Category Archives: Ace Jordyn

Creating Tension in Mysteries

Mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Inherent in that puzzle is the expectation of tension created by the anticipation of a sympathetic sleuth’s ordeal and the promises made by the writer. There are a few points to be kept in mind to create tension in a mystery.

A good mystery writer incites anxiety, stress, dread, worry, speculation, fretting, and curiosity. Experiencing those emotions is what makes a story a page turner. How is this done? By creating sympathetic characters, characters to cheer for, and then throwing in mini-conflicts, obstacles, failures, and reminding us what’s at stake for the protagonist. It can be as simple as personal pride, a need not to be a failure, or as grand as a family member held as hostage. Or, if they know the plan such as a schedule, or if characters reveal an agenda or secrets and the clock is ticking on those, the reader thinks they know what to expect but something gets screwed up, or the plans happen in a manner which propels the story and tension is created.

Characters who are care and can be cared about hook the reader emotionally. When readers care, they perceive tension when information is with held because they are empathizing and sympathizing. They want answers as much as the sleuth does. They worry knowing that the murderer lurks around the corner and the protagonist is headed right for him. Or, it’s about the presumed impact, abstract consequences in which the reader’s anticipation of what could happen escalates. Danger approaches, the sleuth is in peril and tension builds as the reader worries for the sleuth. Tension , however, isn’t all about action scenes. It can also be about the promise of danger.

The promise of danger is equally if not more effective than action itself. The moments between promises, the waiting, not knowing creates tension in mysteries. The false hopes of an answer – that red herring – an answer to a promise which bore no fruit, all of these create tension. As a writer you must ask yourself what you can promise that will go wrong? The rule about promises and action is this: anticipation creates tension while action is payoff and deflates tension and reader attention. Have you ever watched a movie, a television show or read a book where the sexual tension between two characters is high? Create a situation where they consummate that tension and poof! it is gone for the reader too. That is also true of answering the big questions, solving the big pieces of the puzzle too soon.

Red herrings in mystery work because they don’t answer the big questions – they create more. The reader anticipates the conflict, the reasons for a the red herring’s actions, and the tension mounts because we really don’t know the truth, just that so much is implied. Then, we learn that the herring is red, the criminal is on the loose, the clock still ticks, and the mystery still is unresolved. It’s all part of a mystery’s story structure: creating clues that indicate one or more suspects, include red herring clues and suspects, lead the sleuth down specific paths in the maze of the investigation and eventually redirect the sleuth to the criminal. This structure is a framework for creating tension.

Tension in a mystery isn’t created by merely mentioning the crime or the criminal in the beginning, or by asking the great unresolved question in the beginning and then forgetting about it. The reader needs to be reminded, forced back to that unresolved question – what if the criminal isn’t captured? What if the lost jewels aren’t returned? What if? What if? How upsetting will it be if the sleuth loses?

Not answering questions immediately creates tension and in a mystery there are many opportunities for this. Sometimes a question needs to be answered quickly to propel a story forward. The path of the red herring was a dead and in the maze of the puzzle, so we must explore another path. Remember this rule though: If a question is answered immediately, it’s a small surprise with a small payoff. If it’s stretch out over several pages or chapters, it must have a big surprise with a big payoff. Put another way – each time a question is asked, a promise is made. Each time the stakes are raised a promise is made. Readers need you to deliver on those promises. If it’s the biggest crime of the century, then the payoff for the sleuth must be big. And, it can’t be predictable. Readers think they know what will happen, but they want to be surprised by the answer. Knowing that you will deliver on the surprise also creates tension because it leaves readers wondering what will happen next.

An effective, yet seldom talked about tool to create tension, is for the writer to know the antagonist intimately. In a mystery, the antagonist creates the inciting incident, the sleuth reacts, and then they escalate their reactions and actions. Toss in additional obstacles created by others, family, bosses, coworkers, the justice system, and we’re left wondering if our sleuth will succeed or fail.

Tension is also created when a protagonist cares about something other than just the mystery at hand – the son with the unsuitable fiancé, a homeless person, a pet, or a friend’s crisis. Any of these can conflict with and impact the sleuth’s ability to solve the greater mystery. Multiple conflicts lend themselves to a protagonist’s personal theme – we all know that patterns exist in our lives, we’re attracted to the same messes, we have a limited set of skills to approach them – choices must be made and through those decisions and actions, characters reveal themselves. More importantly, multiple conflicts lead to subplot which affects the sleuth and impacts the sleuth’s ability to solve the crime.

Sympathetic characters, a myriad of suspects, conflict both personal and professional, an antagonist who raises the stakes, promises and payoffs, and unresolved questions, these are the staples of creating tension in mysteries.

