Tag Archives: conflict

Direct Opposition–Part I

In the shady world of fictional antagonism, there are
Concealed villains
Visible villains

Any and all can stand in your protagonist’s way, thwart your protagonist, even harm your protagonist.

Fiction is built on scenes of conflict, and conflict is created when a protagonist and an antagonist clash.

The conflict should be direct, not oblique. In other words, protagonist and antagonist should each want the same thing and be locked in a situation where only one of them can have it. This is much different than simply choosing philosophically different sides of an issue.

For example, let’s say that Wilbur Writer wants to craft a story about a boy seeking adventure. (Motivation)

The boy, Peter Protagonist, decides he’ll volunteer to serve on a peacekeeping mission to a rebellious colony planet. (Goal)

Wilbur Writer now must design an antagonist. Without this character, there’s nothing stopping Peter from hopping aboard the spaceship and going forth to do his duty. If nothing stops Peter from having his adventure, Wilbur’s story will end by page two.

Wilbur wants to write a ripping good yarn that will keep readers engrossed from start to finish. However, he doesn’t want to be too obvious so he chooses the concealed villain.

He creates Anita Antagonist, planetary president. Anita is greedy and without conscience. She has been corrupted by the colonists, who are bribing her to sabotage each peacekeeping mission. (Motivation)

Anita, therefore, chooses inexperienced volunteers for these missions, intending them to fail. (Goal) She’s sneaky about her involvement, and no one knows what she’s really up to until Peter figures it out near the end.


Let me ask you to reread my example. Then answer this question: Are Peter and Anita in direct opposition to each other?

(This is where Wilbur is going to start squirming and explaining how these two characters are on opposing political sides and how eventually they’ll meet up–probably in the climax where Peter will accuse Anita of nefarious crimes–but right now we want Wilbur to hush.)

Wilbur has made a fundamental error in designing story conflict. Yes, he’s trying to think long-range. He’s trying to think about the end of his story and what kind of showdown there will be. He’s trying to think in terms of opposition.

But despite his best efforts, he’s setting his plot up to fail. Why?

A.) There’s no plausible reason for the president and a raw recruit to cross paths.
B.) Even if Peter did figure out … eventually … that Anita is a treasonous snake, his confrontation with her will involve one scene at the end.
C.) Who’s going to oppose Peter through the other 275 pages leading up to this showdown?

“Oops,” Wilbur says. “I didn’t think of that.”

Back to the drawing board, Wilbur Writer!

Granted, there are all sorts of successful stories featuring the concealed villain. Mysteries rely on this construction. The Harry Potter series dangled Voldemort as the uber-villain that remained in the shadows until the climax of each book.

I’m not saying that concealed villains don’t work. They do, but only if their goal directly opposes the protagonist’s. And only if another character stands in as the visible villain.

Which I’ll discuss in my next post.

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Digging Holes Without Shovels

I’m back in the classroom after a long, lovely leave of absence. For the past four weeks, I’ve met with students and sent them–one after another–back to the drawing board when they’ve brought me plot outlines.

I feel like a gardener who’s returned home to find the flowerbeds choked with weeds. Earlier this month, I finally got around to pruning two of my crepe myrtles, shrubs that I’m training into trees. They’d developed numerous side sprouts and were growing into the wrong shapes. As soon as I snipped and shaped, it was perhaps less than a week before new shoots were sprouting where I’d pruned.

My students are exactly like these rebellious sprouts. They’re trying to plot while assiduously ignoring one of the most basic tenets of fiction writing.

A. You need a protagonist.

Not just any character in the cast will do. You need someone to stand up, stand out, take action, and by-golly DO something, right or wrong.

B. You need an antagonist.

Not just a guy with a dark mustache who lives in a remote castle and broods over the townspeople he wants to harm. But an antagonist to the protagonist.

This means an opponent, someone actively thwarting whatever the protagonist is trying to do.

Without this competitor, this obstacle, this individual who’s really in the way, we have no hope of cooking up a viable story.

So why do the inexperienced writers want to dispense with this individual?

