The Thriller- Part Deux

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“(A) thriller plot tightens the noose around the protagonist’s neck.”

Catherine Linka

 

 

 

Last week Catherine Linka, our Tollbooth sister and author of the fabulous A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS dropped into the ‘Booth to spill her secrets about writing a thriller. And this week she’s back to explain the rest.

BookDetailBut first… Experience a great thriller first hand. Click on this image to read the first three chapters of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS.

(And while you’re there check out the rest of Catherine’s “thrilling” website. It’s super well done, just what a great author’s website should be.)

Wow, Catherine! You’ve nailed it. What are the key elements to creating suspense in a thriller?

Creating suspense in a thriller is a combination of things. Certainly the landscape of a thriller tends to feel darker and more shadowy than in other novels, because it reflects the protagonist’s inability to perceive all the threats that inhabit his or her world.

But even more important is the way a thriller plot tightens the noose around the protagonist’s neck. With each scene, the writer reveals a new threat or hints that yet another person shouldn’t be trusted.

The tension increases as the writer leads the character through a maze in which each of his or her attempts to solve the mystery or evade the impending threat hit a dead end. The reader should get to the point that he or she can’t see the way out. The character is trapped.

In A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, Avie is Contracted into a marriage she doesn’t want. To escape it she needs to get past her bodyguard and the video monitors in her house and school, and trust in Exodus, the underground railroad to Canada. Escape attempts are foiled as the man she is to marry convinces her best friend to spy on her. When Avie does get away, Exodus isn’t the way it was described. She’s with strangers, not knowing who to trust. Her fiance hires private Retrievers to get her back, and later government agents join the hunt. By the final chapters of the book, Avie is trapped and there is no apparent way out.

Writers have to craft the tone of the story to keep the tension going. Even in peaceful or romantic moments, the writer has to hint that the moment could be interrupted by a threat and come crashing down.

Part of crafting tone is language choice and sentence structure. Thrillers don’t require spare prose, but flowery prose is definitely out. Dialogue often reflects the protagonist trying to get information, while not revealing what he or she knows by answering questions without actually answering what was asked or using humor to avoid a straight answer.  The reader should feel the character attempting to discern the truth or to evade discovery–and deciding who to trust in the process.

How do you create character in a genre that tends to be plot driven?

Character development can be buried under a thriller’s complex plot, but the most memorable thrillers often feature characters that fascinate us. Think of Lisbeth Salander from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. She is brilliant, deeply secretive, and perhaps psychotic. Readers want to know what her story is and how far she’ll stretch the boundaries of what is legal or moral.

As writers we build character in thrillers the same way we do in other genres, by showing how the character reacts to situations, how her or she makes decisions, how the character expresses him or herself through dialogue.

The faster pace of a thriller doesn’t offer characters time to explore their feelings about their past or their place in the world. They have to focus on surviving the unfolding crisis. And the looming threats make it challenging for a writer to introduce or build a romantic relationship, because love requires a character to trust enough to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable is the last thing a character in danger wants.

I’ve noticed that writers often show us the key to a character in the opening pages of the story. In Mary Elizabeth Summers TRUST ME, I’M LYING, readers learn that sophomore Julep Dupree is the daughter of a grifter who has a talent for lying, disguise and running scams–skills she will use to survive when her dad goes missing.

In THE PRINCE OF VENICE BEACH, Blake Nelson shows us how Cali, a teen runaway has survived living on the streets because of his talent for building relationships in the community and his honed awareness of what is happening around him. So as Cali is drawn into an increasingly dangerous situation, these character traits keep him alive.

In A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, my main character Avie says in the opening scene, “I’m not fearless, but I like that Yates thinks I am.” She doesn’t see herself as gutsy, but as the story progresses, it’s that quality that propels her forward and ultimately saves her and others.

Alternatively, much of the tension in a thriller comes from the character’s vulnerabilities that put them at risk of failure. Cali’s exposed out on the street, vulnerable to people who prey on street kids. And who in authority is going to believe a kid who lives on the streets? Avie lives in an America in which young women have become rare and valuable. Her knowledge of the world outside her home and school is deliberately restricted, making her vulnerable when she is Contracted into marriage without her consent and makes a run to freedom.

Thanks for the tips, Catherine. All through 2015 Zu Vincent and I are focusing on thrillers, chillers and writing that gets your pulse racing. Stay tuned for our next installments for more interviews, book discussions and practical tips!
~tami lewis brown

Thriller Writing

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Author photo and book jacket

 

 

“Thrillers… lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival…”                                                Catherine Linka

 

 

What really makes a thriller an I can’t put it down read? That’s the question author Tami Lewis Brown and I wanted to explore. And what better place to start than with our own amazing master thriller writer, Catherine Linka, author of A Girl Called Fearless and the upcoming A Girl Undone.

Below is the first part of our two part series on Linka’s successful approach to YA thriller writing (or any genre for that matter). In the coming months we’ll be dissecting a few more thriller reads to see what makes them tick.

Catherine Linka calls her tense, tightly plotted dystopian novel, A Girl Called Fearless, both a love story and a thriller. Set in present day Los Angeles, Fearless is the compelling story of American teen, Avie, whose sequestered and controlled life is suddenly upended when she’s contracted to marry an older man. In Avie’s world, girls are now a precious and expensive commodity, after a synthetic hormone introduced in beef has killed fifty million women. The only way out for Avie is escape to Canada. Avie’s activist friend Yates wants to help her to freedom, but things heat up when Avie and Yates fall in love, and Avie gains knowledge she shouldn’t about leaders in the US government, who are hunting her down to silence her.

Because A Girl Called Fearless is not only a love story and a thriller, but a political and social commentary on our times, we began by asking Linka about the opportunities and issues writers face when including major themes and statements in a thriller, and what reading she’d suggest for writers wanting to delve into the world of thrillers, and the possibilities they hold for writers.

 

Linka book jacket

 

 

Catherine Linka:

I think it’s exciting that writers are free to explore a huge range of themes in thrillers. Naturally, thrillers are perfectly suited to write about crime, murder, greed, and corruption, but they also lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival. Plus, they offer the chance to delve into both normal and pathological ways in which humans behave.

Look at Gone Girl. It poses interesting questions about how we perceive innocence and guilt. Or the new novel, The Girl on the Train that asks how can you know the truth of what you did when you can’t remember?

These darker, more intense themes fit well with YA. These thrillers are often survival stories in which the main character is seeking justice for a crime that has been committed or attempting to head off a crime that may be repeated.

And the backgrounds and personalities of the main characters can add layers to the themes. Tess Sharpe’s protagonist in Far From You is a recovering addict who’s broken her family’s trust. Can she regain it? Wick in Romily Bernard’s Find Me hacks in secret to make extra money in case she needs run from her comfortable foster home.  And the narrators of Stephanie Kuehn’s psychological thrillers Charm & Strange and Complicit make the reader question what is real and true in the narrator’s version of the story.

Not surprisingly, we don’t see a lot of thrillers in middle grade, but one book that does come to mind is Blue Baillet’s Hold Fast in which a girl who is trying to figure out why her librarian father disappeared, realizes she’s being followed. It’s a much grittier story than others Baillet has written, but it explores themes of family and loyalty that put it squarely in middle grade fiction.

 

Linka book jacket for Undone

 

 

Of course I’d suggest writers read a lot of thrillers, both adult and YA. First, to get an instinctive feel for the genre and then to determine which type of thriller resonates with them: action, crime, literary, political, or psychological.

I consider Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys as thrillers, because even though they are historical fiction, the tension and threats ramp up and the character’s survival is clearly at stake.

But I also encourage writers to read about subjects, places, time periods or cultures that they’re passionately interested in. Really successful thriller writers often bring a unique twist to a story.

A great example of this is the best-selling The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro which is set in the Boston and New York art world.  Shapiro’s fascination with Isabella Gardner led her to write this story about a talented painter lured into painting a forgery who becomes tangled in a dangerous web of deceit.

In YA, Stephanie Kuehn won the Morris Award with her psychological thriller Charm & Strange. Her story is built on her deep knowledge of the human psyche which she undoubtedly gained while pursuing a Phd in clinical psychology.

For me, the choice was to write a political thriller, because I’m a total news junkie. People always ask me how much research I had to do to create my world, but it was actually very little, because I read about politics every day.

 

Catherine Linka is an author, and a childrens and young adult book buyer for an independent bookstore in Southern California. She studied international politics at Georgetown University before getting a masters in business at the University of North Carolina. After years in sales, marketing and advertising, she reimagined her life and pursued a masters in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of SCBWI, and a recurring speaker at SCBWI-Central Cal Writers Day. She blogs about writing here at ThroughtheTollbooth.com. Catherine is married and lives with her husband in the San Gabriel foothills. A Girl Called Fearless is her debut novel. The sequel A Girl Undone, will be released this spring.

                                                                                    –Zu Vincent

 

Baby Got Backstory

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One of the things I love most about beginning a new writing project is figuring out the backstory: the history and culture of the world I’m building and of the characters who populate it. I’ll spend days thinking about my protagonist’s minor medical conditions, or the names and occupations of his relatives, or how the government of his city is structured. By the time I’m ready to start writing a first draft, I’ve collected a wealth of information about my characters and their world, and all I want to do is share this information with my readers. After all, it’s fascinating! Why shouldn’t I begin my book with a fifty-page description of every street in the city and each one of its residents?

At this point in the process, I remember that an infant story is sort of like an infant human: although they might be perfectly charming, your infant story’s burps and squeals are not nearly as interesting to normal people as they are to you. As I’ve drafted the first few chapters of my new project, I’ve had to figure out which pieces of backstory to include in the book, where to include them, and which pieces to discard—not because they’re bad in any way, but because they’re not helpful to the story. Here are a few of the guiding principles I’ve been attempting to follow recently:

Save that backstory for chapter two.

