Raising the tension in Lindsay Buroker’s ‘The Forbidden Ground’

I recently read Linsday Buroker’s Death Before Dragons novella The Forbidden Ground. I’ve found her other books to be a lot of fun‌—‌banter, action, fast-paced, exciting‌—‌and this one was no exception. But what struck me was the increase in tension in the climax.

This scene takes place after the antagonist falls through a hole in the ground, discovering an underground lair. She’s joined by a dragon (in human form), but he’s caught in beams coming from four mysterious orbs. Buroker has already established the relationship between the antagonist and the dragon (not a romance, but there are hints that it could become one), so it’s obvious that our hero wants to free him.

The beams are weakening the dragon, so the antagonist must act fast. Already, we have tension‌—‌a life-or-death situation and a limited time in which to act.

She attacks the first of the orbs, using her magical sword. It’s hard-going, but she manages to destroy it. The beam from the orb disappears‌—‌but the dragon is still held by the other three beams, and is now on his knees, clearly in pain. There’s no option but to attack the second orb. She does this, destroying it. The dragon is still held, growing even weaker.

Buroker could have had the antagonist destroy the final two orbs just as the dragon is about to breathe his last. That would have been satisfactory, if a little underwhelming. Instead, she adds another element to the tension.

Up to this point, the antagonist has been in no direct danger‌—‌she’s not the one slowly dying. If she fails to free the dragon, she still gets to live. But now, things become personal.

She strays too close to one of the remaining beams, and immediately feels the urge to turn her sword on the dragon. The beam‌—‌or the magical force behind it‌—‌is telling her to kill the dragon in his weakened state, and it’s taking everything she’s got to fight the compulsion.

The stakes have changed. This is no longer about life and death, but about something far stronger. If she can’t resist this urge to kill her friend, she’ll have to live with the knowledge of what she’s done for the rest of her days. She’s facing a ‘fate worse than death’, or a ‘damnation’.

This shift makes the climax far more exciting‌—‌and far more effective‌—‌but it took setting up. Throughout the short book, Buroker ensured that the reader understood the relationship between these two characters. As readers, we went into this climax knowing that, as annoying as he could be, the dragon has previously saved the antagonist’s life. They have a bond. As dismissive of ‘lesser beings’ as the dragon is, we get the impression he’d miss the antagonist if she were not around‌—‌and she’d definitely miss him if he were to go.

This increase in tension emphasises something that is at the heart of most (all?) good books, and is something that Buroker excels at‌—‌relationships are more important than plot. Without some kind of meaning for the characters, action in a story is nothing more than ‘stuff that happens’. For it to become a plot, for it to become a story we remember, we (the readers) must be engaged. We must care what happens to the characters.

This is especially true of the climax. In The Forbidden Ground, Buroker gives us physical danger and physical action, but ups the tension by making the whole battle personal. She makes things more exciting by engaging the emotions of both the characters and the reader.

It’s a solid story-tellling rule‌—‌the final climax of a story should be personal to have the most impact

In praise of ‘satisfactory’

About a decade ago I worked as a teacher. Back then, there were politicians pushing for ‘every student to be above-average’, and there was talk of rearranging lesson observation gradings so that ‘satisfactory’ was no longer good enough.

It was like dictionaries no longer mattered.

Ignoring the linguistic butchery, I understood the intentions. They wanted improvement. On the surface, I’ve got no argument with this. Education should be about improving oneself, in both formal settings (schools, colleges, and so on) and in other areas. Education never stops‌‌—‌life is a constant process of learning and (hopefully) improving.

I can see this in my own life. When I played guitar regularly, I’d practice in order to improve my technique, to play harder music, to get faster. When I use the bouldering wall, I work on different problems, improving my finger strength, body position, attitude and so on. And when I write, I aim to make every new story better than the one before. I read not only for enjoyment but also to inform my own writing. I listen to and read material on writing craft and story structure.

Learning can be hard, though. It’s not linear‌—‌there are times when things fall into place, and we make great leaps forward, but there are other times when we can’t wrap our heads around ideas. We struggle over something that feels inconsequential. Sometimes we need to revisit older ‘learning’, embedding it deeper or reminding ourselves about first principles. Sometimes we need to take it steady, or even take a break altogether.

