Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I’ll match your blanket party and raise you a shiv in the gut

How will you keep your book/series/script from waning, becoming stale, boring, predictable?

I asked author Sharon Wildwind what she does when she doesn’t know where to go with her stories. She said she thinks, “What’s the worst thing that could happen now?” and then makes it happen.

It’s a good prompt. A lot of books suffer from slow middle syndrome. Sometimes a slow beginning. I’ve always liked the idea of building a slow, steady fire that’s raging by the end, but unfortunately, readers need to be given a compelling reason to stay with you right from page 1. You’ve got to grab their attention.

Hence the tendency in mysteries to drop a body on page 1, and then end up with backstory and waffling a few chapters in.

My good friend, Marsha, whom I will be traveling with in the UK next month, used to work in television. She knows a fair bit about script writing. These days, she works for a publisher in New York City, but she told me something about script writing that’s always stayed with me: you need to hit them on the nose. That’s how you keep the interest of the audience. Make them feel like you just stepped forward and smacked their nose – you’ve grabbed their attention. Now hold it.

I believe one of the best ways you can learn how to do this in books is to read. You’ll learn from those who do it well, and those who don’t. You’ll get new ideas about how to approach things with your stories.

But you can also learn from watching television. Not so much one-hour shows that wrap it all up with a nice, neat bow at the end. But a show that has a season-long story arc is a great model for writers to learn from.

And this season, I have to say the best thing on television is The Shield.

Now, as much as I’ve enjoyed it season to season, I felt that season 2 lagged behind season 1 a bit, season 3 was better, season 4 kicked it up another notch.

But season 5? Holy fucking shit.

We’ve seen 11 of the 12 episodes now, and every week, just when I think I have an idea of where the story is going to go, the writers reach out and smack me on the nose.

They’ve really ratcheted it up, taken it to a whole new level. And I’m astounded by the creativity.

To be honest with you, it bugs me. I’m seeing all these loose threads from previous seasons, coming in, being used to twist things. I mean, wow. Did the writers have any idea at the end of season 2 that they could use something from that in season 5 so effectively?

I’m always amazed at the foresight of other writers. Good writers don’t let things slip – they pick up those threads, sooner or later, and use them to make a character’s life unravel just when you least expect it.

Kevin’s reading A Good Day To Die at the moment. Last night, he told me where he was in the book, and he said, “This guy can do action, and when stuff is happening, a lot of stuff is happening.” And I think that’s part of the secret to keeping the reader on edge, breathless. I remember that feeling when I read A Good Day To Die as well.

I also see that it’s a skill, a trade-off. One of the things you have to remember as a new writer is not to discard all the things about your style in exchange for mimicking someone else’s. I like character-driven stories. I like some introspection. I want to spend time in a character’s head.

I want to feel I’ve gotten to know them.

But I also like feeling like I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, compelled to read on, because the story is so good.

One of the things that The Shield has in common with Kernick’s character from A Good Day To Die is the emotional conflict I endure. These are not your straight-up cookie-cutter characters that are good or bad – they are a hundred thousand shades of grey. How do you find yourself cheering for a killer?

I’ve had a difficult relationship with The Shield’s Vic Mackey over the years. I doubt I’m giving anything away now, five seasons in, if I say that episode one, he puts a bullet in the face of a guy on his own team and the cop dies. The cop that was working to bring Vic – a dirty cop – down.

And then other detectives get a guy in custody who bought a little girl for sex and he won’t give up where she is. They’re running out of time. They can’t get him to talk.

But Vic can get him to talk. In the kind of back room way a ruthless cop can.

I felt physically sick at the end of that episode. The guy was a killer and a hero. Oh, he was wrong wrong wrong, as bad as they get, but when he beat that pedophile, I could understand that. Some guy buys a little girl for sex… I can understand the desire to make that guy feel pain. He got off easy.

There isn’t much time in my life for television. And shows like The Shield have a half-season run of only 12 or 13 episodes. Which means that you don’t even have the September to May timeline to follow the characters. 8 or 9 months will pass before new episodes are on the air after this Sunday’s final.

So these characters have to be amazing to keep me coming back year after year. The story has to be phenomenal.

That’s why I’d suggest that if you’re thinking about writing, if you’re thinking about how to continuously raise the stakes in the story, you consider watching season 1. Rent the DVDs. I’d say season 5, but I don’t know if you’d appreciate it as much if you hadn’t seen all the seasons before, and the DVDs aren’t out yet.

