Monday, September 17, 2018

Reaction versus Goal in Plot

When I started plotting my romantic suspense novel, GUARDIAN ANGEL, I decided that my plot line would be the following--

(Back story) High-powered defense attorney Lauton O’Brien hires Gard Gardner to protect his daughter Desta if one of the organized crime lords or killers he defends decides to go after him or his family.

(Book plot) Lauton realizes one of his clients is out to kill him. He sends Desta and information about who is out to kill him to Gard, and he disappears. Desta comes by boat to Gard’s lake home. The boat blows up with the information, but Gard saves Desta. 

Desta and Gard go on the run with hired killers hot on their trail.

At first glance, the plot sounded great. Lots of action, adrenaline, scary bad guys, and a perfect situation for two people very suited to each other to find love and a happily-ever-after.

Then I realized the plot had a fatal flaw. The two main characters spend the whole novel reacting to what others are doing to them. Reaction is passive, and passive creates less than stellar main characters and a much weaker book. 

I needed to give the characters a goal which is active. 

I wanted to keep the hired killers hot on their trail, but I decided that Gard and Desta weren’t running away, they were working toward their goal -- following clues to find Lauton so they can figure out who is trying to kill them then stopping that person so they can have a life together. 

When you are creating your main plot, you also need to be sure that your main character or characters have an active goal instead of being swept along by circumstances or by someone’s actions against them.

Make them heroes, not victims.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Making a Character Likable

Sometimes, you can start out your story with a main character who has unpleasant elements to their personality, but a character must be likable or, at the very least, relatable for the reader. Here are ways to show more than the prickly outer elements of her personality.

If you give the main character a worthy goal in the first pages of the novel, then you give yourself time to make a seemingly unlikable character grow on the reader.

By worthy, I mean something the reader will want that character to succeed at–- rescuing children, helping a nice person find happiness, etc. Even if the character starts out doing it for a base reason like money, the reader will still want him to succeed.

Simple things can help make a character start to grow on the reader. Pets are always a good option. Either he has one, or he can't resist the heroine's kitten, or something like that. Having him interact positively with a child is also a good likability quickie. 

Recently, I read a short story in which the heroine breaks into the apartment of a possible villain-- a hard-ass security agent. A teddy bear is sitting on his couch, and he later admits it belongs to his nephew. With that simple stroke, the author made a seemingly unlikable bad guy a much nicer person.

Giving a character a vulnerability that the reader can relate to is also a good likability quickie. It can be as simple as a chick lit heroine having a bad hair day and the boss from heck, or the bad ass hero getting into a small plane and freaking out because he finds a snake. 

Eventually, more likable elements of that character's personality will have to be shown, though, so the bad parts of her personality don't overwhelm the reader.

In some genre fiction like thrillers, the immediate likability quotient doesn't have to be high at the beginning, particularly if the character is strong and effective in what he needs to do.

But in a romance, the hero or heroine should be likable from the very beginning. The other main character can become likable as the book progresses, but he should not start as totally horrible. Some character traits like cruelty can't be forgiven or changed because, in real life, they never are.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Research or Make It Up?

My guilty pleasure is TV shows about the paranormal, and I love novels featuring mediums and ghost hunters.  

I finished a book about a medium a few days ago, and the worldbuilding and plot choices which were created without regard to the current research brought a question to mind.  When is it time to use the research on the subject instead of making everything up?

Science fiction writers really don’t have a choice.  When scientists realized that Mars couldn’t support human life, writers stopped writing about Mars with humans without space suits roaming around the planet.  Now, writers use hard science fact when they want humans on Mars.

Parapsychology isn’t an accepted science for many, and some scientists will never accept any form of proof that ghosts, psychic ability, etc., exist because it is against their materialistic worldview.  The same is true of some non-scientists and those whose religious faith denies the existence of the otherworldly that is not part of their faith.

Yet, many people do believe in the paranormal, and many watch shows like GHOST ADVENTURES.  These shows and paranormal research have certain accepted facts in common like the kind of electrical energy that is generated by ghosts and the use of EMF meters to detect it and that spirit voices the human ear can’t hear can be heard on audio recording equipment.  

So, the question is should you make everything up or should you use the established research to write your paranormal story?  

