Watch Out for Exclamation Points!

Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware that the villain is lurking inside. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.

Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!, would look a whole lot better. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

What an exclamation point actually means

An exclamation point in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers.

For example, instead of saying, he heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe, try using, He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer. He held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room. He stood by, unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder as they came closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.

By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.

But what about the dialog?

An exclamation point in the dialog indicates that someone is shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.

For example, someone might shout, Look out! if they see someone else is about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant

I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.

Gayle Martin

Keeping Readers Engaged

© Can Stock Photo/ sjenner13

We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.

Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.

Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.

Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis

I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.

If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated

Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.

Fine details aren’t always useful information

Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “Her royal blue dress with the lace trim would show off the diamond pendant perfectly. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends Jake had given it to her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.

I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.

Gayle Martin

Creating the Perfect Storm

© Can Stock Photo/ rozum

An essential element of writing fiction is to create an intense climax. It’s the “OMG!” moment readers expect, and like any other part of fiction writing, creating a page turning, believable climax takes some skill.

Set the stage properly

Introduce the conflict early in your story, and start out small. I write contemporary romance, ( as Marina Martindale), so my conflicts begin as seemingly everyday occurrences. Someone meets a stranger who seems familiar, but they can’t place them. Someone has fallen on hard times and has to do a job they don’t want to do. Someone stumbles across something which looks incriminating about someone they know. From there you add more tension and conflict and build your story.

How to Create the Perfect Storm

As you build up the tension there will come a point when it needs to be released. This is where the real fun begins. The following is my formula, and I find it works well.

  • I begin by putting my protagonist(s) in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t make it obvious. My locations have included a courthouse in the middle of a busy workday. A resort hotel on a busy night. A character’s backyard on a beautiful fall day. Wherever it is, I make it the last place where the characters would expect something to go wrong.
  • I try to involve as many cast members as I can. The more people on the scene when it all hits the fan, the more potential for things to happen. Most importantly, I make sure everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong.
  • Miscommunication adds to the drama. Phone batteries go dead, urgent messages aren’t delivered, rumors get started and misunderstandings abound. Someone will inevitably get the wrong information and draw the wrong conclusion.
  • I break up the action as much as I can. If more than one character is involved, I’ll end one scene with a cliffhanger, such as a character waiting for help to arrive, and jump over to another character and draw them in. Or I may go to a character who doesn’t know anything is wrong, and they’re not knowing adds to the overall tension. Breaking up the action while everything falls to pieces creates more suspense and keeps the reader engaged.
  • Timing is everything. I don’t want my climax to end too quickly, nor do I want it to drag on too long. Each story I write is different, so I rely on my own intuition. Typically, my big climax scenes go for two to three chapters. It all depends on how complex the scene is, and how many characters are involved.

So there you have it. The more things go wrong, the more suspenseful, and dramatic, your climax will be, and the more it will engage your reader.

Gayle Martin

 

You Only Have Ten Seconds

So you’d better make them count
© Can Stock Photo/ stillfx

You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.

I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.

Strong opening sentences

Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.

Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.

My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.

Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.

Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.

Opening lines and your characters

No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a lead character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.

A descriptive opening line

Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.

The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.

Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.

Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating the tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale