On Writing Death Scenes

Everybody loves a good death scene. But they love it in that weird, “I-hate-it” sort of way.

Why?

Because good death scenes (or near-death scenes) are meaningful. They are impactful, and they’re heart-rending. They make us feel things, and that’s why we read, is it not? We read for the feelz. I read a quote once that said, “I read—not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to live many.”

I’ve read a lot of death scenes in my life. I’ve written a lot of death scenes, and near-death scenes. Probably over half of the percentage from both the read and the written scenes came out….wrong, for some reason. Probably lots of different reasons, actually. I didn’t feel anything, or, if I did, it was the wrong thing. Usually, the feeling I had was that the scene was too dramatic, and so it was flat and unreal. It was distant.

Over-dramatizing death scenes (or any other major disaster scene) is all-too-easy to do. I’ve done that so often without meaning to. And if you’ve been writing any length of time at all, or written any number of death scenes, you’ve done it too. I mean, come on – we’re writers. Drama is our specialty. We’re SUPPOSED to put mass amounts of emotion into our death scenes, right?

Well, the answer is that we’re supposed to give our readers mass amounts of feelz; and that doesn’t always mean loading a death scene with an abundance of colorful drama. It usually means just the opposite, in my opinion. As my highschool writing teacher said, in regards to emotion, less is usually more. And yes, that does seem backwards, I know.

Another thing that is difficult with death scenes and/or near-death scenes in my experience, is avoiding clichés. However, clichés and drama usually go hand-in-hand. I’ll use one of the most common clichés from near-death scenes as an example here: “My life flashed before my eyes!”

Um. Hold up for a minute. Let’s say you’ve just had a brush with death. You’ve been shot at on a city street by a man in a car with tinted windows and an automatic rifle. For the sake of assumption, let’s just say that this drive-by shooting took less than a minute; and you say that your whole life flashed before your eyes in that time? Really?

Anybody who has actually HAD a near-death experience will tell you that your life does not flash before your eyes. You do not automatically begin to lament every bad thing you ever did, nor do you think about how many things you never did at all. Deep ponderings are not a part of near-death experiences, contrary to popular belief. And often, it’s those deep ponderings and long monologues about the “could have been” that make these types of scenes cliché and melodramatic. I know, because I’ve made that mistake far too often.

Also, I have in fact had a near-death experience before, and for the sake of example, I’ll share it, because I don’t mind. Once, my family and I were driving down the highway, leaving the city near where we live. We were going through an intersection that was under construction, and rather difficult to navigate. I was on the passenger side, when a huge truck/trailer combination comes swerving towards us from the right, coming within six inches of broad-siding my side of the car. No way I would have survived if it hit us, considering that it was going 65+ mph.

Now, this all took less than 30 seconds. Probably less than 15 seconds. And I thought two things: 1. When he hits us, all the glass in going to shatter out of the window, and get stuck in my clothes and hair. Then I’ll look terrible! 2. The car is going to be a mess. They’ll have to clean off all the blood from the seat and dashboard. It’ll probably be ruined, and we just cleaned it! They might even have to buy a new car.

Probably not what you expected to hear, huh? I mean, I realize that it’s stupid to think those things when you’re about to die, but that’s what I thought. (Besides, everybody knows that it’s important to look stunning when you’re dead.) Yesterday, after getting off of a big rollercoaster, I was talking to a friend of mine about this very subject (not because we thought we were going to die the rollercoaster, mind you), and I told him that story, to which he replied that, “I guess it means that the small things really are what matter.”

Going back to the drive-by shooting; in that 45 seconds as the car is going past, and the bullets are flying, you’re more likely to be thinking things like, “Oh gosh, these bullets are going to hit my car, and I just had it painted”, or “Oh great, now there’s mud all over my clothes—and it was my best dress!”

As strange as it may seem, I think it’s true—small things matter. They matter a lot. It’s the little things in a scene that make it dramatic. One of the best death scenes I ever read was from a book my highschool writing teacher showed me (can’t remember the name), when one of the characters was about to die either of an illness, or from starvation. They are near a well, and the protagonist is going to get water for the dying one, and she turns around, says the character’s name, but the only response is silence. When she looks down at her, in the prose, I believe it said she appeared to be sleeping; and the apple she had been holding rolled across the ground with a single bite taken from it.

That tiny detail made the scene. There was no ceremony, and no drama. In fact, the author never even had to say that the character was dead. But we knew anyway. The scene worked because of the small things.

I was having tea with my writing teacher at Panera Bread one day, when we had a conversation about emotional/death scenes. I had written one, and he did a critique of it for me. That’s when I realized that I had it all wrong. In two words: Too dramatic. The scene was of a wounded soldier coming home to tell the protagonist that his father had been killed in action. Things were way too drawn out and omniscient. Nothing was close; nothing was intimate or personal. It was all drama; it was all emotion—forced emotion.

But one of the things he suggested be put in/changed in the scene was this: That the Hero see the wounded man walking up the road, wearing a military cap, and carrying a second cap in the one hand he has left.

It was the last thing I expected him to say, but it made perfect sense. Right there, in one sentence, I could have said exactly what happened without saying it. And because I never said it, the emotion would be greater, because the reader would realize it on their own, before the messenger ever says a word to the Hero. It’s all about show-don’t-tell.

Over-description and over-dramatizing gives the reader too much time to think about what has happened. Making things large and impersonal basically acts like a vacuum, sucking emotion from a death scene. In my opinion, good death scenes should be quick, and unforgiving, taking notice of a few small, key details.

Frozen: A Dreaming Hobbit Review

**WARNING**

Review contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen it, leave now, or forever hold your peace. If you don’t care, carry on.

Frozen-Movie-Review-Video

Sunday afternoon, my family and I went to see the movie Frozen. I’d heard good things about it up to that point, but I’m always a little wary of movie recommendations, because let’s face it; I’m picky. And my pickiness has only increased since I’ve been a part of the One Year Adventure Novel, because now, I see stories’ structure as well as their content.

However, watching Frozen was something that I found to be a very pleasant surprise. It was good. It was very good. It was a movie that I could actually enjoy without picking it apart in the theater. One of my favorite things about it was that it broke a bunch of Disney stereotypes, such as “follow your heart”, and “once prince charming comes, everything will be perfect”. In fact, it didn’t have many Disney clichés at all that I noticed, which I thought was fantastic.

Having just returned from the OYAN Winter Workshop 2014, my mind is working afresh on the critiquing of storylines, and so I went into the theater ready to put my brain to work. One thing I am a real stickler for is character development. I don’t care about stories with flat characters, even if it’s a good story. I don’t care because I can’t care. There’s nothing to care about.

One of the things that I was impressed with in the movie Frozen was the introduction of human characters right out of the gate. Particularly Anna. Anna had a personality that was easy to care about. She’s awkward and funny, and completely human. We can see that she has faults (*cough*impulsiveIwanttomarryamanIjustmet*cough*). She’s not perfect, like some other Disney princesses are made out to be. She makes mistakes. I’ve found that I can pretty much never care about a character who is perfect, because I think, “Well, what is there to worry about? Miss Perfection can handle it herself for Pete’s sake.”

Also, the conflict between Anna and Elsa was intricate and beautifully executed, I thought. The contrast in their personalities felt very true-to-life, and I found myself caring for each of them, which created conflict in me throughout the movie when they would each be wanting a different outcome from a situation. The layering of the characters was great. I was able to pick out both exposed and hidden traits in each of the two girls, which is something that really impressed me.

On the outside, Anna is a happy-go-lucky, spunky girl with a desire for true love. She’s not your average princess, and is just hysterical. But underneath all of that, in the parts that you don’t see in her life outside the castle, she’s lonely. She’s hurting, and starving for attention. Elsa, on the other hand, is a quiet, unassuming person with fantastic magical powers. On the outside, she seems unstoppable, confident, and queenly, but beneath it all, she’s afraid. She’s afraid of herself, and afraid of the world. She doesn’t know how to control her powers, and she’s afraid to hurt people because she loves them. She’s afraid to let others in, and she’s afraid to let go.

