Category Archives: Narrative Voice

Subliminal Tension

Tension is an emotion.

Making a reader feel tension is, in part, a function of what is happening in the story, and other Fictorians are doing a fine job of covering that. I want to dig down, though. I want to get past plot structure, and characters, and all of the things we usually talk about. Today is not a lesson in simply writing fiction. Today, I want to talk about the words themselves.

Speed is key. Short words mean fast reading. Short sentences mean fast reading. Fast reading means fast thinking. Fast thinking means excitement.

Extended vocabulary, on the other hand, will tend to result in a slower, more ponderous pace of comprehension. In addition, one can expect that a more complex sentence structure will also result in increased temporal periods for absorption of material. In turn, this style of writing can lead to a more leisurely, intellectual feel for one’s reader.

See what I did there?

Tension is a function of two things: excitement and a lack of resolution. You want to keep your reader on a knife’s edge for a bit? Shorten everything. Boil your words down to the simplest form. Boil your sentences down to subject-verb-direct object structure. Lose as many phrases, clauses, or anything extraneous as you possibly can. Make it so a third-grader could read it. Put in a refrain (see above where its X means Y), because once the brain is on a roll it will simply speed up.

The goal here is not to cut back on the amount of information you’re throwing at the reader. The goal here is to get the reader to absorb the information as quickly as you possibly can. From a writer’s perspective, this can be tough. It’s actually faster for us to write one massive sentence than it is to break that baby up into little chunks. When we’re flowing, we don’t want silly little things like sentence structure to stop us. So when one is writing a tense scene, the knee-jerk reaction is to write longer stuff. Bigger words, longer sentences, and massive, hulking paragraphs.

But when you’re revising, you need to break that up. Read those two paragraphs up above again. You’ll burn through the fast paragraph in about half the time it takes to read the slow one.

Don’t think of it as “half the time,” though. Flip the equation. What really matters is the amount of information hitting a person’s brain in a set period of time. In other words, the boiled-down writing style means that your reader is getting twice as much information per second. She’s racing to keep up with you, and her conscious mind is running at a dead sprint to keep up with her subconscious one. You ever run down a hill only to find that you have to keep accelerating or you’re going to completely beef it? Reading a scene written in that boiled-down language feels like that.

Now, don’t write everything for speed. Sometimes, you want to slow it down. Let your reader breathe in parts by lengthening everything. Get a little purple from time to time. I’m not saying you should write for speed all the time; what I’m saying here is that, by controlling the speed at which your reader processes your story, you can create tension in certain scenes by having them accelerate the speed at which they are reading, and you can relieve tension by allowing them to slow down. By controlling the speed of their comprehension, you can make them feel tense and they will never know why.

So don’t use this trick alone. Use it in conjunction with all the other tricks being written about by my colleagues this month. Just remember, your goal is to control all of a reader’s brain, and word, sentence, and paragraph structure is the gateway to triggering that subliminal feeling of tension.

Hook and Carry

I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson say it, I’ve gone to multiple David Farland workshops and heard him say it, and all the best authors know it: escalate!

The problem is, we often think of this only in terms of the action, the main problems, the basic plot. To write that book that nobody can put down we need to escalate everything. Every subplot, every character arc, every social dynamic, needs to be escalated in some way in order to grip our readers so tight that they just can’t let go. I’d like to focus on one point in this escalation process: The Hook and Carry.

Sometimes, a good hook can seem in conflict with the escalate philosophy. You want that first sentence of your book, the first hook, to be so good that the reader HAS to read your story. That means you have to jump in with a conflict that will knock their socks off. Right? Not exactly.

In order to escalate into the main conflict, you need to set the stage, give the reader a sense of the characters and why they’re important and then ease them into the opening conflict. Right? Not exactly.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing is balancing that opening hook with the much-needed escalation of conflict in a story. This is where the fact that we’re escalating every aspect of a book comes into play. That opening hook needs to pull us in with a question (or conflict) that we want to see resolved, though it doesn’t have to be THE conflict.

The hook can be an emotional dilemma: “Susan cried as she knelt over the casket. She would still strangle him if she had to do it again, but she would miss him.”

It can be a physical obstacle: “They circled one another, Chris and the mountain lion, each in the way of what the other wanted.”

