break the notes into a number of pieces. Once you have broken them apart, think about how they could be used in conjunction with other plot developments. That clump of passive background notes could become active pieces that help drive the story forward.

“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world.”
—George Sand

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Ending on the Highest Note

Where you leave a reader at the break before the next chapter has a large influence on whether he will turn the page. This point seems straightforward, but I can’t tell you the number of times that I have enjoyed an exciting chapter, only to feel stranded out in the middle of nowhere at its end. I’m left feeling like the conflict creating the excitement wasn’t really the point of the scene.

To use the imagery of a cliffhanger in a slightly different fashion, think of a chapter as a drive up a mountain until it reaches the edge of a cliff. Focus on way up, not the ending. What matters is the momentum you build in one specified direction. An event as seemingly insignificant as a mother’s scoffing at her daughter’s rough charcoal drawing could be made into a terrible blow if the daughter spent the entire scene beaming inside about how happy it will make her mother.

Conversely, if you have a dynamic piece of action for which there is no build-up, placing it at the end of a chapter is not going to have much impact. The event will come at the reader out of the blue. Let’s say the chapter mainly features two villains arguing over their slice of the take, and suddenly a third villain shoots someone outside the window. Why the heck did he do that? The chapter wasn’t about that. If the action is exciting, then use it as a focal point around which to organize everything leading up to it in the chapter.

If your chapters frequently comprise several scenes apiece, you need to determine the dramatic weight of each of the scenes. To judge when you should end the chapter, write down the event that closes each scene. One sentence, describing what happens. If, for example, the first scene ends with the FBI showing up and confiscating a company’s files, that seems like a pretty high point of drama. But if your next scene follows the company’s owner to his child’s baseball game so that he can talk to his wife about the FBI showing up, that is a piece of lesser action. Don’t end the chapter there. You don’t want a chapter that steps down from one event to another. Keep driving up that mountain.

Exercise: A character’s reaction to an exciting plot event can be moved to the start of the next chapter. This is an ideal place for such material, anyway. Characters discussing an event is not as exciting as the event itself. It is secondhand news, even if an important new plot pursuit emerges from that discussion. Think about that in terms of structure. If a new direction emerges, that constitutes a new start—so it belongs at the start of a chapter.

“Write something, even if it's just a suicide note.”
—Gore Vidal

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Too Far from Friends

In a world where face-to-face communication has been supplemented by contacts through texts, emails, and social media sites, it is not surprising that these modern forms have become increasingly prevalent in fiction. When you stop to think about it, written messages of any type are perfect tools for a writer. A FB post or tweet can convey creepiness or enthusiasm by turns. An email continues the age-old epistolary tradition. A text can add a feeling of urgency.

I have edited novels in which such messaging contributes a great deal of tension. For instance, the gap between a Hollywood star and a stalker was reduced in one book via a series of threatening or bizarre messages. The disturbance caused by remote communication operates on the same principle as the violation of privacy that a person experiences when his home is burglarized. No one is supposed to be allowed in that space. Even better, from a suspense point of view, a book reader is used to being shocked by words written down.

Yet if you are going to step up any form of pressure, the villain had better show up in person. Think about it this way. A child is not just bullied on social media; she also has to show up in school every day. So you need to plot out your story in such a way that what started off as remote becomes intensified by personal encounters. In other words, a series of menacing texts can work as an early-book device—as a preliminary phase of intimidation. Yet you need to move on to more gripping forms of fear in later stages.

If the plot premise involves stalking, let’s say, the desire of the predator to “touch” his victim means you can put increasing obstacles in his way. Police protection is the first mechanism that comes to mind, although a large and/or armed friend would serve the purpose as well. What happens as a result is a heightened struggle around those contacts.  The more the stalker’s desire is thwarted, the more crazy he becomes about fulfilling his desire. That means your story is following a progression from low-level to intense. That’s what you want out of any novel.

Exercise: Messages are treated by book designers as extracts, or indented text. That makes them pop off the page visually at the reader. Review the narrative text surrounding the message. Would some of it be more alarming if you plucked it out of the text and placed it in the extract? Experiment with different pieces and see if you can ratchet up emotion simply by the format in which the material appears on the page.

