How to use uncertainty to keep readers on the edge of their seats.
We are all familiar with being so engrossed in a story that we can’t put it down: the “I’ll just read one more page before bed time” scenario.
Tension is the critical element that keeps readers expectant regardless of the genre, place in the story, or whether a scene is action-packed or reflective. Read on to find out how to increase uncertainty and eek it out for as long as possible, to keep readers on the edge of their seats in your stories.
What is tension?
Tension is the emotional anxiety we feel in the face of uncertainty.” Sandy Vaile
Sure, readers might anticipate good and bad events in a story, but it’s the emotional stress of waiting for a negative outcome that is the focus of story tension, because that is what makes hearts beat faster and stomachs somersault.
Tension = Emotional investment + Stakes + Uncertainty
How to create tension
In order to create tension you need to:
Uncertainty is where the opportunity to really pump up the tension resides and there are a variety of techniques to enable it, like:
Readers love that anxious churning in the pit of their stomachs when they’re unsure how a situation is going to turn out, so it’s the author’s job to make them anticipate the worst and keep them desperate to know the outcome for as long as possible. Let’s explore some techniques you can use.
Humans are innately curious, so play on this by raising questions about characters or situations. Hint at a painful past experience or a secret they are desperate to keep hidden. (These hooks reel readers in and keep them wanting more.) Perfect characters are boring, so be clear about their flaws, e.g. a struggle with a moral decision, hiding information from loved ones or acting outside the law.
When faced with unpleasant change, characters often react fiercely because they are desperate to avoid it, which is an excellent way to force them out of their comfort zone. Give them no option other than to face their worst fears, in order to lead them to personal growth.
Instead of giving information away early on, gradually add it piece by piece, like a puzzle for the reader to solve.
Another technique is to provide the reader with more information than the protagonist has. For example, the reader might learn about another character’s motives or secret when the protagonist hasn’t yet or they might know that a villain is waiting just around the corner. This leads them to dread a particular outcome that they believe they can see coming as the protagonist ploughs blindly forwards.
Of course, just when all is about to be lost, is the perfect time for you to surprise them with a revelation.
Unexpected changes in the story help prolong tension. After leading the reader along a particular path of expectation, you might throw in a twist (surprise direction of the plot) or reveal startling information (a revelation) or even different take the reader in a suddenly new direction.
Unexpected events unsettle readers and provide a peak of tension in the story. Readers wonder about the ramifications of these surprising events.
Conflict is at the core of a purposeful story with plenty of tension. You need to know what your characters desire and how far they will go to achieve it, then make sure you push them to their limits. Conflict leads to tension when there’s an emotional connection with the character. The audience needs to care about, or at least be interested in, what happens to them.
Conflict can be internal, like a moral dilemma, or external, like a relationship breakdown. You can pit one character against another or a character against an idea/event/themself. Preferably characters will have both internal and external conflicts to deal with and the obstacles they face will continually increase in difficulty.
It isn’t necessarily how big the conflict is that creates the tension, but how much the character wants it. Throw every obstacle and complication you can think of at them, so they have to prove how much they want that goal.
And if their lives were difficult enough, why not add a sense of urgency?
Urgency can be created by a literal ticking clock, e.g. you have until noon to come up with the money, or a subtler deadline, e.g. if the love interest hasn’t made a move by the time the company sells, she’ll leave town.
A finite amount of time puts characters under pressure to solve any problems that come their way or something terrible will happen. This goes hand-in-hand with making sure the stakes are high enough. If readers understand what a character has to lose, and it is dire (to the character at least), they will follow them through thick and thin.
Stories that are layered with tension provide readers with the perfect arena to enjoy risk-taking and angst in a safe environment, as well as contentment when they finally reach the satisfying outcome. Keeping readers engaged doesn’t have to mean constant action or mortal danger, you just have to make them care about the characters, give them something to lose and then create uncertainty about the outcome and delay the resolution for the entire story.
This article was first published in "Hearts Talk Magazine" 2020 and republished in the Romance Writers of Australia "30th Anniversary Edition" 2021.
If you’d like to delve further into how to develop and sustain tension in your stories, join the discussion in The Fearless Novelist Facebook group; a place where kindred spirits come to share industry and craft information, and inspire one another to write share-worthy novels.
