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Going Dark

I read two very dark stories in the same week. They were different genres: dystopian YA versus contemporary mystery. Both featured damaged protagonists. One kept me glued to the page. The other found me skimming to see how it ended without engaging me along the way.

The first was Julianna Baggott’s Pure. The dystopian setting is depressingly bleak. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where people have been fused to objects. Her world-building through choice of details made the story interesting and kept me reading. I can’t say I enjoyed it. It was tragic all the way through with no happy moments. The third person omniscient narrator traveled between co-protagonists, Pressia and Partridge, at a remove. The verbal camera also encompassed secondary characters that never fully came to life. They served as pawns to move the story forward. I never really felt a connection to the main characters, though I felt sympathy for their plight. None of the information reveals about how the story world developed were surprising. The terrible choice the heroine made at the end was treated almost clinically. I didn’t sense the anguish she should have felt. The ending was left open for a sequel.

Writers interested in learning more about world-building and unique vision should read Pure.

The second book was Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Her rich, narrative voice made the story fascinating to read. The protagonist is a child damaged by the murder of her family (allegedly by her brother). She was sympathetic yet tragic. I could appreciate why she turned out the way she did: a thief, a liar, a user. The story’s theme about exploiting the murder of others is strong. Flynn addressed the way survivors are cast into the spotlight and quickly forgotten and the macabre people who fixate on murders. The question of whether her brother committed the murders or not kept me turning pages to get to the truth. Four credible suspects were presented. The verbal camera moved between brother Ben, via third-person close up, the mother Patty via third person close up, the protagonist Libby via first person. In the end, the mystery was solved. I didn’t like the alternative last minute fifth suspect. There is one weird deviation to his POV at the end which didn’t add anything for me.

Writers interested in captivating narrative voice and page-turning, effective information reveals should read Dark Places.

You can learn as much from what you disliked about books as what you loved about them. Read both.

What Dan Brown Does Right

“Ha!” you say. “Dan Brown is a hack. He doesn’t deserve his millions of followers.

He head hops, shows instead of tells, dumps info, layers the adverbs, and has clunky descriptions.”

All of that may be true, but he does several things that you should emulate to make your thriller thrilling.

1. Use the treasure hunt or bread crumb mystery skeleton.

2. Employ the chase.

3. Place your protagonist in danger.

4. Start the timer.

5. Include obscure historical facts and theories that intrigue your readers enough to want to know more about them.

6. Raise controversy. Nothing spawns sales like someone asking for your head.

7. Add a love interest.

8. Introduce an unusual protagonist.

I read Brown’s earlier books, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, before I read The Da Vinci Code. Both were solid suspense thrillers and I hope they make them into movies. As much as I love Langdon, the follow-up books have gotten progressively weaker. I keep reading them in the hopes of regaining that original thrill.

It was the controversy of The Da Vinci Code that made Brown headline news. However, controversy comes with risks. Be sure you can withstand the heat of the fires they set to roast you.

And, if you aren't willing to raise your level of craft, be prepared to be picked apart. Darling Dan is thumbing his nose all the way to the bank, but it wouldn't kill the guy to perfect his prose. Please, for the love of Fibonacci.

Priming the Pump

Your characters enter a scene. Something happens, preferably conflict. Now, stop and ask yourself, "What primed the pump?"

Hopefully one conflict scene leads to another conflict scene, but what if you are moving from one POV character to another or a great deal of time has elapsed in between scenes?

After you write a scene, take another look at it and consider what primed the pump. No one enters a situation as a blank canvas. 

1) What was Dick doing or feeling immediately prior? 

It may be obvious if Dick is moving between consecutive scenes. Whatever happened in Scene 3 primes Scene 4. A plot hole occurs when something happens in scene 3 and is never addressed again. You don’t have to waste a lot of page time explaining what happened in between if it isn’t essential. However, if Dick was upset in Scene 3 and is perfectly calm when we see him again in Scene 7, then something happened to diffuse his mood. You should probably reference it with a line of dialogue or interiority during the opening transition paragraph of the new scene.

2) What is each character’s mindset as the scene progresses?

Every character entering a scene has thoughts and feelings. Are they having a good day or bad day? It affects their receptiveness. Whatever happened in prior scenes could have bearing on the current scene. Conflicting emotions and situations prime the conflict pump. If Jane is happy and Dick is angry, they could trade moods quickly.

