Monday, March 07, 2005

Putting Punch in Your Prose

This is a workshop I gave a few years back. Hope it's helpful.

If you want to grab your reader by the throat, mug her in the first chapter. Don’t open with a sunset. Make your reader start worrying on the first page. To do that, you must answer a very important question: “WHY SHOULD SHE CARE?”

(1) Establish the characters in the first few pages, and show why the readers should care if they achieve their goals. To do this:

(A) Show the character doing something admirable and likeable. We want admirable people to succeed.

(B) Show that the character loves someone or something, and he is loved by others and is important to them. The biggest jerk in the world is more likeable if he loves his dog.

(C) MOST IMPORTANT: Show the depth of the character’s problem, what its impact is on his life, and how his life will change once he’s solved it. Please note the problem must have great personal impact, or the reader will not care. One reason saving the rainforest is not a good plot for a romance is that failure doesn’t affect the character personally. Doing something because it’s good for the planet is noble, but it doesn’t have the personal punch of trying to escape a serial killer. That is not to say that all problems must be a matter of life and death, but NOTHING else has as much raw emotional power as survival.
i.) To show the problem, put the protagonist in a situation where he is dealing with it. Don’t just write a scene in which he tells another character it’s bad.

(D) When designing a conflict for a character, try to come up with a particular problem that would really hit that character where he lives. What’s his greatest strength? Hit him there. Lois McMaster Bujold has a character called Miles Vorkosigan, who is an incredibly brilliant con-man who is a genius at combat strategy, even though he’s small and physically weak. In one book, she had Miles get hit by a grenade and killed, but this being SF, he’s brought back to life. But like a stroke victim, he can’t talk. Miles’ survival has always depended on his ability to convince people to do what he wants, so this is particularly desperate for him. His struggle to recover his ability is totally absorbing.

In the book I’m doing now, Midnight’s Master (later renamed FOREVER KISS), my heroine is haunted by memories of her parent’s murder by vampires. Then she’s captured by one of those vampires, the hero. (He didn’t participate in the murder, but he wasn’t able to save her parents either. He did, however, save her and her baby sister.) My hero tells her that to stop the killer, she has to become a vampire herself. That’s a choice she doesn’t want to make, but he argues that if she doesn’t do it, she will effectively be responsible for the killer’s later crimes. She also fears that she’ll become just as much a monster as the man she wants to kill. It’s a problem she can see no good solution for, and she agonizes over it through most of the book. And because she holds off making a decision, she makes the situation even worse.

My hero is an honorable man. But to stop the villain, he’s got to do things he considers dishonorable, such as endangering the heroine. He constantly fights a battle between what he has to do and what he knows is right.

E.) To set up a conflict like this, think about what you want to have happen, then chose as your protagonist the person who’d have the most trouble handling it – and who could grow the most from the experience. You can also approach it from the other direction. Create a character with a lot of strength, and then put him in a situation where his strength becomes a weakness.

(2) Don’t make it too easy.

(A.) Quickly establish the forces working against the hero, and make them stronger than he is. The villain has to be able to kick his butt without working up a sweat, and the hero has to be worried. Please note that all conflicts are not physical. Your protagonist could be a school teacher who’s afraid that the school board is going to fire her. However, also realize that she can always find another job. Why is THIS job so important to her – and the reader? There has to be something this job gives her that another wouldn’t – perhaps a connection to a particular student who needs her desperately.
(i) You also need to establish that the hero is not a wimp, either. Wimps are not admirable. Show your hero or heroine in action. That’s particularly useful if you have a supernatural or larger-than-life hero, or just a hero with unusual skills. You need to establish what he can do, and why, so the reader will know she’s in for a good time. The trick is the hero must both be capable and in danger of losing. In an early version of my book, I had the hero get his butt kicked by the villain, but I had to rewrite the scene because he looked too weak. I solved this by giving him a less powerful opponent he could best, a vampire flunky. He and that vampire go at it through most of the book, until the hero finally kills the flunky. The advantage of this is that I was able to save the main villain, spinning the story out and building the villain up. In the school teacher example, we could show her dealing with a really nasty kid, a big teenager with an attitude problem she manages to back down.

(B.) Pair your external problem with a powerful internal conflict. A purely external conflict for a character who doesn’t doubt himself doesn’t have as much power. When the hero questions and doubts what he’s doing, that has more punch. It’s also more believable. When the stakes are high, we don’t want to get it wrong. And when the character doubts himself, the reader doubts too, and that keeps her turning pages.

(C.)Try to build a conflict so strong that if your characters are anywhere in the same area code, they’ll feel compelled to find each other and argue. This makes the book very easy to write.

D.Make the characters work for it. Throw a series of conflicts at them, each worse than the last, which they survive with greater and greater difficulty. The escalating threat builds tension.

