The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge.jpgI recently had a friend contact me because an editor had given them feedback that mentioned, ‘the curse of knowledge’.  My friend mentioned it for two reasons: they weren’t entirely tracking on what it meant, and they knew I blog about writing and thought I could mention it in a post.

There’s a touch of irony in having an editor tell you to avoid the curse of knowledge.  It becomes even more ironic when they don’t explain exactly what it means.  I’ve seen a few explanations of the term, but to put it plainly, it’s when a writer makes assumptions about what their readers know and end up writing above their heads.

Here’s a non-fiction example.  When I was a journalist in the Navy, we were instructed to break down our writing to the grade school level.  This tailored our writing to a wider audience and made it more accessible to the average reader.


The Naval Postgraduate School wasn’t a terrible place to be stationed. 

Then, later in my Navy career, I got stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The students at the school were senior officers from all branches of the military and from allied countries.  The focus was mostly on advanced science and technology projects.  I was told to step up the complexity of my writing because now the average audience was perceived to be more intelligent.

I remember being assigned a story about a professor and some students who were developing free electron laser technology to be used on ships.  The idea was to use directed energy to blast incoming rockets and projectiles out of the sky before they would reach a ship. The professor’s name was Bill Coulson, and I was super excited to talk about something that hearkened images of the planet Alderaan being destroyed.

When I sat down with Bill, I asked him to describe the scope of the project.  The explanation was interesting, but very confusing.  There were lots of technical terms and science jargon.  After he finished, I asked in the nicest way possible if he could explain some aspects of it again, but dumb it down for me. He obliged.


At this point in time I didn’t know a lick about ‘the curse of knowledge,’ but in retrospect, this example really illustrates it well.  Bill, due to his technical experience and level of knowledge, glossed over some facts that would be essential to my story.  By glossing over, I do mean, used scientific jargon very few people truly understand.  I needed a way to write those bits of information in a way for the average reader to comprehend.  For me to do that, I needed to understand it myself.

complex description.jpgThis is an important concept to think of when you are writing.  I find that many times people who use lots of technical terms and jargon do so for two reasons: sometimes they don’t really understand what they are talking about themselves, and sometimes they are afraid to be seen as simpletons by peers.

Now, about that first conclusion.  When I ask someone to break something complex down and they can’t, I often wonder if they actually know what it is they are talking about.  In the example I offered, Bill had no trouble simplifying some very advanced engineering and physics concepts to their bare bones.  He truly understood the content; I just needed to filter and understand it myself.

In regards to being afraid to look like a simpleton, that’s something we just need to be able to get over unless we want to only appeal to the most pretentious readers (and those blow-hards are probably going to criticize your work no matter what).  When I interviewed Bill, I could have just nodded my head and dumped all of the content he gave me into the story in its raw state.  But that would have been a disservice to him because a story of this nature helps spread the word.  If no one understands the science, then it’s harder for him to get grants to pay for all of his cool toys.

Navy_laser_shoots_drone..jpgI‘m not saying my story helped change the world, but these lasers are on ships now…

[Side Note:  If you are still reading and are thinking, QE tell me how to build my own laser weaponhere is a cool pdf Bill put together that talks about the evolution of the tech. Good luck…

The curse of knowledge also manifests in a lack of detail.  Some writers make the assumption, because they are so close to the story, that everyone may know what it is they are describing.  Because of this, they strip the setting of detail and only offer a skeleton.  Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, states that, “Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…” (p. 72).

We want people to remember our story.  It’s often why it’s recommended to anchor the reader in setting early in chapters.  When people recall a story, they often recall it in chunks (our brain chunks information to help us remember it).  For them to remember a specific chunk/chapter, it’s vital for the storyteller to anchor them in each chapter and paint a brief picture.perception-quote

Whether you are bamboozling people with complex language, or stripping things down, the best way to cure the curse is to step outside of your own perception.  Put another way, it’s a fools errand to solely apply your own judgement as to what other people understand.  If you want to know what people think, you need to ask them.  This is why it’s of vital importance to pay special attention to your beta and alpha readers (your editor might be able to offer some insight too).

question markThat’s the breakdown of the concept.  I may do one future post on this that discusses some of the misconceptions and beliefs behind the curse.  Let me know if this is something any of you are interested in.  Have any of you fallen victim to the curse?  Have you read the work of someone afflicted with it?  I’d love to hear about.  I’m also very open to more solutions.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Exercises

Read Your DialogueThe best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting).  What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.

