Avoid Clichés; Scare Your Readers

The Power of Words to Resurrect Your Story

The legacy of our earliest ancestors left them with two options when confronted with fear – to stay and fight or to run as fast as they could. Those who were good at predicting the outcomes survived and passed this genetic trait down to us.

Faced with this situation – real or imaginary – the brain mobilizes the body’s resources. It sends a rush of adrenaline and other hormones coursing through the body. Our pupils dilate to see better. Our heart pounds and our breath quickens to rush blood and oxygen to our muscles. We might turn pale as blood is directed away from the skin to power the muscles and fuel the brain. We might tremble or shake as our muscles tense, primed to take action. You might even get goosebumps, as tiny muscles flex in the skin, causing hairs to stand up. All triggered by the brain’s prime directive: survival.

When we realize that the danger isn’t real, we are left with a dopamine rush – the “feel good” hormone released in the process. While I adore a good scare, not everyone enjoys the thrills of a haunted house, a wild roller coaster ride, or a spooky story. Neuroscientists believe that may be because our brains have different sensitivities to the dopamine rush.

At an anniversary screening of Halloween many years ago,  one of our young interns, now a successful manager and producer, sat beside me. She squirmed throughout, grabbing my arm and practically crawling into my seat in the scariest scenes. “Jamie Lee Curtis is alive and well and sitting two rows ahead of us,” I hissed. It didn’t matter. For her, the dopamine rush was too intense.

Strong storytelling engages us, draws us in, pulls us into the world, and straps us into the shoes of the character. We feel what they feel. Instead of merely observing, we are participating. We are in the moment. Caught up in the spell you’ve woven with your words.

Delicious dopamine cannot be activated with the overly familiar. Our brains have come to ignore phrases that once made storytelling awesome, but have been overused:

          Upset the applecart.

Clichés fail to activate our brains. Switching them up with something inventive yet understandable grabs our attention. It delivers more emotional impact and will resonate with your reader.

          Shaken like a snow globe.

To keep that dopamine flowing, the words and the elements of your story must be fresh and distinctive.

Read the full article from scriptmag.com

Drafting Reveals a New Story

Alaa Al-Barkawi says, “Growing up Iraqi Muslim American post 9/11 and during the US occupation of Iraq, I was constantly flooded with images of my people as the villains, and it affected my work as a writer…Through many trials, plot changes, and mental breakdowns…not only did I have a newer, shinier draft—but a new story I didn’t know existed in this book!”

Alaa’s comment resonated with me. I had the same experience and wanted to share this too. During extensive editing on my new novel, and from Beta Reader feedback, I discovered that there was another story within the pages; one more powerful and convincing, and one that propelled the plot. My novel moved from pure thriller to crime and grew in meaning and impact (for me, at least). Read more about Alaa’s writing journey here.

Regaining the Excitement

A writer (Jed Herne) mentioned that, at just over halfway through their novel, they found that the excitement had faded. That got me thinking about my new thriller. I thought the main plot was strong, but the ending not so. The trap for writers – and this is a personal view – is that getting the main action to a climax is a straightforward process, but finishing with an equally powerful flourish can be a challenge. In my case, one of my Beta Readers pointed out the weaknesses in my final chapters. I used this feedback to put a much better twist to the ending and, in a recent edit, added another chapter to link back to an earlier one and round out the finish. I smiled and I hope readers will too :-).

The Place of Quiet Reflection

Late nights and early mornings are quieter and my favorite times to reflect, write and edit. An early morning coffee along with some inspirational reading is a good foundation for the day ahead. For me, I write best when I think best and this is during these quiet times. If I have reached a stumbling block for a character or plot – a “what should happen next” moment – these often unravel during my place of quiet reflection. I have often woken during the night with a plot solution and scramble to write it down, dare I lose it by the time I wake in the morning. I wonder if this is why some authors only write during winter—when the cold and quiet allows more freedom for thoughts to roam? I hope you also find your happy place for quiet reflection and effective writing.

