Tag Archives: Suspense

At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 1

23 Oct

After giving myself a few days to let the information overload of the 2013 James River Writers Conference settle, I’m finally getting around to sharing the great tips I learned. Today, I’m going to give you the notes I took during the “Suspense Across the Genres” session, with speakers Philippa Ballantine, Christopher McDougall, Kevin O’Malley, and Howard Owen, moderated by Julie Geen.

  • Write suspense into the little moments, too. Is that boy your protagonist likes going to notice her haircut? If he does is that going to bring them closer and change the path of the story? It’s a small thing to wonder, but it can have big implications. Suspense doesn’t have to be saved for the big reveal of your protagonist’s life-changing decision or whether the serial killer gets caught.
  • Chop the story up between plot and subplot or past and present in order to make suspense. Find the cliff-hangers.
  • Slow down and show the character. Make them the headline that draws the reader in, and then write the story with dynamic moments of suspense to keep the reader interested.
  • Make your character worth caring about so the reader wants to know what happens to them whit it gets suspenseful. Do this by making them real and human (even if they aren’t humans).
  • All fantasy has a kick-ass female heroine. Twist the trope by adding personality traits that increase suspense. Heroes need faults. Make readers wonder what the character will turn out like in the end, how she will grow.
  • “Emotion beats the hell out of the appreciation for good literature.” –I wish I had been able to see which speaker said this from my seat in the room. They elaborated that if you can get the reader in the gut, get them where they feel, then the reader will be determined to find out what happens to that character even if the text isn’t appreciated as literature. My take on this—touch readers on a human level rather than an academic or scholarly level where the merit of the literature might take precedence.
  • Suspense is not just action, action, action. It can be emotion, character, setting, imagery, etc.
  • “You are telling one story, not ever scene from the characters’ lives… Let the curtain drop. Let it stay down.” –Again, couldn’t see who said this. It’s great advice, though, to those of us who have “over-narrator-itis.” Trust the reader to understand. Not every moment has to get a moment on the page. I never got an opportunity to ask what the speakers’ views on sequels are given that they say to leave the curtain down and let the story end. My guess is that a sequel, or books in a series, should only get written if that additional narrative is really needed. It shouldn’t rehash what was done. It should continue the story forward.
  • Use the end of each chapter as a second chance for a riveting first line. The last line is just as important. It tells readers to stay tuned. Make them want to.
  • Once you’re about 40 pages into your manuscript, something needs to change the characters’ lives. Keep the plot moving.
  • Even plateaus in plot should ramp up for the next scene.

I hope these tips on suspense and plot progression are as useful to you as they have been to me. As soon as I got home from the conference I pulled what I thought was my finished manuscript out of its binder and started rearranging pages, marking through dull moments, and rewriting the unnecessary. Remember, change is good!

Happy writing,

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast






Self-Editing Tip #16- The Hook

16 Aug

The Short and Sweet of First Sentences and First Pages of Fiction

Today, we’re going to move away from grammar and focus on content. Specifically, I’d like to pass on a few short, but easier said than done, points that I’ve learned from a combination of professors, writing guides, and poorly written novels. Consider these while writing the beginning to any longer piece of fiction. (Let’s call a “longer” piece of fiction 5,000 words or more—anything you would hesitate to call flash fiction—or something with chapters.)

  • Chaos and confusion are not the same as mystery and suspense. You generally want to avoid beginning your text by throwing your readers into the midst of action/tragedy/horror and expect them to be intrigued enough to keep reading purely from the shock of what’s going on.
  • A reader’s choice to begin reading does not signify that reader already cares about a character, setting, or event. Beginning a story with intimate thoughts from a character or with a character in a compromised state isn’t always the best choice. Though the thoughts can give good insight into that character, they may be better placed further within the storyline once your reader cares about the character. This is because the thoughts a character expresses, though revealing, don’t matter until the reader knows how they feel about the person—are they supposed to root for or against this character? Do they love to hate this person? Are they sympathetic to what the character is going through or are they unable to relate? Introduce characters in a way that not only shows readers who they are, but also shows them why they should care. The same goes for introducing your character by way of some big event. If you go this route, make sure you’ve given readers a reason to care. They don’t know that person yet, so you’ve got some convincing to do.

In my experience, the beginning is the hardest part. By keeping these points in mind, I’ve been able to create introductions that not only familiarize readers with the setting and main character, but intrigue them into caring. Shed the notion that readers already care simply because they began to read. Remember, just because someone is curious enough to read your writing doesn’t mean you’ve gotten them to care about what you’ve written. That takes something extra—practice, for one, but also some element within the character that the reader can latch onto as important to them. This hook will be different for each reader, so creating well-rounded, realistically human-acting characters is a good place to start. Even if your characters aren’t humans, there are innate human truths and qualities that will show through because the characters have been created by you, a human.

Tell me what you think about introductions and character crafting. It’s a tricky topic. If your opinions differ or you have some strategies you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them!

Thanks for reading.

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast


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