How to Start Your Story to Hook Your Readers

We all know that to hook readers a story’s beginning must have impact. But how do we do that? There are books on how to write a great first line, how to make those first scenes powerful, how to make the reader want to turn the page. Yet, despite all that information, sometimes it still doesn’t work. When writing the first draft, remember that your only task is to record the story in your head and not to give yourself writers block by trying to write or start it perfectly. Write it, then focus on specific elements. The starting point for your story may change, scenes either thrown out or rewritten. All that said, if you know where to start, you may have less work to do later.

Stories have patterns. These patterns are specific to genre. Every genre has conventions and consciously or subconsciously, readers expect them to be met. The first scenes signal genre and they tell the reader what kind of story to expect. Is it a romance? A thriller? A crime drama? Fantasy or science fiction? Or some combination? Even with a combination, genre expectations must be met in the story and more importantly, they must be signaled at the start. For example, in a science fiction crime drama, the crime genre has conventions which need to be met: a dead body, a sleuth (amateur or detective), a discovery of the body scene, an investigation with false clues, the sleuth confronting the murderer, and a resolution (justice, injustice or irony where the sleuth loses something in the process). Science fiction explores the consequences of scientific innovation in settings which can range from near future Earth, to outer space, other planets, all of which may have realistic or fantastic settings.

How does one do this? Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel RED PLANET BLUES:
The door to my office slid open. “Hello,” I said, rising from my chair. “You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.
“Yes,” said a high feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring.

Immediately, we know we’re reading a detective story set in a science fiction world.

Opening scenes don’t always have to be about the plot itself. For example, thrillers establish the genre, characters and promises to the reader about the type of story it is by opening with action scenes unrelated to the core plot, but with action scenes showing the protagonist as a person of action and a hero of the situation. Think James Bond movies for this example. They start with action, not the quieter bits with him going to get his orders to save the world – those appear later. Thriller writers such as Clive Cussler, employ prologues filled with action adventure set in the past. Cussler’s prologues not only set the importance of the book’s quest for a relic or item, but the action sequences and the drama signal the type of story the reader can expect.

Writing to establish the genre helps avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’ wherein the world’s or protagonist’s backstory are explained to the reader. Readers don’t want a biography or a lesson in the geo-politico-socio-economic issues of the world. They don’t care about the why of the character or the world until they know what’s at stake for the protagonist. Only then does the why become part of the how will it be done? and what happens next?

It’s a strong confident opening readers want in which they trust that you will reveal information when it’s pertinent, that you as a writer trust them to help solve the puzzle you’ve created for your protagonist. The confident opening makes us ask questions – who is this person? What is he going to do? What happens next? Actions speak louder than words, so if the social cues say she’s a talented mage, for example, why is she shackled and drowning in a well? As long as every new scene raises questions they will remain engaged in the story.

But we’ve gone through so much work creating the world, in understanding our protagonist and antagonist. This information must be revealed! Yes, some of it must be revealed. When is the best time to do this? Only when the story can’t move forward without it otherwise, it’s an info dump. Until then, keep readers asking questions and avoid the info dump.

In the excerpt from RED PLANET BLUES, we are signaled that it’s a science fiction detective story. The words “the first new case I’d had in weeks” tell us that the protagonist has fallen on hard times, that he doesn’t have a dime in his pocket, and that he’s desperate for work. “Mars” and “quite so perfect a figure before transferring” tell us that it’s science fiction set in a future where mars is colonized and there are intriguing scientific advances. With no info dumping, Sawyer has given us the genre expectations, set the scene, created tension because he has us wondering what will happen next (Will the private detective get the job? But if he’s aching for cash, will he take the job even if it’s a dubious one?). We have other questions too: Why is the private detective on Mars? Who is the woman? What is a transfer? Why is the Mars economy in a slump?

Here’s where I think we get into trouble about where to start our story. Too often info dumps, whether it is about the character or the setting, are about the disorganizing event, the thing that sets the world into chaos and that happens before the story begins. For example, Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliette doesn’t start with whatever set off the feud between the families. The feud is a given and the story starts in the drama of the situation. Dystopian stories don’t start with how the world as we know it ended. They start with the established socio-politico norms. RED PLANET BLUES doesn’t start out by telling us about how and why people colonized Mars, or the disorganizing event that put the Mars economy into a slump, or why the protagonist is on Mars. Those reveals come much later when the information is needed to move the investigation and the story forward.

Besides utilizing genre expectations to hook your reader, there is one more thing to be aware of: the opening of a story is a set up for the inciting incident (the central conflict) and its complications – the situation your hero is going to try to get out of for the rest of the book.

Captivating stories have an inciting incident that sets the story in motion, something that signals the central conflict, the problem our protagonist must solve in order to go from chaos to order. Once the problem is established with the inciting incident, a complication arises which raises the stakes. These stories (as all do) start with chaos and work to establishing order from that chaos although that doesn’t mean that it’s always successful and if it is, that the ending is happy.

