Monday, March 31, 2008's New POD Policy

Last Friday the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon has notified publishers that they must use the company's own on-demand printing facilities if they want their books sold on

Although Amazon doesn't give out its sales numbers, it's estimated that the company's market share of book sales is around 15%. This new policy is designed to strengthen its presence in other phases of the book industry.

In 2005 Amazon acquired its P.O.D. unit, BookSurge. BookSurge has numerous competitors, such as Lightning Source, a unit held by Ingram Industries. Since it started in 1997, Lighning Source has printed over 50 million books for over 5000 publishers worldwide. As a whole the P.O.D. industry has been embraced by over half the country's university presses and just about every major consumer publisher for certain titles. A 256-page paperback can be printed and bound in under ten minutes, allowing publishers to replenish their inventory within a few hours, versus weeks through a regular printer.

Amazon's new policy means all those books now have to be printed by BookSurge if they want to sell on According to the Journal, this will surely hurt rivals such as Lightning Source, as well as reduce publishers' bargaining power, because Amazon will set the price for each book, according to its own costs for printing. Bob Young, CEO of Lulu, Inc., another P.O.D. publisher, said he believes Amazon's prices are "slightly higher" than other P.O.D. printers. Amazon wouldn't comment.

According to Amazon spokeswoman Tammy Hovey, this is a "strategic decision" to "better serve [Amazon's] customers and authors." She does not view it as an ultimatum.

Anyone out there self-publishing with another company and wanting to sell through Amazon? Better check out this new policy.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Writing the Prologue--Part 3

So, after all my warnings on prologues, when have I written my own and why? As for other authors, can't we all think of numerous prologues we've read and liked?

All four books in my Hidden Faces series have prologues. (Follow the links to read on my website.) I didn't intend for them all to have one. Each story just worked out that way. This series is written in the first person POV of Annie Kingston, a forensic artist. All its prologues were written in third person from another character's POV--in other words, they were "removed by space." One (Stain of Guilt) was also removed by twenty years' time. All four books could have started without the prologue, but were made stronger by the addition of it.

In Brink of Death and Stain of Guilt, I set up two-part inciting incidents. The crimes, from the POVs of witnesses, are in the prologues. The pulling of the protagonist into the solving of those crimes is in the first chapters. In Brink of Death, for example, the prologue is from the POV of a thirteen-year-old who sees the murder of her mother. Because she's so traumatized, she never does speak much of the crime throughout the book. Annie has to jar her memory just enough to draw a composite of the suspect. I wanted the reader to see the crime and feel the girl's emotional state. And I wanted to set the tone for the book and its intensity. It seems to have worked. Suspense readers tend to love this prologue. It pulls them in. Those who can't handle this kind of intensity see it right up front and know to put the book down. (Putting a book down for that reason is a good thing, I think--I never want to sell a novel to someone who's going to have nightmares as a result.)

The above two prologues are an exception to my "make a prologue short" guideline. Both are seven pages.

The Dead of Night prologue is short--two pages. It's a rant from the first-person POV of the killer. Does the book have to start with it? No. But I wanted that voice right up front, even before my protagonist's. I wanted it to chill the reader, showing immediately what Annie would be up against. Web of Lies is different in that it blends the protagonists from the Chelsea Adams series, written in third person, and the Hidden Faces series, in first. (Don't try this at home, folks. It near killed me.) These variant POVs are kept in Web of Lies. The prologue begins in Chelsea's third--and is very short. Then the first chapter switches to Annie's first person POV.

I can't cover all my novels, but I will also mention Capture the Wind for Me, third in my Bradleyville series (back when I wrote womens fiction). I wrote this book's first fifty pages or so without the prologue, but then decided I wanted to show an additional element up front. In the main story, the 15-year-old protagonist, Jackie, is trying to play "mom" to the family after her mother died over a year previously. I added the prologue of the family at the funeral to highlight the family's grief and that moment of switching from daughter to "mother" that Jackie had to make. I also wanted to establish up front the perspective of the POV. This first person story is told from the perspective of years later, looking back. The prologue establishes the narrative voice of the character, which is older and wiser than the 15-year-old we see in chapter one. This prologue is short and removed in time.

Here's an example of a very short prologue I like--Michael Connelly's The Narrows. (Read it here.) He's establishing character voice and adding intrigue. This again is a first person character looking back after the story's complete. It's pure narrative, no scene. But the voice is compelling, and the questions that are raised propels the reader forward. (And frankly, it's way better written than the opening paragraphs of chapter one.)

As you can see, there are exceptions to my prologue guidelines. I've made a few of my own. Yesterday in the comments some folks were pointing out examples of exceptions they liked. You'll likely find plenty. This series wasn't written to bang you over the head--"never write a prologue!" But I do hope the general discussion of prologues will make you think twice about writing one, and that you now have a better understanding of what makes a prologue work.

Also in the comments it was pointed out that we should study prologues in all literature to see what works and what doesn't. I agree. Much of learning how to write comes from reading. The only caution is to remember that just because you enjoy a specific kind of prologue, perhaps even one that breaks all the "rules," that doesn't necessarily mean you should write one like it. What works in one novel doesn't always work in another. And what one author is allowed to do doesn't translate to all authors. Apply the challenges I've given you here to check if a prologue really does work best for your book--and will help sell it in today's market.

This Week's CFBA Tour--Betrayed, by Jeanette Windle


Fires smolder endlessly below the dangerous surface of Guatemala City’s municipal dump. Deadlier fires seethe beneath the tenuous calm of a nation recovering from brutal civil war. Anthropologist Vicki Andrews is researching Guatemala’s “garbage people” when she stumbles across a human body. Curiosity turns to horror as she uncovers no stranger, but an American environmentalist—Vicki’s only sister, Holly.

With authorities dismissing the death as another street crime, Vicki begins tracing Holly’s last steps, a pilgrimage leading from slum squalor to the breathtaking and endangered cloud forests of the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere. But every unraveled thread raises more questions. What betrayal connects Holly’s murder, the recent massacre of a Mayan village, and the long-ago deaths of Vicki’s own parents?

Nor is Vicki the only one demanding answers. Before her search reaches its startling end, the conflagration has spilled across international borders to threaten an American administration and the current war on terror. With no one turning out to be who they’d seemed, who can Vicki trust and who should she fear?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Writing the Prologue--Part 2

A prologue should be removed from the main story by either time or space.


