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Cranking Up the Action (Made Up Mayhem #5)

Make your characters suffer!

Don’t mistake a good setup for a satisfying conclusion — many beginning writers end their stories when the real story is just ready to begin. Stanley Schmidt

There is a saying that the only rule in writing is there are no rules, but despite that, I’m going to give you an ironclad rule for a good suspense novel. Break this one at your peril!

IF SOMETHING CAN GO WRONG, IT SHOULD. AND IT’S COROLLARY: SOMETHING SHOULD GO WRONG AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE.

If your characters aren’t twisting in the wind, if they aren’t dealing with a steady rise in the stakes, then you’re not mining your story to its very story depths. I once read a work in progress by a very good, beginning writer. She had this lovely scene between her two main characters, but she basically solved all their problems in her first chapter. There was no conflict. When it was pointed out to her, she said she wanted to be “different.” Unfortunately, it was just charmingly dull.

MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS SUFFER.

Yes, you like them, but they aren’t real. It is your job to find every possible way you can to make them suffer!

That doesn’t mean you can’t have lighter moments, but those moments are a respite for the reader taking the journey with your characters as they climb up the rising pile of problems afflicting them. And I do mean, afflict.

You are your characters “wrath of God.” They are your Job.

You might be thinking, oh that’s easy to say, but very hard to do. No kidding. If you’re struggling with ratcheting up the suspense, I’ll once again recommend you rent/watch the television show 24. The first season is a particularly good example of cranking things to the breaking point, and then going beyond that. Don’t try to match it, just note how they use the principle of making things worse and worse, then even worse than that. It’s an excellent primer for the aspiring mayhem writer.

I’m constantly on the lookout for brainstorming techniques because it is easy to keep recycling the same old tricks. In my early books, for instance, a car blows up somewhere. I think I’ve finally moved past that, at least for the moment. (Okay, so I moved to blowing up spaceships…)

One technique that helps me with short-term plots points, I got from FICTION WRITER’S BRAINSTORMER. James V. Smith, Jr. wrote the book and it has a lot of interesting techniques for developing your plot, some of which have worked for me and some not. Keep in mind that you still have to do this your way.

The key is to dig inside your head for things that are fresh and original. You’d be surprised what you’ll find in there when you really push and pull. Sounds painful? Well, it sometimes is. The idea that comes easily is usually easy because it’s been done before…many times. It’s called a cliché or a stereotype. You don’t want to do either of them—except for comedic effect.

To get past the obvious and done to death ideas, Smith proposes something he calls a “bracketing tool.” This method forces you to consider extremes and helps you identify the obvious.

On a sheet of paper, down the left side, write:

Automatic, obvious, commonplace, literal, labored, interesting, unusual, obscure, odd, opposite, inventive, creative, magical, amusing, outrageous, ridiculous, obscene, preposterous, over-the-top. (Or use your own kickstart words.)

I start by trying to identify the two extremes first, then they are out there and your mind has to fill in the other blanks. It works amazingly well, because our minds like to complete lists. Our brains are also designed to create linkage of ideas. I’ve never done that tool and not come away with one or more ideas I could use.

It’s not a fast way with a whole plot, but is very useful if you have a character stuck somewhere and can’t figure out what comes next. The book has some other tools for developing your plot, but the bracketing tool is the one I keep coming back to. Remember, the goal is always, always, always to find what works for you, for the way your mind works.

Another book that I’ve found immensely helpful is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas. As the blurb on the books says, it offers “insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level.”

While the book is geared toward the already-publishing author who wishes to break out or break into another genre of fiction, I’ve found it very helpful in getting the most out of a story.

When I first heard Maas speak, he hadn’t released his workbook, but now the exercises he used during his speech are available in his companion book. If you’re having trouble pushing the envelope of your mayhem novel, I highly recommend getting the workbook, and/or his original book. Since he’s an agent, you also get insight into the books he likes (if you’re thinking of going with traditional publishing).

I can sum up his workbook in a few words though. As you move through your book, keep asking yourself, how can I make this worse? Or a variation on that theme, what else can go wrong?