Is it because I’ve said the antagonistic character must exist, and a little rebellion is at work?

Is it because newbie writers no longer understand the concept of a villain? How can that be when the world is filled with villains? We see them on the news every day.

Is it because there’s a misunderstanding about the way stories work through opposition?

Ah ha! Perhaps that’s the reason.

You think up a protagonist. You even figure out what the character wants.

Good, so far!

But then, why shouldn’t we want the protagonist to achieve that aim, that desire?

Because it’s dull. There’s no adventure, no excitement, no suspense, no entertainment if Biff the Hero proclaims, “I’m in love with the princess and I want to marry her and live happily ever after.” And the princess’s father says, “Biff, you look like a handsome young man. My blessings on you both.”

End of story in three sentences.

A story needs conflict in order to move from start to finish. It can’t achieve conflict without the antagonist. It’s that simple, that basic.

Are we as a society so entitled, so privileged these days that the concept of having to work toward something, of having to strive for delayed gratification is simply inconceivable?

I don’t know. Story construction–once the veil of mystery is parted–is so simple. You just have to trust it, and if you do, you can write stories.

Without the conflict between two directly opposing characters, there’s no uncertainty of outcome that spins the story across twenty pages … or two-hundred.

“But I’m writing a romance story,” someone might protest. “I don’t have a Snidely Whiplash villain to carry off the girl. There’s just my heroine and the hero, and if they don’t like each other how can they fall in love?”

Well, duh. Let’s consider the construction a moment. Girl meets guy. She likes him. Her inner voice whispers, He’s THE ONE. She smiles at him in encouragement, hoping he’ll show interest in her and ask her out. She may even be bold enough to ask him out to dinner.

Where’s the conflict? Where’s the opposing goal?

From the guy, of course. If she’s thinking, He’s THE ONE, then he should be thinking, Cute girl, but I won’t be caught. I don’t want to be THE ONE to anybody.

There we are. The goals are in direct opposition, and as the story progresses the characters are struggling between that conflict plus a growing attraction despite all the setbacks.

Or it can be the guy who’s smitten and the girl who’s uninterested at first. Think of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, where they both take an instant superficial dislike to each other. Then Mr. Darcy is the first to reconsider. Think of GONE WITH THE WIND, where Scarlett and Rhett are made for each other but so rarely in sync. Think of the Tracy/Hepburn film, ADAM’S RIB, where they’re deeply in love and happily married, until they take opposing sides in a trial.

Now, if we’re writing a mystery, what are we to do? It’s not a thriller, where good guy and bad guy are face-to-face, waving guns and shouting at each other. We don’t even know who the bad guy is!

Well, let’s see. An off-stage villain, a hidden, shadowy character.

This is the perpetrator, the one whodunnit. This individual doesn’t want to be caught, and so this character is concealing evidence, lying, and manipulating.

We have an investigator, the sleuth. This individual wants to catch the perpetrator and make him pay for his crime. This person is sniffing around, asking questions, seeking and searching, circling ever closer to an increasingly desperate villain.

Even in these two genres, the principle of opposition is still in play.

Directly opposing goals and their setup is not rocket science. It’s a basic foundation of plotting.

Ignore it, and you might as well be scratching at the hard ground with your bare hands, thinking you’re going to dig a hole without a shovel. You might achieve a slight depression, but you’ll never gain a well.


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Finding Motivation

Writing fiction isn’t just about blowing up zombie nests, comforting weeping widows, or tracking down Hannibal Lector.

Creating fiction is all about the discovery of what makes people tick. Why do they do the things they do? What drives them? Where do they come from, physically and psychologically? How do they find enough courage to go forward after tremendous setbacks? When do they dig in and when do they retreat? Who are they at the most basic and instinctive level?

Can you answer the above questions for your protagonist? Your antagonist? What about your secondary characters?

Develop this sort of information in your individual character dossiers because it’s going to be the soil from which your plot grows. And it’s far more important than whether your character has deepset eyes and a unibrow.

Let’s create an example:

I like to start character design with a name. Names carry connotations and help prod my imagination.