Duck for Cover

Duck for cover – the new book cover, that is. After much back and forth with my designer, the final version has come through for my revised first thriller. It looks something like this:

Yes, you are the first ones on the planet to see this new look! It just needs a minor tweak with the sizing and it will be ready to launch. The gap on the lower back cover is for the ISBN, etc. BTW, this is why I don’t recommend self-publishing—I should be spending my time writing and not worrying about book cover design, re-writing, correcting errors, uploading files, etc. [You can order a copy of 3 WISE MEN here]

The Day of the Jackal Sets a High Bar for Thrillers

Author Lee Child has published 25 thrillers, featuring Jack Reacher, which have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.So when he says The Day Of The Jackal is “a year-zero, game-changing thriller, one of the most significant of all time” you listen.

It is 50 years since the book by Frederick Forsyth was published but, in a new introduction to a special anniversary edition, Child says it still feels “luminously fresh and new”.

And no-one is more surprised than Forsyth himself. Not only was it his first novel, but also he tells the BBC: “I’d never written a word of fiction in my life.”

Back in 1970, the former RAF pilot and war correspondent was out of work. “[I was] skint, in debt, no flat, no car, no nothing and I just thought, ‘How do I get myself out of this hole?’ And I came up with probably the zaniest solution – write a novel,” he says.

Forsyth “dashed off” The Day Of The Jackal quickly on an old typewriter in 35 days. It is a gripping tale, set in 1963, about an Englishman hired to assassinate the French president at the time, Charles de Gaulle. But publishers were not interested. After all de Gaulle was very much alive, the mission had obviously failed, so where was the suspense? That, says Child, is the key to its success.

“It had a wholly new approach. It was talking about how things were done, rather than would something succeed. [read more from the BBC here]. PS: I smiled when I read this article and hope that my new thriller is a success because the mission given to the lead character fails to unfold in the way we would expect. (oops, did I give too much away?)

Character Arcs Are Not All the Same

Oh how we love character arcs (youtube is full of them). A good protagonist ends up bad, or a bad one turns good. Or, a level-headed character stays that way to meet challenges head-on. News channels love to publish about someone who has ‘fallen from grace’ or done something awful. We all have stories about fallen characters. I am reminded of what the great Apostle Paul said (in Romans 3:23) – “all have sinned, and come short…” In other words, none of us are perfect. We aim to be better (or worse) and our character trends or arcs upwards or downwards, or stays level. An arc is a line that is part of a circle; character arcs are the same and three types are listed below. However, there is another arc you should consider, and it is the arc of electricity makes as it moves from one source to another. A spark arcs as an electrical discharge between two electrodes. We saw that in a spectacular way a few days ago. Our stove caught fire and, when we looked inside, there were sparks arcing at the back of the main oven. In writing, I like to think of this arcing as being between characters. Sparks fly as conflict develops and, as conflict develops, you want to keep reading. Now, back to character arcs:

 

Here are three basic character arcs (source from tkpublishing):

What is a Positive Character Arc?

A positive change arc is one in which the protagonist undergoes a positive transformation. This usually includes a neat resolution at the end, where, because of their internal change, the character finally achieves their goals. An example of a positive character arc in classic literature is that of Marilla, the woman who adopts Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Marilla starts off uninterested in keeping the little girl, but as the story progresses, we see her developing a subtle but strong affection for Anne.

Negative Character Arcs

But not all stories have a happy ending: a negative change arc is one that still shows how your character develops, but not toward a positive transformation. Instead, this arc illustrates a downward spiral. However, the basic “arc” pattern remains the same, as it is still about how your protagonist starts one way and ends up another. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a classic example of a negative character arc. From the beginnings of her adultery, Anna Karenina continues to spiral downward, only to reach a tragic end at the end of the book.

What Is a Flat Character Arc?

Another character arc is the flat arc, wherein the character already has their beliefs in place and uses them to solve problems throughout the story; but even as the story ends, the character remains mostly the same. The development of Miss Maudie, the children’s aunt in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is an example of a flat character arc. She remains steadfast in her beliefs from her first scene until the end of the book.

[PS: my main character is an ageing spy who has second-thoughts about the value of his career. I will say no more.]

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