The first thing you should consider is your readers.  Most people who read paranormal novels have a working knowledge of the current information on the subject, if for no other reason than they’ve read enough stories to pick up the basics.  There’s also the real possibility that someone who enjoys a good ghost story may also enjoy GHOST ADVENTURES or THE DEAD FILES. Making it all up may annoy these readers.

However, it’s your story so you can make it all up.  

If you decide to create your own paranormal world, your first consideration is that you must create a reasonable set of rules for your ghosts and their interaction with the living.  

If your psychic character is experienced, she should know those rules completely and not dotter around like an idiot.  

Most knowlegable readers will forgive you if you create your own understandable world of spooks and the people who chase them.  

They will not forgive you if you break your own rules for plot expediency.

A middle ground is to use most of the common knowledge then add elements that are strictly of your own invention, such as mediums can only see spirits from a specific period.  

This is another situation where it’s best to understand the rules/current common knowledge then decide the direction you choose rather than being a lazy researcher and doing it your own way.  


Victoria Laurie in her "Ghost Hunter” series.  (Author is a psychic intuitive.)

JL Bryan in his “Ellie Jordan: Ghost Trapper” paranormal mysteries.


Robin D. Owens in her “Ghost Seer” paranormal mystery novels.  

Darynda Jones in her “Grim Reaper” comic urban fantasy series.

Monday, August 27, 2018

How to Foreshadow

I'm sure you've watched a movie or TV show where a character is getting ready to open a door, and you just know that the killer is waiting for her. You scream, "No, no, don't open that door!"

How do you know something the character doesn't? Part of that is foreshadowing. The filmmaker has given you clues that the character doesn't have.

For a written story, an author doesn't have the luxury of using spooky music or atmospheric lighting, but she does have other tricks to give the reader the same sense of something lurking behind that closed door.

The simplest way to do this is to have more than one viewpoint in your story. For example, one character learns that the killer is going after your heroine, then when you switch to the heroine's viewpoint, the reader will be expecting something bad to happen.

You can also write from the bad guy’s viewpoint to warn the reader what he’s up to.

Another way is to embed a clue that the heroine sees but doesn't recognize as important because she's learning so much and being menaced at the same time. The reader will often pick up on the clue and recognize the danger.

Or your character is more ignorant or innocent than the reader. A child may misunderstand a situation an adult would recognize as dangerous, and the person who refuses to believe a psychopath or monster is lurking will be easy prey in the reader's eyes.

A subtle use of language also works. Stephen King is a master of giving the reader the creeps when nothing appears to be happening but soon will. I recommend his ON WRITING which should be in your local library for more on the subject. A caveat on King: When he says this is the only way to do this, he’s usually wrong.  What works for one writer might not work for another.  

Genre expectations are an easy way to worry the reader. In a horror novel, the reader is expecting that scare so it takes almost nothing to make her tense as the character opens that door in the empty house that may be the killer's hiding place.

A common use of genre expectations is to set up a scary situation then let it fizzle, and the moment the character and the reader let their guard down, the killer makes his move.

Foreshadowing doesn't have to be about unhappy or dangerous things to come. You can as easily foreshadow happy events. The square shape in the hero's tuxedo jacket pocket may be a diamond engagement ring box, and he and the heroine are dining at a very nice restaurant, after all, so you and the heroine may be guessing which way the meal will end.

As an author, you must lay down the clues so the reader will think the worse or best of coming events.  Let them be just as excited as you are when the movie character starts to open the wrong door.  

Monday, August 20, 2018

Beginnings: No Info Dumping Needed

You want to start a novel at an exciting moment that involves the main character which will draw the reader into the story to see what will happen next, but you can't give too much information, too soon.

Instead, you give the reader just enough information to understand what's going on.

For example, the main character faces an angry goblin in a dark alley of some big city.

She can hear a police siren which, unfortunately, is moving away from where she is. Mentally or aloud, she cusses her luck for choosing a job like this.

The goblin knocks her gun out of her hand, and it lands in the sewer drain so she lifts her hands, whispers a spell, and flames shoot of her hands, but the goblin doesn't go down. The injury makes him even angrier. 

