Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 29, 2013

WriterStrong: Keep Them Up All Night

First a quick congratulations to the winners of the two most recent giveaways: Deb Kastner and cwolffe both won a copy of Laura Drake's debut release;  Karen Duvall will be taking a Margie Lawson class! Now, please give a warm WITS welcome to Melissa Cutler (take note folks, she's doing a giveaway).

MelissaCutler_author photo

Melissa Cutler

I'm excited to be on Writers in the Storm today talking about how to keep readers turning the page long after their bedtime. One of the best pieces of revision advice I ever got was from a national best-selling author: There's no such thing as big problems in a manuscript. They're all little problems.

I wholeheartedly agree. What can at first look like a sweeping, vague issue (like the ubiquitous term pacing) really just boils down to a chain of small craft choices an author makes on every single page. I used the word chain because when it comes to page turning potential, layering is key.

If you've been told, either by agents, editors, or crit groups that you have a pacing problem, don't get overwhelmed. Yes, look at where you enter and exit each scene, but also try this: zoom in to a single plot point or interaction between characters and analyze how you build anticipation.

Okay, yeah. That's great. But how?

My answer: promises and answers. Throughout a story, the author continuously makes leading promises, both big and small, about what is to come. Readers, then, anticipate the fulfillment of those promises. On a whole book scale, this is easy to see in romance novels—the reader is promised a happy ending and (hopefully) reads until the promise is fulfilled.

But it's the hundreds of little promises an author introduces along the way that make up the lifeblood of anticipation and keeps readers up past their bedtime.

There are two distinct author skills at work here: 1) knowing how to frame promises that hook readers and 2) how to layer a momentum gathering chain of promises and fulfillment.

How you frame the promise: There are lots of ways. Here's a few…

  1. It can be as subtle as planting an object in an earlier scene that will be crucial later on in the story. For example, if you pointedly explain that a character hides her diary where no one will ever find it, then savvy readers are going to expect that someday, someone is going to find that diary and all the consequence will be OMG important.
  2. Or it can be more obvious, such as a qualifying statement tacked onto the end of a character's declaration. "It didn't matter how sexy her smile was, he refused to hold the elevator for her. Not after what happened last week." ***And you'll be rewarded with bonus page turning potential if you hint that the answer or secret is juicy or sexy or so huge that every other character's life will be forever changed.
  3. Sometimes, these promises come in the forms of introducing a question in readers' minds. For example, having a character note a detail, or a hero realizing his girlfriend won't look him in the eye when she tells him she was home alone all night.
  4. And sometimes the promises are a vague statement made by a character, either aloud or internally. "She took one look at the man across the lobby and knew her life would never be the same." Should you explain in the next sentence or paragraph why her life will never be the same? Please, no. Save that all-important secret for later, dole it out in pieces at critical moments

The point is this—don't come right out and blab a character's secret. Don't lay out a character's each and every intention up front. And whatever you do, don't dump the juicy backstory in a big, unexciting clump. Tease! Hint! Make them turn the page to find out. Most importantly: don't fulfill a promise until you've introduced at least one more.

Tempted into Danger coverI don't know about you, but concrete examples work best for me. To show you what I mean, here's a scene example from my June release, Tempted into Danger. On this page, the heroine has tried to kiss the hero, but he rebuffed her advances.

"Why shouldn’t I kiss you again?" she said. "Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t do something we both want. And don’t you dare deny it.”

You've just promised the readers they're going to get an information reveal. Do you give it to them right away? No way. Make the reader turn the page to find out.

I used these next lines to let the reader see what's going on with each character internally, which gives a hint that the answer is going to be juicy and emotional:

He whirled on her. The look on his face was dark, pained. “You need a reason?”

She raised her chin a notch. “Yes.”

Time to anchor the moment with some blocking that introduces the next promise—putting the two characters in close proximity. This particular plot beat, when an author brings two characters into each other's physical space, is one of my favorites and gives readers lots of great anticipation of what is to come.

Three steps and he was before her, his hands on her shoulders. His eyes squeezed closed, and he lowered his forehead to hers.

Do I let him answer her question now? Only with an answer that introduces a new question…

He brushed his thumb across her cheek. “Because one kiss with you wouldn’t be enough for me.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“Hell, yes, it’s a problem. Because…” He went silent.

“Tell me.”

It's time to let him come clean.

“Because all the things you deserve, I can’t give you any of them. I can’t even tell you my real name.”