Often a prologue will be an event that happened before the main story. Could be years. Could be mere days. It depends on the time length of the main story. If it's a suspense that takes place in eighteen hours, a scene that occurs one week previously seems like a large space of time by contrast.

One reader sent in a question to the intro post on this topic, wondering about novels with first chapters that happen years before the second chapter. "Is this a prologue in disguise?" she asked.

Probably. And I think it's a fudge on the part of the author/editor, who perhaps were too cautious of prologues to call one what it is. I don't agree with this "label fixing." If a scene fits the bill for a prologue and truly enhances the story, I say label it as such. If it doesn't, don't try to disguise your use of the scene by calling it "Chapter One." If it's labeled as a prologue, the reader will understand right away it's removed from the main story. If it's called "Chapter One," the reader's expectations are that the main story begins there, in that space in time. Jumping years ahead in chapter two seems jarring to me.

I'm speaking in generalities here, without having any example novel in mind. Have you read one like this that you think works? Let me know in the comments.


This one's tricky. Most don't work. (More on that in a minute.) There's only one way I have seen it work. That's if the prologue (remember, short and compelling) shows a snippet of some future event that isn't clear to the reader at that time. It will become clear when the story ends. This kind of scene is often a clue as to the story's outcome, but doesn't unveil enough to give the scene away. For example, it could be a scene of man, trembling with tension, walking into a darkened room to meet someone. Not until the crisis/climax do you find out what man, what room, why the man's tense, etc.

I have never written a prologue like this. If I did, it would most likely be to twist the story in some way. I'd want the reader all along to assume it's Man A, in Room B, meeting character C. In fact, it would be Man C, in Room A, meeting character B. In other words it would be a red herring. But is this the best way to introduce such a red herring, or real clue? Usually not. I think it's the rare case where this really works.

Most time-forward prologues fall into a different category. These are the ones that take an action- or emotion-filled scene from further into the story and stick part of it up front. I strongly advise against this. As discussed yesterday, what's really happening in these circumstances is the author senses, perhaps only subconciously, that chapter one is a slow start, and he wants to throw some higher energy up front. The problem is two-fold. One, it doesn't fix the slow start in chapter one. After an exciting prologue, there's a huge dip in energy. In fact, here a compelling prologue works against itself. The more grabbing it is, the more we'll feel the dip in chapter one. Two, even worse--everything in the story up until the point we catch up with that prologue scene is negated.

Think about it. If we know that exciting scene is coming, all else before it becomes backstory. Readers will be impatient to catch up to that exciting scene and move on. You've launched the all-important "what happens next?" question in their minds--based on a scene that won't occur until page 45. Pages 1-44 now become mere set-up.

Admittedly, I'm speaking like a suspense author here. You may be thinking this technique is more viable in other genres. You'll get varied opinions on that. Mine, of course, is no. Books that have used this technique may succeed, but I think they'd be even better without this weakness. I'd argue there was a better way to tell the story.


The obvious thought here is geographical space. Your story takes place on an island in the Bahamas, while the prologue is set in Colorado. The scene may also be removed by time. My cautions here would be the general ones for prologues. Is the scene a set-up or explanation for chapter one? Is your opening strong without it? Then why use it? (You need to have good reason.)

However, there's a conceptual kind of "space" that also applies--the space between reader and character. This plays out through changes in POV (point of view.) Let's say your story is told in close third. (For further explanation on this, see "Third Person POV" in archives.) The prologue may then be a scene that needs to be told in omniscient POV, or a removed third, which is somewhere in the middle. Here again the reader's inherent understanding of a prologue helps make the technique work. The reader will accept that the POV used in the prologue varies from the POV in the main story.

Still--and I know I'm repeating myself--the same cautions apply. Does your story really benefit from adding such a prologue?

Another variance on this technique--your story may be told in first person, but the prologue needs to focus on another character and is told in third. In today's fiction it's not uncommon to see POV shifts between first and third in different chapters. However, a first person story needs to present the protagonist's POV in chapter one. First person is very intimate. You want your reader to connect with that character right away. A chapter one written from some supporting character's third person POV leads the reader to assume that's the character she should empathize with most. She'll be jarred by the sudden first person at the beginning of chapter two.

In a first person story, if you write a third-person prologue--which means delaying the entrance of your protagonist--you'd better have a strong reason. I have written this kind of prologue. We'll talk about that and other examples of prologues tomorrow.

Read Part 3

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Writing the Prologue--Part 1

The "P" word. Prologue. It tends to have a bad reputation in fiction. For good reason. Too many poorly used prologues find their way into published novels. Readers know this. They've been burned too many times. The result--they don't even read a prologue. They'll skip right over it, believing they haven't missed a thing. Many times they're right.

As for aspiring authors, most agents/editors tell them to avoid prologues altogether. This is because 95% of new authors who use prologues do so wrongly.

Prologues--written by both aspiring and published authors--too often are seen as fixes for a weak first chapter: "Readers won't understand chapter one/empathize with my characters without it. I have to set the stage."

If you think you need a prologue in order to get your story moving, don't use one. Find the weaknesses in your first chapter(s) and fix them instead. When I tell aspiring authors their prologue isn't "necessary," this is what I mean. By the time we finish discussing how to strengthen their first chapter, they usually see that the prologue should be nixed.

However--here's the oxymoron. The best prologues aren't necessary to start the story.

You'll hear many state the "necessity" rule: "Don't use a prologue unless the story absolutely requires it." That's the wrong approach, for it leads to the problem mentioned above. Far too many authors will argue their story does require a prologue. I advocate the opposite: Don't even consider using a prologue until your first chapter is a strong opening on its own. Most of the time, when you've accomplished that, the temptation to add a prologue goes away.

The best prologues don't explain or set up the main story, they enhance it. They add some sort of intrigue or emotion. Or they set the tone in a unique way.

When you do use a prologue, here are two basics:

1. It should be (A) compelling, and (B) short .

2. It should be removed from the main story by either time or space.


Think of a prologue not as explanation or exposition of what's to come--but as what it is: the opening for your novel.

"Well, duh," you say. But we forget just how critical that opening is in selling a novel. When we sit down to write a story, we should picture the reluctant buyer in the bookstore who's never heard of us. That's the most critical person you're writing the opening for, not the readers who already know you and like your work. Here's the typical browser scenario:

1. Spots your novel. Something about the cover/title makes her pick it off the shelf. (This is why covers and titles are so important.)