So this guy will be Solly Sample. Solly is short for Solomon.

He grew up Jewish in a small Louisiana town without a synagogue. All Solly knows about being Jewish is a childhood without Christmas like other kids and an elderly uncle with numbers tattooed on his arm. His mother died years ago, and his father owns a hardware store that’s struggled since a Lowe’s was built ten miles away. Dad supplements his income by rewiring old lamps for customers.

Solly wants to impress his father. As a kid, he resented the time his parents spent working in their store. Solly wanted more attention and approval than he ever got. He was also picked on at school for being Jewish, and that’s fueled his desire to make a big splash, to be someone important.

So instead of hard work–because what did hard work ever do for the old man except make him tired–Solly is always seeking short cuts. He dropped out of junior college when his mom got sick. Now he thinks he can’t get a good job because he doesn’t have a degree. He turns down a steady job at his brother-in-law’s concrete business because it’s hard, dirty work and too blue-collar to fit Solly’s dreams. He chases get-rich-quick schemes and blames everyone but himself when they fail. He wants a fancy car, but he can only afford it used. When it breaks down, he’s angry at the dealer who sold him a hurricane-rotted piece of junk.

Solly is approaching middle-age with nothing to show for it but a beer gut, fading dreams, and desperation. His marriage is rocky. He never has time to spend with his young son, always brushing the kid aside with promises he doesn’t keep. They need his wife’s income, but Solly hates her working because it makes him look like a poor provider. So he criticizes her for not keeping a better house. If she’s too tired to cook and brings home fast-food takeout, he gripes about that, too.

So when Solly hears that a local meth dealer needs a new runner, is he going to apply for the job? Or is he going to be too afraid to seize the opportunity? It’s easy money, maybe big money, but the risks are high. Solly is afraid of jail. He’s never used drugs and doesn’t want to.

Will he convince himself that he can work such a job and stay clean? Will he back away, too afraid, yet despising himself for his cowardice? What incentive or event might push him over the threshold into a life of crime?

Okay, I’ve built an unpleasant character here. I don’t like him, do you? Currently he’s at secondary-character level. If I decided to make him a protagonist, I would have to raise the stakes and do more with his psychological profile. He would need enough positive personality traits to give him redemptive potential.

Now, with this little exercise in mind, where would my story start? In all the character design, where’s the plot?

Exactly! When he finds out there’s a job running meth. That’s when he has choices of action.

When you’re building characters, take care that you don’t mistake characterization for a plot line. While the unfolding of character and the testing of character infuse the plot, they don’t stand alone. You need conflict, action, and dilemma–all ways in which to push at your character’s flaws and move him forward to something better than he has initially or move him backward into a much worse person.

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SPARKLE: Dramatic Flair–Part II

When incorporating flair into your stories, here are a few suggestions:

1. Be willing to take risks. (Sounds like a repeat of a previous post, doesn’t it? You betcha! I repeat points when I think they matter.)

If you’re going to be a strip-tease dancer, you have to come out on stage and at least peel off a glove.

Characters that are shrinking violets lack flair. The safe, boring, plain, mousy character that never changes will lack what it takes to carry a story to its finish.

One reason I enjoy watching DANCING WITH THE STARS is waiting to see whether some of the celebrities with two left feet are ever going to get the hang of ballroom dancing. There’s technique and footwork to learn, choreography to master, posture to improve, trust in a partner to develop, stage fright to get over … and above and beyond all of that, delivering performance flair that makes the audience cheer.

Some of the celebrities have lovely technique, but they’re shy or wooden. They never manage to sparkle, and they don’t reach their audience.

They’ve taken the risk to put themselves in the competition, but they never make it over the threshold to self-expression and performance.

Others are all sparkle and can’t discipline themselves to master technique. So the audience loves how they shimmy, but the judges loathe what they do with their footwork or posture.

2. Whatever you come up with, EXAGGERATE it. If you’ve devised a competent starship captain that always manages to bring her cargo in on time … excuse me while I yawn.