This brings me to another point: Elsa’s powers. Often, I have a difficult time caring about characters with super powers, just because I think, “What could go wrong for them? They’re so powerful, nothing could possibly touch them. So why should I care?” But that was not true of Elsa. Her struggle was very clear, and it was evident throughout the movie that she was effected deeply. Things got to her. Her powers didn’t save her every time. In fact, her powers were her downfall in a way. As a writer, I appreciated how her magic didn’t create “dues ex machina” at every turn. She was no fairy godmother. I found it interesting, and very true that she showed the fact that even people with abundant power have fear. They’re human.

And the supporting characters, which I found to be considerably more shallow, were still great. Because Olaf. I mean, seriously. A snowman who wants to live in summer. I cracked up. Because he had hopes and dreams, Olaf, despite his snowmanness, felt relatively human as well. And besides, who doesn’t love a character like that?

Kristoff was also a good character, though of all of them (aside from Hans, probably), he left the most to be desired with a personality/backstory, etc. The thing that most impressed me with Kristoff was his strength. Movies often portray men as weak, but Kristoff didn’t come off as pitiful or weak at all. Instead, he came off as…well, manly. He rode back to the city through the snow and ice to save Anna. And more than that, he left her because he believed she belonged to another man. Not only was he a man, but he was an honorable man.

And now that I’ve gone through the characters (because I’m a character-first writer, that’s why), I’ll touch on the plot some. Often, with movies—particularly animated ones—I’ll find the plot to be shallow, or full of holes. Especially if it’s an action movie. Frozen, however, was a very character-based movie, and so most of the plot focused on the people anyway, which didn’t leave many holes. I felt like the conflict was very well resolved at the end, and I didn’t leave thinking, “Well, that was bleh.” I actually felt satisfied by it.

Also, the use of the unexpected was great. The buildups and payoffs were well-executed, and the use of surprise and expectation was marvelous, in my opinion. For example, Hans. Right out of the gate, I expected him to be a fraud, but I must admit that, when he’s about to kiss Anna and then says, “If only there was someone who loved you”, I experienced a mild degree of shock and anger. Basically, “You malevolent pig! How dare you do that to her?” even though I expected it the whole time. The setup for that moment was quite masterfully done, because I expected it, and yet was still surprised by it.

One of the things that surprised and pleased me the most about the movie was the different “true love” angle. At first, they’re talking “true love’s kiss” and all that Disney cliché stuff, but then at the end, true love’s kiss has nothing to do with the story’s resolution. Instead, the “act of true love” that is required to thaw the ice is a sacrifice. It’s Anna’s sacrifice. She sacrifices her life to save her sister because she loves her. That is the ultimate sort of love. That’s the love that caused Jesus to come and die for us.

Contrary to most (if not all) Disney movies I’ve seen, Frozen demonstrated that “romance” isn’t the only sort of love to be desired or upheld. In fact, romance is only one type or function of true love. It said that love is not about fireworks. Love is about the heart. It’s asking yourself, would you die for someone? Would you stay with them and never leave, no matter what it cost? Would you come back for them, even when they’d left you? Would you sacrifice? It showed that love is deep—much deeper that our culture paints it today.

Love is about giving of yourself before anyone else, and I thought that Anna demonstrated that very well in the moment near the end of the film when she is faced with a dilemma of sorts. Kristoff is riding back through the storm to give her “true love’s kiss”, and it would’ve been easy for her to take it, but instead, she chooses to do the hard thing—the thing that she knows will cost her everything. She gives of herself. It’s in that moment that she realizes that “true love” isn’t all that she thought it was. It’s more. I think that scene especially brought a feeling of great closure to the movie. It brought satisfaction in knowing that these characters weren’t the lame kind who just take the kiss and be done with it all. There was depth and real care. Real love.

All in all, I was impressed by the movie. It was cute, it was funny, and unlike a lot of children’s movies today, it actually meant something.

