I love the idea that so much of learning to write well starts the instant you learn it. What a fabulous craft! Last week we learned 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. Now for the rest of the month we’ll be talking about other tricks that also work in one day.
We’re always hearing about how we need to ratchet the tension in our stories, how we need to get ahold of the reader by the lapels and never let go.
Don’t answer your questions the minute you ask them.
Give the reader time to wonder. Who is that suspicious character? Why are they involved with your protagonist? Why is your protagonist reacting the way they’re reacting?
You’re constructing a puzzle, and the reader keeps turning pages to collect the clues and discover whether or not they’ve solved it correctly.
Patricia Highsmith began The Talented Mr. Ripley—about a man who drifts into murder for the sake of wealth and a new identify—with a scene in which Tom Ripley scurries down a busy street escaping in great distress a man obviously following him, whom Tom believes is a police officer set to bust him for one of his confidence tricks. He’s not from the police, it turns out. In fact he doesn’t mean Tom harm at all. He’s just desperate to offer Tom the opportunity of a lifetime.
Don’t let your final draft ramble.
Far too many aspiring writers write and write and write and forget to revise out the standard 75%. Go ahead and write everything you can discover about any given scene, but then go back later and cut everything you possibly can—all exposition, every possible dialog tag (especially internal dialog), every single extraneous scrap (choose one action instead of two or three, one line of dialog instead of back-&-forth, one pivotal descriptive detail). Cut paragraphs. Cut scenes. Cut sentences, phrases, individual words. Trim it down to the lean, mean bones.
James M. Cain packed so much into so few, simple words that his classic novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity read like explosions.
Don’t let your stories lie flat.
Toss them like hot potatoes from one plotline to another. Now we’re startled! Now we’re entranced. Now we’re scared! Now we’re intrigued. Now we’re freaked out of our seats! Now we’re flying high. . .
Zane Grey, the granddaddy of all great adventure stories—from which sprang such modern post-apocalyptic blockbusters as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—wove double plotlines through his novels so thickly the reader is forced to let go the reins early on, so they wind up sky-high without either wings or parachute by the end of the Hook.
And that’s where you want your reader: in the air, out of control, completely possessed by an ungovernable urge to discover what on earth your story is all about.
NOTE: I’m offline for the rest of August working on my second book on writing, The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, to be released September 30.