All we have so far in this example is a foundation, a list of qualities: good at job, highly skilled, responsible, and reliable. (Snore …)

How, then, do we exaggerate competent? Well, this captain is soooo good that she’s Captain Kirk good. She’s the best captain in the commercial fleet of Galactic Starlines Shipping. She’s their highest-paid officer. Every manufacturing in the colony worlds is clamoring to hire her.

Every other captain in the fleet hates her guts and is out to beat her, either fairly or through sabotage.

Now, when you’re really good at something and you know it, you don’t have to swagger and posture. You just are. So Captain Kira has nothing to prove to anybody. That gives her a certain manner, a confidence, an assuredness that many people lack.

Let’s say, though, that she goes out armed because of her many rivals and competitors–and also to protect the cargo she’s hired to carry.

So when she lands in spaceport, she crosses the terminal in her uniform, with military bearing, and alert. She’s carrying a PPK pro-load plasma pistol on her hip. It’s a non-concealed weapon, and the fact that she’s allowed by security to wear it in a crowded, intergalactic space terminal means she’s licensed and knows how to use it.

See how I’m pulling her toward the flair end of the spectrum? Exaggerating isn’t a matter of dressing her up in a purple cape and having her snarl rudely at her minions. It’s building a character up from the inside out.

When you do that, readers understand instinctively that you should test this highly competent, take-no-prisoners captain. They’ll expect you to drop some major trouble on Captain Kira and see how she handles it.

3. Increase the plot’s conflict. However much trouble you’ve cooked up, it probably isn’t enough.

I don’t mean that you should scrape up a lot of incidental problems and pitfalls that aren’t connected to the story. Remember that we want flair, not random chaos.

Instead, look at the characters you’ve designed and exaggerated. What makes them tick? If you were in their situation, how would you react? What exactly would you do? Would you ever, in a thousand years, do or say what you’re assigning to them? Why or why not?

And whatever they’re involved in, how can the villain make things worse for them?

4. Try to inject some humor. One of the endearing aspects of the television character Rick Castle is his boyishness, his delight in little details of the case he’s working on, his enthusiasm, his imagination and creativity, and his willingness to play. Such qualities bring sparkle to the show to offset what would otherwise be very grim crimes.

The silly, delightful fairy tale film, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, is bristling with flair. There’s danger, exaggeration, swashbuckling, pathos, and a great deal of comedy deftly mixed together. In the scene where Wesley has to choose which chalice contains the poison, the situation itself is a serious one. The bad guy holds a knife at Buttercup’s throat. If Wesley refuses to participate, she will die. If he chooses the wrong chalice, he will swallow poison. Anticipation is built during the banter between Wesley and the bad guy. More anticipation is built with the absurd little tricks they play on each other in order to switch the cups. And even the twist is comedic.

5. Throw in the unexpected. Sure, you need to design your characters and plan your plot. You need to consider how best to construct plot twists for the key turning points of a novel. You should outline and consider how you can make the story better and stronger and more compelling.

But don’t be afraid to pitch something completely out of left field into the story now and then, just to keep it going.

I learned how to do this early on in my writing career, back before I had much skill at plotting. My outlining abilities were poor. I knew my protagonist’s goal. I knew enough to set up a villain in opposition to that goal. I knew how to write scenes of conflict. Beyond that … I was weak!

Often, in those early writing projects, I just cooked up some cliff-hanger on the spur of the moment–using anything that came to me as a hook so I could close the chapter and go eat dinner.

Then, if my wild turn of events actually worked, I would backtrack to an earlier portion of the manuscript and plant a few details to make the event plausible.

When I was writing the story that eventually became my first published book, I got stuck in the middle. I knew how the story would end, but I was bogged down and couldn’t seem to get there. I needed something to happen, but my hero and heroine were just going on a picnic. Nowadays, I recognize this as an obligatory element in romance fiction called “getting-to-know-you time.” Then, I felt like my plot had stalled, and I was fighting off impending panic.

While I was moaning about this, a friend said, “Why don’t you have the girl discover a dead rat in the picnic basket?”

In the abstract, what an absurd suggestion! It was so left-field it was crazy. Yet I was desperate enough to do it.