Okay, it doesn’t actually have to be chapter two. This is just shorthand for the idea that it can be helpful to start a story with a scene rather than with a big chunk of backstory-filled narration. The dramatic tension of the scene will draw readers into the book, and they’ll get to know about the protagonist and her goals. Then, when they reach the second scene or the second chapter and you hit ‘em with all that backstory, they’ll have some context for it and, more importantly, a reason to care about it. Get your readers hooked and invested first, and they’ll be craving those juicy backstory details as much as you are.

Sprinkles are just as effective as lumps.

I’m not very good at following my first guiding principle. Sometimes information just can’t wait until chapter two. How are readers supposed to understand the stakes of Melinda’s dramatic argument with her grandfather if they don’t know that her grandfather was the evil sorcerer who turned her into a fruit bat in the first place? When this is the case, I try to sprinkle backstory lightly over the scene, inserting it in between lines of dialogue, never in more than one or two sentences at a time, and certainly not in entire paragraphs. Something like this:

“I hate you!” Melinda said to her grandfather. He was, after all, responsible for her furry wings and her newfound powers of echolocation. “How am I supposed to go to the prom now?”

Don’t force it.

Putting essential bits of background information into dialogue can seem like a clever way to weave backstory into a scene, but you really have to make sure that this information is something the characters would realistically say to each other. Don’t put awkward words into their mouths just to satisfy your insatiable lust for backstory.

“Do you remember, my dear Melinda,” said her grandfather, “when I, the evil sorcerer, turned you into a fruit bat?”

“Of course I do, you moron,” said Melinda. “It happened thirty seconds ago.”

If it’s not essential right now, save it for later. Or for never.

I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities to introduce the little morsels of backstory I’ve been saving up. If I want to tell readers that Melinda is allergic to peanut butter, I might slip this information into a scene at the grocery store or the cafeteria—a place where it’d naturally come up. Still, even if a piece of backstory fits perfectly into a scene, I won’t include it unless it’s (1) really funny, (2) important to the story right now, or (3) important to the story much later, but I want to plant a sneaky little foreshadowing clue about it early on. There are a lot of details I’ve worked on and loved that will never fall into any of these categories, so I write them into the story anyway, and then I delete them with a sigh. The sigh is important. It helps give you closure.

Now that I’ve told you how I’ve been wrangling my backstory, I’d like to hear from you. What tricks do you use to weave brilliant backstories into your books?

Reasons My Son is Crying*: Writing Edition

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51tI7J2bq4L._SX300_My son wanted a toy train.

For days, we heard pleas for “a choo choo! A choo choo, please!” So in anticipation of one of those drop-his-father-off-at-the-airport-and-venture-through-the-mall-two-weeks-before-Christmas kind of Saturdays, I promised my son that if he listened and was patient during all of the running around, he’d get his prize.

It was seriously tough work for a three-year-old.

5454771899_58ef7a44c8Somehow he kept it together, and Thomas the Train was soon squeezed between his sticky, little fists as we ventured into the “playground” area of the mall. (Playground is in parenthesis here because it’s not your traditional slides and climbing area—it’s oversized breakfast food. Literally.)

Ordinarily, my son is in heaven on the breakfast food playground, but on the train day, he was The King of the Waffle. The Lord of the Cereal Bowl. The Master of the Sunnyside Up Eggs. Swarms of children from eight to eighteen months came over to see his train swoop down the bacon recliner.

IMG_0372It seemed like such a perfect day.

Then the boy with a toy car showed up.

At first, my son followed the boy, not so sneakily waiting to see if the boy might put the car down. When that didn’t work, he came crying to me. And when I didn’t steal the car from the five-year-old, my son dropped his new train in my lap and walked away sobbing, Charlie Brown style.

IMG_0367And this reminds me of writing! We all want our trains. Be it word count, draft, agent, editor, book deal, cover, advance, sales, what-have-you. We work hard, make terrible sacrifices, and then sometimes—SOMETIMES—we get our choo choos!

And yet, it seems like every time I’m sitting here patting my back about my 3,000 word writing day, someone emails/texts/posts that they wrote 4,000 words. Every. Time. Or maybe you finished the first draft of your story in six months, but someone on the YA Binders just posted that she wrote hers in six days. (Uggghhhhhhhh…)

IMG_0365Or maybe you finally sold a manuscript and you’re going to be published—on the same day that that guy from your graduating class announces that his book is being optioned to become a movie by J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson (they’re coming together to make the film because the story is THAT good).

Now you’re probably waiting for the punch line. The moment when I say, “But here’s the real story.” Nope. Sorry. I don’t have one. It’s the holidays, and I’m simply offering a hug. After all, my son is always going to cry if someone appears with a different toy than his.

Wait, there it is! You know what? That five-year-old boy had a ninety-nine cent, old Matchbox Car, while my son had a fancy new Thomas the Train set. He wasn’t crying because the boy had a better toy, he was crying because the boy had a different toy. After all, there was never anything wrong with his choo choo—and he worked damn hard for it!

Dearest lovely writer friends, my wish for this holiday season is that we can all be proud of what we’ve written no matter how fancy everyone else’s writing might seem. Remember that no one else could have written your story, and don’t get too down on yourself for turning a little green now and then. We all do it.