Providing readers with truly memorable stories requires complex and authentic characters, but to provide the kind of meaningful character traits and motivations that keep readers intent throughout a story and pondering its characters long after they close a book, you need to go much deeper than the standard Character Profile checklist.
The trouble is, deficient characters lead to weak stories. So, it's not enough to figure out where they came from, you need to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Too often, when working with authors, I find missed opportunities in this area, which leaves readers not quite satisfied. The consequences of not delving deeply enough into a characters psyche are:
The key to bringing out the best and worst in our characters, is to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Whether you start with plot or character, to create a dynamic story, you need to tie the two together and this means knowing which parts of their personality and backstory you can use against them, and which abilities you can harness to give them a fighting chance.
It’s not enough to fling mud at the wall and see what sticks, you have to know which parts to use and how to leverage them for the benefit of the story.
What makes characters authentic?
There are countless Character Profiles out there to help you list physical traits, mannerisms, demographics, lifestyle and personal preferences. What I’m talking about here are the things that make characters unique, like their:
I always think I know my characters when I start a new story, but by the time I get to the end of the first draft, I've had to make innumerable decisions, which add complexity to them.
For this reason, I recommend using a Character Profile template that goes the extra mile and updating it as you write. Dig deep into your character’s driving forces to unearth what’s special about them and will evoke readers’ sympathies. (Below is a link to a ready-made template that’s loaded with prompts to draw out those complexities.)
What makes characters relevant to the plot?
There is an inextricable link between what needs to happen throughout a story’s plot for the characters to get from the starting point to their destination, and why each character is driven to take specific actions. Characters who act with purpose, i.e. they have solid reasons for their actions, have the power to engage readers in their conflicts, which in turn creates tension and draws them all the way through the book.
In order for characters to behave believably, you need to be able to communicate why they think a certain way or take a particular action. You can’t communicate it if you don’t know it. So, my favourite question to ask every time a character has a thought or takes an action is “Why?”.
This desire will invariably come from their past, even when they are reacting to situations in the present. For example, if five different people were faced with the same situation, they would each handle it in their own way, based on what they believe and want.
For each plot point, it must be clear how the character got there. Not how the author physically put them in that situation, but what life choices they made, what they did and with whom, to plausibly bring them to this moment in time.
Readers connect with characters when they can sympathise with what they’re going through. They may have been through a similar situation or understand the strong emotions linked to it, be cringing at a failure or rooting for a win.
This peek inside their humanity comes from what shaped them as a person, i.e. everything that happened to them before the story started. Just like real people, story characters need to appear to have lived, loved and lost. It’s these backstory events, world views and personal beliefs that add depth to them.
Only share the character traits and backstory events that are relevant to what’s happening in the story at that time, to enable readers to understand what’s going on and feel the emotional turmoil alongside the character.
Instead of forcing characters to perform like circus animals, deep character development provides solid reasons why they are on this journey and will stick with it even when the going gets tough.
When plot requires the character to behave a certain way, there must be a plausible desire within them, based on who they are and what they believe. On the flip side, if a character wants to do something, you must be able to provide sound reasoning for their decision and motivation for them to act.
Taking the time to develop complex characters who are driven by their beliefs, will make for an emotive experience readers can buy into and remember fondly for years to come. But remember, just because you’ve thought about every possible situation, doesn’t mean it’s all relevant to the story. Only use what is needed to support the events happening in the story at that time.
If you’ve been accused of having cardboard cutout characters or unbelievable scenarios, it’s likely you need to explore the inner workings of your character’s mind and make sure their thoughts and actions are relevant to what’s going on in the plot.
Grab a copy of Sandy’s free Character Profile template (it’s so much more!).
About Sandy Vaile
Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and coaches fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share (and which get noticed by agents and publishers).
Sandy is an experienced course presenter who provides a nurturing workshop environment where participants can truly absorb the material and apply it to their own work. In her spare time, she composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers critiquing services.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
The subtleties of story Point of View
Are you sometimes bamboozled by all of the choices and subtleties of story Point of View (POV)?