Yes, I had to scramble a lot to make the setup for that rat plausible. I was forced to really think through what possible motivation a character could have for doing such a nasty thing to my heroine.

That thinking and plotting was good for me. It forced me to be creative and grow as a young writer. In using a zany, unpredictable development, I was able to think beyond the box I’d wedged myself into. I improved my skills as a result.

It also gave my heroine a jolly good reason for wigging out and bursting into tears, which gave the hero the perfect opportunity to take her in his arms.




In going for flair, loosen up. Relax and set the wild and wacky notions in your imagination free once in a while. They might surprise you. Better still, they might surprise your readers.

Study the classic films made under the studio system and observe how the major movie stars dominated the screen or stole scenes from other actors on the set. Look at what they’re doing and how they were doing it in the days before method acting took over.

Borrow and adapt. See what you come up with.

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Sparkle: Make That Plot Zippy!

When I’m reading a novel, there’s nothing more disappointing when–after a promising chapter one–the story slows and dulls down.

This week, I’ve been wading through excessive explanation, dialogue without conflict, and banal incidents strung together. It’s a second book from a new author whose debut last year was a real sparkler. Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. Alas, this one has all the zing of a wet sponge.

Do not let this happen to your story!

What do you do to avoid it?

Make sure you keep the plot strong by utilizing three techniques: hooks, conflict, and twists.

Hooks: You probably know there are myriad hooks of all shapes and effects. We’re not going to count them here. What’s essential to understand about them is that any hook you use should result in–unpredictability.

That means you open your story with a hook. You start your chapters with hooks. You end your scenes with hooks. You introduce your characters with hooks.

Grab your reader’s attention without stalling, without hesitating, without timidity. Think about the opening line to Sidney Sheldon’s IF TOMORROW COMES: “She undressed slowly, dreamily … and put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

I refer to this example often because it never fails to deliver zing. Sheldon leads your imagination in one direction (the feint) and then socks you with surprise (the upper cut). Is it subtle? Not at all. Hooks are not about subtlety. They’re about giving the reader entertainment.

Conflict: What makes a story boring faster than any other cause? Lack of sufficient conflict. If your protagonist isn’t in trouble, facing trouble, wading into trouble, or fleeing from trouble, YOUR BOOK IS IN TROUBLE.

It’s that simple. So what, exactly, is conflict?

Conflict is goals in opposition.

That’s a pat and quippy definition. What does goals in opposition mean?

Simply that as soon as your protagonist wants something specific, tangible, and obtainable, the antagonist will seek immediately to thwart the attainment of that objective.

Example: Polly Protagonist wants to buy a horse.

I’ll warn you right now that the above goal statement looks specific but is in fact vague. Push Polly to do better.

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis.

Why? (What’s her motivation?)

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis, because she’s dreamed about owning a horse of her own since she was a child. Every day, she drives home past the pasture where Artemis is grazing. She sees the sun glinting on his reddish coat. The wind tosses his dark mane and tail. She knows he’s a gentle animal from the times she’s sneaked over to the fence and lured him to her with apples and carrot chunks. She’s fallen in love with him, and she wants to take him home.

Now for the conflict. Remember that it’s goals in opposition. So we need Andy Antagonist to step in and thwart Polly. Andy can be the owner of Artemis, and he doesn’t want to sell. Or he can be a guy who wants to buy Artemis because he’s also fallen in love with the horse.

Again, in either scenario, you have to know why Andy is taking action. It needs to matter, so let’s push the scenario a bit and say that Andy has an autistic daughter and Artemis is the only creature the little girl has responded to. So he’s desperate to obtain this horse in order to help his child.

Now we have conflict between two people with valid reasons for being in opposition. Each wants to buy the horse. One wants the horse because of a lifelong dream. The other wants the horse for his daughter’s health.

Only one of them can buy the animal. Who will win? Which of them will persuade the owner to sell first? Who deserves to succeed over the other?

Weak conflict equals weak story.

No conflict equals dull story.

Strong conflict equals a story that has spark, life, and movement.