AND we are all awesome.

IMG_0371Plus regardless of internal contests, we ALL get to spend our working days on the breakfast food playground of children’s literature. And how freakin’ cool is that?

Come on. Let’s go jump on the waffle!

 

 

*Reasons My Son is Crying is a hilarious blog that displays all the sincere reasons that children sob their hearts out. Be it, “Mommy took a French fry” or “I didn’t want to wear a seatbelt”.

CM Headshot2Cori McCarthy is the author of Breaking Sky (forthcoming from Sourcebooks March ’15) and The Color of Rain (Running Press ’13). Come say hi @CoriMcCarthy or find out more at www.CoriMcCarthy.com

Creating Character Contradictions

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Think back on the books you love, and invariably it’s the protagonist who comes to mind. Characters are the heart and soul of our stories, and I’ve spent months and sometimes years getting to know mine. But in my systematic efforts to pin down their personalities, I sometimes sacrifice what’s most important: the element of surprise. Even when I think I know my protagonist—her pet peeve, greatest fear, secret ambition, which songs she sings in the shower, and what makes her cry—it doesn’t mean her actions should be consistent.

And that’s a good thing, because predictable characters are boring. Why bother to read about someone if you know exactly what she’s going to do? But if that same protagonist surprises us by doing something unexpected or “out of character,” our interest is piqued. Life is not black and white; our characters shouldn’t be either.

“Elderly people are not always craggy, wrinkled, stooped over, forgetful or wise,” writes Dani Shapiro in her book, Still Writing. “Babies aren’t always angelic, or even cute. Drunks don’t always slur their words. Characters aren’t types.” One way to avoid clichéd characters is to give them a mix of positive and negative traits–qualities that are both attractive and repellent.d940464aabf2822095ffd0ce607eb46f

In the movie Crash, for example, Matt Dillon plays an angry, racist white cop, whose actions can be as ugly as his words. Yet, when we see him at home tenderly and patiently caring for his sick father, we understand this ugly side is only part of the story.

In one of the film’s most tension-filled scenes (spoiler alert!), Dillon’s character heroically risks his life to pull a black woman from a burning car only seconds before it explodes. The irony is, he’d abused the same woman only days before by groping her during a traffic stop. Dillon’s partner, an idealistic white cop, wants to do the right thing, and yet he ends up shooting an innocent, black man. The fact that bad people do good, and good people do bad is what makes the characters in this thought-provoking film so authentic.

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Oxymoronic complexities create unforgettable characters. Characters like Frankenstein (a sweet monster), Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (a gentle madman),

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Unknown-1

Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (an honest thief), and in real life, actor Robin Williams (the sad funny man). In contemporary YA, I couldn’t stop thinking about Keir Sarafian (a well meaning rapist) from Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable51NX92wCaRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

or Marcelo Sandoval, the autistic 17-year-old protagonist of Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World.  Initially, Marcelo appears isolated and incapable of relating to or understanding other people . But as we gradually come to see, it’s those other people in the story who are impaired—like Arturo, Marcelo’s high achieving, Harvard-educated, lawyer dad. Despite his intelligence, Arturo is blind when it comes to seeing the truth about the people around him. As a hypocritical, greedy, philandering father who genuinely loves his wife and kids, he too is full of incongruities. marcelo1

Character contradictions can help create empathy. When the thug reveals his vulnerability—through his fear of an abusive father or his worry about an incarcerated brother—that’s when we start to care. The superficial, shallow cheerleader can seem like a type—until she goes home to care for a handicapped sister or cancer-stricken mother.

A high school student of mine wrote a story about an impoverished 15-year-old living in the projects in Detroit. His protagonist, Jamal, is an honor student and a loving son to his single, hardworking mother. But Jamal also belongs to a gang. What I feel ultimately makes his character so interesting is the juxtaposition between his positive traits and his immoral actions. In the last scene, as Jamal picks up a pistol and heads out the door for a night of thieving, drug dealing, and possibly even murder, he almost forgets the duffle bag he’s packed. Grabbing it, he mumbles to himself, “Mom always said I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.”  This affectionate, kidlike statement stands in stark contrast to his criminal activities.

I try to focus on five essential elements when creating my characters: name, appearance, motive, history, and environment. Adding character contradictions to these categories can enhance every one.

  • Names have associations and images. Would you call a jock Horace? A popular cheerleader Beulah or Gertrude? Give a shy, artistic guy the name of Spike? Probably not…unless there’s a reason to upend your reader’s expectations. Ironic names can be a hugely effective way to ignite a reader’s interest, surprise us or make us laugh.
  • Appearance. Clothes, hair, body type, fitness level, facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures and speech all provide clues to character. But throw in character contradictions—make that pouty blond in the mini skirt a rocket scientist—and the reader does a double take. My son’s wife wore dusty work boots under her beautiful gown at their wedding ceremony—a statement about their life as farmers.
    wedding boots

    wedding boots

    In Silicon Valley, CEO’s of start-ups saunter down the streets dressed in grungy jeans, tee-shirts and sneakers. But their youthful appearance and slacker attire belie their astounding net worth.