You’re not alone. POV is one of the most common errors in fiction manuscripts and even after reading explanations, authors are often still unclear. Should they choose first person, second person, limited third person or omniscient? Which one is right for their story? The mind boggles.
Today we’re going to explore the difference between Point of View and Perspective and the whole reason behind applying them to fiction. I’m not going to go into the different types of POV or how to use them, but will:
Point of View has evolved over time
In the early 19th century the omniscient POV was common place and was used by many of the great literary masters, i.e. Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, but by the end of the same century it had become frowned upon and called intrusive. By the early 20th century novelists were even swapping between multiple POV in the same book. In the 22st century Deep POV has become increasingly popular, particularly in the romance-based genres.
My point is that the popularity of different POV changes over time, is different in each genre and is often more a judgement call than rule. So do yourself a favour and relax in relation to choosing what’s right for your story.
Some of the rubbish I’ve heard:
The difference between POV and perspective
POV is the vantage point of the narrator
(who is telling the story).
It might be a single character, multiple characters, someone who isn’t even in the story or an all-seeing narrator. The type of POV you choose will determine how much the narrator can see/know and how close to the action they get.
When a writer breaks POV (starts letting the reader see/know things the narrator couldn’t possibly see/know) it distracts the reader from what’s important in the story and tends to prevent them from having a close association with the narrator.
Perspective is how the narrator and characters view and experiences the story world.
The character’s perspective will determine how they view their surroundings, react to situations, process information and make choices about actions to take. Everything that makes up a person, e.g. their past experiences, upbringing and influences, will all affect how the POV narrator experiences and reacts within the story.
When a writer doesn’t delve deep enough into their character profiles, it can cause them to feel two dimensional to the reader. The result is characters who lack motivation to drive their actions, which makes the story fall flat.
The effect of your characters
So, every time a character moves through you story world, put yourself in their shoes and consider their perspective. As you plan a scene, think about what they would see and know, why they would behave a certain way and what is causing them to make choices and take actions. Each one will have a a different perspective.
Then, when you come to write the scene, think about who the POV narrator is and what they can realistically see, hear, feel, taste and know. Stay within these boundaries as you write, which means that some characters will only ever been seen from an external view and others the reader might get to experience up close and personal.
Although Point of View and perspective and interrelated, they are different aspects that work together to keep the reader’s attention focused on the important parts of the story and strengthen their understanding of the characters in play. It’s important to write within the boundaries of your chosen POV, to keep readers focused on the right information, and within each character's perspective, to keep readers engaged.
The most important rule to remember with POV is, be consistent.
This article was originally published in the Hearts Talk magazine, September 2021 edition.
Have you published a book yet?
You may have heard over and over again that you need to treat your fiction writing like a business or you’ll never be a successful author, but what you don’t often hear is that doing that could be the very thing holding you back.
If you haven’t had your first book published yet, then I believe focusing on the business of writing is wasting writing time, and we all know what a precious resource time is.
Building a platform, blogging and posting on social media regularly, getting your branding right, having professional headshots taken and more. Not to mention your day job, family commitments, etc. It’s exhausting just thinking about it all!
And when are you supposed to find time to write?
Don’t get me wrong, it is important to take any business seriously, but a creative pursuit isn’t the same as a regular business venture. Writing a novel is a labour of love and there isn’t a totally right or wrong way to do it. There isn’t a checklist of what to include that will automatically result in a best-seller. The whole process is more complicated than that.
I feel that the assumption you can build a creative business the same way you would for other products or services, leads to a lot of heartache. Sure, in the end you hope to have a book that sells and make money from it, but a regular business venture isn’t founded in the hopes and dreams of the creative arts. It is grounded in measurable goals, trackable data and profitable results right from the start.
The truth about an author business
“But people make money out of writing books”, I hear you cry.
They sure do, but by that stage you will usually find one of two things has happened.
1. They are prolific enough to produce books regularly, so as to keep up with algorithms and reader appetites; and/or
2. They have diversified and book sales are only a portion of their income.
Now, I’m not suggesting you don’t need to think about the business of writing, but at the optimum time. There isn’t any point wasting precious writing time doing stuff you don’t enjoy or that takes you away from the whole point this journey, BEFORE YOU ARE EVEN PUBLISHED.
The very best thing you can do for your author career when you first start out is WRITE BOOKS.