“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”
—Mickey Spillane

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Albatross Around Your Neck

Once you have finished writing a novel, the notion of writing a sequel can be mighty tempting. Many popular books are part of a series, featuring the same hero, such as Harry Bosch or Kay Scarpetta, and writing that way increases brand recognition. Plus, you already have gone through the process of discovering your characters, so you know them well. What isn’t as apparent at first is how much of a burden a previous book can place on your new book.

What you have already written exerts a pull on you because you realize that so much of it works. You may resurrect some of the burning issues of the first book, because they still inflame you. Let’s take a for-instance. The heroine is a pubescent girl abused by a stepfather, and she hates her mother for turning a blind eye. If the stepfather is killed at the end of the first book, though, how much good is that hatred going to do in the second book? The punishment has already been served. Even worse, the stepfather is no longer around to actively perpetrate his evil.

The problem is, you derive none of the benefits from the first book—the growing tension between the characters—and all of the liabilities. Anyone who hasn’t read the first book will not understand the urgency that you so carefully built in the other book. That means the past operates as a dead weight lugged around by the present-day story.

A sequel needs to develop its own plot lines. What you want is to carry forward a core cast of characters from the first book and employ them in fresh pursuits in the second book. The characters who belonged to the plot of the first book must be jettisoned if they are not active characters in the sequel. For instance, if the mother of the abused girl is not given a new plot pursuit, she’s not worth more than a cameo appearance—a piece of background information.

You are still writing from strength. You still know intimately the small group of characters that are leading book two. But when you are sketching out the plot lines for the book, make sure that those characters are not hovering like carrion birds over what is now a carcass.

Exercise: A reader of a sequel needs background information on your main characters. You can create back stories that summarize what they did in the first book, just as you would insert background pieces for any character. But keep it at that: pieces a half page or a page long that are inserted into a new story.

“The only reason I would write a sequel is if I were struck by an idea that I felt to be equal to the original.”
—Dean Koontz

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Happy Ending

The idea of ending a novel happily displeases many writers. The entire book has been filled with struggles, goes one argument, so why do the heroes get to ride off into the sunset? Others point out that life seldom provides happy endings, so why should a narrative that is trying to mirror life? It may be that you think such an ending is not worthy of your endeavor.

The reason for all the carping is, of course, that readers overwhelmingly favor a happy ending. A novel is meant to affirm life, in this view. If I close the book wanting to kill myself, what good does that do? I already know life sucks. Plus, many readers feel that the heroes deserve a reward after all their trials. If you are employed by a publishing house, your view may be more mercenary. You know that happy endings sell.

For that very reason, I advise most writers to consider a happy ending. Yet I also enjoy novels that are dark, that don’t end well or have endings that are ambiguous at best. It depends on the book.

The true question is: have you been honest enough with your characters that you feel a bleak ending is justified? If you have spent the entire book creating vivid action scenes in which the protagonist is wielding a modern version of the sword Excalibur, you are already committed to flights of fantasy. If you love escapism and entertainment, that’s fine. Just don’t pretend that the novel will somehow become more true to life by tacking on a sad ending.

On the other hand, in Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry spends the entire book exploring the Consul’s terrible alcoholic journey. A happy ending for that book would be weird. That guy will not be frolicking in the sands of Cancun any time soon. The ending is sad because, the way the story is heading, the Consul has no other way out but death. The power of the novel comes not from its ending, but from everything that has propelled him forward all the way through.

Exercise: If you flinch at happy endings no matter what type of book, you might want to consider writing alternate endings. Writers do that all the time. Using the threads that constitute the core of the novel, run them through happy and sad scenarios. It may be that you end up in the middle, with an ending that is ambiguous. Just be aware that you may, in effect, be shrugging off any moral implications of what the characters did during the book.

“To move the world, we must first move ourselves.”

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Blocking Out Initial Places

A common problem novice writers have is failing to think enough about where their characters should be positioned in the first chapter. Life before page 1 might as well be a tabula rasa—because it in fact is a blank slate to the author. Yet in almost all cases, your characters have lived for a number of years before the curtain rises.