  • Motive. What does your character want more than anything in the world? The answer is the force that moves stories forward and determines plot and character. But motives can be contradictory too, and conflicting desires create drama. When we lie to protect others, or give up something or someone we love, we are living out these contradictions. Take the classic example of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, who at the end of Casablanca forces his true love, Ilsa, to leave him. Or brave Eleanor from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park who, after moving away from the boy she loves, chooses to ignore his letters and postcards despite her breaking heart.
  • History. Knowing your protagonist’s history is the key to understanding her motives. So, leaking backstory into the narrative can help a character’s contradictory actions make sense. In one of my students’ stories, where a young girl is being beaten by her drunk dad, I was startled by the following line: “[she] searched his eyes for any remnants of the kind, loving father she knew.” That’s the line that captured my attention, because it made me ask, “What happened to change everything? How did a loving Dad turn into this monster?” Incongruities like these can spark our interest and cause readers to engage more actively in the text.
  • Environment: Our environment shapes us, no question about it. Family, friends, school, home, work and physical settings are a few of the many factors that influence character. But you can also play with environment for humorous effect. Look at old sitcoms like the Beverly Hillbillies (poor, backwoods family moves to Beverly Hills) or Green Acres (city slickers move to a rural country farm). Or you can use environment as a vehicle for exploring serious, thought-provoking issues like in the Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black (upper middle class white girl goes to a federal prison).oitnb_pds_077_h_wide-d905a9eae1732d4b21dfff6820388699d6c112e7-s4-c85

Regardless of whether you’re writing about oxymoronic characters like rich hicks or well heeled convicts, environmental mismatches can provide story drama that results in valuable new insights for readers.

It’s only human nature to make assumptions about people based on what we see, but when we take the time to pair unlikely elements, the rewards can be rich indeed. Character contradictions are all around us. Notice them, appreciate their oxymoronic complexity, and incorporate them into the people you create on the page. Your stories will be more authentic for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Writer is a Time Lord: Compressing Time through Summary

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The writer who deftly uses SCENE and SUMMARY becomes the Time Lord of her fictional worlds. Summary allows the writer to compress and expand time, while scene occurs in a fixed time frame.

Midnight sunsets in Iceland--even in nature, the time of sunrise/sunset is flexible

Nature is also a Time Lord:                                           Midnight sunsets in Iceland.                                       Photos by Sarah Blake Johnson

While a scene occurs in “real” time, summary can cover a long period of time in a few words.

Typically a scene will “show,” while summary will “tell” as it races through time.  As writers we’re often told to show, not tell, but telling (summary) is also an important skill.

Why use summary?

Sometimes the reader needs to understand more about a character, her background, motive, or emotional state or even the history of the setting. Sometimes an overview is needed.

Some stories demand leaps of time: this can be from one season to another season or skipping over several decades.

Summary can alter the pacing of the novel. Summary can also be used to delay or even stop time, making it motionless.

Though counterintuitive, summary can intensify emotion. An insertion of summary, which uses backstory or another event, provides the reader with another view of the character.

A summary is not in the moment, and sometimes it combines many moments. In film, a similar technique is montage.

Geese in Frankfurt, Germany

Montage of geese during different seasons in Germany.        Photo by Sarah Blake Johnson

Many films use montage, little snippets or selections of related images or action to show passage of time or change of character. Juxtaposed together, these images become something greater. We can also create a written montage by use of summary.

We use summary when the reader needs information, but doesn’t need to experience the event play by play like in a scene. Summary explains efficiently.

How do we use summary?

It is critical to use vivid, concrete, sensory details. Summary does not mean bland. (A general, “boring” summary is better left out.)

Summary can be as short as a sentence. It also can be quite long, several pages even, though with children’s books a long summary may lose the readers’ attention.

The great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, said his personal motto was “hurry slowly.” Though he wasn’t necessarily applying “hurry slowly” to the technique of summary, that concept will strengthen our writing.

When to use summary?

We use summary when there are many important events and not all the events are needed in full to tell the story.

This means we need to know which scenes are most important. Basically, if nothing happens, but the info is necessary, don’t use a scene. Use summary instead.

When not to use:

We don’t use summary for key scenes or for actions and choices that significantly alter the character’s life or the plot. Don’t use it for any critical turning point, any moment of significance, or crisis scenes. All these moments need to be fully realized.

Summary often creates emotional distance—so don’t use it when the reader needs to be close and emotionally involved, and don’t use it when conflict or confrontation are in the scene. As with any writing advice, this isn’t always true. An example of an emotional summary is below.

And please don’t use summary when the story demands a live action scene. For example, in a romance novel readers expect to see/experience the kiss. The reader does not want to be told, “They kissed last night.”  That’s a way to get the book thrown across the room.

Where do we use summary?

One typical pattern in many books is a summary, followed by a scene. Also, summary can follow scene. Summary is useful for pacing. Scene after scene without summary does not give the reader time to rest or digest what has happened. Summary allows for a gentle pause.

Summary can be inserted in the middle of a scene, but if so should probably be short.

