Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Writing the "All-Nighter" Book

*News Flash* And now a word from our sponser...My publication date has been changed! Smuggled Rose is now due to be released as an e-book on May 3, 2007! I hope to have a cover soon so you can see what it looks like. And we are still hoping to have a paperback version 6 months later, so I'm totally thrilled! Anyway, back to the REAL subject...

The Anatomy of an All-Nighter Book
Hopefully, David Morrell will not sue me for dissecting his book, CREEPERS, which is a perfect and clear example of a book which is so gripping that you literally stay up all night reading it to find out what happens next. A lot of writers worry about sagging middles or engaging the reader, and sometimes it helps to see how a really expert writer does this. I chose CREEPERS simply because it was so well done and it was so clear how it was done.

Morrell doesn’t pepper you with a lot of backstory and unnecessary information, particularly at the beginning. He establishes who his characters are and what their goals are: to explore an old, abandoned hotel before it is torn down. He lays down hints that the main character has more to his motives, but there is only a hint. You don’t actually find out all his hidden secrets and motives until almost the end.

In previous articles, I’ve talked about making sure your reader understands your hero or heroine, so they can bond with them. This means you have to make sure your reader understands at that hero/heroine’s goals and motivations, but only enough to accept the action and get into the story. It’s a fine line.

Starter Conflict
The hero of CREEPERS is Frank Balenger and we know he’s joined the group of explorers for his own reasons, with the overt explanation that he’s a reporter doing a story on creepers (urban explorers). His explanation to the rest of the group for his presence is actually enough for the reader, too. Morrell throws out hints like:

“I’m beginning to like this guy,” Vinnie said.
Balenger’s muscles relaxed. Knowing there’d be other tests, he watched the creepers fill their knapsacks.

Balenger wants the creepers to accept him as a reporter so he can go along with them. We know there may be more to it, but it’s good enough for us. This is the perfect example of giving the reader enough motivation, enough details to get them involved and intrigued, and to start sympathizing with Balenger, without dumping a whole lotta unnecessary backstory on us. We’re intrigued because we know there’s more to come…

So the first hurdle for the hero is to get the creepers to trust him enough to come along. This is the first twist of tension the reader feels, and the starter conflict. Of course, the creepers let him come along, which brings us to the next twist of tension.

Hints of Horrors to Come
As they break into the hotel, they run into rats and a cat with abnormal physical characteristics like extra legs or ears. There’s no long explanation, which is a mistake a lot of beginning writers make. The characters do a small amount of speculation as they move on into the hotel, but not a lot, because the reader will do all the speculation for them. The reader will pick up these details and tighten the tension another notch all on their own, because readers always play that guessing game of trying to figure out what’s going to happen next and where the author is going with these details. So already, with just a very few details, the reader is thinking:

Is there some sort of biological or radiation causing the mutations?
Are they going to run into a monster?
Or will the original owner turn out not to be dead, but alive due to some biological or radiation thing?

Now the reader is involved. They’re guessing and wondering if they can figure out where the author is going. And they’re worried about the creepers and Balenger. Will they survive? What horrors will they run into?

Brushes with Death
Once the creepers get into the hotel, the tension increases again as they run into difficulties like rotted floors. One character almost falls through. And they see a cat with five legs, again. Something is not right…

All of this serves to create the atmosphere and start building dread. By this time, the reader is going to have a hard time putting the book down, because they want to know what is going to happen next. Are there going to be monsters? Are accidents going to become fatal?

First Major Twist
But you can’t let it rest there. You have to introduce something unexpected now, to increase the tension or you will have…a sagging middle. You see a sagging middle has nothing to do with “no action” or other misconceptions like that. You can have plenty of action, but unless that action goes into a different direction, then it’s just boring.

For example, if Morrell just had more accidents like people falling through holes in the floor or ceilings caving in on them, it would just get boring. It’s happened already. It’s now expected. So more of the same isn’t going to do anything to increase the tension.

Thanks to the detail of the weird cat, readers are also sort of expecting monsters.

So Morrell gives readers what they don’t expect and throws in a completely new kind of threat. Something all his hints about the strange first owner, the abnormal animals, and rotting hotel just didn’t prepare you for.

I am not going to spoil this book by revealing what it is, but trust me, it’s a good twist.

Second Major Twist
Now that he’s introduced new threats into the environment, Morrell doesn’t leave it there. He’s got the screws tightened to the point where you can’t put the book down because everything is dangerous for the characters. How are they—any of them—going to survive?

But wait! That’s only the first 2/3 of the book! Now, he introduces another twist that relates to one of the initials guesses readers might have been making about where the book was going, but is so unexpected and not exactly what they were thinking, that again, you can’t put the book down. This second twist increases the danger, not just for the “good guys” but for the “bad guys” as well!

Final Twist
In the final third, Morrell finally reveals all of Balenger’s backstory and his underlying motives about why he is there—but only because it is relevant to the action. The second twist introduced more elements and one of those elements has a direct relationship with Balenger’s past, his motives, etc. If it had not been related in this way, with direct and personal implications for Balenger, we probably could have gone without ever really knowing about his past. The book would have been just as enjoyable and just as tense (believe me) but there is an extra layer of personal involvement and meaning that would have been missing had he not had the twist have real implications and meaning for Balenger.

This is all sort of airy at the end, mostly because I didn’t want to ruin the story for those who have not read it. Get it and read it. It is a superb example of how to create mounting tension and make that tension and plot twists directly impact the main character in a meaningful way. That’s the secret to creating killer fiction.

Sigh. Now if I could just do that.


Edie Ramer said...

Amy, Morrell spoke at a neighborhood library in October with a lot of other writers. It was fabulous. When he talked about Creepers, I got an idea for a book (that's completely different from his). Even though I normally don't write thrillers, I decided to read it. I never got it from the library though. Thanks for reminding me!

Amy said...

I was really impressed with Morrell's book - he sure knows how to build tension and keep the reader on the edge of the seat! I bet he would make a terrific speaker. You were lucky to be able to attend a talk by him.