Jan 082014

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

Sep 182013

By Joe Moore

Back in 1993, country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner? Always try for a little less action and a lot more thrills.

Sep 082013
Interception City, Published by Black Mask, March 15, 2013

Interception City, Published by Black Mask, March 15, 2013

I’ve noticed as I’m writing that I have no idea who’s going to live and who’s going to die by the end of my books. It works itself out and surprises me as much (I hope) as it surprises the reader.

Any outlines I’ve tried over the years always (finally) bore me and, in every case, stopped all forward momentum. So I’ve thrown them away and just kept writing, always (miraculously) tying up most every thread before The End.

My last book, Interception City, written as Parker T. Mattson and with five storylines running into and across each other, somehow made sense at the very last minute, with even me hoping a couple of the characters I liked might walk out alive before it was all over. And if they didn’t, that was just the way the story was supposed to be.

My real test concerning any loose ends and unresolved plotting comes from my readers, though, and any reviewers I might pick up along the way. So far, I’ve been lucky:

Mark Howell of The Key West Citizen called Interception City “…seriously hilarious…” for such a deadly story.

Michael Grais, writer/producer of the Poltergeist movies & many more said:

Interception City is one of those fast-paced thrillers where the characters are half-crazy but as real as can be. For a novel so filled with murder and mayhem, it had me laughing out loud. I highly recommend it!”

And Tom Elliott, the book reviewer for the MENSA Bulletin, who I assumed would be most likely to poke holes in any plot logic, wrote in the September 2013 issue:

“Billed as a…provocative, morally complex crime thriller, Interception City is all that and more.”

And so, if that particular thriller of mine held up for the gang at MENSA, I’m going to quit worrying about it.

Apr 042012

By Joe Moore

If you write mysteries or thrillers (or any genre, for that matter), there’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone say your book is a real “page-turner”—that they couldn’t put it down. And there’s nothing more fulfilling for a reader than to find a book so captivating that they can’t stop reading. Naturally, the writer has to develop a compelling story populated with three-dimensional characters and enough conflict and tension to keep a reader’s interest. Those things are givens, and it’s the writer’s job to craft those elements into the manuscript.

But did you know that there are some simple formatting tricks that anyone can do to improve the readability of a manuscript and keep the reader turning pages. And what’s really cool is that you don’t have to change your story at all to benefit from them. Not a word.

Trick #1. Write short chapters.

Whenever a reader gets to the end of a chapter, they must make a decision to read the next chapter or put the book down and go do something else. It’s a natural stopping point or a launching point to the next part of the story. If it’s late in the evening, many times that decision involves continuing to read or going to bed. What you don’t want them to do is put down the book. When a reader finishes a chapter and comes to that late night decision to stop or read on, they usually check to see if the next chapter is short or long. If it’s only a few pages, there’s a really good chance they will read one more chapter. If they get to the end of that next short chapter and repeat the checking process again, they won’t go to bed. They’ll keep reading. And you will have setup a format that they’ll come to expect and rely on.

This tip does not mean that every chapter must be short. What I’m suggesting is to examine each chapter and see if you can split it into two. Or even three. After all, the same information is going to be imparted. It’s just going to happen in multiple segments.

There’s always going to be a need for longer chapters. Just ask yourself if that 6k-word chapter you just finished writing could be broken into multiple chunks. Remember that you want to entice the reader to keep reading.

Now I know that some writers will react by saying, “Well, my chapters end when they end. Short, long or in between, I write until the chapter naturally ends itself.” Fine. Do whatever you’ve got to do to write a great story. This trick may not be something that fits your writing style. But from a physical standpoint, readers tend to keep reading if they feel the next chapter will take just a few minutes to finish.

From a personal perspective, my co-writer and I try to bring our chapters in at around 1000 words. I know, some of you will think that’s way too short. But one of the most frequent comments we get from our fans is that in addition to enjoying the story, the short chapters kept them up late. We’ve had more than a few readers blame us for them not getting enough sleep because they decided to read “just one more chapter”.

Trick #2. Write (or format) short paragraphs and sentences.

This trick is closely related to trick #1, but it involves the visual experience of your book for the reader. It also involves setting up a distinctive and comfortable rhythm and tempo to your writing.

As you read, your eyes not only move along the sentence but your peripheral vision picks up the “weight” of the next sentence and paragraph. You’re reading a single sentence, but you visually take in the whole page. As your mind plays out the story from one word to the next, it also calculates what is coming up next, and  causes you to be subtly energized or marginally fatigued. It’s like driving across the desert—if the road stretches in an endless ribbon to the horizon, you become tired just knowing you have a long way to go to get to the next break, or in the case of the book, the end of the sentence or paragraph. But if the road is only a city block or two long before you start down the next stretch of highway, you feel less overwhelmed by its mass (paragraph) or length (sentence). Shorter paragraphs and sentences keep the eye from getting fatigued. They allow the reader take a mental “breather” more frequently thus keeping their attention longer. And it’s also a tool for controlling reading speed.

Shorter sentences move the story along at a faster rhythm and tempo because the eyes moves quicker and your peripheral vision sees less bulk and weight on the printed page ahead.

Trick #3. Eliminate dialog tags whenever possible.

If there are only two characters in a scene, eliminate as many dialog tags as you can without confusing the reader. The dialog itself should help to identify the character as should their actions. Even with more than two characters present, staging can help to reduce dialog tags. Staging and actions also help to build characters. Dialog tags don’t. If the reader knows who is speaking because of their actions, the number of tags can often be reduced or even eliminated.

Trick #4. Title your chapters.

Your book has a title for a reason. It sets the mood or intrigue of the whole story. Consider titling your chapters for the same reason. Like the book title, a chapter title is a teaser. When a reader ends a chapter and turns the page, nothing is more boring than to be greeted with the totally original title: Chapter 23. Or worse, just 23. Why not give the reader a hint of what’s to come with a short title. Don’t give anything away, just use the chapter title as an enticement—a promise of things to be delivered or revealed. Use it to set the stage or create a mood just like the book title. I believe that each chapter should be considered a mini book. Chapters should have beginnings, middles and endings. And one way to tempt the reader to keep reading is with a compelling title.

Tricks like these are never to be considered a substitute for solid, clean, professional writing. They are only tricks. But they work if used in the mix with all the other elements of a great story. And the only way for you to know for sure is to give them a try.

Beyond these formatting tricks, does anyone recommend others that can enhance the reader’s experience?