With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict.  If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories.  In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen.  For many writers, it takes time and practice.  More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity.  It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.


From Wiki-Commons

To spar effectively, it takes some exercise.  So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).

[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.

Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene.  Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it!  Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth.  A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said.  Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it.  What you’ll end up with is a very long string of hungry.jpg

Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.

While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise.  Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth.  If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with.  Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.

Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene.  You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about.  One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech.  While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech.  In essence, it’s speech with purpose.  Here’s an exercise to employ.

This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell.  It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.

  • Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
  • Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered.  Looks for objectivity.
  • Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…

The premise is simple.  Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out.  What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda.  It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters.  A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance.  As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other.  Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.

Dialogue in History

Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D).  While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it.  This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.

Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them.  This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue.  During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life.  But do it from different perspectives.  This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.

So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:

  • Movie Narratorwrite dazzling dialogue:  “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion.  Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
  • Mad Scientist:  “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production.  Eureka!”
  • Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really.  I first observed you tugging on your diaper.  It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth.  Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”

Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.

You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life.  If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.

question markThat’s it for today.  I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future.  Do you use any of these exercises?  Do you have some you would add to the list?  I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Monsters: Book, Blurb & Collage

Writing Monsters

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, Writing Monsters, written by Philip Athans.  If you click the image you will be teleported to my Flickr where the image lives in high-res.  As always, it’s free to share and use however you would like.

riting Monsters
, by Philip Athans, has been on my list of books to showcase here on QE for a while now.  Why?  Because it is one of the most entertaining and well written books I have found on the subject matter.  Before I go into my blow-by-blow, you can check out the book on [Amazon] or [goodreads].

A Refined List

There’s a big list of things that really made this book appeal to me.  To make my bias apparent, I’m going to make a slight deviation from my normal blueprint and offer a short list.  Some of these things may seem silly to you all, and some of these things may make you foam at the mouth and impulse buy the book (or snag it from the library).

  1. Philip Athans is awesome.  There, I said it.  I’m a fanboy of his, and he actually maintains a WordPress blog called Fantasy Author’s Handbook, which he updates every Tuesday.  There is a massive amount of information to be mined from his page.
  2. In our continuing study of character archetypes, I wrote a post called Writing Characters & Role Playing Games a few weeks ago.  In it, I talked about how the computer game Baldur’s Gate blew my mind and really made me examine character archetypes when I was younger.  Well, Philip Athans wrote the book on it.  By that, I mean he literally wrote the official Forgotten Realms book, Baldur’s Gate.
  3. Why am I sharing all of this?  For transparency.  I’m obviously biased toward this author, and I like to be honest with you all.  With that being said, let’s talk about this book.

writing monsters.jpgThis book, for me, is solid because it covers a wide range of topics regarding how to write monsters.  More so, because it uses a number of examples and cited works to bolster and emphasize points.  Athans uses examples from literature (spanning from historic works all the way to modern time), movies, and even video games.  For my gamer friends (console, computer, and D&D), you are going to feel very comfortable flipping through these pages as Athans uses these mediums as tools to provide information to the reader.

Writing Monsters also does a phenomenal job of defining the physical, psychological, and emotional characteristics of monsters from almost all genres.  While this book is shorter and more current, at times I felt like I was reading the “monster version” of Joseph Campbells’ book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  The only difference being Campbell provides a sweeping mythological look at the hero throughout time, while Athan pinpoints certain monsters to drive the purpose of his book.

The book is broken into three main parts: What They Are, Why They’re Here, and How to Write Them.  While all parts are very insightful, I found the chapters within, Why They’re Here, to be especially enjoyable.  In this section of the book, Athans talks about monsters as metaphors, obstacles, agents, sources of pity, sources of magic or technology, and how they bring out the good and bad in people.

