Rolling the Dice and Creating Chaos

predictable plot.jpgHow many books have you read where you can guess exactly what is going to happen to the characters?  I know as a reader and editor I’ve been through a few.  It’s not that the characters are bad; they just don’t follow Murphy’s Law.  I get it.  Your character is the fastest gun in the land.  He/she can outdraw and outshoot anyone.  That can get pretty boring.  Or, you have to create insanely elaborate situations for them to navigate to challenge their prowess and entertain the mob (your readers).  Here’s an idea, instead of writing what should happen, leave it to fate.

This concept is pulled from the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) realm.  For those of you who aren’t giant nerds like me, D&D is basically a game where one person creates a story and friends come and navigate it.  Each role-player has a character they created and they use dice to determine the effectiveness of their characters actions throughout the story.

The transition into using this in your own writing is simple.  Roll a die and let that determine how effective your character is at dealing with a situation. After all, even the fastest shooter in the world is still impacted by luck.

dice.jpgTake a die.  It can be a six-sided die like you find in a board game, or go to a hobby shop and grab a 20-sided one.  If you roll a one, that’s the worst possible thing that could happen.  If you roll a six (or twenty if you are using the 20-sided beauty) that’s the best outcome that could happen.

Here’s the application.  Let’s use my own character, Drake Nelson, from my upcoming book Wastelander: The Drake Legacy.  Drake is chilling out in a settlement and needs to go to the bar to quench his thirst.  He walks in.  Sitting at a table is notorious bad guy #3.  Notorious bad guy #3 smacks women around, steals milk from babies, and once killed a man for his horse only to let it run off into the sunset for dramatic effect.  Drake looks up at me and I know—notorious bad guy #3 must die.

Now Drake has ninja speed with his pistol.  If I stuck with his character blueprint, this would be an easy confrontation for him.  Especially because bad guy #3 is just a lousy thief, not an experienced gunfighter/renegade maverick like Drake.  So instead of sticking with the boring, I let the dice decide.

Critical Hit.JPGIf I roll a high number, the normal thing would happen.  Drake doesn’t say anything, he simply shoots the man in the face and notorious bad guy #3 falls backwards out of his chair.  Everyone in the bar cheers.  Women throw panties at him.  The bartender pours him a drink.  It’s kind of funny, but it’s also kind of boring.

If I roll a middle number, it can go either way.  Drake pulls the pistol from his hip.  The iron sights flash into focus for a millisecond and he begins applying tension to the trigger.  The town drunk, Steve (it always has to be Steve doesn’t it), stumbles into the bar and bumps Drake in the back as the gun recoils.  The bullet punches a hole in the ceiling and chunks of plaster land on notorious bad guy #3’s head.

Critical Fail.JPGIf I roll a low number, (say a one) that would be a critical fail. Drake doesn’t just fail, he fails miserably.  Drake grips his pistol and pulls it from the holster.  His hand moves so fast it’s a blur of black and silver.  Unfortunately, a bird had shit on his pistol handle earlier.  The feathered feces is still glistening and fresh. The slickness causes the pistol to fly from his hand.  It sails across the bar and smacks the unaware bartender in the forehead. Worse, the bartender is the mayor’s brother.  Now Drake has revealed his intention to notorious bad guy #3, disarmed himself, and assaulted the mayors brother.

Try it out for yourself.  Mix a little luck and chaos into your writing.  While I obviously don’t recommend you use this to drive all action (or even major plot points), it is a fun way to create an unexpected turn.  It’s especially useful if you aren’t entirely sure how your character is going to deal with a situation and your writing is stalling because of it.  This tool allows you to write some potential outcomes and if you feel they are lackluster, blame the dice and bad luck.

question-markIf you give it a try, let me know how it goes.  It usually is amusing to say the least.  That’s it for today.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Conflict: Understanding Suspense

crying boy.jpgSuspense has been a problem for me since I was a kid.  I was the little boy who picked up a book, read two chapters, and flipped to the back page.  “Wait to find out what happens?  Hah!  That’s for people who don’t have a whole world to conquer,” said a smaller more naive Corey.  I didn’t ruin it for other people, but I needed to know.

My mom would wrap presents for Christmas or my birthday and tell me to stay out of the house.  “Don’t you let me catching you looking through those windows Corey!  You’ll spoil the surprise.”  Surprise?  I didn’t want to be surprised!  I wanted to know right there and then.