And even with all this learning, perfection can only be an aspiration, never a destination. There’s always room for further improvement.

Which is why there’s no shame in being ‘good enough’. Sometimes (arguably most of the time), satisfactory is‌…‌well, satisfactory.

Let’s bring this back to reading and writing. I’ve read many satisfactory books. I can’t recall them now, but I enjoyed them at the time‌—‌because they did their job. They entertained me.

I was reminded of this recently as I read Scott Bartlett’s Mech Wars series. The books aren’t literary masterpieces‌‌—‌there were times when the writer side of me would pull me from the story, re-reading passages that were more tell than show, trying to work out ‘better’ alternatives.

But I read all four books. I wanted to know how the story ended, and what would happen to the characters. The series did its job in entertaining me. It was a perfectly satisfactory read.

I should note that this is my personal view. As I often do when finishing a book, I checked on-line reviews. Bartlett has a decent number, for both the series and the individual books, and the vast majority are positive. Readers enjoy the series. It’s military sci-fi‌—‌Bartlett doesn’t present it as literary. He’s telling an action-filled adventure, and that’s exactly what readers get.

The books don’t have the feel of first drafts, so Bartlett edited. I’m sure he made them the best he could, back when he wrote them (over five years ago). And then he reached a point where he felt they were good enough to put into the world.

Which reminds me of an interview I read with the band Massive Attack (after the release of their Mezzanine album). They talked about how they’d be constantly tinkering with the songs, passing files back and forth as they edited, but they eventually had to stop and release the album‌‌—‌but if they had time, they’d continue tinkering.

Works of art aren’t so much completed as abandoned. There’s always room for improvement. But there has to be a moment when the artist (musician, producer, writer, whatever) puts a stop to editing and decides it’s ‘good enough’, that it’s ‘satisfactory’‌—‌that is, it satisfies their own editorial standards, and (hopefully) will satisfy its audience.

And then it’s time to move on to the next project.

But why not continue to polish that first project? If each editing pass improves it, why not keep going?

Because where would it end? Some writers spend years on their first book in an attempt to make it ‘perfect’. But progressive edits yield diminishing returns, while taking up a great deal of time. If the writer wants to improve, they need to practice‌—‌and that means writing more. That means working on new stories and new projects.

A few years ago I re-read my first book, Dark Glass, in preparation for writing more books in the Dominions series. I wasn’t happy with the quality of that book, so I re-worked it‌—‌tightened up the story, added scenes, took away even more, and improved the writing itself. Dark Glass might’ve been the best book I could write back in 2016, but I’d moved on from there‌‌—‌and with the re-write, I was happy with it once more.

But the next couple of books were originally written at the same time (2016), and while I’d learnt from Dark Glass, they’re still not representative of my current writing. A part of me was tempted to rework both Dead Flesh and Deep Water, but I realised this could be a never-ending process‌‌—‌by the time I reached the end of the series I could very easily return to the start, making more improvements. And that would leave no time for writing anything new‌—‌no time to put in the practice and actively improve.

Stories need to be shared. If Bartlett had continued editing Mech Wars, he might not be finished yet‌‌—‌and that would have deprived thousands of readers of the enjoyment they derived from those books. If he’d waited until the series was ‘perfect’, he wouldn’t have had the time to write his other books, books that his readers continue to devour.

There are times we want ‘literature’, times we want to wallow in expertly-crafted prose and marvel at poetic word-play. But, for the majority of readers, and for most of the time, we want entertainment. As long as the writing is good enough to carry the story, we needn’t ask for anything more.

A story that satisfies is good enough.

Subtleties that say so much in Ted Lewis’ ‘Get Carter’

When a film is a success, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the source material.

Mention Forrest Gump, and most people think of Tom Hanks, not the novel. Think of The Birds, and the Hitchcock classic is well-known, the Daphne DuMaurier short story less so.

Another example is Get Carter. It’s a classic Michael Caine film (and a not-too-successful Sylvester Stallone remake). But it’s also a novel by Ted Lewis, originally published in 1970 as Jack’s Return Home.

It’s well worth a read, and it stands up very well alongside the film version.