The hook can even be completely unrelated, a stepping stone into the setting of the real conflict. “My tight red sweater announced my changed status to the student body with defiance; I was single, available, and I was happy about it, regardless of the pain I hid behind my cherry lipstick.”

Now, I’m not saying these are remotely good hooks. They’re rather thrown together, but I think they get across the idea. You’ve got to hook the fish if you’re going to have him for dinner, but you’ve got to keep some tension in the line if you’re going to bring him to shore. Don’t spend your readers’ precious time introducing them to the backstory. Jump in with a secret, a mystery, a conflict, that immediately grabs your readers’ interest. Then you can set the stage as your character deals with what’s immediately in front of them. After that, then follow all of the great advice from the other posts this month as you escalate, escalate, escalate.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

Starting Over Again … Again

Ungrateful God, the second volume of Unwilling Souls, is with my copy editor as we speak. While I’m not quite ready to announce a release date yet, it’s time to start thinking about the next volume. Beginning a new book is an exciting time full of a blank page’s endless possibilities. That being said, I’ve never done the third book in a series before, but before Ungrateful God, I’d never done a second volume in a series before, either. So it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned when writing sequels. After all, a lot of those blank-page possibilities will lead to a pretty crappy book.

Do a better job outlining: Ungrateful God will be released many months after I’d originally hoped it would. The main driver for this was the substantial content edits my editor handed back. These were very necessary edits from the standpoint that the book was not living up to its potential (it is now, big time!), but they were also very unnecessary from the standpoint that I could have avoided them if I’d done a better job outlining. So that’s the plan for Book 3, a thorough outline followed by a call to my editor to go over the book’s structure and remove any large weak points before I ever put a word down. I’ve already begun this process, and given that Book 3 will be even more complicated than Ungrateful God (itself more complicated than Unwilling Souls), I’m hopeful I can avoid some pain and suffering later by doing this work up front.

Decide what kind of story I’m telling: I don’t mean to imply I’ve got no idea where the story is going. I have rough notions of major plot points for each of the remaining books in the series. But I also don’t want this series to feel too formulaic. Each book, while both standing alone and telling a portion of a larger story, should feel different than the other books in the series (at least, that’s my desire, but every author’s mileage may vary). So while Unwilling Souls was a chase book with a mystery at its core, in Ungrateful God the pure mystery element is much more front and center, leading to an explosive ending. Similar stylistic decisions must be made before the outline for Book 3 can really resonate. I have a good idea what the answer is, but telling would be, well, telling.

Decide how long between books: I don’t mean the time it takes to write the books, though that’s important too (see below). In this case, I mean the in-world time between books. Ungrateful God begins more than a month after Unwilling Souls ends, so quite a lot has changed between the volumes, and the author has to convey that information to the reader in a way that neither confuses nor bores them. Time jumps are a good way to skip straight over stuff that would otherwise bog down the story into parts that are more interesting and relevant to the story at hand. But they aren’t appropriate for every book, and as it turns out, Book 3 will begin right where Ungrateful God leaves off.

Decide how long between books, the other way: Simply put, I wrote the bulk of the first draft of Ungrateful God too damn fast. I’d set myself (and my editor, more importantly) a deadline I was determined to meet, and I burned myself out getting there, another reason the draft needed so much work. I’m still learning the answer to this “how fast can I write consistently?” and I’ve given myself more time for Book 3. It will help avoid unrealistic deadlines and ensure I can turn in a more quality draft to my editor when the time comes. I’d like to be able to put out more than one book a year, but the reality is I work a full-time day job and I’d also like to, you know, see my loved ones on occasion.

Determine if the formula needs shaking up: Above I said I try not to be formulaic. But the truth is that if books in a series bore no resemblance to one another, they would make for a pretty poor series. I decided early on that in order to make the story as epic as I wanted it, I’d have to play around with the viewpoint format from book to book. In Unwilling Souls, Ses Lucani is the lone viewpoint character. In Ungrateful God, Ses remains the primary viewpoint character with the vast majority of chapters, but I add a second, minor viewpoint character as well. In Book 3, I plan to continue that trend, with a second minor POV (for three total), and so on. At the moment, that works for me as a way of expanding the stories I can tell. Harry Potter fans know that JK Rowling occasionally broke with a strictly Harry POV in later books to give us an idea of what was going on in the wider world. One extra POV per book is a nicely pleasing number to me, but I reserve the right to change my pattern should the needs of the story demand it.

