Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to Create a Page-Turner

If you're a writer, you're probably also a reader, and if you're a reader, you've most likely experienced one of those nights when you stayed up far too late to see "what happened next" in the novel you just couldn't put down.  The author didn't accomplish this by accident.  Skilled writers manipulate readers by using tension to keep them turning pages.

Before introducing tension-building techniques to my students, I create a little tension of my own by telling them half the class is about to get an F for the day.  I bring one boy and one girl to the front of the room and tell them the participation points for every student of their gender depends on what they do next.

Next, I bring out a balloon (the kind used to make balloon animals) and hold up a pump.  I emphasize that the balloon is old -- the latex isn't what it used to be -- and this balloon will  pop quickly if overinflated.  Then I pump up the balloon until it's completely filled, and this is where the fun begins.

Each student gets to choose how many times I completely push down the pump's plunger.  If they pop the balloon on their turn, every student of their gender gets zero points.  Since I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy, I let the ladies go first.  Invariably they choose to pump it once.  The balloon doesn't pop, but the pressure is on for the boys.  How many times can they pump it without making it explode?

What the students don't realize is this kind of balloon can take another eight or ten pumps even when it looks entirely filled.  The boys -- wanting to look manly -- choose TWO or THREE pumps.  It still doesn't pop, and all around the room I see grimaces and watch students hold their fingers to their ears.

I don't really take points from the losers, but I have created a powerful opportunity to discuss tension.  What is it exactly that brings a movie goer to the edge of her seat or forces a reader to explore that next paragraph, page, or chapter?  It usually boils down to a combination of the following five techniques:

Unanswered Questions

Who was that creepy guy peeking around the corner?  And why was he watching Tara?  Beginning writers tend to tell us in the next paragraph.  They quickly explain his motives then plow onward to the climax of the story.  This might be because they're impatient, but it could also be that they simply don't recognize the power of an unanswered question.

The moment Tara sees her creepy stalker, you, the author, have made an unspoken promise to your reader.  The mere fact this man was important enough to mention implies he will -- for good or evil -- show up again before the story ends.  How will Mr. Reader find out who he is?  Naturally, he'll have to read Chapter Two.  Or is it Chapter Three?  Or Chapter Twenty-Three?  The point is, he has to keep reading to find out.  Authors should always be on the lookout for opportunities to force their readers to ask questions and forge ahead for answers.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling reveals troubling -- and often conflicting -- tidbits about Dumbledore's youthful escapades.  Harry begins to question everything he thought he knew about his hero, and the reader questions those old assumptions as well.  To discover the truth we must follow Harry as he searches for Horcruxes and more information.  Carefully examine any bestselling novel, and you'll find this technique constantly being put to work.

This said, our next powerful technique is. . .

Well. . .  Check back next Wednesday to find out.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Show DON'T Tell

A skilled author paints pictures in her readers' minds.  Like an artist who chooses different brush strokes and colors to portray an image, a professional author needs her own palette of techniques.  Sensory language, strong verbs, slanted words, and concrete words are the author's equivalent to the artist's paint.

Sensory Language

Consider the following sentences:

A) Cheryl was really sad.
B) "I can't believe he's gone," Cheryl sobbed, tears streaking her reddened cheeks.

Which of these examples shows Cheryl's sadness and which one tells about it? 

There's a place for both of these sentences, but Sentence B is the obvious "showing" example.

We all know what the five senses are: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  Some writers even refer to a sixth sense -- a protagonists' intuition.  A reader can only see what your protagonist is seeing or hear what she's hearing.  This is where sensory words come into play.  A word like reddened can be used to show (as in Sentence B) the color of another character's face.  Similarly, words like squeaky, rough, salty, etc. give us a sense to latch onto while we sketch the scene on our mental "movie screen."

This is basic knowledge, but young writers don't always understand it.  To help my students, I used to ask them to create a chart with a column for each of the five senses.  Next we watched a 30 to 60 second video clip from a popular movie, jotting notes about what the character was seeing and hearing.  On a second run-through, the students focused on touch, taste, and smell.  These notes could then be used to construct a written version that "showed" the scene.

One word of caution:  Beginning writers (even some not-so-beginning writers) think phrases like "he smelled pollution," "she heard the traffic," etc. are examples of quality sensory description.  It helps to ask, "What is one word that describes that odor or one word that describes that sound."