Indulge your creativity, spend time fantacising about plot scenarios and chatting to imaginary characters. Read articles, do courses, attend webinars and talk to likeminded souls. Learn the craft by writing your way into it … all the way to the end of your first novel.
By all means, if you enjoy blogging, do it. If you love interacting on Instagram, go for it. But if you have limited time and/or aren’t totally confident in your writing technique yet, take a step back and focus on what’s really important right now: storytelling.
Get published … THEN spend time developing an author platform, a readship, marketing and business plans.
If you haven’t written a publishable novel, then you are better off focusing your efforts on mastering the craft and creating an unputdownable story. After all, it’s the very foundation of your author career. You need to complete this first step so you have something solid to build a business on.
Where to next?
If you’re ready to stop feeling overwhelmed by the publishing industry and figure out what the next best steps for you are, book a complimentary Storytelling Clarity session with Sandy Vaile.
This article was originally published on the Romance Writers of Australia blog on 18/09/21.
Immersive Deep Point of View (POV)
When Things Happen to the Character
When something is happening to the character, you only show what they can hear, see, touch, taste and intuit. Their mind and body takes in raw information and it appears on the page exactly how they experience it, e.g. how it sounds, looks, feels and tastes to the character. Use physical sensations, body movements and language, e.g. dialogue or thoughts.
Example of normal Third Person POV:
Nervous energy pumped through Anne’s veins as Don stared at her, shaking his head slowly, lips pursed in disappointment.
Example of Deep Third Person POV:
Anne shifted from foot to foot, fingers tapping on her thigh as she waited for Don’s reaction. His mouth pressed into a thin line and he shook his head slowly.
When the Character Reacts
When the character processes or reacts to what’s happening in the story, only share their immediate visceral and physical responses, not the conclusions they reach or the thought process that got them there. The way they experience the situation will depend on their personality, current emotional state, the beliefs and scars from their past and skills.
Continuing with the previous example:
Then Don sighed. He didn’t say a word before he turned and walked away. Pin pricks stabbed at Anne’s eyes and she blinked rapidly, holding her breath least a strangled cry made itself out of her mouth before he was out of earshot.
See how the author doesn’t tell the reader that Don was disappointed and so decided to leave, or that Anne was nervous about his reaction and upset when he turned his back on her, but they can surmise all of this from the characters’ actions.
Move In and Out of Deep POV
Being up close to emotions constantly can be tiring, so I prefer to save Deep POV for times when there are high emotional stakes. At other times you can pull back to a more distant POV, so the character (and reader) have time to process emotions, think through how the situation affects them and make decisions based on what the experience means to them.
As characters move through you story, put yourself in their shoes and experience situations as they would. When you translate this onto the page, focus on their immediate visceral and physical responses. Show the reader what they are thinking and feeling through facial expressions, body language, dialogue and tone of voice. Rather than explaining what is happening, just show the action as it unfolds and let readers draw their own conclusions. This will more thoroughly engage them emotionally and intellectually, resulting in a more satisfying experience for them.
This article first appeared on the Romance Writers of Australia blog on 23/08/21.
I believe suspense is for every story, no matter the genre. It’s the ideal tool to compel readers to keep turning pages all the way to the end, by creating real emotional tension.
What is suspense?
Remember back to a book you just couldn’t put down. More than likely, the author made you worry about the character, and be apprehensive about the outcome of conflicts. You might have had clammy palms, a racing heart, fidgeted, or literally sat at on the edge of your seat, desperate to know what happened next. All of things are signs that the author applied suspense techniques, not just to engage you, but to throw you in the pot and seal the lid so you can feel every last ounce of emotional turmoil.
The real trick is to maintain a level of uncertainty throughout the story, so the reader worries about the outcome and is left pleasantly spent by the end. That's why I refer to it as a pressure cooker, because you put the characters under pressure and then keep them there until the very end.
How does it apply to all genres?
The level of suspense you find in different genres does vary, as does the way information is revealed, but the suspense techniques still apply.