My parents would take it a step further.  They would toss little snippets out there and have conversations loud enough for me to hear (sneaky parents).  “That present was so hard to wrap because it’s so strangely shaped,” or “Boy that box is unbelievably heavy.”

shark.jpgEach observation and statement was another drop of blood in the water, and I was the shark getting hungrier by the second.  It took everything I had to not rip the wrapping paper into an explosion of confetti and find out what was inside prior to the appointed hour.  “To hell with the consequences!”  At least that’s what I said in my head.

Regardless, when present opening time came, it was a whirlwind of torn wrapping paper underscored by shouts from my mother to not destroy the bows so we can reuse them (mom had collected enough bows to create a bow-chain from our house to the moon, and back).  The suspense worked.  Each statement and action was a crescendo of suspense building and building and building.  Then the finale would come and blow my socks off (a Tasco children’s microscope!) or leave me jaded (underwear).

[Side note, the microscope I linked is the exact one I got as a kid.  Took me forever to find the one I was thinking of!]

Types of Conflict

That is the power, and danger, of suspense.  It is a tool we use to heighten the conflict we create.  (We talked about the basic types of conflict here.)  Think of our readers as sharks and we need to chum the waters to keep them circling.  Sure, we could chuck a harpoon at them…but it’s fun watching them circle, jump out of the water, gnash their teeth, and beg for more.

Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing, explains, “…if your goal is publication, whatever the nature of your story please pay close attention to what follows because suspense is the most essential ingredient of plotting” (p. 97).  This snippet is funny to me because it has a little bit of suspense built into it.  I read this and was like, “I need to find out what the following is!  By god, you’ve hooked me Stein!”

Now there are more than a few amazing tools and methods we can use to build suspense in our books.  We can build suspense through the clever application of dialogue, setting, action, syntax, foreshadowing, and cliff-hangers.  This post is setting up those future posts. First let’s talk about what suspense is and build a solid foundation to move from.  We’ll turn to the professionals to do this and leave my goofy metaphors behind.

Here are some descriptions and explanations of suspense.

A Refined List“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” (Alfred Hitchcock)

“Suspense arises out of conflict.  It is a subset of the dramatic question, Will the character involved in the conflict exercise his will in such a way as to overcome?” (Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell, p. 6)

“I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I’m able to conceal the information I’m trying to conceal. And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.” (Dan Brown)

“The audience wants to know that everything’s going to work out, that it’s going to be all right.  They want answers.  Comfort. Solace. Don’t give it to them. Not until late (if ever).  The longer you can hold out on ’em, the deeper the tensions digs into the meat and marrow.” (The Kick-Ass Writer, Chuck Wendig, p. 155)

“Suspense is the element of both fiction and some nonfiction that makes the reader uncertain about the outcome. Suspense can be created through almost any element of a story, including the title, characters, plot, time restrictions and word choice” (Writer’s Digest, What is Suspense?).

All of these snippets, and my previous two cents, should establish a decent basis for understanding what suspense is and what it can do.  In the future we will tackle some specific methods of harnessing suspense and cement our understanding with killer examples.

question markDo you have a suspense quote/example you love?  Do you utilize suspense actively in your work?  If so, do you have certain methods you enjoy employing?  Is there a specific author who you feel absolutely harpoons the crap out of readers with suspense?  I’d love to hear about it!  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Turn the Dial to 11: Pacing

One of the first things people blab about when they read books is pacing.  “It was a quick read,” or, “It drug on forever!”  How quickly folks flip through pages is important.  You might argue, “Not all readers care about pace.”  I’m fine with that argument.  I will counter with this question: If pacing doesn’t matter, then why does almost every book on writing address how to increase/maintain pace, and why does almost every review talk about it?

No Sleep.jpgRegardless of what we tell ourselves, (most) readers appear to to care about pacing.  Do we need non-stop head explosions and fiery metal raining down from the sky on every page?  Probably not.  But we do need to find methods to allow pacing to enhance our conflicts, character interactions, and story in general.

The more books you read on writing, the more advice you will see that encourages you to give readers a breather.  The whole book can’t be face slapping chaos after all.  However, you aren’t going to find much on methods of slowing pace down.  Why?  Because most writers create low-paced worlds.  Those flowery descriptions, prolonged scene settings, and grand narratives cut tempo down to a crawl.

With that in mind, here are a few tricks and tips that will act like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of your story.

