Actual Writing Advice: No Sleeping

After reading the very first draft of a novel that I let people read, my cousin said to me, “She falls asleep a lot. Too much.” My cousin did give me credit because there were a lot of things going on in her dreams. She was talking to dragons, fighting the villain and almost dying in her dreams that were real. How could I have the exciting dreams if she didn’t fall asleep?

Well, I worked around it. I made her more active in hooking up the telepathic bonds herself instead of being a victim to the mental weakness of sleep. Making a character more active is always a win. But I failed to see a big part of the sleep problem. In fact it took me several more books to realize what I was doing wrong: ending chapters with the characters falling asleep.

canstockphoto28637551Particularly in romances, my characters fall asleep after marathons of sex. At the end of the chapter. Which is the perfect place for a reader to set the book down and take a nap or go to bed.

Don’t give your reader an opportunity to set the book down. If your character is going to fall asleep, or gets knocked out or run over by a freight train, do not end the chapter with your character going unconscious. Sleep is boring. Carry it to the next moment of tension and then break for a new chapter.

You have to maintain pressure on the reader to keep reading.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about by an author who I think is a master of the page turner: Simon Green. This is the end of a chapter in his book From Hell with Love:

Hush,” I said. “Sleep. Everything will seem clearer in the morning.”

It seemed only moments later when we were both awakened by a thunderous knocking on my bedroom door. The room was dark. I looked at the glowing face of the clock beside the bed; it was a little short of four in the morning. Someone was still pounding on my door and yelling my name. I turned on the light, pulled a dressing gown around me, and went to the door. It wasn’t locked, but even in an emergency a Drood’s room and privacy were sacrosanct. I pulled the door open and there was Howard, Head of Operations. His face was gray with shock and his eyes were wide. He looked like he’d been hit.

What is it?” I said.

You have to come with me, Eddie, you have to come now!” he said. “The Matriarch’s been murdered.”

It might have seemed natural to end the chapter where they fell asleep together, but it was so much better to carry it on until someone shows up at the door to tell them their boss has been murdered.

How do you end your chapters? What tricks do you use to make the reader read the next one?

Actual Writing Advice: Tension

I’ve taken several classes in my writing journey. One of the biggest improvements came when my teacher, Sarah Aronson, suggested that we read The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass. He talks about a writer needing to build tension throughout the story to keep a reader reading. Since that class, I’ve been on a quest to make my stories page turners.

Here are a few tips I’ve stolen/expanded on:

Make your characters suffer. I’m constantly asking myself what would be the worst possible event to happen to my character in each chapter. It’s not the same for every protagonist. My new kindergarten teacher isn’t going to care about a chipped nail but my OCD character will. My OCD character will want to run home to repaint her nails, but then she’ll be late to work. The kindergarten teacher probably has three chipped nails but a kid just shoved a rock up his nose while she was reading a book and the principal walked in to do an observation.

Small situations going wrong lead to the BIG problems. One time I was talking to my husband about a fairly big disaster like a plane going down or a ferry capsizing. He made the observation that it’s never one mistake made by a pilot or captain that causes the event; it’s usually a chain of mistakes leading up to that one moment of time that causes the disaster. Use the little problems in your story to build on each other up to the worst thing to happen to your character.

Look at “The Hobbit.” Gandalf visits Bilbo. It’s a little uncomfortable for Bilbo, but he does have Took blood. Oh boy, thirteen freaking dwarves are now in Bilbo’s house. That’s bad. He can’t be a proper host; he doesn’t even want to be a proper host. How did this happen—Bilbo’s out on an adventure outside of his comfortable house. Yikes! Trolls! Trolls are far from Bilbo’s biggest problem, but you get the point. A minor visit from a wizard eventually builds up to a life or death confrontation with trolls.

Use false resolutions. Composers have known the key to keeping listeners listening forever: false resting tones. When your listening to a song, your ear wants to hear the resting chord of the piece, but the composer won’t let you. If you ever study form in music, it’s very similar to the arc of a story, but the conflict is all the dissonance of the notes clashing until you get to the end of the song and everything is harmonious.

Take some time to listen to your favorite songs today with purpose. I bet you’ll find your ear waiting for something you can’t really name until you get to the end. Lady Gaga’s song Poker Face has a great twist on driving dissonance. She actually gives you the resting tone all the time with the ma ma ma maaa. But you don’t know it until you hear it at the end of the song by itself and your ear is finally satisfied that you’ve come to the end.

Use dissonance throughout your chapters, and sometimes at the end of the chapter give your reader a false sense of security, the false resting tone. And then hit them hard with the beginning of the next chapter. Make them keep reading until they come to the end of your story and can at last be satisfied.

How do you guys build in tension? I would love some tips!