Twists: These are unexpected developments that turn the story in a new direction. A twist can appear as a plot point, a piece of information, an attack against the protagonist or someone the protagonist cares about, or a threat.

As with hooks, the effect that a twist should create is unpredictability. You may have only one twist in a short story. In a novel you need at least three, strategically placed so that a twist lands in each story act.

Keep your readers guessing. Keep your readers intrigued. Achieve this by doing anything but what’s expected, and motivate those surprising character actions through conflict and strong goals.


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Don’t Warm Up

How do you launch your story?

Do you think it begins with the first word you write on page one?

Do you think it begins when the protagonist is thoroughly introduced to readers?

Do you think it begins when trouble appears, cloudlike, on the protagonist’s horizon?

Or, do you just start typing and hope for the best?

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in Driver’s Ed., my driving instructor tried to teach us to merge and turn our vehicles more assertively by saying, “Hit that car! Try to hit that car! Move!”

I don’t think it was an effective way to teach tentative teens. I understood what he was trying to do to us psychologically, but the concept of intentional collision so alarmed me that I tended to freeze up rather than mash down the accelerator.

Now, as I teach my students how to get their stories moving, I experience frustration similar to what my driving instructor must have gone through.

Start the story on page one!

Make your words count. Make your character introduction count. Get something happening that is pertinent to the plot and start advancing it.

Know what your protagonist wants on page one!

Most writers dawdle in the opening when they haven’t a clue of what their main character’s goal is. You can’t arrive if you don’t know where you’re going.

Make sure your protagonist is in trouble on page one!

What are you waiting for? An invitation? Student writers meet with me all the time to justify why nothing is happening, storywise, for the first eleven pages. “There’s all this background the reader needs to understand.”

Readers don’t need to understand anything except what’s happening right now!

In other words, when I pick up a book to read, I don’t care how the protagonist came to be trapped in a dead-end canyon with hostile mutants closing in. I just want to see if the protagonist is going to find a weapon and survive the encounter.

The back story can be explained later. Much later. Opening with an info dump means Wally Writer is infatuated with his little story world but hasn’t gotten around yet to plotting. Readers seldom have patience to wait while Wally pulls his act together.

It’s like asking readers to read a rough draft instead of the polished version.

Bring in an antagonist fast.

“Oh no!” my student writer protests. “I want the reveal to be a surprise later.”

My response is usually, “Why?”

What are readers to do in the meantime, waiting for the big plot twist? Probably they’re going to read someone else like Dick Francis, or John D. MacDonald, or Agatha Christie, or Robert Crais.

I’m not saying that you mustn’t conceal some shadowy villains from being identified, but they need to be present. (Even J.K. Rowling injects Voldemort early on.)

Story trouble and conflict need to come from a source. They don’t just drop from the sky as random bad luck. The quicker an opponent appears–say, no later than page two–the quicker your story will get on track . . . and stay there.


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Whoa Now! Varying the Pace

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say, “Get on with the story.” He was talking about the tendency of the unsure writer to stall or slow down the story’s progression. Again and again, he stressed the necessity of keeping the pace fast. I’ve found his advice to be sound. Keep the pages turning. Keep readers from finding a stopping place. Keep things happening.

However, it’s just as possible to stumble with a story that’s too fast as with a story that’s too slow.

Any plot can become monotonous or dull if the pacing never varies. There are many terms for this: the story’s rhythm, the rise and fall of drama, the peaks and valleys of plot, etc.

Try this:

Bob darted around the corner with his Uzi held at waist level. He saw the target ahead–a shadow waiting for him in the alley. A flower of flame burst to life in the darkness. A split-second later, Bob heard the rat-tat staccato of gunfire. The bullets chipped pellets of brick, stinging when they struck him. He ducked, rolled, came up, returned fire. His opponent twisted, flung back by a hit, and fell. Bob raced forward. That was one down, but he knew seven more assailants waited between him and his goal.

This moves quickly, but if I gave Bob a moment to catch his breath and weigh a couple of options before he takes on Enemy #2, it would be more effective. Hit the reader with too much action, happening too quickly, with no chance to process, and within a few pages the reader’s circuits will be shorting out from overload. Burn out your reader, and the book is put down.

