Monday, July 29, 2019

Squeezing the Last Drop Out of a Premise

NOTE:  In honor of this week's series finale of iZombie, (You will be missed Liv and friends!), here’s a reprint of an article I wrote after the first season.

I am not a big fan of zombies because massive bands of stupid, shambling dead bodies, exploding brains, decapitations, and all-you-can-eat humans are boring in more than very small doses.  I like my bad guys to have brains, not eat them.  

I made an exception, though, after I watched a few trailers for iZOMBIE which seemed to be a paranormal mystery like TRU CALLING and PUSHING DAISIES.  I’m glad I did.

The premise is that a mixture of two designer drugs created the first zombies.  As long as the zombie has brains to eat, he remains human in intelligence, etc., and he can pass as a human although his hair and skin turn white.  Too much adrenaline brings out the red eyes and the rage but most can control it.  The zombie can turn others into a zombie with a scratch or bite.  

The heroine is Doctor Liv Moore, a medical resident, who is turned at a party gone really bad by drug designer, dealer, and zombie Blaine DeBeers.  Realizing she must totally change her life, she breaks her engagement because she fears infecting her fiancĂ©, pulls away from her close family, and starts working as a forensic coroner for the police department to get easy access to brains and to avoid turning her patients into zombies.  

She discovers that she gains the memories, personality traits, and skills of the dead person from his brain so she convinces a police detective that she is psychic and helps him solve murders.  Each week is a new case.  Humor, a bit of romance, and an ongoing arc about Blaine’s evil schemes fill out the series.

Liv’s absorption of other personalities and lives adds humor as well as commentary on her own struggle with her changed life as a zombie.  

NOTE: If you think you’d like to watch the series, stop now because SPOILERS. 

The series would have been interesting enough with just the murder-of-the-week format, but the creators put some serious thought into the possibilities of the premise and really added a bunch of interesting worldbuilding.  Blaine, the drug dealer and entrepreneur, turns rich people and people who will protect him and his business into zombies then makes them pay premium prices for the brains he supplies, and they can’t get elsewhere.  His zombie protectors include several people high in the police department and rich and powerful politicians.  

He starts his own high-end butcher shop as a front for his brain harvesting and even offers zombie haute cuisine.  His minions get most of the brains from the homeless and runaway kids, and he’s found ways to hide the bodies so very few are suspicious.  

Now that the rich have figured out that they can gain new experiences and sensations from others’ brains, he’s started finding people like astronauts to murder to fit those interests.
The point of this analysis is that a simple worldbuilding premise can be so much more if you really think about it, your characters’ personalities, and the possibilities and changes that one element, like zombies, can make to the real world.  

If you do, you can move beyond a one-cool-idea plot to a much richer experience and world for your reader.

YET ANOTHER NOTE:  The complete series is also a perfect example of how to keep changing things up and building your world through a series to keep it fresh.  Every season upped the character and worldbuilding game until what should prove to be an explosive yet happy ending.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

How to Create Suspense

QUESTION:  How do I create suspense in a scene? The rest of the novel?

The simplest answer is that a suspense scene involves danger to the main characters. That's a "will the hero survive?" physical danger. Or "Will the main character escape emotional turmoil and unhappiness?" emotional danger.

A successful suspense scene must also draw the reader in by using the senses. The words must be vivid, the reader should experience what the character is experiencing, and, if using multiple viewpoints, we should be in the head of the character who has the most to lose in the scene. 

Suspense is more complex than that, though, in novel-length.

First the writer must keep offering questions to the reader who keeps reading to find out the answers, and as the reader finds the answers, the author offers more questions to keep the reader reading.

A question can be a simple "what happens next?" or "why is this character doing this?" All the questions and their answers are the clues that the reader gets to understand the novel and the characters.

Think of these questions and answers as bread crumbs leading the reader bird through each scene and through the novel. Part of the suspense in each scene comes in finding out the answer to some of the questions the author poses.

Suspense won't work if the reader doesn't care about the person in danger so part of creating suspense is making the reader care about that character. In my romantic suspense, GUARDIAN ANGEL, if my hero had been a jerk instead of a charming, decent man, most readers wouldn't care if he survived to the end of the novel, and they certainly wouldn't think him worthy of Desta, the brave and kind heroine.

The character must also have a worthwhile goal so that the reader wants the character to succeed.

If the main character wants to find the treasure so he can live a lavish lifestyle, the reader may root for him if the search for the treasure is interesting enough, but if he wants the treasure to ransom his beloved wife and children before they face torture and death, the reader will be as anxious as the character is that he succeed. Each suspenseful scene will be a hurdle or threat to his reaching his final goal, and failure is unthinkable.

If the reader cares for both the character and his goal, your story have even stronger suspense than just an exciting plot.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Using Music in Your Fiction

Music is extremely powerful, evoking intense emotion, history, memory, and physical movement in a way that fiction and most other types of communication cannot.  Many writers used that emotional and historical element by mentioning music titles and song lyrics as a short hand for those emotions.  
But here’s the problem.  Music has copyright protectors who are beyond zealots.  Copyright fair use and proper attribution which are both perfectly legal don’t matter to them, and they, usually ASCAP, will go after a writer for even the slightest mention.  They have the lawyers and the money so they win almost every time.  
If an author does go through ASCAP, the band’s legal people, or a brand like Disney to license a few lines, the costs are ridiculous.  An acquaintance tried, and using two lines of a lyric from an obscure band would have cost her more than she’d make for the life of the book.  
So, what’s a writer to do?  Some write their own song lyrics.  Others work very carefully around the ridiculous copyright landmines.
Here, in two scenes from my unpublished novel, THE LAUGHING GOD’S KISS, which involved a hero with a fondness for music. Cautiously treading around those copyright landmines, I use a song title, a few words of the lyrics, or some careful editing to evoke those emotions.  They also reflect emotional moments for two people who are already falling in love but refuse to admit it, even to themselves.  