In short, if you are struggling with coming up with concepts for monsters, or simply curious about them, this book provides some very interesting and fun information.  Also, this book serves as a great tool to find other relevant sources of inspiration.  I did a quick scan of the cited sources and Athans uses more than thirty books and short stories to drive his narrative.  That by itself is a gold mine if you are entrenched in these genres.

question-markThat’s it for today.  If you are curious about some of the other writing books I have read you can check out a listing of them I made by clicking right here.  I’m constantly eating my greens, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for more books to devour.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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World Builder’s Disease: Knowing the Sickness

World Builder's Disease.jpgWorking as an editor, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with other writers.  For me, getting to be a part of the process of creation is very rewarding.  However, it doesn’t come without peril.  Part of being an editor, much like being a doctor, is that you have to develop a sort of bedside manner.  When you look into the eyes of a vulnerable writer during review and utter, “My concern is that you have developed late stage World Builder’s Disease,” you need to be able to at least explain the nature of the sickness.  (Okay, I might not say it just like that — but I’m trying to make a point).

Some of you may already know, but World Builder’s Disease is basically when a writer gets so lost in the backstory of the world they are creating that they produce endless pages of history, character background, cultural information, and setting.  The characters, conflicts, and actual telling of the story become secondary to this grand history and complex world.  The book begins to look like an anthropological dissertation, instead of a story.

If you are completely unfamiliar with this term (or concerned that rash on your neck is actually World Builder’s Disease manifesting physically) there are a few sources I would recommend checking out.

The first thing to do would be to swing over to Writing Excuses and listen to the Season 3, Episode 1 podcast titled World Building History.  I’ve mentioned this website in a few of my posts already and will continue to do so.  There’s a reason the website is listed as one of the top 101 websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.  It’s an awesome source of information.

Gentleman World Builder.jpgNext, you should review, (The Dreaded) World Builder’s Disease from The Writersaurus blog. It’s a fun read and a very descriptive look at the menace.  This blog is loaded with some fun, writing specific, content.

Finally, check out the article The Truth About World Building Disease, from the website, The Worldbuilding School.  The article offers a basic explanation of World Builder’s Disease and explains some causes.  If you wanted to get a map illustrated for your work, this would be a good place to check out.  Additionally, if you are suffering from a lack of world building, this is a good place to start getting the gears moving.

Now for my two cents.  I feel writers have the most trouble recovering from this because the words are coming easily.  We hear this all the time: “Just write.  Meet those daily goals. You’re right if you just write.”  I still agree with these statements.  Just because you have a stack of paper with no real story, doesn’t mean its useless.  It just doesn’t have use as a publishable story just yet.

history.jpgSo if you have sat down and blasted out inches worth of unrelated historical information regarding a world, character, or item — don’t despair.  Set it aside and use it as part of your reference material.  Try sprinkling in some of it as descriptive beats and reveal the history throughout the course of your book.  Maybe you can set up a wiki page for your readers on your blog or website that lists this extra information after the book drops?  Or you could use this extra info to market your book before release, like I’ve been doing with my Wasteland Wednesday posts.

Regardless, unless you are working against a deadline, or have finished the book only to realize half of it is historical information (i.e. not characters dealing with conflicts), then don’t stress it.  Everyone’s creative process works differently.  Some people have the easiest time writing their characters, some people surge when they write conflicts, and other people create unbelievably complex worlds, histories, and cultures.  A blending of these things is what we need.

question-markAre you a sufferer of this affliction?  Do you know someone who is?  Do you have a cure that works for you?  Let me know.  While I don’t have a magic elixir, sometimes just addressing it works as a soothing balm.  Thanks for reading and be sure to stop by tomorrow.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Using Sensory Details to Enhance Fiction

Smell the Napalm.jpgWhen people read our stories we want them to feel like they are part of it.  One method of accomplishing this is hitting them with sensory details (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste).  Right now, as you read this, all of your senses are hard at work.  If you would, take a moment to really consider this.

For me, I feel the weight of my body resting against my computer chair.  My fingertips feel the smoothness of my keyboard keys and my forearms are kind of sticking to my computer desk.  My eyes are straining a little as I just woke up a bit ago and the monitor is still too bright.  I’m listening to music, but the cooling fans of my computer are also buzzing away.  The writing cave (my office) smells like hot pockets, energy drinks, and my cat Niblet.  There is an unnatural minty freshness lingering in my mouth because I brushed my teeth a few minutes ago.

