Not only is Gregg Luke an accomplished author, he is also an accomplished teacher. With his permission, I'm going to share some insights into the art of writing a truly gripping storyline.
Gregg mentioned six key points that a novel must have in order for it to be a success.
1.) Having three-dimensional characters
- I'm sure we're all aware that a character needs to be compelling, whether that character is the protagonist in a novel of romantic suspense, fantasy or thrillers etc. no one wants to read about a hero or heroine that comes across as flat, dull or even totally unlikeable. So how do we make our readers care about the characters we are introducing?
- The initial reaction a reader needs to have for a character is empathy. By introducing some kind of internal or external conflict right away we are giving readers an opportunity to get emotionally involved. The plight of a young girl named Katniss sacrificing herself to keep her sister safe (Hunger Games), the reaction of Mitchell Rafferty when he receives a call that his wife has been kidnapped (The Husband) or the moment Jaques Sauniere realizes that a secret he's sacrificed all his life to protect is in jeopardy, and he won't be alive long enough to prevent its exposure (The Davinci code); these are all conflicts that hook us emotionally right from the beginning.
- Not only do you need to give your character an obstacle to overcome, but you need to layer them throughout your storyline. Don't give it away all at once, and avoid info dumps or mass amounts of back story. Sprinkle just enough information to keep it interesting without giving away the whole plot in the first chapter.
This leads right into the next point mentioned:
2.) Good Pacing
- Put your protagonist in immediate conflict or create the potential for conflict within the first chapter, and then use these classic pacing devices:
- Shorter sentences
- Simpler words
- Shorter paragraphs
- Fragmented lines
- Sometimes those one liners on a page can have more impact than a full paragraph of words saying essentially the same thing. If you can shorten your prose then do so in order to avoid points that drag or stop all together. You don't want to have anything that bumps your reader right out of the story.
- Some of these suggestions touch on a bit of human psychology. When you are reading paragraphs that take up more than half to three fourths of the page your reader may feel like he or she has to plow through the text or they may simply start skimming it in order to get to the dialogue. More white space is less intimidating. That's not to say a novel should be long due to all the white space you're able to insert, but knowing when to and when not to helps keep the pace from dragging backwards instead of plowing your reader forward at that edge-of-your-seat, can't-put-this-book-down break-neck speed.
3.) Anticipation is key
- Don't mistake action for suspense. Just because several fight sequences are taking place or a myriad of objects are exploding doesn't mean the reader feels as if the conflict is taking them anywhere or that the storyline is actually moving forward. Suspense is supposed to be anticipatory, and many times the most suspenseful moments of a novel or movie happen when the action hasn't even occurred yet, but your reader knows any second it will be.
- Give them time to dread the encounter when your protagonist enters a deserted mental hospital rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of former psychotic patients.
- Give your reader a reason to hold her breath as she waits for your protagonist to receive her first passionate exchange between a guy who may or may not be able to keep from killing her while he's kissing her. ( Many people may criticize The Twilight Series as something that falls under the radar of exceptional pros, but Stephanie Meyer hit an emotional/anticipatory nerve with every teenage girl...and quite a few of us older married ladies...when she layered that romantic relationship with such a combustible obstacle that colored every Bella/Edward encounter.
- As you build the suspense make each step more deadly. This can be danger of the physical kind or danger of the emotional kind so long as your reader understands that either one could be completely crippling if the protagonist can't fight her way through such a harrowing path towards victory.
- Emphasize the unknown. That monster in your closet, the one you've never seen, but can definitely hear breathing, is a millions times more scary than whipping out the full description of the monsters features before the reader has a chance to process it being there. Foreknowledge of a bad event is anticipatory, and knowing there is no way to avoid it heightens suspense.
- Insert red herrings into your plot. Characters who exhibit abnormal behavior make your readers "look" one way while the danger attacks from somewhere else.
- In terms of characterization, you want to layer your character's background, hopes, fears, challenges etc. throughout your story. We touched a little on this earlier when we discussed key points to good pacing. With this detailing you need to make sure the characters you've developed and created match up with any thoughts, actions, or dialogue you give them.
- If your character suffers from severe claustrophobia, putting him/her in a physically cramped space such as an elevator or dark cave should produce some kind of physical or emotional response in keeping with a person suffering from that particular phobia. What are they thinking? How are they feeling? Use similes to give your prose more descriptive detailing and also to foreshadow an event, but use them with care so as not to overwrite.
- In terms of the technical aspects of anything you are writing, if your character is an expert in bio-chemistry then you better have enough accurate details of the kind of knowledge your character would possess and how that knowledge might correlate with his or her profession, relationships and thought processes. Not enough detail can leave the reader feeling unconvinced, and too much detail can bore and muddy the pace. It's a precarious line you are walking, but don't focus too heavily on whether you have too much or too little until you are in the process of rewrites.
- The conflict needs to have good resolution; otherwise, your readers are going to feel cheated. There's nothing worse than investing your time in a great storyline only to be disappointed with the lack of closure. If you don't tie up loose ends and there are holes in your plot, the reader will wonder if perhaps they missed some key points along the way.
- Don't forget to include your protagonist in your resolution. This might seem like a no-brainer to most, but there are some stories out there that end without us having any idea what happened to the main character. Talk about feeling cheated!
- The placement of your resolution is very important. Resolve the conflict too soon, and the end of your story isn't going to be very compelling.
6.) Trim all fat.
- Suspense is lean, and less is more. Sometimes deleting one or two words can make all the difference when building angst, and if your prose don't build angst your scene won't instill that delicious sense of suspense. This is all about the lovely transition from writing to editing and rewriting. Give your WIP (work in progress) the attention it deserves, and don't skimp on the amount of time it takes to get a scene just right. Let beta readers take a look at it, and get opinions from others you trust. Take the feedback you feel works for you and rewrite a little more.
Gregg helped us analyze the different techniques he taught to see how he applied them in a few scenes from his books. I suggest you do the same in any books written by authors in your shared genre so you can see how they use these techniques. This will help you become more efficient in recognizing whether you are using them in your own work.
Fun quote for the day:
It is perfectly okay to write garbage--as long as you edit brilliantly.
- C. J. Cherryh