2. Turns book over, reads back cover copy. (Better be written well.) If she likes it ...

3. Opens book. Reads opening line. (This is why you want a strong one.) If it's good ...

4. Reads paragraph. If that's compelling ...

5. Reads first page. If that's really good...

6. Buys book.

This whole browsing time? Around 30-60 seconds. 30-60 seconds.

Is the opening to your prologue compelling enough to sell your book to that browser? Is that critical first page really where you want to dump a bunch of backstory that "sets up" your first chapter(s)?

If you use a prologue, it needs to thrum with excitement of some sort. It can be a high action scene. It can be an outwardly quiet scene, but intense in emotion. It can even be mere character narrative, but the voice has to absolutely grab the reader's attention and not let go. The point is to capture the reader's imagination--not give information. Don't think in terms of answering questions in your opening. Think in terms of raising questions. Questions keep the reader turning pages. (For more on this, check the archives for the teaching on "Backstory.")


The very word "prologue" tells the reader this isn't part of the main story.

Let's say a browser buys your book. Major victory! Now he sits down to read it. The back cover has laid out the premise. The premise contains the inciting incident--the first major point of conflict that kicks off the story. Your reader begins your novel knowing this incident is going to occcur--and he's waiting for it. He also knows, simply from reading novels over the years, that the prologue isn't likely to contain this incident. He's gunning to see the real story kick off--and he may not wait all that long. (Some readers have more patience than others. Womens fiction readers in general will allow more time. Suspense readers are notoriously impatient--they want havoc wreaked, and they want it now.)

If a prologue stretches on for pages, the reader is thinking, "Sheesh, and I haven't even started the first chapter yet. What if that first chapter takes awhile to get to the inciting incident?" He could find himself bored enough not to continue. And even if he does keep reading, he's likely to be thinking, "Man, slow start. Sure hope it picks up."

You may have read some long prologues that you liked. That's fine. Doesn't mean you should try it. It's tricky enough writing a prologue that works in the first place. Gets even trickier when you write a long one. I'm starting my 19th book, and I haven't tackled a long prologue yet. Maybe after I've written 50 ... But I doubt it.

Tomorrow--Time and Space (which may not be as obvious as they seem), plus some examples of when I've used prologues and why.

Read Part 2

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When to Prologue

Tomorrow I'm going to post about prologues--when to write them, when to avoid them. I thought I'd already done this, but nope. Nothing in the archives. Every time I teach at a writers conference the issue of prologues comes up. It's also a popular issue on writers' loops. So many new authors want to start their novels this way. Should they?

Before we start--do you have any particular question about prologues you'd like me to cover? Any opinions on when to use them, or when not to use them? As a reader, have you found that most prologues work, or would the novel be better without one?

This series will probably go 2-3 posts in length.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How Much is Too Little?

The issue of how much Christian content to place in my books never quite goes away. Some readers don't fully understand why I make the choices I do. Here is a letter I received recently, followed by my reply, and ending with the sender's response. This series of correspondence is a good example of the issues we face as Christian novelists.

To: Brandilyn Collins
Subject: Kanner lake series

I have been an avid reader of your books for awhile and have really enjoyed them. I especially appreciate that fact that you had stories with a Christian storyline. With Christian characters or people finding salvation through Jesus. I just ordered your new book Amber Morn in the Kanner Lake Series from Christian Book Distributors. I did have a concern, these books have not really had much in them about Jesus, faith, Christianity, etc. I was disappointed with the Crimson Eve book because it seemed there was a total lack of the Christian storylines I have known from you in the past. Is Amber Morn the same? Did you get back to the Christian story line? I hope you did write more about Christ in this book because I may have to discontinue reading your books. Thank you. _________

To: _______________
Subject: RE: Kanner lake series

______, how kind of you to write. Thank you.

Oh, my. You have NO IDEA the vastness of opinion on how much Christianity should be in my books. I hear from folks on all sides. My readers range from Christian to non Christian.

Here's my philosophy: the Christian theme grows OUT of the suspense story that the main character is facing. If the main character starts out not being a Christian--and the story takes place in a little over 24 hours, as with Crimson Eve--that character arc is not going to be a huge turn-about face moment with Christ. Most of the time in fiction that doesn't ring true. But that character can come closer to Christ. In Carla's case, she learned a lot. She learned how her poor choices of the past warped her future, and now she wants to change that--with God's help. She wants God to show her how to [live a better life.] For you, a Christian, that may not seem like much "about Christ in the book," but for a non Christian, that's a huge message.

In the end, you must decide to read what is right for you. I'll respect whatever that opinion is. The difference is, you're reading for one person--you. I'm writing for people from one end of the scale of knowledge about God to the other. So I can't truthfully answer your question by saying I will put in more about Christ in every book. I can simply say that I will be true to the story as it should be written.

Please know I always write my books with God's help. He leads me through each day. I ask Christ to help me with the story and bless me as I write. Writing is terribly hard for me. I just slog through every day. I need His help--in a big way. :)

Blessings on you. Thanks again for writing.

~ Brandilyn

(The sender's response is to the best of my memory, as I didn't save the e-mail.)

To: Brandilyn Collins
Subject: RE: Kanner lake series

Thank you for responding and explaining how you write. I now have a better understanding of what goes into books and why.

There is far more to this issue, but it's not something I wanted to address in my response to this concerned reader for fear of sounding defensive. That's the fact that in my books, underneath the surface suspense story--which includes whatever amount of overt Christian message is appropriate--runs the symbolism/deeper meaning of the story, which is always Christ-centered. Many readers simply won't pick this up. They read the surface story with all its action/emotion and don't think beyond that. However, I've come to terms with this. I wouldn't want to place the symbolic meaning in the surface story, because I'd then have to write it too overtly--"on the nose," as we call it.

In the end, no author is going to please everyone. And we authors must respect each reader for making reading decisions based on his/her conscience.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Borders' New Shelving Strategy

The first Friday of spring. Yay!

With yesterday's second post on "Show, Don't Tell" I've completed the "Rules, Rules, Rules" series. I'll soon have the link for the series set up in the archives at left.

About a week ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article on Borders' latest "radical move" to jump-start their sales--turning more books face out on shelves. (Borders is the nation's second largest book retailer, after Barnes & Noble.) Since face-out book shelving requires more space the store will shrink its number of titles by five to ten percent. This is, indeed, a radical shift from the norm at Barnes & Noble and, which emphasize their huge inventory. On the other hand, Wal-Mart offers few books but displays almost all of them face out.