All this pre-work is a new experience for me, a dedicated pantser of a writer. But after several attempts at this and taking honest note of the delays the style has cost me, I’m confident the increased productivity (and decreased wait time of my fans that will result) will be worth all that unpleasant change.

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

The Truth About Dark Fiction

The truth about dark fiction is very simple. It’s all about us.

I’ve always thought of myself, as a science fiction writer, clearly on the side of optimism versus doom and dystopia. As a kid, I was certainly a fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and their themes of human conflict, but I remember watching Star Trek with a different set of eyes. I only really appreciated Star Wars after traveling halfway around the world during high school. Star Trek pulled me in because it portrayed our current terribly flawed and imperfect society at its absolute theoretical pinnacle in the very near future. Even with the latest movies, in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, that future world is a darker place than before, but that relentless optimism is there. If you look across the plethora of recent popular books and movies, there is a very strong lean towards darkness and dystopia. Why is that?

It’s very simple. We see the worst of the world every night when we turn on the news. Even the newscasts that end with that thirty-second “water skiing squirrel-type” video are full of dark, depressing themes. It’s no wonder that it calls to us as writers. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias are easy to imagine because all we have to do is turn the creative knobs to eleven or twelve and our worst fears are easy to explore. The truth of dark fiction is very simple. It’s a reflection of our society, and in some cases, how we view our future selves in the worst way possible. And as writers, it’s pretty damned easy to wrap it around us like a blanket.

Let’s be clear, I’m not disrespecting dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic fiction. Nor am I saying it’s easy to write and build these worlds. I’m discussing something that writers sometimes fail to notice – our own attitudes seep into our writings. When we’re convinced the world is a terrible place, it’s a little easier to write dark fiction. When we’re happy, writing happy subjects is a little easier as well. Our own personal attitudes and emotions often come with us to the keyboard and until we understand it, there’s nothing we can do to mitigate their effects.

How do I mitigate those effects? Music. There are quite a few folks I know who couldn’t imagine listening to music while writing, but it really helps me leave things behind when I sit down to the keyboard. What music? Whatever fits the mood. For my novels, I usually create a playlist while I’m developing the early outline. Sometimes a song really captures the emotional vibe of a scene. Sometimes, I need a song (or three!) to get me into the mood to even look at the book again. Watching the blinking cursor of doom for a little while without music is almost certainly going to send me on a miserable writing time adventure. On those nights (when I do most of my writing), having that go-to playlist helps me put the day behind me and focus on the next 2,000 words I want to write. That focus, and understanding that the way negativity can crawl inside our heads, is critical.

But what about when I want to look into the darkness? Well, because of my own experiences, it’s even easier for me to capture that emotion than listening to music. I’ve blogged on Fictorians before about a life-threatening illness I faced in 2014. As I recovered, my own attitudes were dark and depressed and I wanted desperately to get back to polishing the draft of SLEEPER PROTOCOL, but I couldn’t. Writing just wasn’t a positive experience. Ironically, the two stories I wrote during my recovery were much darker pieces than I’d ever written before. When I need to get dark, remembering that experience and bringing that attitude to my writing is fairly easy. Experience, especially those that are dark and uncomfortable, helps us tap into dark fiction. I’d wager that our happy dreams and goals are equally powerful, but darkness tends to have a greater connection to us because we’ve lived through it or we are living through it at a given time.

But, we have to come up for air. Not everything is wine and roses in the real world, but we can’t let our miserable world drag us down on a daily basis. We have a choice to respond to every emotion, stimulus, and action we face daily. There are times it’s okay to delve into the darkness and craft the story that needs to be written. It’s human nature to explore the abyss, after all. Just don’t sit there staring for too long. The world needs you and your voice up here. Your characters need you. Dark fiction is all about us, but so is optimistic fiction. There’s no balance to it – it’s a continuum. We’re all out there somewhere. If you’re too far down the dark side and feel like you can’t slide back the other direction, please reach out. I’ll be happy to help.