What can you do if you have too many scenes and you’ve decided that some aren’t needed in scene format?  Write a summary of the scene in as few (or as many words) as it takes and attach that summary before or after the associated scene.

We can also use summary to delay action and create suspense. In this regard, it is a powerful pacing tool.

Examples

1 – Summary of Past Events/Action: This is a common type of summary and a way to condense a needed flashback.

This example summary occurs right after Death holds out his hand to Keturah. “And then into my mind came a memory of Hatti Pennyworth’s son, who was dragged by a horse and should have died, but lived. And Jershun South, who went to sleep for two weeks and awoke one day as if he’d slept but a night. And what about my own cousin, who once ate a mushroom that killed big men? Though he was young, he survived. Death often sadly surprised us, but sometimes he gladly surprised us, too.” Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

2 – Less is More Summary: It is easy to overwrite and give too much information. This example of a summary shows how a few words can summarize a situation and how summary can pace the narrative.

This summary appears at the Beginning of Part 2: “The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart. From the lifeboat I saw something in the water.” Following this summary the story moves into a scene of Pi’s interactions with Richard Parker, the tiger. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

3 – Summary of Repetitive Action: This summary shows repeated action over time, a useful technique for skipping over weeks or months.

“Mostly, I missed Mal. I’d written to him every week, care of our regiment, but I hadn’t heard anything back. I knew the post could be unreliable and that his unit might have moved on from the Fold or might even be in West Ravka, but I still hoped that I would hear from him soon. . . . Every night, as I climbed the stairs to my room after another pointless, painful day, I would imagine the letter that might be waiting for me on my dressing table, and my steps would quicken. But the days passed, and no letter came.” Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

4 – Summary for Emotional Impact: This example is of a summary that has greater emotional impact than if written as a scene.

“We drove and ate, music booming and the road going straight, straight, straight, no signs, no stops, just fields and hills forever. Sometimes he looked away from the road just to smile at me. Maybe he was feeling like I was–that the day was enough under the candy-blue sky, the wind swooping into the car and taking parts of us away with it, swirling me and Wilder into the whole big moving world.” Dangerous by Shannon Hale

5 – Summary of Details and Non-Critical Events: This example takes a day of normal, uninteresting events and makes them interesting by summary. This is a transition summary that incorporates the character’s emotions and is an example of a summary that provides pacing.

“Dini spends lots of time riffling through Maddie’s bookshelves and watching Dolly videos, and then some time just sort of staring into the middle distance. As it turns out, the slow pace of the day is almost a relief after the frantic excitement of the day before.” The Problem of Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami

Be a Time Lord

Sands of Time Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, calls summary the “mortar of the story.” A story without summary would become too long and an epic of a thousand pages or more. Writing is an art, and so the writer chooses where to use summary through intuition and common sense.

As a writer, you are the Time Lord of your world. You can choose when to either play for hours in the sandbox of scene and when to compress time through the use of summary.

Exercises

1. Take a scene and summarize it in 3-4 sentences.

2. Choose a book or print up a chapter of one of your stories. Highlight all the sections of summary. What types of summary did you highlight? Are they connective summaries appearing between scenes? Or are they in the middle of scenes? Should any of these summaries be scenes? Are these effective, vivid summaries?

Sarah Blake Johnson

NOT IN YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION or THE ANTI-MICK JAGGER RULE OF CRITIQUE

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Critique groups are great. Writing can be lonely and kindred souls reading your work can boost your spirit while building a stronger manuscript. Yet for every writer in a critique group there seems to be a critique horror story. The group leader who dismissively comments he doesn’t “understand”  (or even “hates”) your genre. The broad thinker who advises you to rewrite the entire 300 page novel in free verse present tense– and while you’re at it set it in the stone age rather than contemporary. The picky wicky who can’t get past that typo on the 23rd page and the fact that the protagonist has a dachshund rather than a shelter dog (rescue is so much more relevant to today’s kids!)

WHY WHY WHY do they do that? And have you ever been guilty yourself? (I bet you have. I know I’m not always absolutely on the mark in my critiques.) So how can you avoid being the critique partner from hell?

I think most critique problems stem from one simple source.

I call this the NOT IN MY JOB DESCRIPTION or THE ANTI-MICK JAGGER RULE.

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You’ve heard his song. You can’t always get what you want…. but if you try sometime you might find… you get what you need.

Critiquers take this refrain as gospel. Writing isn’t for wimps. You’ve got to be tough in a critique. It’s a critquers job to be HONEST and point out the FLAWS of a manuscript, whether the writer agrees or not. Meanwhile the writer has to zip her lip and absorb the criticism. They may not get what they want from your critique but they sure as heck will get what they need!!!

NO

I don’t think it’s a critiquers job to lay bare an author’s bones along with those of the manuscript. Beaming the writer with a dozen well intentioned hardballs won’t necessarily help the writer move forward on his personal creative journey or improve a manuscript.

Excellent critiquers tailor a critique to what a writer WANTS, and in that way they also give some of what they believe a writer NEEDS.