The story’s told in first person, and Carter’s no-nonsense, hard character makes the book wonderfully bleak and brutal. From the start, we’re drawn into the character as much as the mystery surrounding Carter’s brother’s death. A casual reader will get the impression that there’s a dark side to Carter, that he’s involved in a murky underworld in London, that there’s more to him than he shows.

But he’s hard and cold. He doesn’t do a great deal of introspection, and there’s very little internal dialogue in the book. Instead, we learn what Carter’s really like through his actions and external dialogue.

When Carter first arrives at his childhood town, he takes a taxi, and his exchanges with the driver are cordial, almost friendly. There’s no indication of judgement from the driver, and Carter appears relaxed. When the taxi stops, and the driver jumps out to open the door for Carter, we get this exchange.

“How much is that?” I said.
“Five bob,” he said.
“Here you are,” I said. I gave him seven and six.

It doesn’t seem like much‌—‌Carter’s paid his fare, and included a tip. But later, in The George Hotel, there’s another exchange concerning money.

The barman at the hotel isn’t interested in Carter, only reluctantly serving him. Once he’s poured the pint, Carter asks how much it’ll cost.

“One and ten,” said the barman.
I gave him one and ten and went and sat down…

Notice there’s no tip, no ‘keep the change’. Carter pays what he owes, then turns his back on the man.

The contrast in these two examples is telling. Carter isn’t the type of person to willingly make a scene, but he’s affected by others. And he treats them according to how they treat him. He might be involved with some very dodgy people‌—‌nothing’s been explicitly said about his life in London, but the clues are there‌—‌but he has a certain moral code. Don’t upset Carter, and he won’t upset you.

Later, he’s looking for a room to let for the weekend. He finds a suitable house and makes enquiries.

There’s something strange about this conversation, though. Carter hesitates. He seems almost embarrassed. In previous exchanges he’s come across as confident, but here he’s the opposite.

Once he’s finished talking to the woman who runs the house, he leaves. And we get this:

I smiled. It amused me, the picture she’d got of me, the way she thought she’d got me weighed up. It might turn out to be helpful.

So we now know more about Carter’s character‌—‌he’s acting. He manipulates conversations and interactions. While he seems to have treated the taxi-driver in a friendly manner (and turned his back on the brusque barman), his actions can’t be trusted.

We’re not even at the end of the first chapter, and already we know this is going to be a dark tale. We’re along for the ride with a manipulative narrator. He hasn’t lashed out, but already we get the sense that he’s no stranger to violence.

These moments are subtle. If we’re not paying attention, they slip past us‌—‌just as Jack Carter’s comments can slip by, seemingly innocent but with a deeper, unsettling meaning.

There’s nothing accidental about these moments. In this first chapter, Lewis is setting the scene. Through his titular character, he’s taken us up to a dreary north of England, where death hangs in the air. And he’s already telling us that this Jack Carter character is darker than he appears.

Michael Caine might have made the character his own, but Ted Lewis gave him everything he needed

The art of subtle description in Scott Lynch’s ‘The Lies Of Locke Lamora’

I recently got round to reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, and thoroughly enjoyed it‌—‌wonderful world-building, exciting twisting plot, and great characters. One minute it’s full of fun and wit, the next it’s dark and hard-hitting. And the descriptions were masterful‌—‌not for the images his words painted, but how he managed to conjure these mental pictures in different ways.

I’ll take a couple of examples, to show what I mean.

Cover of 'The Lies Of Locke Lamora' by Scott Lynch

Early on in the book, we’re introduced to the Thiefmaker, a Fagin-like character who takes in unwanted children and moulds them, as his name suggests, into his army of thieves. There’s no clear physical description, but there is a line that says he is ‘a miserable curiosity‌—‌a pickpocket with nine broken fingers.’

Broken fingers, on a pickpocket? It implies that the man himself is broken, no longer able to personally ply his trade. And that’s the only reference to nine fingers, until he has his wards together and is giving them a speech. The sequence starts with these lines:

The Thiefmaker held up three crooked fingers, as though on cue.
“Business,” he cried. “Three items of business.”