Part 2: Feelings, Emotion, and Lightbulbs [Writing for the Subconscious]

For the past couple of months, I’d felt as though my writing was severely lacking in some aspect. At first, I figured it must be the flow of my prose. Because isn’t good writing all about good prose? Isn’t it about writing words that flow so smoothly that the reader doesn’t even think twice about them? Well, perhaps that’s good writing, but is it good storytelling?

When I looked closer at my prose, I couldn’t find any major flaws in it. And I don’t say that with arrogance at all, because the honest truth is that, because I didn’t see any flaws, I became frustrated. I was missing something, and I couldn’t even figure out what it was. But all the time, I knew it was something.

After some time, I got so frustrated that I felt like giving up altogether. I’d hit a plateau, and I felt like my writing wasn’t improving. And we all know that we can ALWAYS improve. No matter how good we think (or don’t think) we are, we’ll never reach “the top”, if “the top” even exists. But still, the idea of not improving my skills depressed me. Writing is my passion, and I didn’t want to see it flatten out and cease to grow and mature. And I’m betting you that I’m not the only writer who’s been at this point in the journey. Most, if not all of you probably know the feeling.

When I couldn’t deal with my roadblock anymore, I called a fellow wrtier to talk about things, which basically meant that I sobbed about my problems for half an hour, and then we proceeded to get intellectual. I’m posting this in hopes that perhaps the breakthrough I had will help some of y’all as well, and that it’ll save you the bemoaning-phone-call-process.

After talking for a bit, I realized that I was looking at the wrong aspect of my writing. I’d been studying my prose for weeks, trying to find serious mistakes to fix, when really, what I was missing lay beneath all of that. My problem wasn’t with writing, it was with storytelling. I realized that I could write beautiful prose all day long, but that’s not what mattered at this point. It wasn’t what was keeping my stories from turning out the way I wanted them to.

So then, I had to ask the question, “What is deeper than prose?”

The answer is storytelling. Prose is just the way you communicate what you’re trying to say to the reader. The words on the page are not the story. The words on the page are what are translating the story from your mind to your reader’s. Mr. Schwabauer talks about this briefly in the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum, when he says that the goal of any story is to create emotion, and then gives some pointers on how to do that. The words on the page are a writer trying to reflect some deeper meaning to the reader.

 Flower-in-concrete

During the conversation on the phone, the question came up, “Well, what are thoughts? What makes a conscious thought?” Most people think in English phrases. We think in words. Words are our lives—especially as writers. But even in our heads, the words have to come from someplace. They are a product of something deeper.

Take little kids for example. They’re too young to talk, and too young to understand English, and yet, they still have to think, because they’re human. But how do babies think? It’s not in words. Speculation is that they must think in emotions, feelings, pictures, and memories. But growing up doesn’t mean we lose that. In fact, it is what produces the English phrases that we think. The conscious thoughts that we have in words are a product of our unconscious emotions and the pictures in our heads.

How does this pertain to writing, though? Writing is all words, isn’t it?

Well, yeah. But rather than looking at writing for a moment, I want to focus on storytelling. Storytelling today broadens the spectrum to include movies, screenplays, and theater productions, as well as books. I say “today”, because storytelling has changed over the years. Read something from the 1600s and you’ll see what I mean. Stories used to be just that: words on a page. Penetrating emotion was very rare, and stories catered more to the intellect than the heart of the reader. “Show don’t tell” was hardly a concept of widespread use, making prose a lot more dry. It wasn’t popular to think in action beats, likely because the concept of “live stories”, or movies didn’t exist at the time.

But then came Shakespeare, who wrote only in live action, because he was writing plays for people to act out. This is merely speculation on my part, but it could be that, when the theater industry began to grow, the use of live action beats to create emotion in stories also began to become more widespread. I can imagine that the concept was pretty revolutionary at the time.

Today, storytelling encompasses all of the things I mentioned earlier: movies, theater, and books. Fiction is created for the soul of the reader/viewer, as opposed to their intellectual mind. When talking to my friend, he pointed out an aspect of storytelling that movies achieve particularly well, and that is speaking to the audience’s subconscious.