The new display idea came from CEO George Jones, who learned as a buyer at Dillard's that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve out. He decided to test book sales at the new Ann Arbor Borders by putting more with covers out--and found those titles sold nine percent higher than at other Borders.

The books being cut from stock in order to make room for the more-covers-out strategy will be those that only sell one copy per store in a year. This will mean a reduction of anywhere from 4600 to 9300 titles per store out of the former total of around 93,500. Books shown with covers out will still be the minority overall. Still, the number of them per store will triple. Fiction will feature more face-out titles, but fewer than other sections.

The Borders move is controversial. Some, like John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, says it's overdue. He cites grocery store stock, where everything is face out, including large cereal boxes. "The point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible." Other say the strategy is good because too often customers are overhwhelmed by such large inventory anyway.

This strategy may affect small publishing houses, which now can place a debut novel in Borders because of its huge selection. Jones counters that in the past only big titles were shown face out. Now the lesser known titles may get that chance.

The new face-out shelving should be noticeable in all Borders throughout the country in about six weeks.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Show, Don't Tell, part 2

I love to read Dean Koontz. What a wonderful writer.

Guess what--Dean Koontz tells. Quite a lot. But he does it in a form that works.

In my early days as a novelist I occasionally fell into the trap of trying to write like Koontz. I didn't do it consciously. But Koontz's voice would be running through my head as I created a scene. And--voila. Some imitation would come out on the page. Interestingly, if taken all by itself--that is, out of the context of my story--it wasn't bad writing. But in context it didn't work at all. The passages just sounded stilted, like overwritten telling.

Why? (Other than the fact that I'll never write as well as Dean Koontz.)

It took me some time to realize the answer. I write in close third person--the most intimate form of third. In this close third person, I always try to describe things as the character would describe them. I want the character's voice to come through, not my own as author.

Koontz doesn't always write like this. Often his third person is not close third, but more removed. We're still in the character's head, but in removed third person the narrative is more formal, allowing the author's voice to come through in description. In this removed third, a passage that should be "shown" in close third can now be written more in the form of "telling."

When, in my close third person, I wrote a passage a la Koontz, the result was a pulling back of intimacy with my character. Her voice would change, suddenly more distant and formal. In that context, the passage would stick out like a sore thumb.

Consider this paragraph describing a "bad guy" in Koontz's Dragon Tears:

Of all the extraordinary things about the ratman, his eyes were the most disturbing ... The eyes made the ratman's body seem like merely a disguise, a rubber suit, as if something unspeakable peered out of a costume at a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted.

The last sentence is certainly descriptive. Gives us the sense that this bad guy may not even be quite human. This ratman is seen here through the eyes of the POV character, a homeless man. But Koontz is not employing the close form of third person. He's using removed third. In close third, this character's voice wouldn't use such a formal-sounding phrase as ... a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted. But because the whole book is written in removed third, such "telling" passages work.

In Dark Pursuit, my novel coming out in November, one of the main characters is Darell Brooke, a suspense writer. A few chapters in Dark Pursuit are from Darell's own suspense novel that he's desperately trying to write. I wanted Darrel Brooke's writing to be very different from my own. In my own writing for the character of Darrel--and every other POV character in the story--I used the close third person I usually employ. But for Darrel's writing, I pulled back into a removed third. (I also switched to present tense.) As soon as I did this, I found myself using more "telling." It's what comes naturally in removed third. Here's a passage in the smugly arrogant bad guy's POV from Darrel Brooke's novel. (In this passage the POV is so removed as to sound close to ominiscient.)

Deep in the night Leland Hugh walks the town.

Darkness is his ally.

In movies and in books the dark has been unworthily portrayed. Unpredictable, ferocious, protector of evil and ugliness. The hour of vampires and witches and goblins. Hider of sins.

The velvet blackness drapes soft on the back of Hugh’s neck.

This night the pavement sheens from recent rain. Lamp post light glides across asphalt as he passes, ghost galleons in a shallow sea.

Although the air is warm Hugh detects a whisper of coming autumn.

He traverses the central downtown street, nerves thrumming to the music of its silence. Twelve hours ago shoppers and lunchers filled these blocks, fiercely intent on their useless errands and gossip of the absurd. Their absence fills Hugh with a quiet joy. He entertains the thought of himself as sole survivor of the town, an unbridled and brilliant founder of new beginnings.

The world according to Leland Hugh.

He reaches an intersection and swerves diagonally to the opposite curb.

His footsteps strike without noise. This is an art he has perfected. Fear may be unleashed through the shriek of power, but nothing is as terrifying as soundless dread.

If I stuck this kind of "telling" description in the middle of one of Darrel's POV scenes, it would sound out of place. Darrel himself, in close third person, sounds like this:

Three times they repeated the process. Pills, always pills, day and night. He didn’t even know what he took anymore. Most of them were vitamins and herbs. Did no good at all, except to keep snake oil salesmen in business. As for the inventor of the one that was supposed to make him think more clearly—Darell could imagine a million torturous ways to kill the shyster off in his next book.

If he ever had a next book.

Bottom line: there is a form of writing in which "telling" works on a regular basis. It depends on the kind of third person you use. If you're using removed third, or the most distant POV of all--omniscient--telling can sound right. But most likely, you're automatically using close third because that's the form we're used to reading these days. If that's the case, you shouldn't look at authors like Koontz and say, "He's telling, so why can't I?" That's like packing a few apples in a crate of oranges and wondering why the colors don't match.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Back from Mount Hermon

... and I'm exhausted. But happy. It was a terrific conference. The spirit of love and encouragement permeated the beautiful camp. And a whole lot of learnin' went on, I can tell you that. Gayle Roper, Randy Ingermanson, Jim Bell, Kathy Ide and I all taught fiction mentoring clinics in the morning. I had ten students. Then in the afternoon it was critique time for whoever wanted me to look at a manuscript, plus individual appointments with those who wanted some help. At lunch and dinner all faculty host tables. After dinner there's a nightly service. By the time dinner was over I'd be almost hoarse, especially the last night. It's a lot of talking.

I had a great group in my clinic. It will be interesting and very satisfying to see where they all are a year from now. The manuscripts ranged from fantasy to women's fiction, to romantic comedy, to suspense, to a supernatural angels-and-demons story. Good variation.

No, we did not have an Amish vampire novel among us. But with the bonnet stories being so hot these days, the idea did get tossed around amongst the published authors at the conference. In the end they decided they'd bit off more than they could chew.