For example, in a Cosy Mystery the suspense will be more temperate than in a thriller. You are likely to use the relationship angst to create uncertainty, instead of the threat of imminent harm from a crazed predator or solving an enigma rather than expecting something scary to jump out of the nearest shadow. A Young Adult story may be less graphic than an adult Paranormal, both in the way intimacy and violence is portrayed, but suspense will help to make both impossible to put down.
The scenarios at the heart of each story, the locations and types of characters that populate them, will depend on the norms of each genre.
How much do I need?
It’s important to ensure you identify opportunities to increase suspense, and fully explore them, to make the most of existing tension, and squeeze every bit of emotional value from your characters. Signs that you may need to increase the suspense in your story, are if you get feedback saying your story lacked a hook, is slow in places, or just didn’t grab/engage the reader.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi say: If a critique partner voices confusion over the emotional reaction of one of your characters, check to make sure the stimulus trigger is prominent.
In other words, make sure the character is behaving in a believable way, with realistic motivations.
How can you create suspense?
Authors use a range of techniques to create uncertainty for their characters, and apprehension for their readers, but it’s important to remember that creating suspense isn’t necessarily about putting your characters in physical danger. It’s about engaging the reader, making them care about your character’s journey, and then giving them good reason why their goals might not be fulfilled. Leave them wanting more, right up until the Happily Ever After.
Create an engaging character
You can do this by giving your character something they care deeply about, and then threatening to take it away, but in a romantic story none of that will matter if the reader isn’t fully engaged with the character first. You need to create a character the reader cares about. I’m not going to focus too much on emotional engagement here, but it involves creating a character the reader can identify/sympathise with, that has believable motivations, and actively pursues their goals.
Raise the stakes
The character’s goal must be important enough to have dire consequences, e.g. they don’t just want a lot of money to buy a shiny new car, but they need it to pay for their dying sister’s medical treatment.
Make it clear early on what the consequences of failure are for your character (or at least what they believe them to be at the beginning of the story). Then throw increasingly difficult situations at them, which in turn diminishes the likelihood of them succeeding. Leave your character no other option than to face her greatest emotional fear by the climax.
Giving your character a deadline to get something done is also a great way to heighten anxiety levels. You want to put them under enough pressure to expose what they’re really made of.
Hook the reader in by raising questions that make them curious, about what’s going to happen next, what might have happened in the past, and what course of action the protagonist or antagonist will take next.
One way to do this, is to show the reader things that the characters don’t know. Another is to leave them hanging mid action or mid decision at the end of a chapter.
By raising doubts about how the character is going to get out of this sticky situation, or win the love of her life, you make the reader apprehensive. Do this over and over throughout the course of the story, and they’ll reach nail-biting anxiety. That’s what suspense is all about!
Use techniques like putting the character:
Alexandra Sokoloff is brilliant at having her protagonist and antagonist come so close to crossing paths as the detective follows the serial-killer’s trail of destruction, that the reader is in a constant state of panic, because disaster seems imminent over and over again.
Leave a trail of breadcrumbs
Clues aren’t just for crime stories. There are all sorts of clues and hints you can scatter along the way to build the reader’s expectations. They might be obvious, or subtle, in which case the reader realises their significance once the climax is reached.
I liken clues to a trail of breadcrumbs, because they are sprinkled in here and there in small pieces. Some of those breadcrumbs might foreshadow what’s going to happen, and others might selectively withhold information. Done properly, the reader will have just enough foresight to build their expectations of trouble/failure/ danger.
Be aware of your word choices when building suspense. Choose a word that supports the tone of the scene, and stick to straightforward words in the midst of action. Sentence length is a great way to show urgency, but even though you may use more short sentences during action scenes and longer ones during retrospection, still vary them enough to avoid monotony.
Prolong the outcome
As Nicholas Sparks said: Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.
If your character figured out the best course of action and achieved their goal easily, it would be a short and hassle-free story, and totally kill any tension. In order to build the suspense, you should hint at what could go wrong and draw-out the angst for as long as reasonably possible. The suspense lies in between promising something awful and it actually happening, so make the most of it.
A romantic example of this, is creating sexual tension. Reading about a couple tearing one another’s clothes off and getting hot and steamy might be a lot of fun, but it’s the way the author draws out those longing looks and tantalizing touches that lead up to the sex, which creates eager anticipation.
