Thursday, February 10, 2005

Keepin' the Story Moving

Every day when I sit down to write, I pray the same beleaguered prayer—“Oh, please, God, don’t let me be boring!” I find it plain difficult to keep my stories moving at the pace my readers have come to expect. So what have I done in the Hidden Faces books when my protagonist, Annie, is working on a forensic art project? I mean, how exciting is watching somebody draw, or sculpt, or whatever? Here are a few answers I’ve come up with:

1. Inject tension into the scene. This tension spills from all the trouble in which Annie currently finds herself. Her concentration will shift from what she’s doing to the fears she’s facing of what’s to come. I don’t want to give away any story lines, so I’ll talk about this generally. In Brink of Death, Annie must interview Erin after she (Erin) witnesses her mother’s murder. The girl is still half in shock and petrified of seeing “The Face” of the killer again—even on paper. Annie is petrified that she’ll mess up the assignment (in this book, forensic art is new to her). These books are in first person from Annie’s point of view. But I use lots of perception on her part of what Erin is thinking/feeling, based on Erin’s actions, expressions, and tone of voice. And I inject Annie’s fears of the future—What if I get this drawing wrong, what if I skew Erin’s memory? We could be looking for the wrong man while the real killer roams among us . . .

2. Draw out the tension until it reaches a breaking point, then end the chapter. This is the ol’ “hook” that we writers talk about. In Brink of Death, for example, I tried to make the tension build and build to the moment when the drawing’s finally done, and Erin must lower her eyes to look at it. By this time, she’s shaking and so is Annie. Everything has built to this moment. Everything else that happens in the story depends on Erin’s reaction to what Annie has drawn. So she lowers her eyes . . . Boom. End chapter.

3. Don’t let that taut line go now! Egads, the next chapter has to keep the tension just as much. So I don’t want to answer the hook’s “what happens” question in the first paragraph. Instead I introduce another problem—one Annie and Erin must work on together. Here we go again—build tension, built it, build it. Until the whole sequence finally ends with a major event—of course, at the end of a chapter.

However, I have to remember that tension is only one thread of this entire sequence. The other thread is what’s actually happening—the interview questions, Annie drawing—all the things a forensic artist must do, the materials she must use. The trick for me is to interweave these two threads into a complex tapestry of emotion and action. The forensic art process is fascinating in itself--to a point. However it could become boring very quickly if I spend too many paragraphs on that thread without a break.

In the second book of the series, Stain of Guilt, I found the fugitive update drawing sequence harder, because in that story, Annie’s alone. Plenty of activity has led up to the scene, but yikes, how to pull the scene itself off well, without letting down the tension? Annie doesn’t have another character to play off of. What’s an author to do? More on this tomorrow.

Read Part 2


Cynthia Cooke said...

Hi Brandilyn,
I've just recently discovered your books and am really enjoying Brink of Death (I used to live in Redding as a teenager!). Anyho, I'm loving your books and your blog is great, too! Especially since I'm working on one of those lack-of-tension scenes now. It's so much easier when the bad guy is chasing them! Keep 'em coming!

writerlysoul said...

I SO remember the scene where Erin is waiting to see the composite drawing! Can still visualize how her chair was pulled up next to Annie's...Gripping scene. I'm enjoying these "backyard" visits to your writing. But then I'm a voyeur by nature and this is much easier than setting up a telescope!