Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Unmet Desire: The Core of Every Good Story

This is from my recent post at RomCon.com

Unmet desire.

It’s not just the secret to writing a good romance story; it’s also the key to writing a thrilling suspense novel—which is where I’ve found my home over the last couple years.

At its core, every story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it, the story is over. My specialty is penning crime and psychological suspense novels (although each of them has a strong romantic element as well!). Both romance and suspense stories deal with this unmet desire, and when they meet in the same novel, it can be very satisfying.

Since I believe so strongly in this idea of struggles and unmet desire propelling the story forward, when I craft my stories I’m always asking myself what the character wants rather than what the character should do. The action of the story grows out of the desires of the characters, not the other way around.
Very often when writing instructors talk about stories, they refer to stories as being “character-driven” or “plot-driven.” I know what they’re trying to say, but I don’t believe any story is driven forward by character or by plot—and no, I don’t think that stories are both plot- and character-driven.

They’re neither.

For example, if I spend five pages describing what a character is like without ever telling you (or showing you) what that person wants, you’ll eventually start to think, “Who cares? Get on with the story!” In the same way, if I write one chase scene, then another chase scene, then another chase scene, but don’t make it clear what’s at stake, the story won’t be propelled forward; it’ll get boring.

But if stories aren’t driven by character or plot, what drives them forward?


Always tension.

And tension comes from a character pursuing the object of her desire, not getting it at first, and then finding new ways to pursue it even as the clock ticks and the stakes continue to rise.

In a romance story, when that long-awaited romance begins, when the characters get the loving relationship they so badly want, the story is essentially over. So in a very real way, romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. (But I suppose that would be a rather awkward way of referring to them. I’ll give you that.)

And this place of tension is such a good place for romance and suspense to meet, where the two genres that can so easily and inextricably intertwine. When a character that we care about is in peril, we feel apprehension. That peril can be a threat to her life (as often happens in a suspense story) or to her personal, emotional well-being (as in a romance story).

All of this came into play and presented me with an unusual dilemma when I wrote my latest suspense novel Opening Moves. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the novel, it’s a prequel to the series that already features the thrillers The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, The Bishop and The Queen. All of the books focus on FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers and his unique 21st century way of analyzing crimes and tracking down serial offenders (killers, arsonists, rapists, and so on).

Remember how I mentioned a moment ago that when the romance begins, the story is over? Well, at the end of The Queen, Patrick proposes to his love interest, an FBI profiler named Lien-hua Jiang. I hate to give anything away, so I’ll just say that her response, after five books of Patrick being interested in her, sets up the entire storyline for The King, which comes out next year.

So what could I do with Opening Moves that wouldn’t be anticlimactic? If readers already know the resolution of the main romantic subplot of the series, what romantic element could I include in Opening Moves that would still satisfy them—when the events of the story happen ten years before he ever met Lien-hua?

As I wrestled with that, I went back to the question I referred to earlier—asking myself what the character wants. I needed a new love interest, but also one that would create enough tension to carry the story as well as set up the relationships he would have later in the series.

I ended up with a story that bristles with suspense, but that also leads Patrick into his first serious relationship in the series. It’s all about desire, and when characters pursue what they desire most, great stories of all genres, are born.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Patrick Bowers series has a beautiful combination of action, thrill, and compelling story. How do you find this balance? What advice can you give to writers who struggle keeping their story moving without getting to the end result too quickly?

First of all, thanks for the kind words about the series. I really appreciate them. Glad you enjoy the series.

So, you ask a good question: how do we maintain a balance between action and suspense while keeping the story moving and not ending it prematurely?

Stories are built on promises. These can come in many forms: comedic, dramatic, horrific, etc. For example, if we start a story showing a woman in an ideal marriage with a husband who loves her and she’s satisfied and at peace, we’ve made a promise to readers: something is going to go wrong and disrupt her idyllic life. Perhaps her husband will die, or succumb to his old addiction to alcohol, or leave her, or have an affair. Something will throw things out of balance. If you drag it on too long before keeping the promise you’ve made, readers will get bored and annoyed.  

You can make a promise by showing how blissful things are, or how unbalanced they are to begin with. So, we could have the daughter of a congressman get abducted—it’s a promise that the authorities will be in a race against time to save her.

One of the keys to storytelling is making promises that matter and then keeping them when the readers expect them to be kept. Suspense is really the drawing out of a promise of peril to a character whom we care about. It’s that apprehension we feel about impending danger. Action is what happens during the fulfillment of that promise. The action escalates to a climactic moment that drives the story forward into the next scene. Remember that in the interludes between scenes you will either need to keep a promise or make one.