But how do you accomplish this sort of a WANT+NEED critique? What exactly is your critiquer job description?

Good editors know the secret. They ask questions. What do you want me to focus on in my comments? Why did you choose present tense? What is this secondary character trying to achieve in this scene? How do you see this ending tying into the story promise you made in chapter one? This sort of discourse can be tough when the author must remain silent through the critique, but by raising questions and elaborating on them you can open an authors eyes not just to your vision of a story’s problems but to their own solutions and a deeper understanding of how to get there.

Giving a writing what they want is empowering.

Let’s say someone has spent three months on a brand new baby manuscript and she wants general impressions. Don’t hash over language. Don’t grind through logistical details. Do ask what the protagonist wants and what he’s doing in this section of the story to achieve that goal.

Or what about the “ready” to be submitted manuscript that’s been polished for years to a fine sheen. Does it really help anyone to insist that paranormal YA is dead and the whole novel should be recast as a realistic contemporary story?

Stop right there.

If the writer is concerned about tone focus on the sensations and emotion the manuscript generates. Not logic problems in the plot. Not chapter length. Not those annoying to you chapter by chapter changes of point of view.

If the writer is concerned about the title brainstorm on that. And leave it at that. Unless she asks for more.

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A good critique is like an excellent gift, just what the recipient always wanted. Don’t give your writer friends the critique equivalent of a waste paper basket made from an elephant’s foot. Unless that’s what they asked for.

Listen to what the author wants. Listen with your ears (how often do we forget to simply ask what a writers goals are with the critique?) And listen with your heart. Writers are supposed to be empathetic. Turn on all your senses 1through 6 and put yourself inside the other author’s skin. Try to give them not just what you think they need. Give them a dose of what they want. The result will be pure harmony.

~tlb

Beckoning Your Reader

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How do you invite a reader in and tell a story without telling too much? If you’re too cryptic, you risk angering your reader, who will toss your book across the room because he can’t make sense of the story without that key information you’re too cleverly holding back. But your reader will be equally annoyed if you give her too much help, feeding her information through dialogue, stage directions or narrative.

There’s no formula for how to do this, since every story is different. You might withhold information in one type of novel when you would reveal it another. For instance, Carolyn Wheat, author of How to Write Killer Fiction, discusses the differences between the timing of information revealed in mystery and suspense fiction.

“The tension in a mystery,” Wheat notes, “depends on information withheld from the reader,” including clues that must be interpreted and woven expertly together by the novel’s hero detective. In contrast, the suspense novel, “relies on information given to the reader; we know that when our hero’s back is turned, the old friend she’s asked for help will telephone the Nazis and give away her location.” Thus a detective in a mystery novel is always two steps ahead of the reader, while in suspense, the reader is two steps ahead of the character.

But notice that in both instances, the reader is participating in the story. And that’s the key. Letting readers question and struggle and analyze and figure things out for themselves. To do this we need to ask what experience we want readers to have, and deliver this experience through our characters’ eyes.

It’s tricky. Often we reveal too much at a certain stage in our work, because we’re still in effect, telling the story to ourselves. If you find you’re feeding the reader information too fast, or writing backstory (what happens before action begins), you may be at this stage. That’s okay, just remind yourself that in revision, you’re going to cut this information, or move it into scene.

One way to move from feeding the reader information to letting the story tell itself is to truly get under a character’s skin. This is not always easy to do because we love our characters and like parents, try to protect them from the realities of life (or maybe we as writers try to protect that part of ourselves we’re uncovering, since it’s always our story in some way). But you can’t protect your characters by explaining their feelings; you have to let them take the punches from these painful experiences so they earn getting back up and into the ring. We need to feel how our characters feel, blow by blow. Otherwise their battles are too easily won.

One exercise that may help create this immediacy is to write a few scenes with your character in the present tense. This offers little time for character reflection or backstory and gives you an opportunity to focus on your scene moment by moment, and express those moments through the senses. It’s surprising how much you can reveal this way without telling the reader anything. I used this technique in my novel The Lucky Place when I wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes. The story begins with the line “There are always secrets,” but I found it wasn’t readers I was keeping secrets from, but the character. Cassie is three when The Lucky Place opens, too young to understand the adult world around her, yet through her eyes and ears she reveals more than she knows. She might not be able to interpret it yet, but I wanted the reader to.

Readers only participate when we let them in to figure things out for themselves. When they experience the same tensions the characters experience, unravel their dilemmas and contemplate their choices as if they too were stuck smack dab in the thick of things.

–zu vincent

Ask an Opinionated Writer: Chapters

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Do you have burning questions about the craft of writing? Do you want someone to give you thoroughly subjective and opinionated advice about your authorial trials and tribulations? Maybe you don’t, but I am going to give it to you anyway in this new, very occasional blog series, Ask an Opinionated Writer.

Here’s how this thing works: You, the writers of the world, ask my opinion about a craft-related topic. I, after very little research or sleep, dispense my advice. Ideally, someone will learn something along the way. Does that sound like fun to you? Too bad.

Today’s unsolicited and possibly unsubstantiated craft advice is all about that humble building block of story structure: the chapter.