Think about when you’re standing outside of a room where someone else is watching a movie. They have the volume up, and you can hear the soundtrack penetrating the wall; maybe even feel it in the floorboards under your feet. You don’t have to be in the room, looking at the screen in order to know what type of scene is playing. You can tell by the emotion that the music creates in your subconscious whether it’s a sad, intense, or exciting scene. The dialogue and the acting of the movie is only adding layers to the emotion that you already feel.

Music is one thing that caters to the subconscious. It’s why soundtracks are so powerful. It’s the reason you can hear a score and think to yourself, “This music is sad”, or “The protagonist must be fighting a terrible battle right now”. You don’t know what’s going on, but you can speculate, based on the emotion the music creates in you.

But we’re writers. We don’t have the benefit of using cameras and music to create that underlying emotion. We have to settle for acute details that penetrate the heart, but those can be difficult to find, at least, when you’re thinking too hard about locating them. Creativity flows best when you’re not over thinking, as I’ve said before.

So then I asked my friend, “What do you DO then?” and he told me that when he writes, at least for the first draft, he thinks in “camera cuts” as if the movie of his story is playing in his head. It’s basically about translating that movie and those emotions from your subconscious, to words on paper, and back to the reader’s subconscious feelings, allowing them to live in the story.

Have you ever noticed that in a movie, when a particularly strong emotion is being conveyed, often nobody speaks? There is a part in the movie “Courageous”, where this happens, and it’s one of the most emotional parts in the entire film. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVoh3xJQYuQ) Notice how Adam says nothing until the last few seconds, and yet there are so many feels in this scene, simply because of what we’re seeing.

Imagine a movie cut from a WWII film set in Nazi Germany. The scene is about five seconds long, and it shows a doll, lying in a muddy street as soldiers from the Third Reich march past, trampling it. This is a sad scene, even though no words are said. It hits the subconscious, making you feel things deep inside. It conveys so much emotion in the space of five seconds that it’s incredible. You might not even realize its full meaning at the time. The same scene could take up the space of a single sentence in story prose. It’s about the picture. The mental image is what allows the reader to feel things. You don’t have to tell them what to feel; they’ll feel it on their own. The rest of the scene will be filtered through the emotion that this mental image created.

Writing is about communicating raw emotions, and I learned that emotion is not a flowery thing. That scene from “Courageous” could probably be transferred to a few short sentences, maybe even a paragraph of prose that would capture the emotion that the audience feels; that would hit them in the subconscious. Over-writing emotion kills it, and that was my problem. I was intellectualizing something that should have been felt. I was focusing too much on the details that I’d use to communicate the emotion, rather than just letting myself feel it, while writing messy prose. Emotion doesn’t come from prose. Emotion comes from the pictures in your head, which are transferred through artful [not flowery] prose to the reader.

First drafts, I realized, are for finding the emotion in your story, and capturing it on the page, in as few words as possible. It’s about watching the movie in your head, and transferring those camera cuts to paper.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be very hard at times, because you’re not always up to facing the emotion of the movie in your head. Sometimes you’ll feel like editing, because editing isn’t emotionally taxing, at least not in the same manner. The truth is, your creative mind and your logical mind pretty much can’t coexist peacefully. In order to write a meaningful story, the editor has to be shut out for awhile. Your internal editor speaks from your conscious thoughts, telling you that you need to stop and think about what you’re writing, when in reality, Eddie needs to shut up and let you feel your story. He can come back another day to help with the prose.

Realizing this was a huge breakthrough for me, despite the fact that I “knew” how to write emotion. I struggled with just turning on the movie and watching the camera cuts; just feeling things without trying to make it flowery and beautiful. My friend and I spent over two hours in deep, philosophical conversation over this, but in reality, it’s not a complicated concept. Realizing the existence of the conscious thought versus the unconscious emotions was like: *LIGHTBULB* for me. The subconscious isn’t flowery.

Thoughts are just a complicated version of emotions. Words are just a complicated reiteration of emotions, which is why it’s important not to overuse them in prose. Sure, prose needs to be smooth and enjoyable to read, but that’s second draft stuff. That’s not what I was missing. I was missing the fundamental foundation of story, and how to go about writing it, which explains why I felt the void in my stories.