A story ends when there’s no logical place for it to go based on the promises that have preceded that moment in the tale. If we make promises and don’t keep them, it’s likely that readers will feel frustrated at the end of the story. If we drag out a story after all the promises have been kept, readers will get bored.

So, as you analyze your story, ask yourself about those promises—have you made big enough ones on which to build a story? Have you kept the promises in ways that surprise readers and still please them? Have you done so at a time and in a way that will make readers clamor for your next book? You’ll need to stop and ask these questions throughout your writing process, but if you do, in the end you’ll have a well balanced story.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Do you have any advantages or disadvantages about self-publishing that you can share?

I can tell this is a topic that is on people’s minds. This question is representative of a number of ones I’ve received relating to the quickly changing publishing world—specifically the advantages/disadvantages of self-publishing.

Ebook sales have risen astronomically in the last two years so that now they’re surpassing the sales of print books in many (if not most) categories. Self-publishing is becoming easier than ever before and doesn’t carry the stigma that it used to.

Since I’ve worked with traditional publishers (ones that pay you money up front to write your book) on all of my books, I’m not an expert on all the ins and outs of self-publishing. But I can give you a few observations.

Self-published books are usually more poorly written. In traditional publishing there are gatekeepers who weed out poor writing—agents, editors, publication boards and so on. Then, once the book is accepted, it is copyedited and proofread, typically by two or three people, before it is bound and published. That’s not to say that all traditionally published books (or ebooks) are better written than self-published books, but honestly, most are. Which brings us to #2:

If you self-publish your book, nearly all bookstores will refuse to carry it. They know about the gatekeepers, and they are going to go with them. It’s just the way it is, and it’s probably not going to change any time soon.

You will write fewer books if you self-publish. Books sell when they are marketed. That means that if you self-publish a book and you want it to be successful, you’ll have to spend a lot of time, money, and resources marketing it rather than working on your next book. If that’s something you want to do, you might find success self-publishing.

The odds are still stacked against you. You’ll hear stories about someone who self-published a book and it sold 500,000 copies, but for every book that does that there are hundreds of thousands that sell only a few hundred or a few thousand copies. Over 95% of all books published sell fewer than 10,000 copies and that is even more true of self-published books.

Last winter, to test the waters, I self-published an exclusive e-short story on Amazon called “Second Thoughts.” In nine months I’ve made about $400 on the story. Not much. And that’s from someone who already has nearly three dozen books published.

Frankly, I could care less if someone read my book off a sheet of paper or a computer screen or a chalkboard or a sidewalk, as long as I can make a living doing what I do.

Ebooks are here to stay, but so are print books.

I don’t think that the tipping point has come yet where self-publishing makes more sense than going with a traditional publisher.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When writing a thriller/mystery, where the killer’s identity is kept from the reader until the end, do you feel the killer should be included in “X” amount of scenes, so your readers don’t feel cheated? For example: building clues toward several different people throughout a story, and then pulling the killer from “left-field,” who up until this point hasn’t really been involved in too many scenes. In your experience, do readers feel cheated, or do they like the twist of the unknown?

First of all, as far as including an unidentified or unknown killer throughout the book, keeping him (or her) on the fringes and then revealing at the end that he was responsible for the crimes—but doing so in a way that is both surprising and satisfying to readers—is very difficult, but if you can pull it off, it’s also very satisfying.

There’s no rule-of-thumb specifically for how many scenes you will want to include him, but it tends to make it more satisfying to readers if he is present throughout the book. I try to introduce him in the story as early as possible, and then have him reappear several times so that when the reveal comes it isn’t out of left-field.

You must always satisfy the reader by giving him more than he expects. Never let them feel cheated. In one of the paradoxes of fiction (and this is especially true with mysteries and thrillers), readers want to predict how the story will end, but they want to be wrong—yet still satisfied.

To make the twist work, it must be inevitable (the only possible conclusion when it appears at the end of the story), unexpected (so that no one sees it coming), and a revelation that adds meaning to what precedes it in the story.

I reread my stories as I’m working on them, usually printing out the novel once a week or so and glancing it through from the first page, so that I can grab hold of the context and try to experience it as the reader does—asking myself what the reader is hoping for, expecting, and wondering about. Then, I put my motto into play and try to always give readers what they want or something better.

There are several types of twists, and one of them is as you describe—giving clues that point toward the guilt of several people. This creates uncertainty in the mind of the reader. Another type of twist is to make all the clues point toward one person so that readers will be sure it is him. In this case, you are striving for certainty in the mind of the reader. Both types of twists can be satisfying, as long as the logic of the story supports that ending.