Dear Opinionated Writer, does my book even need to have chapters?

Of course not. Not all stories benefit from being broken into discrete segments. If you’re writing anything longer than a picture book or a piece of flash fiction, however, you’ll probably want to give your readers a few places to rest their eyes between scenes. They’ll need to get up to grab some more cookies from the kitchen, and you’ll need a chance to change your focus to another character, skip ahead in time, or pause for emphasis. Those pauses don’t have to be chapter breaks, of course; they can be lines of white space, or even those little asterisks that look like someone’s squashed a bug between the pages of your book.

The useful thing about chapter breaks, though, is that they are large and emphatic, like a really big squashed bug. Think about the effect you get from a single line of white space, and then think about how much stronger that effect would be if you used half a page of the stuff! The difference between a scene break and a chapter break is sort of like the difference between a comma and a period—they’re both pauses, but one is subtle while the other is decidedly less so. If you want to give a section of your book a decisive ending, switch to a new setting or point of view, or knock your readers out of the story for a moment (not always a bad thing), a chapter break could be just the solution for you.

How long should my chapters be, anyway?

I would say that’s up to you, but then I wouldn’t be very opinionated, would I? I personally like longer chapters. My chapters usually consist of at least two scenes, which works out to about 10 to 15 double-spaced typed pages. Chapters this length give readers a chance to snuggle comfortably into the world of the story without any jarring interruptions, and this effect is exactly what I want in the books I write, which are mostly medium-paced and sort of old-fashioned. If I were writing a thriller, though, I’d probably want to use shorter chapters to keep my readers a little less comfortable and a little more unsettled.

However long your chapters may be, dear authors, please do me a favor: Unless you are writing an early reader with very strict structural rules, don’t keep your chapters short only because you don’t think young readers will be able to handle longer chapters. If your story is the sort that requires lengthy chapters and kids aren’t up to reading more than a few pages at a time, they’ll find a natural stopping place within each chapter. Besides, you are such a good writer that you’ll draw them into the story, and they’ll be on to the next chapter before they know it.

How do I know when my chapter is finished?

Your chapter has achieved its purpose in life when it has advanced the story’s external plot, its internal character arc, or (ideally) both.

I am stealing this idea from author and VCFA faculty member Leda Schubert, who says in her lecture Exit, Pursued by a Bear that “advancing story and revealing character are the central purpose of scenes. … Your protagonist should be in a different place by the end of the scene; something will have changed.” You’ll notice that Leda is talking specifically about scenes here, but since a chapter usually contains at least one scene, I’d argue that these guidelines hold true for chapters, too. I try to make sure that each of my chapters contains at least one major plot development—a twist, a setback, or a triumphant resolution to a previous complication. I also like to flip my characters’ emotions on their heads: If my heroes are happy at the beginning of a chapter, they should probably be miserable by the end of it.

If you’re not sure whether a chapter is pulling its weight, imagine cutting it out of the rest of the story. Would the remaining manuscript still make perfect sense? If it would, then your chapter should be doing more to move the story forward. Maybe you’re ending the chapter too soon, before the real meat of the scene actually starts. Or maybe you’re including information that doesn’t need to be in the story after all.

My chapter won’t end! How do I get it to stop?

Once your chapter has done its work of sufficiently advancing the story, you’ll probably want to end it… but how? Knowing where and how to end a chapter can be tricky because there’s not always one obvious solution. There are, however, a couple of common strategies you can try. One is to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, at the height of the scene’s tension. The other is to end the chapter right after the scene’s resolution, when the tension has been released. I like both of these strategies and use them both all the time in my own writing. It’s important to not rely too heavily on one strategy or the other, though; ending every chapter on a cliffhanger can quickly become exhausting for both readers and writers, and ending every chapter on a note of resolution can drain all the momentum from your story.

Cliffhanger chapter breaks are great because they’ll keep your readers turning the pages. If you’ve ever been unable to stop reading a book after “just one more chapter” because you’re dying to know what happens next, you’re well aware of the power of the cliffhanger. On the other hand, this type of break can feel gimmicky and manipulative if it’s not used judiciously, so try to use it only at a few major crisis points in your story—not when the shadowy figure who enters the room turns out to be the main character’s mother bringing her kids a bowl of popcorn.

Ending a chapter on a note of resolution is great, too, because it gives your readers a chance to put the book down and go to the bathroom. It’s also a very satisfying sort of ending. Maybe you’ve resolved the main problem presented at the beginning of the chapter, or maybe you’ve made the problem even worse, but either way, you’ve given your chapter a complete miniature story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s very considerate of you. This type of chapter break can be challenging, though, because it needs to happen as quickly as possible after that resolution has been achieved. Your characters will probably want to linger on for pages, making sandwiches and telling jokes. Don’t indulge them! End the chapter as soon as your characters’ actions and words become unessential to the story. I know it’s hard, but if you won’t do it for me, do it for John Gardner. He would have wanted you to, and he was even more opinionated than I am.

If you have a question for an opinionated writer, please ask it in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer it in a future post.