Archive for the ‘Suspense’ Category

10 Tips for Winning Writing Contests, Scoring an A, or Attracting an Agent/Editor

January 27, 2014

1. Hook your readers with a vivid scene right away. How? Read on.

2. Specific senses will get your reader to experience your story.

Example: Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy begins like this: Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine, for fifteen minutes shy of six hours. He had dipped his hand in its waves and licked the salt from his fingers. He had smelled the sharp resin of the pines. He had heard the low rhythm of the bells on the buoys that balanced on the ridges of the sea. He had seen the fine clapboard parsonage beside the church where he was to live, and the small house set a ways beyond it that puzzled him some. Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine, for almost six whole hours. He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it.

3. Show the protagonist’s problem right away. Turner’s is shown in his feelings shown in the last sentence.

4. Character dialogue must move the story forward. If it’s just talking back and forth to talk, remove it.

5. Use adverbs sparingly. Change them to verbs.
Example: He said loudly. Change to: He shouted.

6. Create suspense with tension. Author Steve Mooser employs the element of time. He says, “If the bad guys are due into town at sunset, if Friday is the day of the school play – that’s the easiest way to build tension.” In Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, the hourglass shows how much time Dorothy has to live.

David Almond created atmosphere with action verbs and specific images in Heaven Eyes:
Mud. Black, sticky, oily, stinking mud. It was January who dared to lean out of his raft first. He dipped his hand into what should have been water. He touched mud, black mud. It oozed and dribbled from his fingers. The raft settled, and mud slithered across its surface, onto our clothes. It seeped through to our skin. It seeped through the tiny gaps between the doors. I took my flashlight out, switched it on, saw the doors disappearing as they sank . . . saw that we were being slowly sucked down into the sodden earth . . . Our feet, our hells, our knees were caught in mud . . . I grunted, whimpered, groaned. I slithered forward. . . My head filled with the mist and darkness.

7. Everyone loves humor. The unexpected is funny. Two unlike characters or objects placed together can be funny.

8. Read your piece out loud. Is it balanced? Not big chunks of description or pages of pure dialogue, but evenly paced?

9. Eliminate vague words: Possibly, many, pretty, terrible . . .

10. What has the protagonist learned or how has your character changed in some small way?

After several drafts, put away your manuscript for a while. When you return, read it aloud with fresh eyes. Are you having fun? If not, rework the story until it’s just right. You’ll feel that tingle of excitement when it works!

The Good Fall: How do your Characters React to Trauma?

January 20, 2014

While examining tide pools at the coast, I hopped from one wet, slippery rock to another. Down I fell . . . Bam!

As I lay on my back in the water and stones, pain throbbed from my knees, legs elbow and back. But relief did too. Nothing was broken. Within seconds, Bob stood above me, screaming.

“Get up! Get up! Get up!”

Starring into the blue sky, I reassured him. “I’m fine, really. Water seeped from the tide pools into my clothes. My back felt each stone and rock.

“Get up! Get up! Get up!”

“Bob, I just can’t pop up. I need a moment.”

A wrinkled face appeared on the opposite side of where Bob stood. “Take your time,” said the stranger, his voice soothing me and my anxious husband. “There is no rush.”

Then I noticed a crowd gathered around me. Many sets of eyes peered down. I could imagine their thoughts. “Would she get up? Do we call an ambulance?” As white clouds floated by I wondered if this was similar to a death watch. Then another strange thought popped through my aches. Did I hurt any marine life in the tide pools below me?”

Perhaps I groaned as I steadied myself into a sitting position before rising.

“Shall I take I take you to the hospital?” Bob said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just banged up.”

Later, while recounting the incident, Bob said, “I yelled ‘Get up?’ Really?”

And me? Bruised and battered, I walked with a ‘hitch in my get-up’ as my Aunt Mary would have described. My knees and shins swelled to twice their normal size. My entire legs looked like I had been in a boxing ring.


I was fine.

Writing Prompts:

1. Write about two characters in a traumatic scene. How do each of them react?
2. Take that scene and slow-down-the-moment, using your senses. Over-write the piece!
3. Next, choose the best tense. (Past? Present? Future?) As you rewrite, choosing which senses are the most important, and verbs which are active.