Part 1: Help! I Have Writer’s Block! [A Different Perspective on the Monster]

If you’ve been a storyteller for long, chances are good that you’ve come into contact with the bane of every author’s existence at least once. And even if you haven’t, the odds are not in your favor of escaping the clutches of this mind-numbing beast. That agonizing grasp it has on your brain that whispers, “You’re stuck. There’s nothing you can do now, author. Mwuahahaha!”

We call it “writer’s block”. Everybody deals with it differently, but often, it’s a story-halting disaster. You can’t write. Not that you don’t know WHAT to write. You just can’t. Period.

I’ve had writer’s block for weeks. I mean weeks. And not because I didn’t have anything to work on. I have a novel, all ready for writing, with plans for scenes and everything, but I had zero motivation to actually do anything about it. This depressed me. I was beginning to hit the point of questioning my identity as an author. And of course, Writer’s Block was just feeding those doubts with things like, “Well, maybe writing just isn’t for you”, or, “If you think you’re ever actually going to pursue a career in this, you really must be delusional, or at the very least, disturbed. I mean, look at you! You haven’t written in ages, and you saaaaay you’re a writer. Yeah, right. To be a writer, you have to know how to beat writer’s block.” Y’all know what I’m talking about.

This frustrated me, so I began looking for ways to beat writer’s block. I searched Pinterest; I read articles, blog posts, and comments, and virtually every time, I hit the exact same phrase: “Just write”, to which my brain responded, “Awwwww, wut?????” They make it sound so EASY. As if saying “just write” will summon magic bursts of inspiration from above. Because it doesn’t. In fact, the words “just write” made me feel like flopping over and moaning.

Then I began to wonder what was keeping me from “just writing”. After all, it wasn’t for lack of things to write. It wasn’t because my brain was blank and out of ideas. So what was it? It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying to find motivation. I tried to motivate myself all day long, but it felt like walking across a hard floor, covered in Legos. (Yes, that’s some serious agony.)

What Is Writer’s Block?

Finally, after having a lengthy discussion with a friend on the matter, I asked the question, “What IS writer’s block?” Because, essentially, I didn’t know, aside from being like, “You know that incredible urge people get when starting at a blank screen to just….put words on it? …..I don’t have it.”

 

So then I asked my friend, “Why can’t I just write?” to which he gave the last response I would’ve expected. He told me, “Well, maybe you’re just over intellectualizing things.”

After some thought, I came up with what I believe is a somewhat different “take” on the monster that we call writer’s block. I realized that I spent more time thinking about writing, than I did actually writing, which led me to the conclusion that maybe “writer’s block” isn’t what I’ve always thought it is. Maybe it isn’t a lack of creativity, but instead, an overloaded thought process. I realized that, even though I wasn’t running dry on ideas for my novel, I was spending more time thinking about how to write, than I was sitting down and actually typing. The strain of trying to logically work out how to get from point A to point B in a scene was draining me so that, by the time I would read those “how-to-defeat-writer’s-block” inspirational posts, my brain was like, “Just write? You’ve gotta be kidding me. That’s like telling me to walk through a minefield of legos.”  

While I was thinking through the logistics of my novel, and my scenes, I got around the issue of not actually writing by telling myself, “Well, I’m just being creative”, or “I’m searching for motivation”, when in fact, over intellectualizing the story was stealing both of those things. I couldn’t “just write”, because I had my mind wrapped up in the details, when really, THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT. It can be a mess. Creativity flows best when it flows naturally. Over-thinking a story is like trying to force creativity down a certain path when maybe it’s not the best direction. Even if it’s not, there’s time to worry about that later. Worrying too much about how a story is turning out can make you miss valuable ideas that could’ve made it better.

Realizing this made me understand why the words “just write” caused me to freeze up and want to smack my computer over a rock. It’s because all of those articles and blog posts would tell me what to do, but wouldn’t explain why I was having writer’s block in the first place. They wouldn’t help me to understand the problem; instead they’d just provide a solution that, without understanding the issue, would be meaningless.