We now know she's a magic user of some sort, the modern world is ours or isn't ours by little details, that magical creatures can enter here, and it's her job to stop them, and she is in seriously deep poo because she is now defenseless against a furious goblin.

Later, you'll tell the reader about her role as a Guardian of normal Earth and, later still, about her home on a parallel magic world, but you'll do it in bits and pieces like clues to a puzzle the reader is trying to understand.

Having these clues of the world and trying to understand it is as important a puzzle for the reader as the plot, and it's as enjoyable. Don't cheat the reader by giving away too much.    

Monday, August 13, 2018

Ideas Can Come from Absolutely Anywhere

I have a confession to make.  I really, really love the Muppets.  I fell in love with Kermit the Frog on his very first appearance on THE TONIGHT SHOW, and I've followed the Muppets through the years including THE MUPPET SHOW.

One of my favorite characters is The Swedish Chef with his big jowls, bushy eyebrows, mustache, and cheery pseudo-Swedish gibberish.  

I have always felt that he looks like a Southern good ol' boy so in GUARDIAN ANGEL when I needed a secondary character who runs a restaurant, I had an evil thought.  Why not use the Swedish Chef as an inspiration?

Enter Bubba, proprietor of "Bubba’s Fine Swedish Food."  As a young soldier from North Carolina during World War Two, he spent time in Sweden and came home with a beautiful bride.  He also had a pile of medals for bravery. 

Bubba proved to be such a wonderful character that he made two more appearances in GUARDIAN ANGEL.

In this scene, Gard and Desta have left the FBI headquarters in Charlotte after being interviewed by Gard's former partner, Mark Faulkner, and hitmen begin to chase them.  

Desta trotted beside Gard down the long, neat alleyway behind the specialty shops. Four doors down, Gard stopped, glanced back for emerging goons, and knocked loudly on a metal security door.

The door swung open, and a man with a fat, rough face stuck his head out, regarded them with suspicion, and drawled in a thick country accent, “What you want, boy?” His eyes lit up with recognition. “Why, Gabriel, you old son of a gun.”

“Trouble, Bubba.” Gard motioned backwards. “Someone's after us.”

“Come on in then, son. Come on in with that pretty little lady.” Bubba swept open the door.

Desta darted through with Gard.

A bullet hammered into the door, but Bubba eased it closed as if things like this happened every day and bolted it shut. “That sucker’s made of steel. Take a Howitzer to bring it down.” He wiped his huge hands on the clean chef's apron stretched across his pot belly.

They were just inside a small restaurant kitchen. Pots boiled and simmered with interesting smells, but Desta couldn't identify any of the dishes in preparation. Her stomach rumbled with hunger; she hadn't managed to have lunch today. 

On a nearby preparation table was a menu with the unlikely name of “Bubba’s Fine Swedish Food—We Cater” imprinted in elegant gold letters on it. Big Bubba looked more like a local tobacco farmer than a Swedish restaurant owner and chef.

“They'll circle back around and come from the front,” Gard decided.

“Let ’em try.” Bubba unlocked a cabinet, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, and strode toward the dining room.

“These are pros,” Gard warned and followed him. “Don't be foolhardy. Let me take care of them.”

“Hell, boy, I was dealing with pros before your pretty momma had you. You take the left, and I'll take the right.” He hunkered down in a little alcove on the right.

Desta trailed after Gard. The small dining room was empty of customers, the dozen tables cleaned up from the lunch crowd. With white linen tablecloths, candles, and elegant homey details, it was a charming place, probably popular with trendy area executives.

Wooden with a lattice covered glass window, the locked front door rattled violently.

“Get into the kitchen, Desta” Gard ordered and slipped into the small vestibule to the restrooms.

“I won't wait like a helpless mouse for them to find me. I'll stay with you.”

Gard opened his mouth to protest, but the door shook with the loud crunch of someone's foot battering against it. Grabbing her wrist, he yanked her behind him. “Stay out of sight.”

Scrunched into the space between his back and the front wall of the vestibule, she rubbed her wrist. She was getting extremely tired of him throwing and yanking her around, but now seemed a bad time to mention it.

Gard tensed, his gun hand going upright parallel to his chest in a marksman's stance, and he peeked around the door frame toward the front of the restaurant, then he jerked back.