In that hastily written example, I offered some very basic examples of sensory description.  While it’s a giant block of information, it highlights some of the elements many writers forget when they tackle their manuscripts.  Again, these elements are sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

The trick is figuring out when, and how, to best utilize sensory information.  If you do it too much, it will bog down your writing and slow your pacing significantly.  If you don’t do it at all, your reader may feel slightly disconnected from aspects of your story.  However, there are a couple basic guidelines you can consider when applying sensory detail to bolster your writing.

Showing Versus Telling

Show vs Tell.   There’s a ton of great articles out there about showing versus telling.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept, you can check out one I wrote right here.  When you are moving into showing territory, utilizing some sensory details will help your reader sink into the scene you are creating.

Opening a Chapter.  I’ve talked in the past about anchoring your reader in setting early in your chapters.  This is especially important if a reader has put your book down and came back to it.  You need to quickly pull them back into the story world.  Sensory elements will help the reader sink back into the story and the POVs of the characters within.

looking.jpgChange of Location.  My office smells a lot differently than the bathroom at a gas station (or so I like to think).  When we move our readers from one place to the next, it’s good practice to help them transition by using sensory details.  If you find ways to repeat this information throughout the story, sensory cues by themselves can act to quickly prompt the reader to a change in location or character.

Enhancing Emotion.  We’ve talked briefly about writing emotion in the past. Sensory details can enhance emotion.  My wife and I bought some basic macaroni and cheese to try to feed Thor.  He’s starting to experiment with different kinds of “grown up” food now.  As a kid, this was a quick and easy thing my mom would make for me.  After we made it for Thor, the smell and taste immediately began to make me feel an extreme sense of nostalgia.  Pairing that with the idea that this was the first time Thor was eating it (or trying to at least) enhanced this feeling.

You likely have some sensory experiences that are highly personal to you as well.  These are great fodder to build more realistic stories.  After that experience with Thor, I jotted a brief notation of it down in one of my journals; maybe it will end up in a story one day.  When you are wandering through life, take note to open your senses up and pull information from your surroundings.  Not only should this enrich your life, it should enrich your writing as well.

gladiator fallen.jpgSensory detail to reveal motivation, or as a metaphor.  In the movie Gladiator, we see Maximus Decimus Meridius reach down and pick up a handful of sand before he enters the arena.  He does this every single time.  He grinds the sand into his palms and we can almost feel the grit.  He also smells it.

Even before he becomes a slave and is a Roman general, he is shown reaching down, picking up soil, and smelling it before he rubs it into his palms.  At first you could make the assumption he does this to enhance his grip of the weapon.  However, as we learn more about the character that simple action takes on a deeper meaning.

We learn that he is a farmer and just wants to return home to his crops and his family.  The act of smelling and feeling the soil almost becomes a metaphor for his desire to return to something he lost.  This sensory element is repeated throughout the entire movie and is a constant reminder of his internal motivations.  Without going into spoilerland, this use of sensory driven action serves other facets in the movie as well.  Especially as a contrast in the end where he is walking through a field and feeling the swaying stalks of wheat with his fingers.

A word of caution.  I mentioned it above, but it’s worth restating, you can absolutely overuse sensory details.  As with most things in writing, there is a balance one must try to achieve.  Mary Buckham, in her book, A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, said it best: “Not every setting needs all five senses described in detail—that approach is overkill and can have a major impact on your story pacing, not to mention overwhelming the reader with information” (p. 52).

question-markThat’s it for today.  This was a basic introduction to the concept.  In the future, we will break this down and explain some of the components more in-depth.  As always, I’m curious about how you all manage to weave sensory information into your projects.  Do you actively find yourself smelling and feeling things in an attempt to write about them realistically? Do you just close your eyes and think about them?  I’d love to hear about your process.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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The “Secret” Technique of Writing Emotion

A Lack of Emotion.jpgWriting emotion into fiction can be very challenging.  Many writers rely on television, or other works of fiction, to gauge the best method to write believable emotion into their stories.  While I never discount the value of studying popular fiction in your genre for examples of what to do, there is also value in trusting your own emotional background as a source of inspiration.  Today I wanted to offer a simple exercise to help you tap into “secret” emotions and apply them to the page.