You can still build lulls of retrospection and small wins into the story. This provides the reader a chance to catch her breath, and is a great opportunity to anchor them in your character’s motivations and expectations, ready for the next onslaught of drama.
Remember, it’s not the outcome that creates suspense, but the uncertainty of the journey."
Written by Sandy Vaile (First published in Hearts Talk magazine for Romance Writers of Australia)
I hope I have inspired you to tease out every last morsel of suspense in your story. If you’d like to chat in-depth about this topic or get some personalised feedback about how to add suspense to your story, then jump on a Storytelling Clarity session with me.
Deciding when to show and when to tell
We know “show don’t tell” is a vital concept because it is constantly drilled into writers, but the truth is, the application is subtle, and therefore often difficult. How the heck do you decide which technique is most appropriate in each instance?
Well, I’m going to provide you with a simple process to help you choose the best way to go, so you can be confident that you are using showing and telling in a way that is going to best suit your story and engage readers at the right time. This is the key to achieving that special blend of storytelling and emotive demonstration that enables us to convey our landscapes, characters and plots in an engaging way.
Making a conscious choice
In order to integrate showing and telling satisfactorily you need to make conscious decisions about relevance, quantity and the delivery method you’re going to use, but when it comes to actually writing the words, the biggest choice is whether it’s more appropriate to use showing or telling.
Let’s look at how to make that decision and then translate it into emotionally compelling prose that grips readers.
But first, there is one concept that is critical to understanding the whole concept of showing and telling.
The concept of meshing
I believe the reason so many writers struggle with showing and telling is because the two devices aren’t incompatible and don’t exist independently. They rely on one another to move the story forwards at the right pace and to draw readers in.
If you accept that both showing and telling are intertwined throughout a story and you will use them simultaneously, then all you have to do is to figure out which one to accentuate at any given moment. That’s much easier, right?
Both showing and telling are valuable, and there are degrees of each. It's not an all in or all out kind of thing. One creates drama and movement and the other conveys information succinctly and poetically. Sandy Vaile
Should you use more showing or telling?
To decide if dramatising a situation using showing or sticking to straightforward storytelling is the best option, you need to scrutinise the emotional value of the information or event.
I’ve developed a simple flowchart to help you decide which way to go when you’re not sure.
Here are some more tips on how to know if the information or event you are writing is going to create strong emotion/drama.
Signs to look for
When looking for signs that information or an event is critical and would benefit from more showing, look for change. Ask yourself if the main character will discover, react to or make a decision about something that is going to affect their story journey or their current goal.
Here are some key moments to look for:
Apply the perfect blend of showing and telling
Once you’ve decided if you’re going to use more showing or more telling (remember it’s not one or the other because they are both happening in any scene), then there are a variety of devices to make the delivery fresh and emotive. (See below for details of Sandy’s workshop, which will go into each technique in depth.)
Let’s take a look at a single event and how to apply this decision process.
SCENARIO - A woman spends two hours making sure she looks her best for a job interview, because she needs the job to make the next rental payment.
QUESTION 1 – Is this event vital to drive the story forwards?
We know that the job interview is important to this woman, but do we need to see her preparing for it? It depends if the reader already understands the importance of the interview, in which case you can probably just get her to the interview as quickly as possible, because that's where all the drama is likely to occur. A bridging sentence is a good way to do this, e.g.: After two hours agonising over which suit and accessories to wear, Dianne sat in the waiting room, taking deep breaths to keep her centred.
DECISION 1 - For the purposes of this example, let’s say the reader as no idea what’s on the line if Dianne doesn’t get hired for this job, in which case we should keep the scene.
QUESTION 2 – Does the event create strong emotional drama?
Considering how much Dianne has to lose at this point in the story (her home) and how nervous she would be preparing for the interview, it will definitely cause a strong emotional reaction.
DECISION 2 – The reader needs to know how important the interview is to Dianne and why, so this is a chance to use more showing.
Maybe not all two hours of it because this scene isn’t as important as the next, but certainly to help the reader feel the anxiety and understand the reasons behind it, like not being able to make her next rental payment and being tossed out on the street.
Where to next?
As you can see, both showing and telling are valuable techniques that exist in harmony, and now you have an easy-to-use strategy to help you decide which to lean on more in each instance. Getting this right throughout your story can be the difference between readers sticking with it until the end and abandoning it at the first sign of an information dump.