Memorable Movie Moments Help Our Writing

February 5, 2013

Every great movie has one or more ultimate memorable moments. A few lines of memorable dialogue:

* In “All About Eve” Betty Davis says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
* In “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy proclaims, “We’re a long way from Kansas!”
* In “The Wizard of Oz” the witch cries, “I’m melting!”

Then there are the images which stay with you forever.

*Also from “The Wizard of Oz,” the sand running through the large hourglass timer
*E.T. and friend riding their bicycle across the face of the moon
*Wile E. Coyote hanging suspended in air

Every scene, whether it is from a short story or a movie, must include four things:
Desire, Action, Conflict and Change. (Thank you, Robert McKee!) Your character desires something more than anything in the world, takes action in some some or large way, runs into someone or something creating conflict and the character changes. The change can be slight, but there must be change. At the end of the scene, to be truly memorable, it should have a punch – a line of dialogue or an action that gives it an extra oomph.

Writing prompts:

1. What is a memorable moment from a movie you have recently seen? Why do you think it is indelibly etched within your memory?
2. Learn to identify these memorable moments within movies and the books you read as well as the desire of the characters, their actions and conflicts and their changes.
3. Write a scene with a character you have created or know well. After you write your piece, identify any memorable moments within it. If you can’t find any, structure the pacing of your story and the tension so as to create them. Remember desire, action, conflict and change.
4. Write a personal narrative scene with these same elements.

Got Plot? Need Character?

September 20, 2012
Author David Corbett
Deconstructing Chinatown
Master Class in Character and Plot
            October 6, 2012, 9 a.m. to 12 noon             
$50 in advance and $60 on the day of the workshop
Includes continental breakfast
                 Upstairs at the First Street Café                        
Critically acclaimed author David Corbett will lead a writing workshop on October 6, 2012, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Benicia, California, Upstairs at the First Street Café. David notes, “Almost everything you need to know about writing a great story can be learned from wisely analyzing the classic, entertaining film Chinatown — which students will come to recognize as a modern update of Oedipus the King by Sophocles.” David will lead the class in a group analysis of the story to explore such techniques as:
–Understanding how character determines plot.
–Orchestrating the opposition from an offstage opponent.
–Employing “four-corner conflict” to create moral complexity.
–Developing a symbol system to underscore your thematic concerns.
–Using subtext in dialog.
For more information, contact Carolyn Plath at or visit our website at To register by mail, send $50 and your contact information to Benicia Literary Arts, c/o Marc Ethier, the Benicia Herald, 820 First Street, Benicia, CA 94510. Read more about the author at

Chocolate Suspect

September 13, 2012

Today I walked into a candy story to buy a gift and faced a group of employees huddled around their counter.

“Welcome!” said one clerk, rushing over to me with a candy tray.  “Care for a sample?”  She burbled with excess energy.   In contrast, the others seemed grim, frozen in place.

“Thank you,” I said. 

She shoved the tray in front of me.  “Your choice – – choose two!” 

This woman overdosed on cheer and friendliness this morning.  It didn’t feel real.  Why was she working so hard?  Getting an employee evaluation?

As I made my selections and chose my gifts, she prattled on, asking me questions about my life and candy preferences. 

Was this a new corporate policy here?   Best friends buy more?

Making my way to the mix-and match-chocolates, the clerks at the end of the counter asked one young man employee, “Do you want to help her?”

He said, “Will you guard the money?”

I chose my husband’s favorite white chocolate crunch for him and sidled down to the register where the young man rang up my purchases.  The other clerks had all disappeared save one, who stood next to me, her hand firmly on the doorknob leading to the back room.  Her face, planted one inch from mine, was ominous as she glared, fiercely defending her turf.  I wanted to reassure her I really was only there to buy candy, but I held my tongue. 

As I left through the door, I heard a decisive click as she turned her keys in the lock after me. 

 Ah ha.  I had accidentally walked in an unlocked door early, before the store was open and they had their cash out.  They weren’t ready for customers, but were stunned I had gotten inside.   No wonder electricity sparked the air.

Writing Prompts

1.  Every person reacts differently.  Write a backstory and scene about the fun-loving nonstop talking clerk who reacted to stress with friendliness.  Next, write a scene and backstory about the suspicious clerk who acted with intimidation. 

2.  What if?   What if it wasn’t chocoholic me who walked into the store the morning they forgot to lock the door?  Write past the stereotype.  Can you create a scene that isn’t what you would typically expect?  Use humor?  A quirky character?