I read this in a more generic writing book I won’t mention, but the idea was this: when writing about pain, love, anguish, fear, or any other emotion, tap into your own emotional experiences.  I remember seeing this and thinking, “Okay, that makes sense, but how do I actually apply this?”

How I perceive emotion is different than how you might.  The classic example is love.  Think about the first time you ever felt love, or on a more shallow level, had a flirting feeling of attraction.  Maybe think about the first time you had your heart shattered.  If each of us wrote a short biographical piece detailing these experiences, they would likely be similar in some aspects, but very different in others.

stein on writing.jpgSol Stein, in his book, Stein on Writing, talks about his “secret” technique.  The technique is simple for some, and uncomfortable for others.  The idea is simple.  Think of an emotion and recall a point in your life where you experienced it.  However, ensure it is an experience you wouldn’t want to share.

You may have to do some soul searching, but I think all of us have a certain experience we wouldn’t anyone to know about.  For the exercise, I recommend locating a scene you are having particular trouble with and reading it a few times.  Isolate the important emotional elements that are missing and write them down.

Now you have a basis to work from and emotion you are attempting to bring to life.  Now go into you own emotional reserves.  Think back to a moment where you experienced the emotion in question.  More so, try to isolate a time where the experience was so great you would be very uncomfortable sharing it with anyone.  No matter how painful, awful, wonderful, or horrible it is, sink into it.

Writing a Secret

Once you have found it, chronicle it.  Write as if you were writing a journal or diary entry only you will see.  Make it personal and don’t fabricate it.  In your own words, write it as accurately as you possibly can.

After you are done, look at what you have written.  Study the language and words.  Now take that bottled lightning and apply it to your book.

You may do this exercise and find you have opened a door and it stays open.  If that is the case, jump straight into your manuscript and start typing.  Use that emotional high (or low) to add depth to the scene in question.

For others, pouring out those experiences may drain you emotionally and leave you with little in the tank.  The good news is you have a source of original emotions to pull into your writing.  You need only reference the secret entry you made.

I like this exercise for a couple reasons.

One reason, is it forces the writer to pour themselves onto the page.  Like I mentioned earlier, everyone experiences emotions in a different way.  In regards to fiction, being able to apply this unique perspective to the emotional elements of your book will add to your own style and voice.

toolbox-807845_960_720.pngThe second reason I like it, is because it’s a tangible tool for isolating and tapping into emotions.  It’s nice to be able to temper problems with actual solutions.  As an editor and writer, I like to have useful tools I can apply and share.

On a side note, I have considered the value of an emotion journal.  As frilly as this may sound, for some people it could be useful.  It’s a commonly accepted practice for a writer to keep something to write with them at all times (or at least a means of recording ideas).  This way, if inspiration strikes, you can capture it.

With that being said, some of the best writing we do is when our hands are shaking and we are emotionally charged.  An idea journal could serve another purpose as a storage bank for emotions as well.  Perhaps after a heated discussion, or moment of introspection, you could flip it open and quickly transcribe your thoughts and feelings in the moment.  Arguably, the fresher the emotion, the more meat you should be able to pull from it.  In essence, you are capturing emotions to apply later to your work.

question markThat’s it for today!  I hope you find some merit in this technique.  I’d be curious to know some of the methods you all employ to add emotional context to your writing.  Do you do what I just described, or do you have a different method for tapping into those feelings?  I’d love to talk about it and learn more.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Building Suspense into Setting

No Suspense and Crying Kids

Building suspense into setting is an often overlooked tool to keep your reader engaged.  Many writers focus on building suspense through the application of dialogue and action (and we’ll talk about both of those in future posts).  But many times, often in the rush to produce the manuscript, they forget about how the actual environment can cement reader engagement and drive suspense.

[Note:  If you are murky on the basic premise of suspense, I wrote an introduction to the concept to refer back to.]

I‘ve found some of the authors I have worked with often skip descriptive setting elements during their first draft.  They focus on getting the main story down and come back to tighten up description and add what is lacking.  That’s fine, I do this too.