Storm bent over his guitar and started  "Yesterday."  
Gazing around at all the rapt faces in the living room, Victoria realized this was a virgin audience for the song.  These isolated people had never even heard of the Beatles.  
Storm sang, his voice catching with melancholy at the loss of a great and true love.  His face, for the first time, was vulnerable and open with emotion.
Victoria's heart twisted with his pain as she wondered whom he'd loved so much and why he'd lost her. 
Across the pasture, a familiar baritone voice sang softly.  Victoria caught the words "corn" and "elephant's eye."  Intrigued, she moved closer.
His back to her, Storm brushed briskly on the black gelding as he sang.  The black's ears were cocked back to hear him.  His other three horses watched him, their ears forward.  None of them had a rope or line on, each held by his voice and presence.
Equally entranced, Victoria sat down in the shade of a nearby tree. 
Storm sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" with the feeling and skill worthy of Broadway, his black velvet voice soaring.   
As his voice faded at the end of the song, the horses began to fidget.
Storm began "If I Loved You.“
Victoria closed her eyes to savor the music.  The song was about love unadmitted yet so tenderly expressed.  It had moved her when she'd seen Carousel
If a voice could make love to a woman, then Storm Morgan had that voice.  Victoria let the song take her where it would.


    No, I’m not saying copyright is wrong, or you should ignore it.  Those who have followed me for years know that I’m a strong proponent of copyright, I write informative articles about it, and I’ve fought piracy for many years.  However, ASCAP and friends are using their money and clout to stop even fair use which is not okay.  As usual this disclaimer, I’m not a lawyer and can’t offer legal advice.  My examples are how I would avoid being sued by ASCAP.  You must decide for yourself whether to risk a lawsuit or nastygram from some lawyers.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Life Anchors

My sister and I chatted recently about time, and how it seems to slip away so dang fast.  The days and weeks move so rapidly that a month has passed before we blink.  Many of us don’t have anchors to tie us to this minute, let along this day, but others have a secret weapon.  Hers, right now, is a puppy who requires lots of attention and has milestones as she grows into an adult.  Children are incredible anchors to the here and now.  Serious illness is a less happy anchor in the now.
The past and memories have anchors, too.  We use the death of loved ones, graduations, and world tragedies to anchor us to the past.  Did this event happen before or after my mom died?  How long after?
Emotions are anchors in time.  We know exactly where we were and what we felt when the Twin Towers went down with a clarity we don’t have for birthdays or other moments.  When a true love leaves, we remember that pain forever.  
What does this have to do with writing?  Simple.  Characters need anchors, too.  Emotions, memories, and time should anchor a character in the moment of a scene.  If the character’s viewpoint is floating about without an anchor, then the scene fails for the reader.  
Even if that character does have a moment of interspection or memories, the reader should know, first, that she’s standing at her back window and staring at the sunset.  
Important plot points anchor the past but propel the character forward. Because the lover leaves, the character must choose a new direction because the old direction is gone.
Think to yourself before you write a scene, what are the anchors?  If you do, you’ll rarely fail to anchor your reader in your story.   

Monday, July 1, 2019

Starting with the Murder Victim

A common practice on TV mysteries is to start out with the discovery of the dead body.  NCIS, for example, is notorious for funny or gross body discoveries to start the mystery.  
Or the show uses the ever popular death on screen of the victim of the week.  Unless it’s COLUMBO, the viewer doesn’t know the identity of the murderer.  They just see some poor soul chased and murdered.
That’s TV, a very visual medium, but is it a good idea to start with the murder or the murder victim?  
Like all things in writing, it depends.  Here are some possible reasons to start with the body or the murder.
The writer makes the reader care immediately with a personable or sympathetic victim in viewpoint.  Clues and false clues can be presented to get the reader’s crime-solving started at that first page.  
The murderer as the viewpoint character ups the scare factor because it’s obvious he intends to do it again as a serial killer, or he has a vendetta against the book’s hero.  The hero may realize this, early on, but the reader knows already and is flipping pages like mad because he’s worried about the main character.  
Reader expectations.  If this book is about solving a murder, and the main character is a professional crime solver,  the body should be front and center from the beginning.  A cozy mystery is allowed some time to set up the characters, etc., without the reader getting bored.  
Atmosphere.  A chase through the darkness or the murder can really set the book’s tone and atmosphere.  This is more a side effect of the other reasons to start with the murder, and shouldn’t be the only reason.
Excitement before the boring part.  If the mystery needs considerable set up, the murder gets the reader reading then hopefully keeps him reading until the pace picks up a bit.
Later then now.  A technique which is no longer popular with good reason is to start at the murder, then go back in narrative time before that point.  It’s a cheap trick that will make most readers roll their eyes.  Use with great caution.