July 6, 2012

Up The Stakes

Want to keep your readers drooling for more? Then you need suspense and conflict. Doesn’t matter if you write thrillers or suspense, romance or fantasy, these two elements are the heart of your book. According to Debra Dixon, author of Goals, Motivations and Conflict, “Your book is only as good as your villain”. So let’s break it down. What can you do to up the stakes in your novel?

1.      Kick up the suspense. In this step, external conflict is king. This is where something physical prevents your character from achieving their goal(s). Author Avery Flynn says it best in her blog post, What Are You Looking At—Writing Conflict: “It’s the big, bad thing forcing the hero into action.” This is the guy who wants to stop your hero or make them pay, but is he really doing everything possible?  

Let’s say the bad guy has kidnapped the hero’s mother and won’t free her until the hero robs a bank for him. Only problem is, if caught, he’s going to prison and the hero’s family would suffer. If the hero doesn’t do what he’s told, things could get ugly. That’s suspenseful, but we’re missing out on some bigger opportunities by leaving it at that. So let’s see how you can make a bad situation worse.

What if the bad guy decides not to wait for the hero to make up his mind and decides to kill his mother anyway? The bad guy has won. The hero is distraught and now his mother’s death is on his hands. Now what is he going to do about it?

By making bad situations worse, we’re taking the suspense just a little bit further for the reader. These are the types of situations that will keep them turning the pages and since we’re writing fictions, you can make the impossible believable.

2.      Make it personal. Use internal conflict to make your readers care about your characters. They want to be personally invested, they want to root for the good guy. Develop those inner conflicts and emotional issues.

So when we have a bad guy holding the hero’s mother hostage, of course the hero will be distraught. But what if we change out his mother for his wife or son (or romantic interest in romance)? If your hero/heroine has a fear of heights, guess where they’re going to end up—on a cliff or a really tall building. By challenging your character to face their fears, you’re keeping the suspense continuous and upping the stakes.

3.      Keep it short. Use short sentences to make your reader not only see the suspense, but feel it as well. Let’s take the following passage as an example:

A set of knuckles connected with his jaw.

The punch to his face forced him back into the wall.
This last sentence reads almost passively, with a slow narrative feel to it. Now to “keep it short”, we’re going to change it to make us feel the suspense.

                        A set of knuckles connected with his jaw.

He slammed into the wall. Hard.

Not only have we cut five words while giving the same information, we’ve intensified them to deliver just the right amount of suspense and life.

4.      Give your characters a deadline. Consider Patrick Lee’s novel, Deep Sky. Lee’s main characters, Travis Chase and Paige Campbell, have only 24 hours to decipher a message to save the world. Doesn’t that alone make your character’s heart race? From this deadline, you can imagine just how many obstacles are going to work against them and how on edge your readers will be.

5.      Have bad guys worth rooting against. Not every novel has a bad guy. Situations are used as conflict too. However, if your conflict takes the form of a person or a group, consider Tami Cowden’s Villain Archetypes.
In order to make the ultimate villain, however, your bad guy needs to have believable motivations. Dennis Palumbo’s article, [title] in this month’s The March of Crime newsletter, explains readers are less likely to believe your bad guy is psychopathic “just because” than they will when they discover he’s been abused, his loved one was murdered or he wants power and money.
For suspense, use psychological aspects alongside the violence. Your antagonist can kill a lot of people, he can torture and maim, but psychological attacks have a lasting impression.

By integrating these five elements into your manuscript, you’ll keep readers drooling for more and leave a lasting impression with the heros and heroine who overcome such obstacles.

July 2, 2012

The High-Concept Pitch Line

A lot of thrillers deal with a "high-concept" pitch line and while I'm revising my second suspense novel, I wanted to know what exactly makes a thriller/suspense high-concept. First, from what I understand, high-concept deals with a short and exciting one line pitch.

Here are a few examples I've found:
Michael Critchton - "Killer disease from space!" to "An island of dinosaurs reconstituted from fossil DNA!" to "Killer nanorobots!"
The Hunger Games - "Teenagers fight to the death on TV!"

With my goal to find an agent with Bleed For Me, I decided to take the high-concept pitch into consideration. How could my novel be summed up in a one line, exciting and encompassing pitch? Like a hook, it needs to catch readers/agents/publishers off guard, but at the same time tell them what my book addresses.

One line... 

"A former hitman must prevent bloodshed!"

What do you think? Does the line tell you what Bleed For Me is about? Does it make you want to read more? Is it different enough from other books you've read?

The entire novel must be understood from a high-concept pitch. It has to be loud. So I gave this one a shot:

"A hitman and convict must save lives!"

Better? I found it interesting that the entire time I worked on my high-concept pitch, it was a lot easier to get through my revisions. Even if your book isn't high-concept (understood in one short sentence) you can still apply this same concept to make sure your writing is focused. 

Obviously I'm still working on it, but what are some of your ideas for high-concept pitch line?