E. However, your final resolution scene must be even more powerful. If the characters aren’t in more danger in that scene than they were in the ones before it, the reader will feel cheated. So don’t avert a nuclear war in Chapter 5, because you’re not going to be able to top it in Chapter 15.


The first thing to keep in mind is: you’ve got to feel it first. Writing is like any other form of recording. You have to feel it inside yourself before you can make the reader feel it. When you’re trying to create a scene with strong emotion, spend time getting into it. Imagine it in detail. For example, say you want to create a scene of menace and building tension. What combinations of details would make you feel menaced? There’s the weather -- the old, “It was a dark and stormy night,” though obviously you wouldn’t use those words. Avoid cliche, because cliches have been used until all the power is sucked out of them.

I personally like to think of the cliche, and look for a way to do the opposite and still get the effect. Maybe the heroine feels uneasy for some reason she can’t put her finger on; it’s a gorgeous day, sunny and bright, with kids out playing in the neighbor’s yard. Their voices sound shrill and cutting, though normally she enjoys their laughter. When one of them screams, she jumps a foot and runs to the porch, only to see that the child is just playing. As she stands there, two dogs begin to fight as they run across her yard, snarling viciously and snapping at one another.

Then she sees a hulking man standing out on the sidewalk looking at her house with his fists in his pockets and a look of flat, black anticipation in his eyes. He meets her stare for a long moment, smiles slowly and walks away, while she watches with her heart in her throat. He looks familiar. She suddenly realizes he’s been following her.

Think of what would scare you, make you tense, get on your nerves. And use it.

That goes double for love scenes. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I skip over the love scenes.” There are two possible reasons for that. A.) They’re not comfortable with reading love scenes, which is something the writer has no control over. Or B.) The writer did not do her job. It’s easy to do a generic loves scene, with all the same cliches everybody else uses. But why bother? They’re boring. The very worst sin a writer can commit is to be boring, because that sin will make the reader drop the book every time. I’ll overlook a clunky writing style when the writer excites me.

Writing good love scenes is like writing everything else: it takes work and a willingness to be unflinchingly honest. Look for the idea or the image that does something for you, that makes you squirm in your chair. I’m not saying you have to have your h/h hanging from the chandelier, because that’s not believable either. People who are just falling in love don’t need a lot of kinky fireworks to have a good time.

But you need to set the scene up in a way that captures your imagination, makes you feel what it would be like to be there, doing those things.

That can be a special problem for us as women. We’re taught we’re not supposed to like sex. And if you write something really hot, you’re revealing a lot of yourself. You’re admitting you like sex, and you’re admitting what kind of sex you like. That can be terrifying.
But good writing does not pull punches. If you’re going to write a sex scene, write a sex scene. Don’t worry about what Mother or the kids will think. Don’t give Mother or the kids the book. My mother and I have an agreement: I don’t give her the Secrets books, and she doesn’t disown me.

Tips for writing sex and other action scenes:

This may surprise you, but I think love scenes and fight scenes have a lot in common. Not that I write violent sex, but both are physical action, and they have some things in common when it comes to the way you write them.

1.) You have to build the tension for them. If you’re writing a climactic fight scene – or a climactic love scene – build the reader’s anticipation. Let the characters stew. Have smaller confrontations/ love scenes where the emotion sparks but doesn’t quite go off. Every time you do that, you tell the reader, “When this happens, it’s gonna be good.” She’ll keep reading because she wants to see the explosion.

Deliver on your promises! When you get to that climactic scene, take your time. Don’t do it in four paragraphs. I’ve been known to spin a love scene out over 10 pages. Fights run about the same. If you’ve been spending the past 100 pages building to that scene, let your reader savor every second.

Details, details, details. You want the reader firmly in your viewpoint character’s shoes. Tell her how things smell, sound, taste, look. Keep the sentences short, because often we experience intense feelings in bursts. Quick strokes – the taste of blood in the hero’s mouth from that cut lip. The hot male-and-leather smell of his skin when the heroine kisses him. Pay particular attention to smell and taste. Those are the most evocative, the most primitive senses, and they’re the most vivid when it comes to generating emotion. I’ve read you should try to use one of the vivid senses on every page, and I pay particular attention to that in rewrites.

Remember that action is a chain. One character makes a move, and the other responds to it. There is a logic in fight scenes and love scenes. In fights, if one character attacks, the other will have to block and counter. If he fails to block, he gets hit. Break down every move and mentally choreograph it. How do they look when they move together? What are they feeling – fear, rage, desperation? What’s the final blow? How does it feel? (Remember that the final blow is a climax of its own. It has to be something harder and more devastating than what came before. Do not make it anticlimactic.)