I did not kill off anyone this year. However, Deb Raney and I traded a snake back and forth. That is a story for another day.

And don't feel sorry for her. She started it.

I roomed with Angie Hunt, who taught the fiction morning track. Who would ever have guessed that woman whistles constantly? When she wakes up, when she goes to sleep. I swear she whistles when she's brushing her teeth. By the time the conference was over--no, more like a day into it--I'd perfected my "Shut-up-yer-whistlin'!" glare. She'd just laugh at me. Angie's not one to be easily intimidated.

Okay. Let me get my head on straight for a day. Tomorrow we'll return to the "show, don't tell" rule. We really just skimmed the surface on that one last week.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Show, Don't Tell

Show, don't tell.

What a maddening, non-specific, confusing "rule." What in the heck does it mean anyway? And what good is a "rule" if it has so many exceptions?

Bottom line, this rule means: communicate information to your reader through a character's actions, expressions, words, or perceptions rather than communicating through author narrative.

Many times the rule is right on. If a place or person or action can be described through the eyes of a character rather than simply told straight from the author, it will be more effective--particularly if you are writing in close third person. (And most writers today do, because the majority of current fiction is written that way, and it's what we're used to.) The problem with switching to telling is that the POV is pulled back from close third to a narrative tone. We lose intimacy with the character and the scene.

Consider this telling passage in the middle of a scene in which a killer has hurried through a forest to lurk near a path, waiting for his victim to appear:

The sky was the slate blue of early morning. Soon the sound of crunching gravel rose from the path. A jogger rounded the corner. A blonde. She ran rhythmically, at about a ten-mile-a-minute pace, holding her body with ease. Her elbows were bent and her hands held low. This would be the last jog she ever took.

This is a scene in which the reader should be on edge, leading up to a murder. Not the place to pull back. To "show" the scene, actions, reactions and perceptions of the POV character are used so we experience the sights and sounds through the killer. Here's the scene as it appears in my novel Eyes of Elisha:

At a sound, he jerked up his head, ears cocked, legs quivering. He heard the rhythmic crunch, crunch of a ten-minute-mile pace but saw no one. His heart turned into an erratic pump. Crunch, crunch. Soles on gravel. Crunch, crunch. The fire grew in his belly. Unconsciously, his hand felt again for the switchblade and tightened around it. Crunch, crunch. Air rattled down his throat.

With ultimate clarity he saw her, outlined against the early morning sky as if bounding toward him on three-dimensional film. The sudden sight of her blonde hair bouncing, her easily held body, sucked away his breath.

Elbows slightly bent, hands low, she rounded what would be her last bend in Trent Park.

A stronger scene, to be sure. It's also a whole lot longer. And that's why sometimes showing is necessary. We can "show" effectively when certain events aren't worthy of a whole scene or of being depicted moment by moment within a scene. If we showed everything, our books would be boring. Some actions you just need to skim over and move on to the next compelling event.

"Show, don't tell" is quite a big topic, and we could discuss it more. I will probably take this topic up again next week. For now--today I am going to Mount Hermon. I'm teaching a fiction mentoring clinic and serving on the critique team. I'll be able to return to regular blogging next Wednesday or Thursday. In the interim I'll post a quick bit of gossip from the conference if I can. Or perhaps I shall see who I can kill off this year ...

Read Part 12

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Show, Don't Tell

"Show, Don't Tell" will be the final topic in this "rules" series. The "Show, Don't Tell" issue is one that we could talk about for days. And, like so many other writing "rules," it's really not a hard and fast rule at all, but a guideline. In the end, one thing rules: Story.

Please help me out on this topic by anwering any of the following:

1. Do you have specific questions regarding this rule?

2. What about exceptions to this rule? Can you give me an example?

3. What kinds of "telling" really bug you as a reader?

Read Part 11

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Action/Reaction Sequence

Write the action before the reaction.

Unlike the other "rules," this is one you really don't want to play with. In real life things follow a logical order. In our fiction--which represents a slice of life--we should follow that order.

This is not rocket science. All the same, it's easy when you're fingers are flying over the keys to write a reaction before an action. You may be visualizing the scene in your head, but all the reader has are your words to help him "see" the scene. If you get this sequence backwards, it's not that the reader will always understand what exactly you did wrong. It's that the power of the scene is diminished because the reader isn't able to visualize and "feel" the action as well.

She jumped when the rock hit the window.
Fear uncurled in her stomach as she listened to the coyotes' howls.

You could correctly rewrite these sentences many different ways, as long as you place the action before the reaction.

A rock hit the window and she jumped.
Coyotes howled near the edge of camp. Fear uncurled in her stomach.

Take a look at your manuscript. If this is the first time you've been made aware of this rule, you'll probably find a few backwards sequences. And even if you have been aware--these guys can sneak up on you.

Read Part 10

This Week on CFBA--The Perfect Life

Don't miss the latest from my pal Robin Lee--The Perfect Life, a Women of Faith novel.

Robin Lee Hatcher discovered her vocation as a novelist after many years of reading everything she could put her hands on, including the backs of cereal boxes and ketchup bottles. The winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in Christian Fiction (Whispers from Yesterday), the RITA Award for Best Inspirational Romance (Patterns of Love and The Shepherd's Voice), two RT Career Achievement Awards (Americana Romance and Inspirational Fiction), and the RWA Lifetime Achievement Award, Robin is the author of over 50 novels, including Catching Katie, named one of the Best Books of 2004 by the Library Journal.

Robin enjoys being with her family, spending time in the beautiful Idaho outdoors, reading books that make her cry, and watching romantic movies. She is passionate about the theater, and several nights every summer, she can be found at the outdoor amphitheater of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, enjoying Shakespeare under the stars. She makes her home outside of Boise, sharing it with Poppet the high-maintenance Papillon. She also likes to blog. Go leave her a comment at
Write Thinking.

About the Book:

Katherine Clarkson has the perfect life. Married to Brad, a loving and handsome husband, respected in their church and the community. Two grown daughters on the verge of starting families of their own. A thriving ministry. Good friends. A comfortable life.

She has it all--until the day a reporter appears with shocking allegations. Splashed across the local news are accusations of Brad's financial impropriety at his foundation and worse, an affair with a former employee. Without warning, Katherine's marriage is shattered and her family torn apart. The reassuring words she's spoken to many brokenhearted women over the years offer little comfort now.