Even just watch season 1, episodes 1,12 and 13.

And bear in mind that action isn’t everything. We have to care about the characters. Otherwise, what difference does it make to us if they keep getting beaten up or threatened?

But if you can create characters people connect with and you can keep the storyline humming with tension, then you’ll have an unputdownable read.

And that’s the kind of book that gets people talking.

So, share. Your unputdownable reads? And your tricks for ratcheting up the tension in your stories?

My mother sent Kevin’s birthday presents. Amongst the selection, two knives. Sharp, cutty things with little holders so he could clip them on a belt.

Clearly, she hasn’t read Predator. And I must say, Sunday the story, Monday the knives… Wonder what today will throw at me? Just hope it isn't one of the knives.


Stephen D. Rogers said...


As I start working on the second draft, I'm making most conversations more confrontation. Nothing should come easy.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Good strategy Stephen. I agree, a book where everything just falls together without any effort for the protagonist is frustrating.

JT Ellison said...

I love when an author gives me a protagonist who is bad, but I root for him all the same. Like James Sallis' Driver. He isn't a nice guy. But somehow, Sallis manages to get me rooting for Driver, wanting good things for him, because deep down, he's got a good soul. Weird. But highly effective.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Sharon Wildwind's advice probably couldn't come at a better time for me and my wife. We're a third or a quarter of the way into our fantasy novel, and I can sense we're in danger of things taking a sharp turn for "the doldrums," if we're not careful. Just last night, we were asking each other, "So what's next?" and the answer was not coming so easily. Thanks for sharing that!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah JT, I'm starting to understand the 'good girls like bad men' thing. It's only taken 35 years...

Bill, glad it came at the right time for you in your writing. It's certainly something that's stuck with me!

JamesO said...

I usually find that if I'm getting too introspective with my characters it's because I've lost track of what they're meant to be doing and I'm treading water waiting for the next bit of explosive action to start. Perhaps if I planned better to start with it would be easier, but then the story can become stale and predictable, at least in my mind since I know what is going to happen, and that shows in the writing.

Generally I hack out huge chunks of introspection in the rewrite and just treat them as inbuilt mapping sessions.

When I started writing comic scripts, an indecently long time ago, the emphasis was very much on the nose-punch beginning, backed up by the obligatory fight scene in the middle and the well-crafted cliffhanger at the end to lead into the next episode. Hugely formulaic, I know, but a very good grounding in basic storytelling.

S. W. Vaughn said...

*thud* [sound of body dropping on page one]

Hmm, keeping the tension going, eh? Well, I'm with Sharon on that one. Think of the worst thing that can happen, and then make it happen. I attended a workshop with Donald Maass (big-time agent & author), and that's pretty much what he said to do. He drilled a mantra into our heads: No matter how bad you make things for your characters, there is always something worse.

He also recommended taking your entire printed manuscript and scattering the pages around the room, then gathering them up in the wrong order and going through them one at a time to make sure there is tension on every page.

I'm a big fan of tense chapter endings. Not necessarily cliff hangers, but leaving things in media res every time, and never having just one way things can go in the next scene.

Also, I spend a lot of time on opening lines. For the novel I'm currently working on, my opening line is this:

There is no God.

Great discussion, Sandra!

Sandra Ruttan said...

James, I don't think it's that formulaic. I think it's just part of the author's job, making sure they remember to engage the reader. SC has lost a fair bit of introspection. Amongst other things.

SW, Donald Maass knows what he's talking about, given who he represents.

But your opening line? Are you inferring Ian Rankin doesn't exist? You've thrown my world into darkness with the uncertainty of it all. How will I cope? This could drive me to drink, the not knowing, though I still believe!

S. W. Vaughn said...

Sorry to break it to you, Sandra. Dear Ian is a figment of the collective public imagination. But you can still believe, if it makes you feel better. :-)

Sandra Ruttan said...


I'm keeping the shrine.

angie said...

Dudette, your Ian obsession is more than a little scary. I'm starting to think that it's your hubby we should be worried for & not the other way around!

Re. the punch on the nose...that's always a good one to get things going. I'm also a big fan of the give and take. As in give a character a bigger burder/responsibility/whatever than s/he can manage, or take away some support that s/he needs at a critical juncture. 'Cause it's just no fun if it's easy!

Sandra Ruttan said...