In a love scene, when he touches her, how does she respond? What does she do? Don’t allow her to be a passive recipient. She should be active, giving as much as she gets. Again, what are the sensory impressions? Try to describe what you’ve felt yourself.
Make sure the emotion you describe is in character. This can be tricky. Remember, people react differently. Your butch male hero may not react the same way you would in the same situation.

For example, I wrote a scene where my heroine had been shot. The hero was agonizing over the fact that she was dying. But I read the scene, and it just didn’t work. It finally dawned on me that here was a man who fights for a living. He’s seen mortal wounds before. He’s not going to panic. He’s going to get in there and work his butt off to save her. He will control that fear. So in the rewrite, he’s got his hands on the wound, clamping it off, methodically doing everything he can think of as fast as he can. His actions communicate his desperation to save her, making the scene much more powerful.

Action is always more powerful than dialogue, because we don’t stand around talking when things are really, really bad.

Brevity is the soul of wit

(A) Shorter is stronger. I first called this handout, “Achieving maximum impact in your fiction.” You’ll notice it’s now “Putting Punch in Your Prose.” On the other hand, I wouldn’t use that much alliteration in fiction writing. It’s too showy and drags the reader out of the story. However, that does not mean you should write like a machine gun. Don’t use the same sentence structure over and over, because that’s boring. You do need those longer, complex sentences for variety, but they’re best for descriptive passages when the urgency isn’t as great. I also use them at times when I’m doing a fight scene, and I want to show a complex, fluid motion.

This paragraph is a scene from Midnight’s Master:

“Ridgemont exploded at McKinnon, swinging his sword like a scythe in a blow calculated to slice through his helm and take off the top of his head. McKinnon danced back and blocked. The shield jolted on his arms with a sound like a cannon shot, and the world pinwheeled.”

The sentence lengths there are 27 words, 5 and 17. The 27-word sentence pushes the limit of length. Looking at that sentence, it would read better as “Ridgemont lunged, scything his sword right for McKinnon’s head.” 7 words. So I cut 20 words out of that sentence. Not only is it shorter, it’s more sharply visual.

Looking at word choice: I used “exploded” as a metaphor, but it didn’t really work; people don’t explode. “Swinging his sword like a scythe” became “scything” – I wanted to keep that visual image, but the phrase was too long.

As to “slice through his helm and take off the top of his head;” if you slice through the helm, you’re going to take off the top of the guy’s head, so that could go. I still didn’t like “calculated,” so I killed that whole phrase. The idea is to create a threat. If he’s swinging the sword at McKinnon’s head, the threat is there. The reader knows what will happen if that sword connects. Anyway, look for ways to collapse the sentence, paying particular attention to redundancy. But keep in mind the effect you’re trying to create. Don’t cut a sentence until it becomes weak.

I did have some good sensory detail in that paragraph. I think the sound the shield makes is good, but I wonder if it reads just right. It looks as though the jolt makes the cannon shot sound, but it should be the sword. “The blade slammed into his shield with a sound like a cannon shot. The world pinwheeled as he went flying.”

Putting that last phrase in its own sentence draws attention to the image and clarifies the action. What I’m trying to do there is catch the feeling of being in combat. “Spun” would be shorter than “pinwheeled,” but “pinwheeled” creates a particular image that “spun” doesn’t. It’s a longer, dizzier word, which goes with the sensation of everything spinning around you. Also, about the cannon shot – though they’re fighting with sword and shield, this is a contemporary story. If it had been set around the 1100s or so, I wouldn’t have used the cannon metaphor, because that’s too early for cannon. Now, looking at the entire paragraph, you have:

“Ridgemont lunged, scything his sword right for McKinnon’s head. McKinnon danced back and blocked. The blade slammed into his shield with a sound like a cannon shot, and his arm went numb to the shoulder. The world pinwheeled as he went flying.”

Notice I added a phrase, “his arm went numb to the shoulder.” That’s because I needed a longer sentence there; too many short sentences in a row set up a machine gun rhythm. I had his arm go numb because I wanted to show the force of the blow and work in one of the five senses. It bothers me that I used McKinnon twice close together, but if I changed one of them to “him” or “he,” it would no longer be clear whether I was talking about McKinnon or Ridgemont. Sometimes you have to accept repetition to avoid confusion.

Keep in mind the implications of words. I have an e-mail list, and I was taking a poll on titles for Midnight’s Master. I don’t like that title; sounds too ‘80s. Somebody wrote in suggesting “Nocturnal Phantasm.” I got a couple of e-mails back saying, “No, that sounds like bed-wetting,” and another that said, “Sounds like something teenage boys do.” I thanked the lady for her suggestion and said only that my problem with it was that the words were too long. Hope we didn’t hurt her feelings.

(B.) In general, shorter words and shorter sentences bite harder. However, words that have a lot of possible meanings do not. “Hit,” for example, is less effective than “slam” because “hit” can mean any degree of force from a pencil hitting a table to a freight train hitting a pickup truck. “Slam” carries the implication of great force and noise. Use vivid words. “Scything,” “danced,” “jolted,” are all words that have a visual meaning, that make you see a particular kind of movement. You see how calculated all this is.

Don’t rewrite the book to death

By the way, when you’re writing a first draft, don’t start rewriting like this. If you stop to noodle over every word the way I did over that paragraph just now, you’ll never finish the book. I’ve killed more novels that way. Got up to 250 pages on one of them, about two thirds of the way through, but I sucked all the life right out of it by rewriting it endlessly before I finished. Don’t do that. Don’t rewrite at all until you finish the whole first draft. Don’t even look at the previous day's work unless you can’t remember what you did. Finish it. Then do two more drafts and send it out the door to the editor. Make copy edits when it comes back, and that’s it.

If you turn on your mental editor on a first draft, you’ll slit the book’s throat. Editing is key, but remember that it is a completely different brain function than raw creativity.

(C.) In dialogue, the more angry the character is, the shorter his sentences are going to be. Adrenalin cuts off higher brain functions. You literally can’t manage elaborate sentence structures when you’re furious. That’s why people become incoherent with rage. That’s also true of any other powerful emotion, including desire. So in a love scene, don’t have the hero prosing on about the heroine’s “amethyst eyes” when he’s making love to her. For one thing, most of his blood supply has moved south of his belt buckle, and he probably can’t even pronounce “amethyst.” If he can, he’s not that hot. Which is probably why most sex words have less than five letters.

(D.) When two characters are talking, short, tight dialogue has more impact. Keep it to two lines or less if possible, then have the other character respond. It sounds more natural. For example, here’s an excerpt from “A Candidate for the Kiss,” in Secrets Volume 6. In this scene, a reporter is trying to interview a federal agent she’s just discovered is a vampire.

“Just how many vampires does the FBI have on the payroll?” Dana asked, sounding as cool as Sam Donaldson grilling the President. A real feat considering the rapid heartbeat he could hear slamming out her terror.
The question startled an admiring laugh out of him. “Damn, you’ve got guts. No brains to speak of, but guts to spare.”
“Just doing my job, Agent. And you didn’t answer the question.”
“I’m not with the FBI. It’s another federal agency all together.”
“I could tell you.” Archer smiled slowly as he put his own spin on the old spook joke. “But then I’d have to bite you.”
“I could guess, and you could nod,” Dana suggested boldly. “The Bureau of Vampire Intelligence? The Central Vampire Agency?” Her full mouth twitched in an impish smile. “Fangs ‘R’ Us?”
“The Federal Office of Inquiry and Analysis.” She wouldn’t remember it in ten minutes anyway.
“Never heard of it.”
“I’d be worried if you had.”
“Sounds more like accountants than vampires.”
“That’s the idea.”

You can take it too far, though. I love this kind of dialogue, but it can also sound artificial if you’re not careful. People generally tend to speak in longer sentences than that. But those two characters are playing with each other, so it works. I think.

(D) Remember that you can’t do a technical discussion for the purposes of exposition and keep the emotion immediate. If you have to explain something, you’re going to back off the emotion whether you want to or not. And impassioned characters aren’t going to be interested in an intellectual discussion anyway. It’s best to use that. Time your exposition for a period when nothing’s much is going on and you need to back off the mood temporarily.

(E) Put the word you want to punch at the end of the sentence for maximum impact. Don’t let the sentence trial off by tacking on a name or a phrase that draws attention from your meaning. “Hit him with the axe!” is better than “Hit him with the axe, John!” The punch should be on axe, not “John.”

(E) Sensory details add to emotional impact. Describe how things feel, smell and taste, particularly in love scenes. The more sense detail you use, the more you put the reader in the character’s head. And the more the reader cares about the character.

Debra Dixon has a great book out on this you should order called GOAL, MOTIVATION AND CONFLICT. I recommend it highly. She says you should give your characters GMCs that are in diametric opposition. That keeps the conflict sharp and gives them a lot of emotion to angst over.

I think doing this chart is more effective than all the little questionnaires about hair and eye color and favorite foods they tell you to fill out on characters.

In Midnight’s Master, not only did the GMC for the hero and heroine conflict, but so did the one for the villain and his flunky. This was great, because everybody in the book was in opposition to everybody else. It was the easiest book I’ve ever written because the conflicts were so strong. I’d just sit down at my computer, get the characters in a room, and watch the fur fly.

At any rate, these are a few techniques I use. I hope you’ll find then effective. But it’s also true that everybody writes differently, and you may have a very different style and subject matter than I do. Even if you don’t, my suggestions may not work for you. The best way to judge is to try them and see. If they don’t, throw ‘em out.