If you’d like to delve more deeply into how to combine showing action with effective telling, so you can avoid information dumps, maximise sensory details and write stories that readers can’t put down, then grab a place in Sandy’s wildly popular Master Emotive Storytelling and Showing workshop.
This article originally appeared on the Savvy Authors blog 20/06/20.
First chapters are POWERFUL
First chapters are POWERFUL. They can stop a shopper from casually flicking through the pages to see how the story ends and a publisher from tossing it in the slush pile bin. Readers are searching for a story beginning that grabs their attention, surprises them and makes them curious to the point of desperation to know what will happen next.
But how can you possibly do this in such a short space? In short, provide entertainment! And if you’ve maintained their interest to the end of the first chapter, then hopefully they’ll decide if it’s is worth investing their time and money to continue.
Responsibilities of a first chapter
Every chapter has basic storytelling requirements to fulfil, like an opening and closing hook, character development, having a goal and conflict. The same goes for first chapters but they also carry the weight of additional responsibilities.
They have to:
Provide story context
No story starts at the beginning of a character’s life and tells every single thing that happens until they die; there just isn’t space. You are telling one part of someone’s life, which is specific to a particular goal they are trying to achieve. (Or one era of a civilisation, which is important to its survival or identity.)
Therefore, you need to provide the reader with the context of the story early on, so they understand what’s going on, e.g.:
Pique the reader's curiosity
The ability to convince readers to stick around for the length of an entire novel relies on being able to engage them during the first chapter. To do this you need to make them care about (or at least be interested in) the characters and their immediate situation. You do this by piquing their curiosity.
One part of this is to raise questions the reader wants answered and this means dropping hints that things are not right in the world of your characters. There is nothing readers love more than puzzling out what drives characters. In truth, it’s a way of making sense of the world around us and the people who inhabit it. So, hint at what is missing from your character’s life, what struggles they are facing initially or what they are dreading in the future.
Here are some examples from the very first page of my book Inheriting Fear.
All of these are hints of information that intrigue the reader and raise questions that will keep them reading. This leads us to the second part of piquing a reader’s curiosity, which is evoking an emotional reaction from them.
You can accomplish this by creating a vivid, textured world they feel a part of, making them care, sympathise or at least be interested in the character, and giving that character something significant to lose. The anticipation of curiosity and the anxiety of uncertainty is a powerful potion to hook readers in so they can’t put the story down.
Readers have certain expectations of their favourite genres and you ignore them at your own peril. For example:
First chapter caution
One of the worst mistakes authors make in first chapters is to dump information in a passive way. Keep in mind that you don’t have to spell everything out right away — in fact it’s usually better if you only hint at many elements early on and then gradually build on the information throughout the story. Plus, keeping characters in action and with other characters provides plenty of opportunities for interesting showing of information.
We’ve explored what a first chapter needs to achieve in order to grab a reader’s attention, and looked at how to do that by laying a solid foundation of critical information, evoking emotions and raising the reader’s curiosity.
If you’d like to delve deeper into your first chapter to make sure it will reel readers and publishers in and survive scrutiny, then join Sandy Vaile for the next Fantastic First Pages workshop.
[Originally published on the Romance Writers of Australia blog 08/06/20.]
By Sandy Vaile
The importance of matching suspense to the fluctuations of plot
Tension is a critical element of all stories and needs to be maintained in order to keep readers turning the pages, but how does this correspond to the fluctuations of plot? There can’t be life-threatening situations in every chapter, nor are all stories about mortal danger. So, let’s explore how you can match the fluctuations in a story’s plot to the level of tension.
First we need to be on the same page in understanding what tension and plot fluctuations are, and then we’ll explore how to synchronise the two for jaw-clenching read.
What is tension?
“Tension is the emotional strain we feel in the face of uncertainty.” Sandy Vaile
In fiction we focus on the emotional strain caused by unpleasant things that might happen to characters, especially to the protagonist (hero/heroine). To create tension we develop characters our readers care about (or are at least interested in), give them something important to lose and then put all sorts of obstacles in their way to make the outcome of their journey uncertain.