Let’s try again:

Bob eased his way across the corner, holding his Uzi at waist level. He concentrated on moving silently, taking his time, placing the soles of his shoes precisely in contact with the alley’s pavement. He was wearing a dark pair of New Balance cross-trainers, secure and reliable. Still, he couldn’t afford to let them squeak or scuff the cement. He knew that alert ears were ahead of him, ears listening for any sound that might signal an attack. Ahead, a shadow moved, and a burst of flame from a muzzle was all the warning he received before the echoing crash of gunfire bounced off the walls around him. Bob ducked, breathing hard and fast. His hands were suddenly sweaty on his weapon. He was shaking with adrenaline, unable to force his fingers to do what they’d been trained to do. Shoot back, he snarled at himself. Just shoot back! But everything had slowed down. He could taste sweat and blood in his mouth. His ears thundered from the staccato hailstorm of bullets. He wanted to throw himself flat on his belly and scream, but instead he brought up his weapon, and squeezed the trigger. The Uzi bucked in his hands, sending death in reply. Bob saw his opponent twist and fall with a choked cry. Then all was quiet, except for the ringing in his ears. His nostrils were full of cordite stench. He let his knees wobble beneath him as he sank down, breathing hard. He hadn’t killed anyone since that mission three years ago, the one he’d blanked from his mind as much as possible. Now, the smells and sounds came flooding back, the stuff of nightmares.

He forced himself to stay focused, and not dwell on the past. That was one, he thought. Only seven to go. This way in had been compromised now. They would be expecting him. Maybe he should retreat, but if he failed his mission how could he face the …

Gak! Enough of that! Here, I’ve deliberately written this action sequence to be slow. There’s too much concentration on descriptive details at points where Bob needs to be less self-absorbed and more focused on staying alive.

Pace, like so many aspects of writing technique, is a question of balance.

Keep Pages Turning

You keep readers engaged by utilizing hooks, plot twists, conflict, rising stakes, motivation, sympathetic characters, and unpredictability.

There’s an old Ronald Reagan movie called KING’S ROW. In the film, Ronnie suffers an accident and is badly injured. The town doctor amputates his legs–not because Ronnie needs an amputation, but because the doctor doesn’t want Ronnie and his daughter to become a couple. No actual gore is shown, but during the doctor’s grim assessment of this injured young man and his quiet orders to the other men to clear the room so he can take out his bone saw, the pace is slow but INTENSE. If you were reading this in prose, you would be turning pages.

Lesson to learn: Don’t rely on narrative summary alone to turn pages. Readers care more about what’s happening than how fast the events are unfolding.

No Stopping Places

Typically, readers want to put the book down at the end of chapters. Many like to read before they go to sleep at night and don’t intend to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A writer’s intention should be to prevent readers from laying down the book.

To achieve this, you need hooks at the end of every chapter. These can be cliffhangers, questions, plot twists, etc.

You should put hooks at the beginnings of chapters, too. Maybe you shift viewpoint or use catchy dialogue. These tactics can keep the reader intrigued and engaged.

Watch out for boring sections of your story. Have you allowed the conflict to become circular? (Straighten out the scene and make it work. Throw in a twist or an unexpected tactic from the antagonist.)

Are you stalling because you don’t know what you want to write next? (Figure it out and then cut out the padding.)

Are you relying too much on description and imagery to make pretty settings? (Readers like a sense of place, but too much description slows the pace.)

Keep Things Happening

Are the characters standing around talking instead of doing?

Has the conflict gone flat?

Can you add more conflict?

Is character dialogue chatty small talk or is it advancing the plot?

When was the last time you utilized a plot twist?

The point is that you shouldn’t stick to one speed from start to finish. You shouldn’t rely on one or two techniques all the time. When you become predictable, your story becomes boring–whether it’s overloaded with events of equal weight happening so fast that no one can make sense of them or whether it’s burdened with dragging, slow introspection from your navel-gazer of a protagonist.

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