Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Slow Down

Physical peril or uncertainty is perfect material for the big stretch.
~James Scott Bell, from Plot & Structure

During the three months I spent on Lost Hearts, I had a few people in the office who knew I was writing a book. One of them, an appraiser who shares a mutual interest in crime stories, asked almost daily about my progress. One morning, he shared with me a review of a murder mystery he had just finished. As it turned out, the author disappointed him. The reason? At the end of the novel, the cop discovered the villain’s identity, arrested him, and that was it. And why was that a letdown? “You expect somebody to die at the end.”

Listening to his criticism that morning, I walked away and thought about my own story. Would it have the big payoff or be a disappointment? Even now, I wonder if I did enough, or if I will need to tweak the ending a little more. After people spend three hundred pages reading a crime novel, the worst thing a writer can do is disappoint.

Okay. Somebody has to die at the end, or at least come out it more than a little scarred. But to set up the physical peril, the reader has to believe the danger is a real possibility. So, how do you accomplish that? Show it in advance.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite Elmore Leonard books is Out of Sight. In that book, there is a fantastic scene where the reader watches Maurice, a thug, commit a crime while taking a two-bit con, Glenn Michaels, along for the ride. In this scene, Maurice demonstrates his cold hearted attitude toward life. He can kill another man, as well as that man’s woman, and not think twice about it. By the end of the chapter, Glenn now understands he’s in too deep. What’s more, Maurice’s sister knows it as well.

[Maurice] turned to Glenn. “You gonna stay with me now, I can keep an eye on you.”

Glenn frowned, squinting at him. “The f*** you talking about?”

“So you don’t disappear on me.”

Glenn kept squinting, trying hard to show surprise. “Why would I do that?”

“Like he has the gift,” Moselle said to Glenn, “can read your mind. I wasn’t even there and I know what you’re thinking. Was worse than you imagined, wasn’t it? Baby, you with the bad boys now.”

While an interesting diversion from the main plot, the primary purpose of that scene was to set up the ending, a showdown between Maurice and one of the lead characters, Jack Foley. If the reader already knows what Maurice and his men are capable of, then the expectation is already set and the physical peril is now a reality. To put it another way, it’s not enough for a reader to see a gun; he also needs to see that a character knows how to use it, too.

Now that the physical peril is set, how does a writer deliver it with a gut punch?

The way to do it is simple—slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination, as if you’re watching a movie scene in slow motion.
~James Scott Bell, from Plot & Structure

James Scott Bell couldn’t have painted it better. Thinking over the advice reminds me of one of my favorite thrillers: “Alien” with Sigourney Weaver. If you’ve ever watched it, you’ll probably remember how that last scene gripped you. Faced with physical peril, floating through space in a pod with the creature, Ripley had to find a way to finally defeat the seemingly undefeatable. And weren’t those last few minutes the most painful to watch? The camera panning from Ripley to the creature and then back. The look of terror on her face, hearing the quick breaths, as Ripley tried to slip into the space suit. In that moment, your heart most likely pounded your chest. You probably pulled your legs up. You might have even stopped breathing—wondering if Ripley would find a way to save her life and worried that she might not make it in time.

And do you remember how you felt about the movie afterwards? If you were like me, you felt an odd mix of relief that it was finally finished and a strange desire to watch it all again. The beautiful thing about the final scene, though, is that it was designed. The writers and producers intended for you to feel the fear. And how did they maximize that effect? By slowing it all down.

The same is true for writers. In the novel Intensity, Dean Koontz takes the reader through a terrifying scene as Chyna (pronounced like the country, only spelled differently) hides under a bed. A killer is in the house, and he’s moving around room by room. From her view, she can see his boots and the plop-plop-plop of blood on the carpet. (She tried not to think about the sharp instrument from which it might have fallen.) She feels the carpet pressed against her cheek, and in that moment she remembers doing the same thing as a kid, hiding under the bed to escape the fury of her mother’s boyfriend. She remembers the giant bug the crawled over her, burrowed into her long hair, and now her skin crawls with a newly imagined critter. Ten pages later, Koontz wraps up the scene, but not before he writes in a terrifying mixture of sights, sounds, emotions and everything else he can think of. For anyone who wants to read how a master doles out the suspense, I recommend adding Intensity to your library.

To summarize what Koontz did, I give you one more piece of information from Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell:

Then as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them.

That's good advice.

Additional Note: For anyone wishing to leave their thoughts, you'll notice that I have now turned on the Comment Moderation. Believe me, this was not my original desire. I like for readers to post whatever they want without fear. However, recently someone posted what looks like an advertisement. Though much of what they wrote came out as gibberish, the purpose was fairly clear. So, to avoid that kind of material on my blog, I feel forced to stop it at the door. For everyone else, be assured your comments will go through.


  1. To me, someone dying at the end of a detective/crime novel would be expected. If a writer tried to wrap it up some other way, I'd applaud the different tact. In fact, a few of Sue Grafton alphabet novels end with an arrest or other resolution that isn't terminal for one of the characters, so it isn't unheard of.

    The advise (and passages) you quoted were sound. Keeping a reader's interest is such a balancing act. You have to anticipate what they will want and when they will want it. Does this scene have too much backstory? Gotta move it. Has one character become too long winded. Cut them off.

    I think the hardest thing is trusting the reader to come along for the ride. By that, I mean one of my early mistakes (and one I see in other's early stuff) is pumping too much into the story...not just setting the table but piling every single one of the seven courses in the middle with dessert on the way.


  2. I agree with you, John. There's a temptation for writers to get the backstory out there all in one chunk. The problem with that approach, however, is that it can remove the reader too far from the current action. Or it may spoil things down the road. To visit the post again, Dean Koontz did a wonderful job of slowly dishing out the backstory in Intensity.

    As far as the balancing act, I felt that several times in the latest project. In one case, a plot line that I thought had been wrapped up turned out to be only half-settled. If I had left it alone, I'm sure it would have been a disappointment to the reader. As it finished out, however, I'm hopeful the reader will be satisfied.