Category Archives: Narrative Voice

Stab Them in the Back

 

For all of you “Agents of Shield” fans, I think you’ll remember that wrench in your gut when you realized, but didn’t want to admit, that Grant Ward was Hydra. Not only was he Hydra, but he was also quite psycho. Everyone’s favorite character started betraying and killing all of his friends. Except for the recently acquired girlfriend, whom he creepily stalked.

One of the most painful and effective ways to keep our readers enthralled is through the backstabbing friend. What’s the best way to set that up and make it work for you? Let’s look at a few examples from those who draw blood well.

1) Neither the protagonist nor the reader sees it coming. In my opinion, this is the best way to have friend stab friend. It does take finesse, however. For one, you can’t have the stabbing friend act in contradiction to his final evil goal. That doesn’t mean he can’t help your protagonist, seem to empathize, and even help the protagonist further their own goals. It does mean you have to watch out for temporal contradictions. If something nasty happens to the protagonist and the stabbing friend is hiding in the shadows on the dark side, he can’t also be helping his “friend” at the same time. It also means that anything the stabber does for your protagonist has to either not effect his own goals or must further them in some way. He can save his friend’s life, it can seem that it’s because he legitimately cares, and we can find out later that it was only because the backstabber needed information. Besides Grant Ward in Agents of Shield, another great example is in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. (spoiler alert) Throughout the entire novel, Siri finds in Bluefingers a confidante she can trust, until the very end when he and the Pahn Kahl people turn against her and the kingdom. He was the one person she thought she could trust and with that paradigm shift is a plot twist that changes everything.

2nd) The character doesn’t see it coming, but the reader does. This sets up a time-bomb scenario for the reader where they can see the betrayal coming, don’t know exactly when it will happen, but as the suspense builds and the stakes grow higher, so does the interest of the reader. Who can forget the disappointment we feel as Edmund gradually becomes more and more entwined with the evil queen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? We see his betrayal coming, but his poor siblings have no idea until he’s gone. We can unfold the tragedy with carefully placed clues that the reader puts together piece by piece, gradually discerning the awful news that they hate to admit may be true, like in the famed Narnia series. We can also slam the reader with the betrayal for greater impact, putting them suddenly on the edge of their seats as they wait for the protagonist to find out. Either way works and I think the best choice is whichever one fits with the flavor of your book. Is it wrought with mystery so the betrayal is one of many factors or is it a book of many twists, turns, and tragedies where this can be one more layer on the cake?

3rd) We see the possibility, but nobody knows what will happen, including the friend who betrays. I thought this was done rather well in Dr. Strange. Yes, I admit it, I’m a Marvel movie fan. Stephen Strange is championed by Baron Mordo from the moment Strange arrives at Kathmandu trying to find healing. Mordo mentors him, worries for him, and cares for him. Mordo’s negative reaction when he discovers their leader has been using forbidden magic all along is a sign that not all is well. Mordo seems to come around, helping Doctor Strange save the world, and it’s not certain what Mordo will do until the moment comes. Even Mordo doesn’t seem certain what he’ll do. And then he turns his back on his friends and becomes the next super-villain. If we hadn’t already known that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, we might have been on the edge of our seats wondering if he’d really turn to the dark side or come to his senses. Because we do know, it becomes an example for the scenario above. We know it will happen, but how and when is the question. I think the unsure betrayer is one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching scenarios in fiction. It gives our protagonist’s friend a great sense of depth as they struggle with the decision. This one is also hard to pull off well, because we must show those forces of good and evil push and pull in a side character while still keeping the protagonist as the focus. Done well, it’s quite powerful.

I could probably name a dozen more types of backstabs, but I’m not willing to make this post any longer. What are some great backstabbing moments you’ve seen? What are some movies/books that you feel have done it well or some styles other than what I’ve listed above? We’d love to hear from you.

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

 

Creating Tension with Narrative Voice

Honestly? I’ve never thought about tension while writing. I’ve thought about conflict a whole lot: overarching conflict, conflict between characters, conflict with the environment, etc. But I’ve never framed it in my mind as “tension.” After some thinking, I decided it wouldn’t be quite right to offer advice about something that I don’t tend to think about while writing. However, I have noticed it while reading. So in lieu of offering advice, I’ve put together a list of memorable stories that created tension in a very unique way that may help you in your own writing. The fun of creating tension doesn’t have to be all your characters’ doing. By honing in on your narrative voice, you can create tension between you and your reader using a variety of techniques.

Tension Through Foreshadowing

In the classic book One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez sets up tension in the first half of his book by dropping the same line over and over: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered…” Instantly, the reader questions this. Aureliano before a firing squad? How did he get there? Also… Colonel? When does he become a Colonel? With this line, the author continues to keep these questions fresh in the reader’s mind, and the reader continues on with the book in order to get the answers to those questions.

Tension Through Speaking Directly to the Reader

In one of the darkest children’s series out there, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) adds a warning to the reader at the beginning of every book. In the very first book, he lays the land:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.”

By doing this, Snicket sets expectations and creates tension between himself and the reader. The reader fights the warning, thinking this, a children’s book, couldn’t end so badly. And yet, Snicket promises a unhappy ending. But what could that ending be? How could something so terrible happen to these wonderful children?

Tension Through Story Structure/Switching Timelines

This technique is a favorite among Literary Fiction authors and moviemakers. The author has one character telling the story as they remember it, allowing them to be the narrator. However, the switches from past to present is up to the author. That means right when something happens, the author has the power to pull back to present time, have the narrator reflect for a time, and then go back into the action. This undoubtedly drives some readers nuts, but can we deny it causes tension? Nope! An example of this would be Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, where our narrator, Cal, starts most chapters in the present, and then switches back to telling his grandparents’ and parents’ stories. The reader becomes anxious to see what’s going on in the present, and yet is forcibly taken to the past instead. This, in the best cases, builds tension by way of anticipation.

Tension, R.L. Stine Style

One BAMF.

The master of ending a chapter on a cliffhanger is the incomparable R.L. Stine.

When I was growing up, I was afraid to read out loud in class. I’d stutter, and as anyone who has tripped in front of their crush knows, once you start falling, nothing can save you from making a fool of yourself. In order to combat this, my dad suggested we read aloud to one another each night. We chose Goosebumps, naturally, because who wouldn’t. We found we’d read for longer than either of us anticipated because we just HAD TO KNOW what happened in the next chapter. If that’s not tension, keeping your readers up way past their bedtimes, then I don’t know what is.

Remember that tension doesn’t have to lay on the shoulders of your characters every time. Consider taking some of the burden from them and messing with your readers’ minds yourself!

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