Understanding the conventions of the genre you’re writing in will help avoid the dreaded info dump and it has the added benefit of informing the timing of the inciting incident and the pacing of arising complications and information reveals. More importantly, it’ll help you hook readers so that they’ll keep turning the pages to experience the wonderful and wild world you’ve created!

 

A Foray into Children’s Literature

Great ideas come in all sizes bit not all writing conventions lend themselves to those ideas. Take children’s literature which spans a wide array of ages, reading ability, and appropriate subject matter. Is your novel really for the teen market? Would that short story make a good picture book? Would your story idea work for a chapter book? For what category is your idea best suited for – picture books, first readers, middle grade, ‘tween, or young adult?

In order to navigate this array, I took a basic course on writing for children with author Steve Alcorn. Here are some things I learned:

The Categories in Children’s Literature

Picture books
Primarily illustrated, these books introduce a child to the world of reading and the child needs to see the picture to understand the entire story. Board books are for ages newborn to 3 while picture books span ages 3 to 8. Like a cartoon, text and illustration are equally important. Word count can range from no words to 2,000 as defined by the sub categories: picture books, picture story books, wordless books and board books.

Emergent Readers and Chapter Books
For ages 5 to 9, Emergent Reader books contain illustrations but rely more on the text to convey a story than a picture book. As children’s skills increase, there are fewer illustrations and chapter books are the next step. The goal is to build reading skills and confidence so word count could range from 20 to 100 words for emergent readers or 500 to 1,000 for early chapter books. Every publisher has their own guidelines. For example, Scholastic guidelines for first chapter books include: written for ages 7 to 9 with word counts from 7,000 to 10,000.

Middle Grade Readers
This can be the most fun, yet the toughest group to write for. Depending on the publisher and school, middle grade can be anywhere from ages 8 to 13, depending on reading level and it occurs during a time where there’s a lot of emotional and physical growing up happening. Middle grade books deal with more complex concepts suited to this age group (life and growth struggles but no sexual themes and even silly stuff like bathroom humor). It includes non-fiction as well as fiction. Stories are more complex and novels range from 30,000 to 60,000 words.

Young Adult
Written for ages 12 and up, this reading group wants controversial subjects, edgy concepts, and adventure. Remember feeling that ‘no one knows what it’s like to be you’ ? YA literature addresses a need to know that others understand what one is going through. Stories range from the humorous to the gritty and span realistic fiction to speculative but always contain heavy duty emotional reading.

The Five Basic Story Patterns
(Note that the patterns correspond somewhat with the age categories.)

1) Incident
Written for children 8 years old and younger, a child in this story goes on an adventure but doesn’t experience emotional change. The child who is being read to is the one who goes on the journey. This pattern includes picture books which may not have any words at all.

2) Purpose-achieved
The protagonist accomplishes something in a story which lends itself to more plot. It is a familiar style in that the character has a purpose, there is a possibility that it may not be achieved, there is a black moment and the plot builds toward the ending.

3) Wish fulfillment
A great pattern for emergent readers, wish fulfillment happens when a protagonist acts and she isn’t expecting a reward for those actions. Many fairy tales are wish fulfillment stories. In Baba Yaga, Vasilisa’s diligence in meeting the witch’s demands results in her horrible step mother leaving. Her sole purpose in serving Baba Yaga was to get badly needed coal for the fire. However, her well-mannered conduct is rewarded with bot only the coal, but in the witch chasing away the step mother.

4) Misunderstanding
Overcoming a misconception about people, places, situations or himself, from a simple misunderstanding to complex social issues like prejudice, the misunderstanding pattern is often used to teach a lesson. The caution with this pattern is not to sound or be preachy. Misunderstanding requires a character to experience emotional change and to overcome a flaw.

5) Decision
It’s about making choices which relate to growing up. Do I fit in with the crowd or be myself? How much freedom is good and what’s the consequence about being too independent? What are the results of the choices I have to make?

Themes in Children’s Literature
There are common themes in children’s literature. This list, as created by Steve Alcorn, is written in an order which reflects the age categories.

  • Discovery
  • Exploration
  • Fun
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Family
  • Friendships
  • Fairness
  • Love
  • Sacrifice

This quick tour of children’s literature was designed to provide some clarity into the categories to make your foray into writing for children a little easier. It’s an exciting field, albeit a competitive one and every publisher has very specific requirements. The best advice I can give is that if you’re considering writing for children, read a lot in the category of your interest, and be sure your stories resonate emotionally and with the age group’s issues, and that the language you use is suitable for the reading level.

Happy writing!

Adapting Story to the Screen – Big Jackpot or Nothing?