Why do I let him answer that question? Because now the readers have the promise of something else, given that the two characters are embracing, with their faces close. What is that next promise? A kiss, of course! Does he kiss her in the next sentence? Nope. It's another full page of them in close proximity before the actual kiss happens. And while they're kissing—yes, while the actual kiss is taking place—I introduce the next promise, which is a doosy. It's this subtle chain of author choices, this layering of promises, that pushes momentum forward page after page.

Combine this method of layered promises and fulfillment with scenes that start and end in the right place, as well as characters that readers care about, and you have yourself some great page turning potential.

The Trouble with Cowboys CoverGiveaway: I'm giving away a copy (print or digital) of my sexy cowboy contemporary, THE TROUBLE WITH COWBOYS,  to one commenter. So tell me, what manuscript are you working on right now?

My thanks to Writers in the Storm for hosting me today. I love hearing from readers and am really easy to find at www.melissacutler.net, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/MelissaCutlerBooks ), and Twitter (@m_cutler). And you can always email me at melissa@melissacutler.net or sign up for my newsletter (http://www.melissacutler.net/newsletter/ ) to find out about my latest books and upcoming events.

About Melissa

Melissa Cutler knows she has the best job in the world, dividing her time between her dual passions for writing sexy contemporary romances for Kensington Books and edge-of-your-seat romantic suspense for Harlequin. She was struck at an early age by an unrelenting travel bug and is probably planning her next vacation as you read this. When she's not globetrotting, she's enjoying Southern California's flip-flop wearing weather and wrangling two rambunctious kids.

54 comments on “WriterStrong: Keep Them Up All Night”

  1. Great tips, Melissa, thanks so much for them! And I'm going to buy your book today - God, what a hunky cover!

    I'm lucky to announce that Melissa is going to be signing with me at the PBR Finals in Las Vegas in October! Look out Vegas!

  2. What great tips which are easy to understand. I'm taping them above my computer in big print. Thanks for sharing. Your book sounds great.

  3. Orly and Laura,
    Thanks for having me! Issues like pacing can seem so overwhelming and out of an writer's conscious control, but it doesn't have to be that way.

    I'm thrilled to be signing books at the PBR finals with Laura in October. Congratulations on the release of The Sweet Spot. My copy arrived in the mail yesterday and I can't wait to get your autograph. 🙂


  4. I really love the way you break things down here, Melissa. Even when we're not writing mysteries, we need to remember that readers want to be teased into turning the page and avoid, at all costs, information overload that stops the narrative in its tracks. You said it all so well here! Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Great tips! As a writer I find the part about avoiding a backstory dump the most difficult. I get so excited about the backstory myself I sometimes find myself having to hold back. But this post really confirmed to me that I am doing the right thing. Haha. Thank you for that!

    My current WIP is a young adult novel with an urban sci fi feel to it. It's a story I have been tossing around in my head for a couple years and I finally am attempting to commit to paper. I sometimes think that the most difficult stories to write are the ones we have always wanted to write. I find myself second guessing myself constantly.

  6. What a great blog! It's so easy for me to get overwhelmed by wrapping my head aroung making 100,000 words right. Seeing things as small chunks, like you're doing here, is brilliant. Thank you!

  7. I'm so glad you're all finding these ideas helpful.

    Holly, you're right that whatever genre we right in, we need to keep teasing readers. Even if the "mysteries" in a story aren't suspenseful, but interpersonal or take the form of secrets, writers can still approach the unfolding of them in similar methods.

    Nena, I agree with you that sometimes the most difficult stories are the ones we're compelled to write...and often the most rewarding.

    Lisa, I know exactly what you mean about getting overwhelmed when thinking about a manuscript as a whole. How couldn't we not? It's a massive enterprise.

    Thanks again, everyone!


  8. Melissa, what a delight it was reading this blog. Your description of sprinkling hints throughout your manuscript was fantastic!

  9. Hi, Just getting off the ground and found your article most helpful. Sometimes I find myself struggling but don't have a word or name for the struggle. In my case, it was both revealing too much too soon and probably lack of proper pacing. You have given me something to look for in my writing. Most appreciative. Thanks. Sandy Tomlinson

  10. Melissa, you got me with the sentence about looking across the room and knowing. Minding my own business, I walked down the subway steps and looked across the platform ... and leaning on a steel post was the man who would change my life. How's that?

    Thanks for great post and have a grand time with Laura in Vegas !!

  11. Great blog post, Melissa! I love how you broke it down with your example. It really showed how that trail of bread crumbs works.