But when we make the second pass it’s essential to move beyond focusing on basic description of objects and scenery, but think about how to bring those objects and scenery to life.  More specifically, I encourage writers to examine how those setting elements can be used to contrast their character’s feelings in the scene.

conflict and suspenseThe “golden rule” (as explained in Conflict & Suspense, by James Scott Bell) in using setting to drive suspense is to simply ensure the world around the characters runs counter to their goals.  I don’t recommend this entirely because it’s unrealistic for every scene setting to drive against the characters.  Sometimes the readers, and the characters, need a break.  However, it is a good general idea to think about.

The example I think of involves Mt. Everest.  Most people are familiar with this landmark and there is no shortage of movies and books written about it. The mountain, the weather conditions, the atmosphere, all of these things build suspense in those stories.  In this way, the mountain becomes more than a simple object for the author to describe with flowery description.  The mountain becomes a living thing.

With that being said, there are usually moments of calm serenity in stories about Everest.  To create contrast, and to show the mountain as a beautiful and dangerous entity, it’s essential to use setting elements to reveal both of these aspects.  By showing the calm (or normal) first, peppering in setting description later will effectively ramp up the suspense.

reading memThis is my opinion, but I think there are different levels of expertise and experience that come into play when an writer attempts to layer suspense into setting.  It spans from tired variations of, “It was a dark and stormy night,” all the way toward almost subliminal imagery.

When it comes to the subliminal, these setting bits are weaved in and you often don’t notice it.  You feel it as you read though.  This is intentional (most of the time).   The author selectively made these decisions.  It’s important for instinctive writers to note that some aspects of your writing need to be planned and intentional if you want to deliver an effect.  This is something to consider during revision.

In many ways, this isn’t a skill that can be taught outright.  It’s something someone must study by reading large amounts of genre specific books and applying observed elements to their own work.

Perhaps one of the finest (and more current) examples I have found in my own research comes from Stephen King.  One of our fellow WordPress Warriors, SinisterDarkSoul, and I were talking about the movie and short story 1408 a while back.  He recommended I read the short story if I liked the movie.  So I did.  King’s short story can be found in, Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.  (If you enjoy King, you’ll love this book.)

Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia (source page) to give you a basic snapshot of what the story is about if you’re not familiar.

“The film [story] follows Mike Enslin, an author who specializes in the horror genre. His career is essentially based on investigating allegedly haunted houses, although his repeatedly fruitless studies have left him disillusioned and pessimistic. Through an anonymous warning via postcard, Mike learns of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City, which houses the infamous ‘Room 1408’. Interested but skeptical, he decides to spend one night in the room, although manager Gerald Olin warns him strongly against it.”

Needless to say, Enslin gets more than he bargained for in his stay in Room 1408.  Strange things start happening and King layers setting elements to build suspense and engage the reader.

His problems with 1408 started even before he got into the room.

The door was crooked.

Not by a lot, but it was crooked, all right, canted just the tiniest bit to the left.

Shortly after this excerpt comes this revelation.

Mike bent, picked up his overnight case with the hand holding the minicorder, moved the key in his other hand toward the lock, then stopped again.

The door was crooked again.

This time it tilted slightly to the right.

everything eventual.jpgKing doesn’t waste time describing the door (this story is only twenty something pages long).  We don’t know lots of tiny details about it.  We just know that it was crooked, and now it’s leaning the other direction.  Much like Everest, the room begins to become a living thing.  Tiny pieces of setting and description information layer on top another to build heightening suspense.

I think it’s also interesting to note that when I did my daily reading for this post I found that James Scott Bell (Conflict & Suspense author) had also used 1408 as an example of suspense in setting.  If anything, that should highlight the idea that 1408 is a solid case study for you to check out.  (If anything it gives you an excuse to watch the movie under the guise of research.)

question markI hope you all found some useful information here today.  As usual, I have some questions for you (after all, I only read 1408 due to our discussions).  Do you use setting information in your stories to heighten suspense?  If so, is there a certain method you employ?  If not, do you have an example of an author or piece of work that did a wiz-bang job of creating a setting that inspired suspense in you as a reader?  I’d love to talk about it and learn more myself.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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