Strong Verbs

Perhaps even more powerful than a few well-placed sensory words is one carefully chosen strong verb.  A strong verb is an action word with a specific associated image.  Consider the differences in the following sentences:

A) Jim walked down the street.
B) Jim staggered down the street.
C) Jim limped down the street.
D) Jim strutted down the street.

Notice how weak the verb walk is compared to strong verbs like staggered, limped, and strutted.  Sentences B, C, and D create vividly specific images.

Slanted Words

In a motion picture, a director chooses different types of music to create atmosphere and mood.  "Slanted" words (Don't confuse these with italicized words!) are an author's equivalent to mood altering music.  A slanted word usually has a very dark or light feeling and will manipulate a reader's perception.  For example:

A) Raindrops pattered gently against the misty window pane.
B) Raindrops trickled like oozing blood down the cracked window pane.

Notice the contrast between the words pattered, gently, and misty versus oozing, blood, and cracked.  These words are powerful.  They persuade the reader to feel the emotions you, the author, wish to impose upon them.

As an exercise for your students (or yourself) try watching one of the happier, sunnier scenes from the motion picture The Sound of Music.  Next, contrast this scene with the tense climax in the Nonnberg Abbey.  What colors and lighting are used to create lighter versus darker moods?  What objects contribute to these feelings?  The same techniques -- in written form -- apply to novels and short stories.

Concrete Words

Concrete words add a sense of reality to a story.  The word car doesn't create the vivid mental picture of a more specific word like Porsche.  Often a concrete word will tell you something about a character's personality.  The college professor who lectures in Wellington boots is probably quite different from her colleague who shows up on campus in Birkenstock sandals and argyle socks.  

You might argue that your world is too unique or alien for this technique to be effective, but some of the best fantasy and science fiction writers use it to great effect.  If you need an example, try exploring the alien world created by author Anne McCaffrey in her Dragonriders of Pern series.  It doesn't hurt to create names for alien species of plants, animals, and foods.  If you use them in context, your savvy readers will quickly come to accept them as a real part of your created world.

A simple activity that helps young writers recognize concrete words is to assign them categories like "Breeds of Dogs," "Gemstones," or "Names of Flowers" then have them compete in groups to see who can come up with the most words in two or three minutes.  Don't forget to teach them that concrete words are most effective when used like salt or pepper.  The right amount, used sparingly, spices things up.  Too much ruins the meal.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Big Three

If you've taught creative writing to teenagers, you might remember seeing plot lines similar to this:  A group of friends prepares to go to a party.  The protagonist decides she needs a new blouse, so her friends take her to the mall to find one.  At the mall they get something to eat then search through one store after another until FINALLY they find the perfect blouse!  They purchase it, the protagonist wears it to the party, and everyone tells her how great it looks!  The protagonist lives happily ever after! (Exclamation points are essential here.  At least they were in the original story.)

After reading a few assignments like this, you might question why you ever consented to teach the new creative writing elective.  The happy news is that the same teen writer who created this snore-inducing attempt at a story was able to create amazing page-turners once she mastered the following principles:  1) show your story, don't tell it; 2) add tension to your scenes; and 3) create reader sympathy for your protagonist.

The "Big Three" don't magically occur by themselves.  Although a talented writer can eventually pick them up through writer's intuition, a student can quickly turn her writing around within days of learning specific techniques associated with each principle.

I still remember my own experience in a creative writing course.  Our professor constantly lectured us about "showing" our stories instead of "telling" them.  There was one problem.  She never explicitly taught any of the techniques we needed to accomplish it.

"Show don't tell.  Show don't tell."  It was as if these three magical words could instantly transform our writing.  When I finally managed to stumble upon the true meaning of the concept, the professor called me into her office to tell me, "This writing is too good to be yours."

If you expect your students to write like professionals, they need to learn the techniques used by professional authors.  Even a thirteen year-old can master them.  (It's possible!  I've seen it happen.  The challenge is getting the thirteen year-old to patiently keep at it.)  Over the course of my next few posts, I'll focus on these techniques.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Welcome to the blog of creative writing teacher and author A.C. Grant.  If you're a teacher of aspiring teen writers or just want to brush up on your knowledge of writing techniques, the Creative Writing Toolbox is here to help.