    I'm writing a fantasy romance right now and at this point, I'm racking up the promises and I worry I may have too many. However, I won't concern myself too much until the 1st draft is done. The word that constantly echoes in my mind as I write is "questions, questions, questions!" I learned this from one of Laura Baker's workshops years ago and she emphasized the importance of always having something for the reader to wonder about. With every answered question a new one is introduced. This has been working for me so far... unless I've overdone it. LOL!

  12. Excellent post, Meliisa! All great points to learn (or for me- remember ;)). Thank you so much for posting this it really helps :).

  13. Great tips! I find it easiest to catch these things when reading aloud. If something trips you up when you're speaking, it's going to be funny for the reader too. That's my favorite way to edit. I catch a lot through that. And I'll be taking your words about "small changes" with me to try the qualm the rest of my anxiety. LOL

    My WIP right now is a collection of satircal essays about growing up as an oops baby. 😀 It's all about me trying desperately to fit in...anywhere...while still getting to be the heroine!

    1. Jess, I have Dragon-speak software, and I let it read the text back to me - I catch even more stuff that way. But still not all, sadly.

      1. I never thought of using it that way! Duh! I just got it for dictation and it doesn't really work that well for me. I'll have to try this!

  14. Thank you, Melissa! I'm writing an inspirational romance. Your page-turning ideas are perfect for where I need help right now! Excellent explanation. Have fun at the PBR finals!

  15. wow, Melissa. I just finished reading Tempted into Danger. It was action packed, and danger lurked at every turn. I'm keeping it for a good example while I work on A Baby for Heather about a virus that makes people sterile, a hunky CDC expert chasing the villain who disseminates the virus, and comforting the heroine who wants a baby. Carolyn Rae Author (facebook), author of Romancing the Gold coming from Noble Romance.

    1. I'm so honored you enjoyed it, Carolyn. Thank you! And thank you for stopping by the blog. A Baby for Heather sounds like a nail-biting good time.

  16. Enjoyed this post, Melissa. I've taken many writing classes but never heard of this method for keeping readers turning the pages.

    I working on a contemporary romance that revolves around a promise the protagonist made to her dying father. Unfortunately, it's a promise that could cause her to ose what she really wants out of life. It will be interesting read through it to see what promises I've made the reader.

    Thanks for the help.

    1. Your manuscript sounds fascinating, Barbara. It sounds like you've done a great job giving your heroine a great, gut-wrenching inner conflict. Excellent!

  17. Promises and Answers...what a great way to think of layering! It totally makes sense. Thanks for sharing your advice 🙂

  18. My thanks to Laura, Orly, and everyone at Writers in the Storm. I've had such fun chatting with the awesome WitS readers! If anyone has any lingering questions, please feel free to contact me through my website.(www.melissacutler.net) I'm happy to help. Best of luck on your writing, everyone!


  19. Fantastic ideas! Promises and Answers. Wow! I'm currently working on a fresh start for an idea I've been developing over the last year or so. Looking forward to applying this new skill to my WIP!

  20. Thank you for sharing this great advice,as a newbie im learning every day,and all criticism good or bad is helpful,The article was very impressive,simple to the point and helpful

  21. Great post and so easy to connect with by your use of examples. I really appreciate fiction writers who can clearly explain the "crafting" of their stories. And, this site is so good about sharing the wealth of knowledge out there and attracting great writers who also know how to gently educate. I continue on working on holding back information and almost being coy as my experience in business writing was usually about getting to the point quickly!!

  22. Great points. Sometimes I'm so into the moment that I'm writing that I don't stop to think about what else might also be going on at the same time. Or I'm in one person's head, failing to realize that there's another character in the scene with thoughts and emotions as well. Good tips!

    I'm currently working on a book that I call "The Ties That Bind." It's a "coming home" story about a severely-dysfunctional family who are trying to understand each other and themselves. It's the most emotional manuscript I've written, but it's one of my best I think.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  23. That's very clever. You really enjoy teasing your reader! I really must try to work this into my own writing, thanks!

  24. Great post, Melissa! It has me wanting to run back to my WiP to both see what promises I've made, and check I haven't answered too many of them too early. Thank you!

  25. […] If you’ve been told, either by agents, editors, or crit groups that you have a pacing problem, don’t get overwhelmed. Yes, look at where you enter and exit each scene, but also try this: zoom in to a single plot point or interaction between characters and analyze how you build anticipation.  […]

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