Her world spinning, Katherine wonders if she can find the truth in the chaos that consumes her. How can she survive the loss of what she thought was the perfect life?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Starting With Action

We've gone through the four "writing rules" I listed in my first post on this subject. However, I invited you readers to add some "rules" of your own you'd like to see covered. We'll go through those this week.

The first one--noted by two people: Start in the middle of action.

The other rules we discussed last week focus more on individual sentences. This rule deals with story structure. Where to start the story? As one reader asked--how do you start in the middle of the action when readers don't even know who your character is yet? Why should they care what's happening if they don't yet care about the character?

Very good questions. And something that could be taught on for months. Actually, I already have. There are two series in the archives here on Forensics and Faith that speak to this issue. The first is the teaching on "Backstory." The second is an eleven-part series on "Creating Character Empathy."

The backstory series teaches you how to drop in bits of information without slowing the action. The Creating Character Empathy series discusses ten techniques to help readers connect with your character right away, with an example from a novel for each technique.

It does matter to a degree what genre you're writing in. Suspense readers are notoriously impatient and want action immediately. Women's fiction readers tend to be more relaxed about seeing some backstory up front. Still, the tendency for writers is to "information dump" in the first chapter. So no matter what genre you're writing in, the lessons on backstory may be helpful to you. As with the other rules we discussed last week, when you use backstory, it should be purposeful, for the best telling of the story. Too many times backstory is just thrown in because the writer thinks it has to be there--when it doesn't.

If you're having problems with where to start your story, I urge you to revisit both of these series. The end of each part links to the next one.

Tomorrow we'll look at the rule on action/reaction sequences.

Read Part 9

Friday, March 07, 2008

Amber Morn Releases

I interrupt our discussion of "writing rules" to announce the release of the fourth and final Kanner Lake novel, Amber Morn. Books begin shipping today from the Zondervan warehouse. They'll start turning up in bookstores in a week or two. In Zondervan's terms (every house seems to have their own lingo for this), Amber Morn's release date is today, March 7. But its publication date is April--because by then it should be on store shelves.

Amber Morn features the Scenes and Beans bloggers in Java Joint as well as some supporting characters returning from the former Kanner Lake novels.

I faced a lot of challenges in writing this novel. This was my first ensemble cast novel. I found it's a hard way to go. It's no automatic choice as to whose POV you're in. With three "bad guys" and eleven hostages all in the same area--sheesh, take your pick. I had to balance these choices. First determination for choosing POV--who has the most at stake in the scene? Second--whose POV have we not been in for awhile?

As mentioned a few days ago, dialogue also is tricky with this many people. It's a lot of characters to keep straight as to who's talking without loading up sentences with too many SAs or action beats.

And it's hard simply to keep the location of every character straight. I had to draw myself a diagram. Depending on where the character is--what can he see? Who is in front of him, who's behind him? I had to think about that with every action beat.

Also tricky--the static location of one small cafe for the hostages. To keep the story moving, I had to have a lot of tension in the cafe scenes. Lots of time during a hostage situation is spent merely waiting--but that waiting can be very tense. After all, you've got guns pointed at your head. So I worked to keep the tension high even as a character might be sitting at a table merely observing. I also needed to cut away from the cafe on a regular basis. One continuing cut-away was to the police chief and negotiator as he worked in the command post to free the hostages. Other cut-aways involved a few other characters in town.

Another thing I found tricky was time. When you've got lots of action happening at the same time in various locations, the jumps from one scene to another need to clearly show the passage of time and not confuse the reader. When one scene is done, I'd sometimes have to back up a little to show what was happening at the other location at the same time. I used noises or sights in a scene as indicators. For example, if Character A ends a scene in one location by shooting a gun, at the next location I may need to back up in time--until Character B hears the shots. Then time can continue to progress in Character B's POV.

Finally, I needed to tie up any loose ends in the lives of the dozen or so Scenes and Beans bloggers. That's important in order to satisfy readers of the series, who've lived with these characters for four books now. That's a lot of personal stuff to consider in the midst of all the action.

One note about Amber Morn. Although all the Kanner Lake series books can stand alone, if you haven't read the others, Amber Morn is not the one to read first. In tying up loose ends in the personal lives of the characters, it gives away some of the twists to the other novels, particularly Crimson Eve. I'm usually very careful in a subsequent novel in a series to only allude to the former plot and not give away the ending, but that's impossible in the series finale. Number one priority here was to satisfy the many readers of the series.

I'd be interested in hearing when and where you first spot copies of Amber Morn. Oh--and do check out the dedication. It's been a secret I've kept since the beginning of the series.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- "To Be" Verbs

Avoid using "to be" forms in narrative because they are weak verbs.

I do adhere to this rule whenever possible. As with using SAs or adverbs, when I write a sentence that contains "was" as the verb, I always give a hard look. Can it be written with a stronger verb? Many times the answer is yes.

Does this mean you should never use "was?" (Or "is" if you're writing in present tense.) Of course not. There will be times when you need to use it and it will read just fine. But as with our discussion of SAs and adverbs, I want to make you aware of your use of this verb. If you choose to use it, do so with purpose.

There are two forms of uses for "was." I suggest limiting your use of both of them. The first is as the verb itself: She was in darkness when she awoke. The second is as part of a past progressive verb--a verb that takes place over a period of time. She was lying in darkness when she awoke.

In the first form, you're simply left with a weaker verb. How you rewrite the sentence will depend on your own author's voice. I would write it like this: She awoke to darkness. That sentence now has no extra words and so gives a punchier effect. We are more able to feel the character's reaction to waking in the dark.

The second form, as defined, is about connoting passage of time. This is fine if you want to show passage of time. But in higher action scenes, a past progressive verb is going to slow things down.

Consider this opening for a novel:

She was washing dishes when her world began to blur.

Chelsea Adams hitched in a breath. Her skin was pebbling. She was all too familiar with the dreaded sign. God was pushing a vision into her consciousness.

Black dots were crowding her sight. She dropped a plate. Its crack against the porcelain sink was loud. Her fingers were fumbling for the faucet. The hiss of water ceased.

That's the opening to my novel Web of Lies--loaded with "was." Here's the real opening:

She was washing dishes when her world began to blur.

Chelsea Adams hitched in a breath, her skin pebbling. She knew the dreaded sign all too well. God was pushing a vision into her consciousness.

Black dots crowded her sight. She dropped a plate, heard it crack against the porcelain sink. Her fingers fumbled for the faucet. The hiss of water ceased.