I imagine that the phrase, “just write” works fine when you’re out of ideas. After all, now you’ve just got to release a new stream of creativity. It’s when you’ve got too many to deal with that you begin to over-analyze the story, and it becomes real writer’s block. As in, the kind where you can’t “just write”, no matter how much you want to. Once I understood that I was over intellectualizing my work, the mental blocks in my head all made sense to me. I couldn’t write because I was blocking my creativity with logic. Logic is for second drafts.

First Drafts

I’ll be the first to say that I have problems writing first drafts. Why? I’m a perfectionist. Majorly. Thus my over-thinking issues. But the truth is, you can’t go about fixing something unless it first exists. My writer’s block was stemming from the fact that I was trying to “fix” my first draft before it even hit the paper. And because it never sounded right in my head, I never bothered to put it on the screen.

First drafts aren’t about sounding right, or looking right, or flowing right. They’re about feelings; emotions. They’re for scoping out the story and exploring it. All of that tedious intellectualizing can be saved for the second draft, when it’s important that the story make sense. My friend so aptly said, “Seriously, don’t think about it. Your first draft can look like a kindergartener wrote it.”

It’s true, though most of us probably don’t like the idea of allowing ourselves to write that badly. I know I don’t. But the truth is, something has to be real before it can be beautiful.

The Temptation to Over-Think

I struggle most often with this temptation when facing an incredibly complex storyline, because obviously, these take more thought than a less complicated plot. It’s at this point when you have to decide, and come to realize what is and what is NOT over-thinking. There’s a line to be drawn between being creative, and intellectualizing.

The other time is when I’ve got a deadline to meet. If I’m running on a limited amount of time, the temptation to over-think things comes because I want to make the story as good as possible, given my time-frame. However, more often than not, this backfires, and I end up with writer’s block, because I try and sort it all out in my head, rather than choosing to get it on paper so I can fix it and work with it from there.

In conclusion, this post isn’t really meant to be about “how you beat writer’s block”, so much as “this is what I think writer’s block is”. Telling someone to “just write” when that’s what they’ve been trying to do for weeks isn’t going to help. It’s being able to identify some of the reasons why, perhaps, you’ve been unable to work. Everybody deals with writer’s block differently; it’s just knowing what you’re dealing with that is important.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Feelings, Emotion, and Lightbulbs [Writing for the Subconscious].

Writing Suspense

Good suspense can be difficult to write, just like many things. But, like all things that are difficult, it is of critical importance to keeping a reader interested in your novel.

Of course, you already know that. That’s why you keep reading, isn’t it? To find out what happens next. Because if Frodo gets stabbed in the heart by a Nazgul Ringwraith, things are going to get really terrible, right? So you’re in suspense.

First of all, I’d like to point out that I think there is a difference between “suspense” and “dread”. Dread is a product of the foreshadowing of terror, while suspense is produced in the midst of the terror itself. It’s what we get when the stakes are continually raised inside a single scene. Essentially, it is the payoff to a dreadful promise, in some cases.

An example of dread vs. suspense that comes to mind is in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gimli suggests that the company go through the mines of Moria to avoid freezing in the mountains, and Gandalf responds that, he “would not take the road through Moria unless [he] had no other choice.” There’s the dreadful promise. Why doesn’t he want to go through Moria? What could be so bad about it, anyway? They’re already freezing to death…. The dread itself is manifest when Frodo makes the decision to take the way through the mines. Now we’re worried about what will happen, because we know for a fact that something will.

But we still haven’t reached the suspense. The suspense in the “Moria scene” begins, IMO, inside of Balin’s tomb, with the reading of the old manuscript that Gandalf finds there. “Drums in the deep…” “You know what they awoke there.” And then we get a brief glimpse of the Balrog in the book, before Pippin knocks the guy into the well. Now the suspense is building. We hear drums, and it’s particularly terrifying, because we know that the Fellowship is trapped in the mine. And then the goblin attack. But the suspense doesn’t end here—it only gets worse when all of the goblins flee at the sound of more drums. The suspense continues to build until the dreadful promise is fulfilled by the appearance of the Balrog, and Gandalf’s fall into Khazadum.