LOL Angie! I'm not entirely serious. I mean, he's my favourite author, for sure, and I do joke about my "writing gods" but it ends there.

I once saw the most tasteless discussion on a forum, speculating about the author's sexual habits. The writer part of my brain is intrigued by such bizarre behaviour. But the 'Sandra' side of me can't stomach that stuff.

I don't understand girls who sleep with celebrities "just 'cos he's famous", but hey, that's just me.

angie said...

Yeah, star-fuckers are just...ewww! But literary star-fuckers? Now THAT'S a bizarre concept! Then again, in an infinite universe and all that.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know what I don't get?

People who want to have sex with fictional characters.

WTF? I mean, maybe I'm just not adventurous enough, but I've seen that discussed on forums as well...

JT Ellison said...

I come back to see the comments, and we've fallen back on Old Faithful...
I have 2 literary Gods myself, (sandford and John Connolly) and I seem to qoute them or talk about them all the time. I don't particularly want to sleep with them, though I admit a bit of a crush on Sandford's Lucas Davenport. A man with that many women under his belt probably knows his way around the...kitchen. Hey. Get your minds out of the gutter:)

JT Ellison said...

BTW, totally off topic, my cat made the GalleyCat honor roll today, but they didn't have room for a picture. See a shot of my precious love at jtellison.com

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, I like a man that can cook, JT. Last night, I told Kevin he should get a treat for his birthday - Coco Brooks pizza. So he bought it, brought it home and I heated it up in the oven.

Which is about the exent of my domestic contributions around here.

And if any of that is inappropriate and tawdry then it isn't my mind that has the problem!

We haven't talked about sex here for at least a week, I'm sure...

angie said...

I take it you're familiar with the euphemism "cleaning the kitchen?" And you're accusing others of having nasty, naughty thoughts. Mmm-hmm. I see how you are.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Cleaning the kitchen?

Uh, no. I'm not. Enlighten me. I had to get Terrenoire to explain Rusty Trombone. Maybe darling David can help.

angie said...

For real? Cause it's kinda gross.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Okay, maybe not. Maybe I don't want to know...

Trace said...

I've heard one writer say (on a blog or something, and I can't remember who the writer was) that when the book lags she either kills someone or blows something up.

angie said...

Actually, I had to look up the ol' Rusty Trombone, and let's just say it's very similar. Hence the grossness, but since you already had the RT in your brain, another nasty euphemism won't hurt ya.

Brett Battles said...

So I'm wondering if Kevin got the hacksaw and woodchipper I sent him? He didn't tell me what they were for, but I got the idea he wanted to do a little experimenting...

JT Ellison said...

Eeeewww, I just looked rusty trombone up. That's truly gross. And good old Wikepedia has it front and center on Google. ICK!

angie said...

Hey, I said it was kinda gross. It's not like you weren't warned!

Amra Pajalic said...

I employ Jameso's method. In my working draft where I'm figuring out the story I have a shit-load of introspection while I'm trying to get into the characters mindset. When I get together a draft I cull it all out. The character action should tell the reader everything they need to know. I also like a little ambiguity where everything isn't spelled out and you can figure it out for yourself. That's why I love Faye Kellerman, Nicci French and Minnette Walters.

I also did a Maass workshop at the beginning of drafting The Wog Manual. There were all these plot twists that came from the workshop, some that I was really nervous about, but my novel is definetely stronger for it because I took risks and as I was writing I was shitting myself.

I also like that whole thing of "just when you think things can't get worse," cause those are my favourite kind of books. Novels that have really inspired me: Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earing, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones and Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonder. These novels that can be classified as literary but are page turners.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...my DH is a knofe person too! Personally I can't see the draw!

I understand what you mean by learning from TV...you'd be surprised by the format I've learned watching soap operas!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, I also like some ambiguity. I like enough realism that you don't get everything tied up with a bow. Not always allowed, mind you, but I still like that.

Bonnie, LOL on the soaps. Just as so and so is about to confess... fade to commercial.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Hmm. You know, Sandra, for us Chinese folks, gifting a knife means severing the relationship. And a pair of knives? How DOES your mother really feel about Kevin? Maybe she's read his latest story as non-fiction? =)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Trace, blowing things up wouldn't really work for my book, but it's a good idea!

Dana... I think I'm going to steer clear of analyzing this gift further! Where's Perky Boob Bardawill today anyway?

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Perky Boob Bardawill is signing bras at JA's.