You can still find two "was" verbs in there, both as part of a past progressive verb. Looking at the opening now, four years after writing it, I'd still leave those two past progressive verbs in. But I sure wouldn't want to load it up with "was" as I did above. Too repetitive. Weights the scene.

Being too quick to use "was" as a verb by itself is lazy writing. It's easier. But how much more effective the line may be if you find a different way of writing it. For example, take this opening:

The noises were faint, fleeting.

Twelve-year-old Erin Willit opened her eyes to darkness lit only by the green night light near her closet door, and the faint glow of a streetlamp through her bedroom window. She felt her forehead wrinkle, the fingers of one hand curl, as she tried to discern what had awakened her.

No doubt the above first sentence could be quickly written. And it does give the idea of vague noises. But it that the strongest the sentence can be? Does this sentence enhance the emotion and tone of the scene? Here's the actual opening sentence for Brink of Death:

The noises, faint, fleeting, whispered into her consciousness like wraiths in the night.

That line certainly took more time to write. And I played with it in editing before getting to the final version. But now, five years after writing that line, I wouldn't change a word.

Whenever you find yourself typing "was," I suggest you flag it. If you were to highlight all your "was" verbs in red, how much red would you see on the page? Can you find a stronger way to write these sentences--particularly those that use "was" as a verb by itself?

Read Part 8

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- Speaker Attributes III

To finish up our discussion on this topic, I want to use a passage from Amber Morn as an example of the different ways I mentioned for handling SAs. To review those:

1. Add nothing--let the dialogue speak for itself.
2. Add a beat--action, descriptive or thought.
3. Add an SA.

The passage is color-coded per the above.

The challenge in this scene was to keep the argument popping between the three hostage takers, while not losing touch with Bailey (a hostage), whose POV we're in. SAs are always more challenging to avoid when you've got more than two people talking. But if it's a high action scene, you don't want extra words slowing it down. So how to find the balance?

Brad turned a hard look on his father. “Maybe I don’t like your plans now that I’m here. We got all these people—”

“So what you want to do?” Kent kept his weapon and eyes on the hostages, his words thrown at his son. “We’ve been here forty-five minutes. You want to kill somebody every half hour?”

“Why not, we got enough of ’em.”

“Fine,” Kent spat. “At that rate we run out of people in six and a half hours. Then what?”

“You got a better idea?” Brad’s knuckles whitened against his weapon. Bailey’s blood ran cold. She pressed back in her chair, prayers streaming through her head. This wasn’t going to work. These men were too crazy, and with all their ammunition …

“Yeah, I got a better idea!” Kent’s shout bounced against the walls. He grasped his gun in his right hand, waving it for effect. “We keep with the plan. They’ll contact us soon.”

“What if they don’t, though?” Mitch threw out. “We never thought it would take them this long.”

Kent sliced the air with his left hand. “Then we start shooting, okay? Tell you what, Brad, I’ll let you take the first one, since apparently that’s what you came for.”

Brad’s features twisted. “I came for T.J., and you know it.”

“Then start acting like it.”

“Yeah, okay, fine.” Mitch wagged his head side to side. “We wait a little longer.”

Brad threw him a look. “Now you got patience all of a sudden.”

“Cork it, Brad, you’re not even supposed to be here.”

“I didn’t see you fighting that this morning.”

“Yeah, like you—”

Kent cursed and kicked a chair with all his might. It scudded across the floor and slammed into the windowsill. Gasps rose from the hostages. “Both of you shut your traps!” His wide nostrils flared. “I swear, you don’t stop arguing right now I’ll put you both outside and do this myself.”

Yikes. Looking at this scene now I want to start editing it again. Too late.

We've been on SAs for three days now, longer than I expected. I hope this discussion has given you some ideas regarding how to handle them in your own writing, and what alternatives you might use. Most of all, I hope the discussion has made you more aware of SAs so when you use them, it will be with purpose.

Read Part 7

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- Speaker Attributes II

I appreciate the comments from yesterday. Timothy Fish wrote that he doesn't like the SA rule. In referring to dialogue left by another commenter, he said, "By using the rule, we could tear apart what Amy graciously provided for examination, without even reading it. Many critiquers would do just that. Every said that is followed by an action beat would be marked with red ink. Does Oh, ha very ha. Sam dodged a pile of rubblish… flow better than Oh, ha very ha, Sam said, dodging a pile of rubblish…? They both get the point across. We could make an argument for either one, but it comes down to a matter of opinion. My personal preference is the second, but the rule would require us to go with the first, because we can."
Timothy's comment brings up an "exception" point I wanted to make today. Sometimes an SA can be used as a kind of action beat itself. For example, it can be used to connote a hesitation or a few seconds of time. Here's a line in the opening scene from my novel Amber Morn (releasing this week): "It's for T.J., she whispered. And she started to cry.

This opening scene jumps right into action, with Kent Wicksell and family preparing to embark on a criminal rampage in order to free Kent's third and youngest son from prison. His wife appears as hard-nosed as the husband and two sons. But in this line she almost breaks. I wanted to draw out this line in the middle of the fast action and argument. So--for reasons of rhythm--I added three words that I could had left out: ... she whispered. And... Those words add enough weight to the sentences to connote the passage of a second or two or time. And this slows things up just enough to emphasize the change in the character's emotion.

I probably use less SAs than many writers. But remember, I'm writing suspense. I need clean, punchy lines with no extra weight to slow action--except where I want it slowed. Your opinion on how often to SAs may well differ, and that's okay. My hope in discussing this "rule" is that writers who are used to adding SAs without thinking about them will become more cognizant of how they can best be used.

Here's the full passage from Amy that she left for editing (brave Amy!):
“This,” Halley said as he led her towards the alley the sound had come from, “is why the women you court never go anywhere with you more than once.”

“Oh, ha very ha,” Sam said, dodging a pile of rubbish that looked to have been there since the beginning of time...

“Hey, kid!” he yelled through cupped hands towards the roof, legs apart and – Halley thought – braced to jump to one side if necessary. “Mind where you’re dropping those things! You a East Canal Crawler or a South Streeter?”

A shaggy head poked out over the edge of the roof, silhouetted against the sky so that its features were nearly obscured, a tile in one hand and the other holding on to the guttering. “Like you’d see those East Canal bastards ‘round here! Whaddaya want?”

“I want to talk to Euan, if he’s about,” Sam shouted back, moving a hand to rest casually on his swordhilt. “Tell him that Tower scum Sam has come to see him.”