But what makes suspense work, exactly? How do you scare your readers enough to keep them on the edge of their seats throughout a scene, a chapter, and ultimately, a novel? Again, IMO, there is a difference between “fear” and “suspense”. Suspense can create fear, but not all fear creates suspense.

In the “Moria scene”, we’re scared because we don’t know what the dwarves awoke in the deep places of the earth. We don’t know where the drums are coming from, but we sense the connection. When the goblins show up, we think we have it figured out, but then – OH WAIT, there’s more! When the Balrog finally shows itself, the fear remains, but the suspense is finally gone. Why? Because, IMO, suspense comes from hiding something from the reader.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Jurassic Park, that is an example of suspense done well. I mean, you’re constantly sitting there thinking, “Ermagosh, some dinosaur is going to stick its head through the wall and eat them any second! O_O” You’re scared to death, but you can’t even see the dinosaurs. Actually, you’re scared because you can’t see them, but you know they’re out there. I would say, in fact, that the most terrifying scenes in that movie were not the ones with visible dinosaurs, but the ones with invisible dinosaurs, so to speak. The ones where you’re expecting them to jump out from the trees at any moment. You’re expecting it, but when they do, you jump anyway.

Suspense puts the reader on edge. Couple the anxiety with the use of the unexpected, and BAM. In a particular scene from Jurassic Park, where the characters are running through a space above the ceiling, with a raptor in the room below, I kept expecting the dinosaur to poke it’s head through the ceiling tiles and snatch at them, so when instead, the little girl falls through the tiles, I was shocked. It wasn’t a major deviation from what I expected to happen, but enough so that it startled me, keeping up the suspense. In fact, her falling was worse than the raptor breaking through the roof. Why? Because now they have to pull her back up before it can eat her.

The same concept of hiding the embodiment of dread from the reader/viewer is used in the scene in Balin’s tomb in The Fellowship of the Ring, when the cave troll is attacking Frodo. Notice how, in the movie, the camera only shows one side of the pillar Frodo is hiding behind at a time. They’re purposely hiding the cave troll, because they know that the viewer is going to be more on-edge if they can’t see it. Each time Frodo moves, we’re expecting him to be face-to-face with the monster, and yet, when the cave troll finally does jump out, we’re still startled.

You’ve probably seen this technique used elsewhere in fiction as well. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY way to create suspense, but I know it’s one way that works. And it works well. In fact, I would even say that it works the best. I’ve written scenes in which I try to scare the reader by showing them exactly what’s to be feared, and every time, the scene turned out a failure. At the same time, though, I’ve also written numerous scenes in which I deliberately hid the source of the fear, and these scenes were all much better-received.

One thing to keep in mind, I think, and I do when I’m writing suspenseful scenes, is that, when you finally show the thing-that-is-to-be-feared, make sure that something terrible happens. When the Balrog comes, we lose Gandalf. When the raptors attack, someone gets eaten. If nothing happens as a result of the suspense, the reader is going to feel cheated. Like, “You seriously put us through all of that angst for nothing?! What?”

The consequence doesn’t have to show up right away, IMO. I think it is possible to drag the suspense throughout several scenes, even, and still play fair with the reader. In Jurassic Park, the entire movie was made of suspense. But some of the characters still lived to escape the island, which meant that there wasn’t a direct payoff for every suspenseful scene. But if they’d made the movie with that heightened suspense, and nobody EVER got eaten, I would have felt extremely cheated.

So basically, to sum up the thoughts I’ve had here: Suspense works best when something is kept out of the reader’s sight—or at the very least, out of the character’s. The key to suspense is that somebody doesn’t know what’s coming—only that something is. And eventually, something has to, or the scene wasn’t really worth as much as you made it out to be.

And, having said all of that, I’m curious to hear all of y’all’s thoughts. What are some good suspenseful scenes in your opinion, and why do you think they worked? Do you generally have success with suspense, or is it a struggle? Why? Leave a comment and let me know.