Does your story have the potential to be a big blockbuster? Will it ever be possible to get your story on the screen? What makes a story good for an adaptation?

Like the revolution which happened in the book industry, from book stores to ebooks, from big and medium press publishers to indie publishing, the film industry is undergoing a similar revolution. Why?

  • Production costs have plummeted
  • Post-production is cheap – there are many options for picture and sound editing software
  • Distribution is available on several web sites or you can host your own

These changes have increased the opportunities for your story to be made into a movie.

Yes, your story, novel or short, can be scripted for the screen, whether it’s the big screen or a small one, or on the internet. It’s a big undertaking, but it can be done. Consider this though: not everyone is a writer and there are people who are looking for scripts for the small screen. For example, NetFlix has created a world of story production that wasn’t previously available. Production companies of all sizes, including independent producers, are looking for scripts so there are opportunities outside of Hollywood. Film festivals are resplendent with short films and they’re a good venue through which to get noticed – for you the writer and the producer.

When I write, I always see my stories as a movie. But does that mean my stories can be adapted into a movie? I needed to know so I took an online course with famed screen writer Bill Rabkin. Many of my points and examples are taken from that course. Thank you Bill! I knew that a good story is necessary, but what makes a story compelling enough to be made into a movie? Many of the things we know about good writing are also true in scripts, but here are a few things to be aware of when writing a script:

1) A great concept which makes the audience ask What happens next? is a must. An example: A nerdy teenager is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets superpowers.

2) Compelling characters embody what your story is about and are defined by his or her central conflict. All character details must relate to conflict because character is conflict and conflict is character. The only way we understand any character is by the choice he or she makes in pursuit of a goal.

3) Film is a visual medium much like a cartoon with a caption. This means that the internal monologue, the heavy thinking, all the pages of lovely prose, and all the long passages of dialogue are gone! Everything must be conveyed externally. In short – write what can be seen. Therefore, the conflict, the choices a character makes must be conveyed externally.

4) Most films follow the Three Act Structure: ACT 1 the set up with a disorganizing event (which can happen off screen and sometimes isn’t revealed until the end), the central problem, and inciting incident (which kicks the story into motion) which ends in a major turning point in the plot(25 pages); ACT 2 the complications with a major turning point in the middle with a big reversal. It doesn’t simply continue the ideas found in Act 1 – it explores and enriches them thus taking on depth and meaning/theme (50 pages); and ACT 3 the resolution (25 pages). And yes, movie scripts are approximately 100 pages long. The most important thing to know about structure is that following structure by itself doesn’t guarantee a good script – it is used to convey the meaning of your story.

4) Scripts have a format which must be followed exactly. There are lots of examples online but it’s easiest to use software. For free writing software check out programs like Celtx.

Now that we have some of the basics, let’s talk about adaptations. We’ve all seen some that work and others that don’t. Adaptations don’t work for me, not because of plot or setting changes, but when characters aren’t close to what I imagined when I read the book. For example, I was disappointed in a made for television movie of The Walkers of Dembly, an Agatha Raisin novel by MC Beaton. The protagonist was very different from the one I had imagined (in looks and character) in the series and another favorite character was missing. The convention of the cozy mystery weighs heavily on character and if those personalities are too different from the book, knowledgeable viewers won’t be happy. If plot or setting changes occur, viewers tend to be more forgiving if the characters’ actions have a ring of truth about them. That is why some stories adapt well to television series and can go for seasons ‘based on’ the original on with plots which were never written in the books. Other series that have adapted successfully due to acting, script writing and direction are Murdoch Mysteries, Rizzoli and Isles and the British drama series, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Character and dialogue (along with setting) create the tone of the movie and getting that tone right is what makes for a good adaptation. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson’s expressed it best when she said “…it’s really all about figuring out what I can add to create a tone that‘s filmically the same as the literary tone, because tone is the most important thing, and I almost think you could do anything you want, after that.” Wilson wrote the script for The Girl on the Train and the reviews have been great. You can find Andrew Bloomenthal’s interview at SCRIPT (Division of The Writers Store) by clicking here: INTERVIEW: Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson Brings ‘The Girl on the Train’ to Life.

We’re familiar with novels and trilogies and series making it to television or to the big screen. Take heart short story writers – if you have a compelling concept, memorable characters mired in conflict, and great plot, your concept can make it to the screen too. Check out Ted Chiang’s sci fi story “Story of Your Life” then see the movie Arrival. After you’ve compared the similarities and the differences, and see how the story was adapted, perhaps you’ll be inspired to adapt your creations for the screen.

It’s not the big jackpot or nothing! There are as many opportunities in books and film as we have imagination. We’ve been practicing the art of storytelling and now all we need to do is to learn the conventions of script writing and the film industry and a whole new world of possibilities will unfold.