Shorter sentences and more paragraph breaks.  I’ve talked about sentence length before here, so I won’t go into this deeply.  Short sentences are our short swords.  We hack and slash and rip with them.   Short sentences, paired with paragraph breaks, speed the story along.

stein on writing.jpgSkip a scene entirely.  This can create massive confusion, but if executed properly it moves the pace of a book along nicely.  Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, talks about a method he used in his own work.  “In my novel The Magician, there is one scene in which four rough teenagers meet with an older girl for beer and sex.  That chapter ends with the girl saying, ‘Okay, who’s first?’ The next chapter goes to a different location with other characters.  The scene that the reader anticipates never happens” (p. 196).

Stein goes on to write about how he never actually showed what happened in that scene.  He also said the book reached several million readers and he never once had someone complain about it.  Yes, you might be slaying some darlings by cutting scenes to increase pace; but hey, we talked about resurrecting them before here.

No Breaks.jpgStart with action and end with action.  Nothing keeps the mob appeased like building little cliffhangers right into the chapters.  This is a tool the experts say to use in moderation because you’ll leave the reader gasping for air.  Or you can use it for every chapter and see what happens!  Heck, there is probably a group of “lowbrow” action junkies (like me) who love that kind of pacing.

The only issue I see with this is when the writer doesn’t take the time to anchor the setting coming into the next chapter.  Often times it’s because the writer is riding the action as they write.  They find a slick cutoff stop, close the chapter, and jump right into writing the next one.  Because the transition is instant for them, they assume the reader will also jump straight into the next chapter as well.  We’ve talked about how this is a problem and anchoring the reader is important here.

tunnel.jpgJump scenes, cut scenes, and dissolves.  You film lovers will know what I’m talking about here.  For you non-film folks, these are the transitions used in film to show changes in scene or passages in time.  The character boards the train, sits down, opens a book, and the screen fades to black.  When the screen comes back into view, they are in the new location.  Or instead of being in a new location, they wake up with a gun pressed to their temple!  Gadzooks!  The fade to black is the dissolve.  Cut scenes and jump scenes are essentially the same, minus the slow fade.

If your characters have to transit long distances, we don’t necessarily care to hold their hands and go with them.  If the journey is part of the story, go for it.  But if the journey is just a tool to transit the characters from one conflict to another, then use the jump scene.  You can teleport characters however you want, again, you just need to take a sentence or two and re-anchor the reader in the scene.

Slice and dice away extra adjectives and adverbs.  [Insert Rant Here] -> I’ve heard some ham-handed advice about using programs to search and destroy all adverbs in a manuscript.  While I like the idea of searching and destroying things; adverbs aren’t the end of the world.  It’s impossible to write without using adverbs.  They are a part of speech like everything else.  Do some writers use them too much, sure they do.  But eradicating them from a manuscript (which is largely impossible) is like sawing off a leg because you stubbed your toe <- [End Rant Here].

Adverb Contention.jpg

My point is you should strive to eliminate extra words from your sentences.  Adjectives and adverbs are usually ripe for the plucking when it’s time to trim the fat.  This is normally because in the heat of writing we use them to push our story along.

The more concise the sentences are, the quicker they deliver the blows to the readers.  Yes, long sentences can be used to lull the reader into a devious trap.  I’m not talking about using sentences for effect here.  I’m talking about getting rid of all those extra words that are doing nothing.  Less is more.

Last tip.  Don’t halt conflict for prolonged description.  This always causes a single tear to roll down my cheek.  If you are blowing my mind with some heavy action, don’t stop the pain-train to describe unrelated information.

Chop Off Head.jpg

I think of the slow motion sword drop.  Someone is about to hacked into two pieces.  In mid-swing, the writer decides to slow the blade down to a crawl and explain every feature of the sword.  Come on!  Give me those descriptive beats after the battle when the character is cleaning the gore off of the blade and sharpening it or something.

That’s it for today.  These are just a tiny assortment of all the tools available to push the tempo of a story.  Do you have any suggestions, tips, or methods you use in your writing?  I’d love to hear about them.  I will likely talk about pacing more in the future and your tips might just help write the post (teamwork!).  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Conflict: The Three Types of Death

binge watch.jpgWelcome to a weekend in the QE household.  It’s blistering hot outside (100 Fahrenheit) and with our baby boy not being impervious to the heat, we are trapped in the house.  Given our confinement, my wife and I have spent some time watching what I classify as, “terribly cheesy television shows.”  Truth be told, I have found myself guiltily enjoying them too.