“Yeah? Alright,” the boy said, and lowered the tile back to the roof ...
My suggested edit for SAs:

“This,” Halley said as he led her towards the alley the sound had come from, “is why the women you court never go anywhere with you more than once.”

“Oh, ha very ha.” Sam dodged a pile of rubbish that looked to have been there since the beginning of time...

“Hey, kid!” He cupped his hands to yell toward the roof, legs apart and – Halley thought – braced to jump to one side if necessary. “Mind where you’re dropping those things! You a East Canal Crawler or a South Streeter?”

A shaggy head poked out over the edge of the roof, silhouetted against the sky so that its features were nearly obscured, a tile in one hand and the other holding on to the guttering. “Like you’d see those East Canal bastards ‘round here! Whaddaya want?”

“I want to talk to Euan, if he’s about.” Sam moved a hand to rest casually on his swordhilt. “Tell him that Tower scum Sam has come to see him.”

“Yeah? Alright.” The boy lowered the tile back to the roof ...

I like the SA in the first sentence. It helps place emphasis on This by allowing that word to linger in our ears as the action takes place. But if we use an SA there, we really don't need it in the second line. In the third line, I think yell is better put into the action part of the sentence. Because we've emphasized the cupped-hand yell (plus that line has an exclamation point), we don't need to use shouted later. (Nor, by the way, do we need to use exclamation points with each of the following lines of dialogue. Too many of those are distracting. Once you've established that the characters are yelling at each other, the reader will get it.) And I see no need for the SA in the last line of dialogue. I cut the last sentence here, but it goes on for about four lines. Plenty long enough without adding an unnecessary SA.

So, out of five SAs I'd keep one. Again, the main thing is, I'm making deliberate decisions about when to use them and why.

In Amber Morn I faced a real challenge with dialogue. In one coffee shop are three bad guys and eleven hostages. The bad guys argue a lot, and the hostages have plenty to say themselves. That's a lot of people talking. How to keep them all straight to the reader without using an SA every line? In addition there are scenes in which the hostage negotiator is talking on the phone to the leader of the trio while also hearing background arguments in the cafe. Add on top of that someone in the negotiator's own office talking in his background and --yikes. That's a lot of people to keep straight. Meantime the action has to go pop-pop-pop, because that's the pace of the book. Too many SAs are going to slow down the action.

Tomorrow I'll post a few dialogue passages from Amber Morn to give examples of the three kinds of action beats we covered yesterday. Then we'll move on to the next "rule." In the meantime I invite any other opinions on SAs.

Read Part 6

Monday, March 03, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- Speaker Attributes

Use speakers attributes (SAs) as little as possible.

As with learning to limit my use of adverbs, I became aware of SAs around my fifth novel, when my editor of nix-the-adverb fame started cleaning up all the finer points of my writing. She started nixing the SAs right along with the adverbs.

Now we all know SAs are needed from time to time to tell us who's talking. Said is Old Reliable when it comes to SAs. Many authors advocate using said and eschewing the other, descriptive words such as screamed, whispered, etc. There's a reason for that opinion, and we'll cover that. (By the way, this is totally off topic, but don't you think the word should be exchew? Just seems a more apropos first syllable.)

I wholeheartedly support the SA rule. I now only use them as a last resort.

Mind you, following this rule will make writing harder. It's way easier to stick in a "he said" than to create an effective action beat. But it comes down to this: would you rather have a phrase whose only raison d'etre is to inform, or would you rather have one that heightens the emotion of the scene?

Some folks argue that readers skip right over "he said," so why worry about using it too much? It tells them who's speaking, and other than that, they don't notice it. My response is--that just proves my point. The phrase is doing nothing more than informing. It in no way enhances the scene. I'd rather write a phrase that both informs and enhances the scene.

Here are my choices, in order, for informing the reader of who's talking.

1. Add nothing. Just let the dialogue speak for itself.
2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.
3. Add an SA when neither #1 nor #2 work best.

Let's look at these in more detail.

1. Add nothing. Many times when an SA is used, it's not needed at all.

"Stop it right now!" he cried. Why tell the reader he cried the sentence when the exclamation point makes that clear? (This is why many writers advocate sticking with he said.) You've just explained what the dialogue indicates by its own merit. All the phrase he cried does is add extra words. And if you hear me on nothing else, hear me on this: extra words ruin sentence rhythm and weight the action. Get rid of extra words whenever you can.

Okay, you might argue, so don't add he cried. But why not add he said? Well, that's a problem. Because he didn't just say it. He cried it. Said denotes no emotion. When you write dialogue that emits emotion, only to follow it with an emotionless SA--you've just diminished the effectiveness of the line.

So--how many dialogue lines should you write with no reminder of any kind as to who's talking? Depends on the conversation. If it consists of short, punchy sentences, you can have more lines of pure dialogue then if people are speaking in multiple sentences. You certainly don't want the reader to have to stop and count lines, so don't err on the side of confusion. Which brings us to ...

2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.

An action beat can be a movement or facial expression.

A descriptive beat describes such things as the speaker's attitude, the way some part of his body looks (other than the face), or his vocal inflection.

A thought beat is something the speaker is thinking or perhaps perceiving about the other person. (Be careful that you're in this person's POV for the scene.)

This #2 is a great choice for heightening the emotion of the scene. Problem is, you can't use an action beat for every line of dialogue, because it'll sound repetitive. This becomes a problem of rhythm. When I write, rhythm is never far from my mind. So--how to break the repetition of too many beats? Go back to #1--add nothing. Then return to adding a beat. Or two. One way to make them less repetitive is to vary where they're placed in the line of dialogue. Put a beat before the dialogue. Put the next beat after the first line of dialogue. You'll also want to vary what kind of beats you use.

Even so, on occasion bouncing between #1 to #2 isn't going to work for the sake of rhythm. This is going to happen more often when you have a group of three or more people speaking. Whenever I face this point, I add an SA. But it really is my last resort. And even as I type it, I know I'll revisit the line in editing. Overall, I'd guess my novels have somewhere below twenty SAs. Brink of Death only had about five.

Sometimes when I add an SA, I do use a descriptive one--he whispered, etc--if it's really called for. If it's the most effective. But by saving these as the last resort, I am forcing myself not to be lazy in writing. I'm forcing myself to find the most emotive way to write the scene.

The best way to learn these techniques is by studying examples. I'll post some tomorrow. If you want to leave your own dialogue bits to be edited in the comments, feel free.

Read Part 5