All of this makes the reader worry.
What are plot fluctuations?
The events that comprise the plot of a story DO NOT happen along a straight line. Over a whole story there is a pattern of rising tension that culminates in a crisis, and then falling tension as the characters consider their next move and gather resources. This pattern is repeated over and over again.
You may have heard these fluctuations called many things, like scene and sequel, action and reaction, or conflict and reflection. Even within chapters there may be places where tension is high or low, but it will still be there.
If there is no tension at all, the story has either concluded or the reader has dozed off.”
Think of tension as the thread that connects all of your plot parts together. It is stiched through the internal and external conflicts, key plot points, character transformation, uncertainty of each situation and the unresolved questions you’ve raised, holding everything together and coaxing the reader along for the ride.
So, how can you recognise and then treat the different degrees of tension?
Degrees of tension
Tension can be intensified and relaxed but never totally released.
We want readers to keep turning pages, not be totally out of breath as though they’ve run a marathon, and the way to do that is by increasing and decreasing tension levels. Just as the action and conflict in a story plot rises and falls, so too are their corresponding rises and falls in tension. It gradually builds as the story reaches a climactic moment, i.e. where major revelations/battles/events occur, and then relaxes during moments of reflection or preparation for the next situation.
Increase tension during times of turmoil, like mortal danger, a life upheaval or imminent threat to something the character cares about. When you reach key moments (plot points) in your story, tension should be high, with the reader desperate to know what happens next and truly worried for the stability/happiness/safety of the protagonist.
In order to do this, we can use techniques like dropping shocking revelations, increasing what’s at stake for the characters, creating a sense of urgency for an outcome like giving them a deadline or forcing the protagonist to face something she dreads.
Examples of blatant tension:
Decrease tension when your characters need time to reflect on what just happened, solve a conundrum or gather themselves for the next onslaught. These moments allow the reader to breathe a little and fall in love with your characters. They happen in between crises and are particularly important in romance stories because readers expect to spend time exploring the character’s emotions and inner turmoil. Even in thriller stories there will be times when characters need to gather intel, collect resources or move to a different location.
But even when you decrease the level of tension, the uncertainty about the outcome of the whole situation doesn’t completely ease. To achieve subtle tension we use techniques like raising questions, planting hooks, changing expectations, hint at a character’s fears or secrets and foreshadowing the turmoil to come. Subtext is an excellent way to cast uncertainty on what a character is actually saying or doing.
Examples of subtle tension:
Think of the pace of tension like the surge and retreat of waves at the beach.
It builds to a crest, crashes dramatically and then quietly fades back to the ocean, over and over again. Match each wave with key moments in your story plot so you can control the increase and decrease of anxiety your reader experiences, but never let it completely disappear.
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By Sandy Vaile
Most of us know what backstory is and that our stories need it, are aware of the various delivery methods and even spend countless hours developing intricate histories for beloved characters, but knowing these things isn’t the same as successfully revealing the appropriate information at the right time.
This article will help you determine the best place to insert backstory by:
Which Backstory is Important?
The most important point when deciding which backstory to include at any point in a story, is whether or not it’s relevant to what’s going on in the main story. Does it explain why a character is behaving a certain way or what is driving them to persist in the face of adversity? Does it give credibility to their decisions and choices? If not, then it probably isn’t needed.
The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” Henry Green
How Much in One Place?You may have heard my saying that backstory is like a potent spice: it’s like a flavour your can’t quite pick lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavour, but it’s intangible and fleeting. Use it sparingly!
My preference is almost always to reveal backstory in small amounts. By doing this, you will reduce the likelihood of telling that distances readers, pulling them out of the main story and unnecessarily slowing the pace.
Of course, there are exceptions to every guideline and flashbacks are one instance where you can get away with a longer passage of backstory because you’re not just telling about the past, you’re transporting readers back to that time and place so they can feel, see, taste and hear it for themselves.
Reveal backstory without interrupting the flow of the main story by determining what information is important at that particular moment in the story and releasing snippets instead of large amounts.
For further guidance about developing backstory, the various delivery methods and how to use them for best effect, put your name on the waiting list for Sandy Vaile's most popular course, Write Backstory With Confidence: How to weave the past in without information dump telling.
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