3.  Use one of these to motivate a story, poem, or personal narrative:  chocolate, doors, locks, being someplace at the wrong time, being someplace at the right time, the clerk at the candy store.

Great Writing Advice on Plot, Tone, and How to Begin

November 14, 2011

Jessica Barksdale Inclan led a fabulous workshop this past Saturday at the Mt. Diablo Branch’s California Writers Club. Here are a few great ideas she shared: 

 If your work is too dark throughout?   Toni Morrison had this problem in her acclaimed novel, Beloved. The author said she “engineered moments of lightness.”

Don’t know where to start?   “Write little pieces and they’ll start talking to each other.”

Why would anyone want to write in second person? It’s good for hiding pain. Read the poem “House of Horrors” by Tom Sayars.

Her best words on plot?  Plot is tension. It’s developed by presenting a promise and then dropping bits and pieces in along the way. Your writing should be like a mystery. Don’t show everything at once.

Current trend: Editors hate prologues.  Call it chapter one!  They hate introductions.  Call it chapter one!

 Writing Prompt:

1.  Read your current project or a piece you have written.  Does the tone provide different feelings/emotions?   There should be a balance of light and dark, highs and lows.  Use Toni Morrison’s advice if there isn’t.

2.  Try writing a poem, essay or short story in second person.  Or take one of the pieces you have written or a character you have developed and try this point of view here.

3.  Read a work you have written and check to see you haven’t told too much too soon.  Is there enough suspense and tension in your writing?  You may have to take away or drop in more hints of mystery to create a better plot.

Organize your Writing like Target Shopping Center

August 2, 2011

Today visited Target to purchase ONE item, but of course we always check out the DVD section, in case they have a $5.00 one that might be a classic.   We waltzed in to discover a shiny remodeled store. 

Instead of placing the DVDs in the front like before, we had to meander through many other aisles before finding them at the back.  Of course winding our way through other brightly colored attractively arranged sections  reminded me those pretty blue placemats and bowls with clever tight-sealing lids I couldn’t live without.

Finally reaching the DVDs, I muttered, “I wonder why they put them all the way back here?”  My hands were full of this and that.  My husband’s hands were too. 

He looked down at our stuff and said, “Gee, I WONDER why?” 

Duh.  Target wanted us to wander around and take our time see what they had to offer.   

Do this in your writing, too. 

Make your reader go deeper in your novel to find what they are looking for.  The answers shouldn’t be out there right away, easily discovered.  That’s no fun!  It’s more intriguing if the reader has to dig, search, and wander around a bit to find out what is going on.

No matter if you are 9 or 90, writing for kids or adults, a short story or a novel, your first page should place a question in the reader’s mind, begging them to turn that page and wander on for more. 

I picked up a used copy of Mary E. Pearson’s young adult novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, flipped it open, and saw the previous owner’s name in the cover. 


Turning to the first page, I read the first several lines of the book.  (A book I’ve previously read and loved, btw.)

I used to be someone.

Someone named Jenna Fox.

That’s what they tell me.  But I am more than a name.  More than they tell me.  More than the facts and statistics they fill me with.  More than the video clips they make me watch. 

On the side of this paragraph, Nicole had written in pencil, Why do they make her watch them?

I love the way Nicole reads.  She has comments sprinkled throughout this book written in pencil.    Some are questions about what the character’s motivation is, what a word means (followed by the definition after she looks it up) and others are her personal predictions of where the story might be going.  If she likes a moment in the book, she’ll underline it and writes thought that was nice

The best part about Nicole is how she makes a personal connection to the story.  She’ll write:  connection:  My grandparents always try to get me to eat more, when Jenna’s parents try to get her to eat when she doesn’t want to. 

That’s what it’s all about, really.  Connecting with our readers.  Mary Pearson did that with her story and Nicole. 

It’s your turn.   You can do it yours and your readers too.

Point 1. Make sure you have a sense of mystery and suspense in your story.  Ask yourself, where can I take out some information and tease the reader with bits of clues instead?

Point 2.   Read like a writer.  Like Nicole!  If it’s YOUR book, write comments in the margins.  Critique it like a writer.  How did the writer get you to feel the way you do?  If it’s not your book, place a stack of post-its in the front of the book.  Post a note where you love the passage for later study.