These cheesy shows range in content, but they all feature “important” and distinct kinds of conflict.  The use of conflict is what causes the viewer to give a hoot about what is happening to those characters.  What is interesting to me, is each of these types of conflict revolve around a kind of death.

conflict and suspense.jpgThis bring me to James Scott Bell, an author who has written a number of very useful books on the craft of writing.  In his book, Conflict & Suspense, he implanted an idea in my head I can’t seem to shake (and that’s a good thing).  His premise is that, “There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological” (p. 10).

It’s a basic concept, but one worth talking about.  Let’s take a day to break these three down.

Physical Death.  Call a florist and make arrangements because this is the grim reaper poking you with a bony finger.  In books and television the threat of a beloved character dying keeps us invested.  In many ways, this is the ultimate fodder for conflict.  Nothing could have higher stakes than being turned into worm food.

I would argue this is the most relatable kind of death.  Your opinion may vary depending on what has happened in your life.  With my military and police background, fear of death is something I was keenly aware of on a daily basis.  Despite living a cushy stay-at-home dad life now, that fear is something that has been hardwired into my brain.

Professional Death. I think many aspiring writers (myself included) deal with this conflict from time to time.  The professional death is a conflict that could destroy a career or calling.  In stories, this is where the occupation of a character is being threatened by external/internal forces.


This is the doctor facing a malpractice suit, the lawyer being disbarred, or the bank coming to close the family business.  For writers, this is the pile of rejection slips or email from an agent saying, “You need to work on your writing mechanics.”

Psychological Death.  “Like, Becky, you don’t even know.  If Jimmy takes Suzy to the prom…I will die!”  This type of death seems irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but to the character, it’s earth shattering.  Many comedy and romance based television shows thrive on this.  Many books function much the same.

no soup for you.jpgI laughed as I read about Bell’s description of this, because as he explained the concept, I thought of the television show Seinfeld.  Wouldn’t you know it, he went on to talk about the same show.  Bell explains, “…take any episode of Seinfeld.  It’s always about how important something stupid is to the characters.  Like the soup in ‘The Soup Nazi’ episode.  Oh, the soup!  If Jerry doesn’t get this soup, he will die inside.  In fact, there comes a moment when Jerry must choose between his girlfriend, who has offended the soup Nazi, and the bowl of soup” (p. 12).

Blending the concepts.  In my opinion, a good book or story can use one of these concepts, or merge them together.  Regardless of what method the writer uses, they need to make the reader care.

I think we all have read a story or watched a show where the drama was so contrived we are left dizzy from the amount of eye-rolling it produces.  This is usually a failure in character or in buildup.  In the rush to get the conflict pot boiling, writers can forget how important it is the reader cares about your character.

example graphicIf the reader is indifferent to your character, that spells death for the character and for the book.  One way to help the reader care, is make sure the potential death would impact more than the fallen character.  I will do a post on subplots one of these days, but this is basically what we are talking about.  Here are some basic, and cheesy, examples.

Physical Death

  • If the hero dies, no one will be left to protect the land
  • If the character dies, his/her family will be left fatherless/motherless.
  • The character has important knowledge, if killed, the knowledge is gone.

Professional Death

  • The lawyer who is in danger of being disbarred may be involved in a very important case.  The death of their career could mean a client experiences a death of their own.
  • The doctor who loses his medical credentials won’t be able to save a key patient.
  • The family business going under will impact the entire community.  It could also usher in a new era of big business muscling out the little guy/gal.

Psychological Death

  • In the silly Seinfeld example above.  If Seinfeld doesn’t get his soup, his friends are at risk of losing their soup too.  Not to mention the girlfriend in the mix.  “No soup for you!”
  • If the man/woman doesn’t find their love interest, other aspects of their life will fall apart.  They become a recluse and no longer share valuable insights/knowledge/skills with the world.
  • If the boy/girl doesn’t win the game, pass the test, or accomplish some other task, they haven’t just failed themselves – they have failed their family.  Whether the failure is real or perceived, this is an added element.

netflix.pngThat’s it for today.  While this is a basic concept, I like it because it keeps my mind focused on the craft of storytelling.  Even if I’m two hours into a Netflix or die binge fest, I’m still analyzing storytelling concepts and thinking about how to apply them in my own work (at least that’s a justification for the time squandered).

What types of death threaten your characters?  Do you find one type of death more sinister than the others?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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