A lot of writers have had trouble reading Dwight Swain’s book. I did for a while, too. It kept putting me to sleep. But as a new writer, I was hungry for the principles it held, hungry for the education, and so I persevered. Finally, after many tries, a light bulb went off over my head and I understood what his teaching was telling me. I got it! I saw the techniques in every book I had ever loved. And my writing changed forever.
Everything that happens in your story, every piece of information learned, every obstacle faced, every conversation, should propel the story toward the conclusion—something I learned and took to heart from Techniques of the Selling Writer. Keep your character's goal in mind. Everything should impact the main character and his goal. Make things worse for him. Make sure that all the changes that happen complicate things. Box him in. Impede his goal. Each obstacle should change things for the character
> Change forces your character to adjust. Change won’t let him stand still. Your character must react to what is happening. Your character needs a reason why he can’t simply quit. At each disaster ask, "Why doesn't the character quit?" and you should have a powerful reason why. The reader will lose interest in a character that is fighting without good cause. Your hero is only as strong as the villain or the force opposing his goals.
> Make the stakes high enough to fight for. Each person in the story should have something at stake that makes him willing to fight. Increase intensity. Drag your character further and further from his goal.
> Make sure the conflicts are important—life threatening or life changing to your character. Remember anything can be important. We’ve all seen entire movies based on saving a single tree or a coffee shop or an animal. Your job is to use the focal character to show the reader why he should care and make him believe. If it’s important to your story person and the reader cares about that person, then the outcome is important to the reader. Show the reader why he should care. Never forget for a minute that your story is about feelings.
> Box in your character. Keep whittling away until you take away his choices. Take away the heroine's options, run down the clock, increase the degree of the threat, make each action result in a dead end. This forces your story person to make a choice between two specific courses of action. Keep the reader guessing. Turn an assumption on its head. Slam the hero with a disastrous surprise. Kill off someone. Crush a dream. Do anything to keep the reader turning pages and wondering what will happen next.
> Balance peaks of action with valleys of introspection or humor. Hook the reader with action, but allow him to catch his breath before you drag him back into the dilemma. You want a peak and valley pace that will keep the tension from exhausting your reader. At the same time, never end a scene or a chapter without a hook or a dilemma so that your header is forced to keep going.
> In action scenes use short sentences and vivid words. Use longer sentences and a gentler story rhythm to slow the pace. Choose your words carefully, and contrast them with the tension of the peak that happened just before. Give the character something to ponder. After the action of the previous scene, make the character figure out what to do next. This is a good time to show who your story person really is because of his thinking process and his courageous or wise or heart-felt decisions. Change of viewpoint dissolves tension, so explore another person’s reactions.
> Don't use trivial scenes or conversations just to impart information. Too often I see new writers having their character tell another character something that they both already know, just to get the info into the story. Fill your scenes with true conflict and action, and end them with a disaster or dilemma.
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> Don’t rehash. And I know we hear repetition in classes and we often repeat things in real conversation, but don’t repeat yourself. Remember readers aren’t dummies. They got it the first time. You’ll insult your reader, or at the very least, irritate him with repetition. If there’s a television show you’re invested in, take note of how quickly events happen and how you can miss something important if you miss an episode or a scene. Yes, some things are repeated for effect, but that is mostly for the sake of characterization. For example, I think Meredith Gray and Christina Yang, started the whole “Seriously? Seriously,” thing when the show premiered ten seasons ago. And several times Meredith herself says she’s all “dark and twisty.” But for the most part, don’t have your character thinking the same thing in chapter six that she thought in chapter three. If it’s something important that characterizes and makes a point, show the dilemma or personality trait in a different way to emphasize.
Seriously, if you don’t have a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer, do yourself a favor and order one now. It’s a training manual for writers.
And guess who is speaking at the Writers Digest Conference in NYC this August? I am still incredulous over the invitation and will appreciate your prayers for the trip. Sherri Shackelford is joining me, and I am so thankful and excited. Neither of us have been to NYC, so we’re going to enjoy every minute. Thank you, friends, for helping to make Writing With Emotion Tension & Conflict a popular book among writers! So many of you have recommended it. It has an average 5 star rating on amazon. I am completely humbled and grateful.
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