I keep pushing and twisting until things get ludicrous—because I can always go back and scale it back during the editing process and scale things back to just shy of ludicrous. Your goal in the first draft is to wring all the drama, all the suspense, all the suffering, all the romance/humor/whatever, you can from your story.

What I realized, as I’ve worked my way through seventeen novels and a bunch of short stories is that our subconscious is also our partner in writing the book. It will be seeking out connections and if we don’t inhibit it too much, finding symbols and even themes for us. If we supply it with the structure we are seeking to create, it will work with us.

That means that part of the process of preparing to write mayhem is to read the genre. Everyone always talks about studying the market, but the books you’re reading today could be a couple of years old (if you’re focusing on the traditional market). What’s really happening while reading is that we’re educating our brains to the structure and form of what we want it to create.

Personally, I find it more helpful to read older, more classic suspense, than what’s currently on the market. The list I’ve compiled and posted on the main Mayhem page has many of the books that taught me to write.

If you’re in the process of changing genres, you’re probably going to need to re-educate your brain to the new pattern, the new structure you want it to work on, or it will keep trying to recreate the old pattern. Your brain may resist you at first. I know mine always does, but if you give it the stuff to work on, eventually it will find it easier to give in. You just need to make sure your brain knows that you are in charge.

Suspense novels have a certain rhythm, a certain pace, that the reader will be expecting—and the editor will be looking for. Usually, the pace is brisk, occasionally it’s dizzying. I mentioned the “ticking clock,” but all that means is that you have a time frame during which bad things will happen if your main character/s don’t act, that there is a sense of urgency. If you don’t have it, you have a huge problem, because, without urgency, there is no suspense. Even if your pace is deliberate, rather than hectic, the action must build to the breaking point or you haven’t written a mayhem/suspense novel.

If you came to this workshop with a particular story you wanted to tell, now would be a good time to look at the story and ask yourself:

  • What’s at stake?
  • Is there a ticking clock (i.e. urgency)
  • Is there potential for building urgency (i.e. the stakes to rise)?
  • If I don’t have these things, can I find them in this story?

We all have stories that we want, even need, to tell. Sometimes that is what decides what kind of story we want to write, even if we think that writing a particular kind will help us make a sale.

But I can tell you, that if your heart isn’t in mayhem, you probably won’t be successful at writing in the genre. You have to love the thrill, the ride as much as the reader. You can’t move people to a place where you aren’t.

Writing suspense was, for me, an easy choice. It is my favorite type of reading. I started out reading Mary Stewart and the Gothic’s of bygone days. So when I started mulling the idea of a novel, my mind easily produced that form.

When I finished writing my first novel, The Spy Who Kissed Me, in the early 90’s, the romantic suspense novel was considered dead-on-arrival in New York. Despite this, I persevered because I loved the form and knew I wouldn’t be happy writing anything else. I’ve scared myself to death writing villains I hate as much as my readers. There are times when I felt like I needed a shower after writing those villain scenes, because I’ve had to get as close to them as I do the hero/heroine.

I’ve also written scenes I wasn’t personally comfortable with. Sometimes I’ve gone back and toned them down. Sometimes I haven’t. It’s a balancing act, writing to scare without going over the top—or making it harder for law enforcement. Everyone’s line is in a different place, but my advice is to find a place where you’re comfortable. If you’re not happy with what you’re writing, it will come through in the writing.

Also, keep in mind that pure gore doesn’t automatically equal suspense. Some of the greatest suspense films have very little gore. What you can’t see is way more terrifying than what you can.

You do, however, have to make sure your threat is real. My daughter was reading an early draft of The Last Enemy and told me that I needed to kill someone. She pointed out, I’d made my bad guy sound scary, but now I had delivered on that expectation. So keep in mind, that while you’re creating characters to people your world, be sure to throw in the disposable kind. As I mentioned in my opening, I usually use people who have annoyed me in real life—heavily disguised, of course.

© 1998-2018 All rights reserved. Pauline Baird Jones