Her heart whammed so violently with terror it threatened the structural integrity of her ribs. She whispered a little prayer to her celestial guardian angel for his human counterpart and her. Life had introduced too many sweet possibilities in the last two days, and she didn't want to die, and she especially didn't want Gard to die.

She added a quick prayer codicil of protection for Bubba the Swedish chef good ol’ boy.

Someone huge battered into the front door. The door's window shattered.

Jumping, she fumbled around inside her purse. Until that moment, she'd forgotten her pistol. Her hand wrapped around its handle, and her finger found the trigger, but she left it camouflaged within the purse. She had no intention of surrendering meekly to that hired killer with his psychotic eyes or of letting Gard face him alone.

“Bubba, get back into cover, you idiot,” Gard whispered loudly.

The door smashed open.

Bubba’s shotgun blast was followed by its second barrel.

A whimper of panic escaped, but Desta remained still, her hand firm on the gun.

A pistol shot from outside followed the shotgun in quick succession, and male voices shouted on the street.

Gard peered around the door frame.

Silence was deafening and lasted a hundred interminable years while they waited for the goons’ next move.

“They've gone,” Bubba announced cheerfully and strode into the restaurant dining area and toward the front door.

“Get back!” Gard motioned toward safety, but he was too late.

A scuffle shook the room as someone attacked Bubba. A lot of someones. Furniture crashed everywhere.

Gard jerked back into hiding, shoved Desta into a corner, his body shielding hers, his gun at the ready, and waited for them to come to him.

She could feel sweat dripping down Gard’s neck and the ragged whisper of his breath.

Someone finally came.

Gard spun, his body going into a gunman's crouch as he aimed his weapon.

The other gunman reacted as quickly, his body a mirror image of Gard’s deadly ballet-like grace.

Both men froze, their fingers just squeezing the trigger.

The other gunman was Mark Faulkner, Gard's expartner.

Mark unthawed first. With a grin, he lowered his gun. “Faulkner’s rule number five—”

“Never shoot the cavalry coming to your rescue.” Gard lowered his own gun. “What took you so long?”

“Even impromptu rescues take time. Lucky for you Peggy Altley lusts after your body and was watching you leave from the second floor, or we'd have never known.” He offered her a deadly lady-killer smile. “Hello, Desta. Nice seeing you again.”

“Hello, Mark.” Her hand slid away from her gun, and she pulled a hankie out and daubed at the rivers of makeup and sweat running down her face.

Gard walked out of the vestibule. “You can let Bubba up, Al. He owns this place. He's on our side.”

Three large men sat on Bubba’s prone body in the midst of broken and fallen tables, chairs, and debris. They eased off as if dismounting an untamed lion and backed away.

Unscathed, Bubba stood and shook himself. “Must be getting old. Used to take four or five to do that.”

Monday, August 6, 2018

Rolling the Monster DIce

All Julie wants is to be a professional dancer, but, when danger strikes near her several times, her family moves overnight from Atlanta to the small island where her parents came from, and she finds herself in a weird Stepford Wives community of perfection and strange secrets.  What is going on, why is her whole family lying to her, why can she produce electrical energy from her hands in times of danger, and how can she return to dance? 

The author rolls the monster dice and uses the results—the characters are fae/fairies even though they are nothing like any fae ever written.


Ann is starting medical school, but she’s distracted by the ghost of her father who appears before her several times.  Meanwhile, she’s noticed two men following her.  

The author rolls the monster dice and uses the results—the characters are aliens from another planet.


Mary is developing weird powers.  She can make light bulbs explode when she’s angry, and she’s starting to read minds.

The author rolls the monster dice and uses the results— Mary is a born vampire.

These are recent examples of books I tried to read where the author seems to be setting up unusual paranormal creatures and situations, then, out of nowhere, calls them by a common monster name although nothing about them is like any of the folklore of that creature.  

Beyond the sheer annoyance at the out-of-nowhere identification of the characters and the total lack of knowledge at what these traditional creatures are, these books are wasted opportunities at offering something different to readers jaded by too many vampires, fae, and aliens among us.  

When you are worldbuilding, make up your mind whether you will follow, at least partially, the tradition of some creature or whether you will make your own creature, and stick with this decision instead of randomly redefining established creatures.