Most authors recognize that fact, and they provide background stories—narrative summaries that convey key events in their past. Yet I am constantly surprised by how poorly positioned the characters are at the story’s onset to create immediate excitement—and reader interest in them.

You need to ask yourself, what are the main character’s relationships status quo ante (before the book begins)? What I usually find is that the author knows where the plot begins. A signal event such as a murder occurs, and the story is set in motion. Yet stop to think about what contributes to a novel’s tension besides the galvanizing plot event. It’s the friction between characters. You don’t have to wait for a plot to develop to foment that tension. If chosen wisely, your characters have been at odds for a number of years previously.

What would be the best positions for your main characters as the book opens? What if your hero-heroine duo don’t meet until page 50? You need to devise friction with characters both on the hero’s side and the heroine’s side.

Let’s use the latter as an example. Chrissie has two bratty children, and her husband is coming home later and later these days. So what should Chapter 1 feature? I would advise that you throw that mix right in the reader’s face: status quo ante. The chapter opens with the heroine getting a headache because her two children are yelling at each other about some stupid video game her husband bought. She goes out into the family room to yell at them to shut up—and her husband, befuddled with drink, walks in the door and says, “Dear, dear, why don’t we all calm down?” Sure, this charming scene can’t match up with the excitement of an initial murder, but we do want to find out if the heroine is going to have a fight with her husband. She might even be mad enough to kill the guy.

Exercise: In terms of general principles, there are several useful questions to ask yourself. What antagonistic event happened to the hero two weeks before the murder occurred? Two days before it occurred? Two hours? Can you set up lingering conflict from that event so that his very first scene has a crackling edge in which he is arguing about that event with someone else? Now your knowledge of the character’s past propels him forward right from the start.

“Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.”
—G. K. Chesterton

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Means to an End

The writing of a first draft is an unfolding journey filled with wonderful uncertainty. Even if you have an outline, the characters often don’t go where you thought they would. Their needs in turn can influence how the book develops. Once you have completed the first draft, however, the process is different. Now you know how the book turns out. Not only does each plot thread have an end point, each character arc has an end point. As you start a revised draft, you can combine these two results to accentuate the progress of both.

While rewriting involves a great deal of sentence-by-sentence checking for sentence rhythm, fresh vocabulary, and the like, you can be a craftsperson on a higher plane as well. You can use the concept of end points to strengthen the novel’s overall architecture.  Here I will focus on minor characters, since this technique can be tailored for them so easily.

First, ask yourself: what is the point of a minor character? To support a major character. You can make sure your minor characters are doing their jobs in a deliberate fashion. The key to this technique is starting at a character’s end point first. How does he end up? Then work your way back from there to determine what you want him to contribute in all of the scenes leading up to that end point. This backward-looking technique allows you to pinpoint how he is supporting a major character.

You need to identify in which scenes the minor character makes an impact (as opposed to just being in the background). Let’s say the total is eight scenes. Using the alphabet, that means you work back from Scene H through G, F, E, etc. Draw up a chart in which you start at the bottom. Write a sentence or two that summarizes what the minor character does in that scene. Is she really helping the major character go to where she’s going in that scene? Could you, knowing the end point, make the minor character more forceful? Sly? Distracting?

By the end of this process, you can set up status quo ante factors (i.e., before the book starts) in such a way that dovetail with your new plot aims for the minor character. What was he doing with the major characters in the week before the book opens? The month? All the way back to childhood? Now tell us a few background stories that provide a foundation for your eight scenes in the book.

Exercise: Being an editor, I love plot charts, but how exactly do you draw one up? The key is creating meaningful column headings. Start at the left and make a skinny column titled “Ch” (for Chapter). Next to that create a column wide enough to encompass how many “Pages” (e.g., 342-47) a scene takes. The third column in this chart is a very wide one called “Synopsis.” Write down in a sentence or so what the character does in the scene. Now you have a brief outline of what you need to improve.

“Half my life is an act of revision.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.