3) Has your scene been properly set up? 

Have you brought up an important point that you let lapse? Are the characters conflicted over something that makes no sense because you forgot to mention it in a previous scene? You may have cause and effect plot holes. If so, you have some revision to do. Beta readers or critique partners can be invaluable in catching these. My groups calls it the "read the book in my head, not the one on paper" syndrome.

4) Where does your scene take place? Why? 

Settings are often bland and add nothing. You add value when you set the scene in a place that heightens tension. It has to be logical and organic. Don’t do it because “the script called for it.” If your couple is having an argument at home in the kitchen, it is realistic but is it interesting? Is the kitchen the best place for the argument? Can you make the setting more awkward for them? Say, a PTA meeting or on a crowded bus ride home?

5) Who is present? 

You can have intense dialogue between two characters while they are alone. You add tension when they are striving to not be overheard or are wearing forced smiles at a formal function surrounded by family or coworkers. When two people are focused on each other, the crowd has a way of disappearing. They sometimes forget that other ears are listening. Being overheard can create future conflict. Having to behave decorously can force them to resume the conversation at another time, thus priming the pump for a future scene.

Consider not only the timeline of your story but how the timeline of the conflicts prime the pump. What happens immediately before can be as important as what happens during and immediately after.

Convincing Arguments

There was a point in a work I was critiquing where a character completely changed her stance on the solution to the story problem without intervening scenes showing how or why. This is not the kind of plot twist you want to offer your reader. A good plot twist is set up long before it happens. 

Let’s take a stroll back to beginning composition class to figure out how to illustrate a convincing change in character motivation. 

When we first learned to write a paper, we had to come up with a thematic statement. We then came up with an outline listing key points to support or refute the thematic statement. Under each key point, we used paragraphs to expand each point. 

How can you apply this to your plot? 

Decide what the matter to be determined between two characters is. Perhaps Dick wants world peace and thinks if people worked together we could achieve it. Ted wants world destruction. He thinks the only way to achieve peace is to eliminate the majority of humankind and start over.

The scenes between Dick and Ted should reflect, in word or deed, skirmishes over this deep divide. Don't beat a dead horse. Every encounter should contribute another point to the argument. This is true whether you are writing a Romance or a Thriller. In a romance, every encounter between protagonist or love interest should reflect something that brings them together or drives them apart.

In once scene Dick makes a point. In another scene Ted makes his counter point. Each encounter they have is an attempt to sway or force each other to adopt the opposite way of thinking. A different point is driven home each time.

This does not mean they make blatant clumsy pronouncements on a soapbox. Rather, everything they do and say in those scenes is motivated by their need to prove and enforce their point. Dick may believe that Ted can be swayed. Conversely, he may know that Ted cannot be swayed but must be stopped so Ted does not sway more people to his side of the argument or take action, such as nuclear annihilation, to achieve his goal.

Ted's scenes illustrate why he wants humankind destroyed. Ted may think Dick is a hopeless dreamer. Dick may drive home a few points that make Ted reconsider.

Dick's scenes address the reasons humanity should be saved. A few scenes could show him questioning his stance. Yet, it is Dick’s belief in the innate goodness of mankind that eventually gives him the tools or the access to stop Ted’s nefarious plan.

In scenes that follow them individually engaging with secondary characters should also support or refute the thematic argument. Secondary characters should have a stance on the topic and their behavior should illustrate the goodness or evil of humankind.

Ted may be surrounded by like minds, but perhaps one or two characters are on the fence. One of these characters could end up working against him. Perhaps Sally’s shenanigans reinforce Ted’s argument that humans are innately evil. She could be his poster child for why the world needs to end.

There will be friends that fight alongside Dick to save mankind. There may be a secondary character that is on the fence. Perhaps he or she encounters Sally and wonders if Dick is fatally naive. Jane could have a perilous dilemma of her own and her self-sacrifice illustrates Dick’s point that humanity is worth saving.

A secondary character’s arc could reflect one side or the other as they interact with tertiary characters.

The audience is satisfied when the hero wins and the antagonist fails. However, an ending could come down on either side of the thematic argument, creating an up or down ending. An ambiguous ending could reflect that there are shades of gray or no correct answer to the thematic question.

Whatever the outcome, stories with underlying thematic arguments are satisfying reads. When every character has a stake in the story, the reader cares what happens next. When each scene ties in to the thematic argument, you have a tight story.