Tuesday, January 15, 2013


My agent, Cameron McClure, is a demanding reader whose opinions I value. After reading my latest manuscript, she sent me notes, including one concerning the following chapter ending, in which the proprietor of a filling station in the storm-soaked Pacific Northwest is concluding a conversation with a visitor:
First Truck goes off without telling me, now Joey. The gas pump busts, and I’m here selling no gas. No garage work getting done either, I’m sure you notice. Turned away a brake job this morning.
Cameron wrote: “This isn’t a good way to end a chapter—it doesn’t feel over. You do such a good job with chapter endings, and making things feel both wrapped up, yet throwing in some detail or aspect that makes the reader want to read on and know more, that this half-assed chapter ending really sticks out. Can you fix?”
(Side note: As an author, you must develop the necessary dermatological depth to be OK when your own agent calls your work “half-assed.”)
I pondered her request and realized that I could add a feeling of menace and uncertainty. I left everything the way I had it, but added this paragraph to close the chapter with the internal thoughts of the visitor:
When I went out, the moss on the bulletin board looked like it’d grown an inch longer since I’d gone in. The moss, I realized, thrived on the heavy moisture in the air, and the wood that hosted it was decaying because of the same. The wet giveth, and the wet taketh away. Yeah, that was written all over this place.
The day after writing that, I gave a talk in a bookstore about reading and writing mysteries, and I used this as an example of working with an agent—if the agent has good suggestions, you take them. I read the original chapter ending to my audience, then my agent’s criticism of it. Then I read the added paragraph, and listened as they collectively made a soft little “yeah” sound.
No storyteller invents everything; to be honest, we steal stuff from one another all the time. Joseph Campbell figured it out in The Power of Myth and The Hero With a Thousand Faces, both of which are useful references for any writer. Humankind’s basic stories are always with us: sacrifice and bliss, love and death, adventure and gifts, war and peace. Scratch any good novel and you’ll find one or more seminal myths supporting the story, forming the framework for the characters and the action. And boy, every one of them is a page turner.
Consider the best-known suspense tale in history, the Adam and Eve story from the Bible. From the moment you hear God tell Adam and Eve, “Whatever you do, don’t eat the fruit from that tree over there,” you know something bad is going to happen. You know they’re going to eat the fruit. You know you would eat the fruit. And you know how you would feel afterward: guilty. You broke the rules. You know there will be consequences. Dire consequences, given the setup.
And you keep reading to find out what happens.
The dudes who wrote the Bible were nobody’s fools.
Look back even further, to the story of Pandora, Greek mythology’s first woman, who was instructed by Zeus to never, never open that pretty box over there. Once alone with the box, does she just throw it open and scatter its contents?
No! She sits there and thinks about it. She gets up and paces. She agonizes, she wrings her hands, she convinces herself to open it, she convinces herself not to open it. She fights with the two sides of her nature: obedience and curiosity.
That myth came to mind when I was working on a chapter about a woman who receives a box from a messenger. The woman is a rich industrialist whose son has gone missing. She has shrugged off a ransom demand, believing her son is trying to trick her. Now, in the middle of a meeting with a private detective about another matter, this box comes, a beer carton sealed with duct tape.
It sits on her mahogany desk like a redneck at a tea party.
I could have made her tear it open, or I could have made the detective snatch it away, or I could have made it explode.
But whatever I was going to do, I sure as heck wasn’t going to do it fast. So I made that box sit on her desk while they argued about it.
Is it a joke?
A hoax?
Should we call the bomb squad?
Was I wrong about my son?
How am I going to handle this client if the box contains something potentially devastating?
Use it strategically. Here are some plans of attack:
LET IT HANG FIRE, OR LET IT GO OFF. Carefully delayed action, as in the example of Pandora’s box, works wonders to draw your readers’ nerves to the breaking point. But then you must pay it off. Someone barging in with a gun is always alarming, but something as small as a sneeze at an inopportune time can make your readers reach for their heart medicine.
CONSIDER CONSTRUCTING YOUR ENTIRE PLOT AROUND THE BULL’S-EYE OF ACTION. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads embark on a journey, and immediately the journey itself lends structure, interest and tension: Will they get to California? Will they find work? Will Tom get in trouble again? Where’s Rose of Sharon going to give birth: a ditch, a shed, a boxcar? Journeys can be literal or figurative. Of course, the journey plot is just one example of extended action.
LET LOOSE A CANNONADE. Rapid-fire action is handy when you have to have dialogue to reveal information. Instead of sitting two characters on a porch, put them in a fast convertible and make one try to smoke a cigarette while they talk. Make a cop interrupt with a speeding ticket. Make them come upon a crash. Shove the conversation into the interstices of the action.

If a husband is going to slip and reveal an extramarital affair, make him do it while bringing his wife to climax. If a kid is going to stumble upon a secret, make him do it while chasing his escaped pet lizard.
When reading a good page turner, analyze it. Ask yourself why it’s good, and you’ll find any number of these techniques. Then invite your subconscious to come up with some variations of your own.

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