Creative Writing: Turning a Yawn-Maker Into a Page Turner

Okay, so I’m a day late on this, but yesterday was my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party, so cut me some slack.

I just recently started reading what I would term a suspense thriller. And although it’s jam-packed with problems–conspiracy theories, whistle-blowing, threats of nuclear war, a hint of romance–it didn’t grab me until around page 90. Other books, like Vannetta Chapman’s A Simple Amish Christmas, or Stephanie Gallentine’s Refuge, hooked me almost from page one. So what was it about these books that drew me in while this other one sent my mind adrift? I think the answer lies in characterization. In Vannetta Chapman’s Amish romance, there weren’t any exploding cars, smoking guns, or raging tornadoes–okay, so maybe there were a few hail-producing storms, the emotional kind anyway. But in both of the novels, what hooked me was not the outer conflict so much as the inner turmoil the outer conflict revealed.

So I guess it all boils down to effective characterization. How does the conflict affect your character? How does it stand in the way of their ultimate goal? In my latest novel, Impossible Choices, Alice Goddard’s ultimate goal is to gain love and acceptance. This is her driving need, and it colors everything she does. It taints her perceptions and wreaks havoc on her rationale.

And Trent, her husband? He aches for success, because in gaining it, he will finally find value in himself. Or so he thinks, but in his attempt to slay the dragon lurking within, (Plato reference, here.) he becomes what he fears the most. In his mind, he is the provider, Alice’s knight in shining armor.  And this desire, the desire to perform and provide, colors all he does. It’s what drives him to the poker table. Everything hinges on that next big win, that next promotion, that winning campaign.

And what about their inner demons? Like Alice trying to be that perfect daughter, to fulfill that image of womanhood that has been ingrained in her since she was old enough to talk, and Trent trying to fill the deep void his father’s alcoholism created? And what about their spiritual needs? Their insecurities, fears, phobias? All of my characters, even the minor ones, have enough emotional baggage to fill an entire library worth of books. But because the typical women’s fiction novel only has around 80,000 to 100,000 words, I must choose the action, and responses, that propel my story further, leaving the other baggage for another day. And another book. (Book number two. grin.)

Think about your own life–the things that annoy you, hurt you, anger you, or bring you anxiety. I would suspect that most of your reactions have little to do with the actual event and more to do with your interpretation of the event. And your interpretation is often largely due to the emotional baggage you carry. If you are apprehensive about going to the gym, that is likely due to insecurities based on appearance. Or perhaps a faulty body image. If you are frustrated by your children’s mess left all over the house, this may be due to an overall feeling of being taken for granted. When a commercial makes you cry, it’s probably evoked a memory or exposed a longing.

To write a great story, we need to know our characters deeply. And as they interact with one another and deal with the storms that come their way, each scene should reveal one more piece of their psyche. Not in words: “She has always longed for her mother’s approval.”

But in action:

“She straightened her shirt, tucked her hair behind her ears, and rang the doorbell. Her stomach fluttered at the sound of approaching footsteps. A moment later, her mother opened the door. As usual, her hair was swept back in a french roll and her lips, which curved slightly into an appropriate smile, were painted to match her long fingernails.

“Jane, what a surprise.” Her eyes darkened as her gaze swept over Jane.

Jane tugged on the hem of her blouse and looked past her.

Okay, so I’m not going to write an entire scene here, but truthfully, it often takes an entire scene, an entire book, really, to accurately portray a character. But the scenes used should also propel your story forward. Characterization and plot development go hand in hand. Your story should revolve around your character and your character must react, on an emotional level, to the story.

Some great questions to ask while developing your characters:

What is (your character) most afraid of?

What do they long for most?

What was their childhood like?

What was their relationship with their parents like?

What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them and why was this embarrassing?

Where are they most comfortable?

How do they relax?

What situations cause them anxiety?

What types of clothes might they wear? Do they wear make-up? How much time do they spend on their hair? Do they paint their nails? For males: shave regularly or sporadically? Wear cologne? Frequently wear dirty/stained clothes. lol

Are they spontaneous or do they plan ahead?

Are they risk-takers or are they more cautious and analytical?

Neat and tidy or messy?

(These are just starters.)

I like to visit various psychology sites when I’m developing my characters. Here’s two of my favorites: Personality Pathways and HumanMetrics.

Then, once I’ve uncovered my characters’ basic personality traits, I get more specific and research that trait more fully and whatever quirks they have. For example, Trent Goddard is a risk-taker. Once I’ve determined that, I visit other sites like Psychology Today to find out more about risk-takers. Then, as I write various scenes, I ask myself: “How would a risk taker drive?”  “What would a risk-taker’s dialogue sound like?”, ect.

And, because Trent’s an alcoholic gambler, I spent a fair amount of time watching “Intervention”. I also visited numerous gambling and alcoholism-recovery chat rooms and websites. Because Alice, his wife, is an enabler, I visited Al-Anon and other similar sites. What I learned both created scenes and deepened them. Although, much to my husband’s chagrin, it also created rooms worth of post-it notes, scribbled sheets of paper, google-image print-outs, and partially filled spiral notebooks. And just when I thought I was ready to clear away the clutter, book number two invaded my mind, quickly spilling over into the office.

Posted In

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the nice mention, Jen. I’m so glad you enjoyed A SIMPLE AMISH CHRISTMAS. : )

    As to what makes for suspenseful reading/writing, you made some very good points. I’d like to add that what one reader finds suspenseful, another reader might find utterly boring. Also, as you point out, it’s not plot alone that builds suspense, it’s also emotion and character motivation.

    I believe Stephen King is the master of suspense. Though I’ve only read his later work, I strongly feel his writing is character driven not plot driven. It’s the father trying to reach his son that drives the story, not the zombies chasing them or fear of a virus. Those are just wrappings. He’s all about character emotion–and the same is true for any genre. In my opinion. : )

Leave a Reply