He progresses through his first three points, and it is left to the reader’s imagination to see him counting these off on those twisted digits. Then, once he’s gone through his trio of points, he sums up like this:

‘The rules are simple! You’ll learn them all in good time. For now, let’s keep it like this. Anyone who eats, works. Anyone who works, eats. Which brings us to work, my fourth‌—‌Oh, dear. Children, children. Do an absent-minded old man the favour of imagining that he held up four fingers. This is my fourth important point.”

There’s no description of action, but it’s easy to picture his hand twitching, then his eyes turning to the place where the digit used to be. If we missed the mention of nine fingers before, or wondered if the tenth was, in fact, unbroken, we now know for certain that it is missing.

Lynch painted this image without breaking dialogue. He implies action so well that we can’t fail to ‘see’ what’s happening.

In another example. Lynch managed to paint a whole scene while physically describing next to nothing:

The Broken Tower is a landmark of Camorr, jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip of the Snare, that low and crowded district where sailors from a hundred ports of call are passed from bar to alehouse to gaming den and back again on a nightly basis. They are shaken through a sieve of tavern keepers, whores, muggers, dicers, cobble-cogs and other low tricksters until their pockets are as empty as their heads are heavy, and they can be dumped on ship to nurse their new hangovers and diseases. They come in like the tide and go out like the tide, leaving nothing but a residue of copper and silver (and occasionally blood) to mark their passing.

Lynch starts with the kind of description that wouldn’t be out of place in a guidebook — ‘jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip’. He then tells us the district is ‘low and crowded’. A lesser writer would proceed to describe this place. But Lynch takes a different approach.

He follows sailors.

He doesn’t give us any description of the buildings, or the streets, or the docks. There’s nothing about the flapping of sails, the slapping of water, the cries of sea-birds, the shouting and swearing mingling with the clangs and crashes of the area. There’s nothing about the different aromas‌—‌the sea, alcohol, food, sweat, exotic spices in cargo. Instead, Lynch focuses on the sailors‌—‌not what they look like, but what happens to them. Yet still, as we read, we can picture the dark taverns, the whores flashing their thighs to tempt new customers. We can imagine the grimy streets, rubbish and vomit at the edges.

And more than that, we can feel the place. Through focusing on those sailors, Lynch brings the place alive, gives us not a physical description but an emotional one. Even though every reader will see a different image from this passage, every reader can picture the scene, knows exactly what the dockland area is like. And, because this ‘description’ deals with emotions and actions rather than plain images, the reader is far more engaged. As the story’s protagonists enter the area, we’re already anticipating trouble for them. The setting has become alive, another character the (anti) heroes of the story must encounter and overcome.

There are loads more lessons to learn from this book, but I’ll leave it at these two examples (for now). They serve as reminders that descriptions in fiction are far more than a way of showing what is physically there. A good description will imply more than it tells. It will not only give a mental image, but will also evoke an emotional response.

An unexpected problem with ‘show, don’t tell’

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice‌—‌show what’s going on (both physically and in characters’ minds), don’t tell the reader what’s happening.

It’s good advice. Readers want to experience the story, through the characters actions and emotions, rather than being told the story by a third party. It’s similar to the difference between hearing the plot of a film and watching the film yourself.

But there are times when telling is fine. I wrote about James Patterson’s use of simple descriptions a few months ago (you can read that post here). It’s something of a trope in thrillers, especially with hard, calculating protagonists‌—‌we get short, simple descriptions that mirror the protagonist’s clinical outlook.

I recently read Mark Dawson’s seventh John Milton book, Headhunters. I prefer his Beatrix Rose series, but the Milton stories are always enjoyable‌—‌fast-paced, lots of action, and great escapism. Dawson knows what he’s doing as a writer, and gives his readers what they want and expect.

Headhunters was no exception‌—‌it kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. But there was one moment that tripped me up.

Fairly early in the book, we’re introduced to Matty. We get a brief description, through Milton’s eyes, and it includes a reference to her swearing like a trooper.

Swearing in fiction can be tricky. Some (many?) readers have no issue with swearing, but others will close a book at the first f-bomb. There are many one-star reviews where the reader praised the story, but complains about the language. Some readers will accept graphic violence, even graphic sexual content, before they accept ‘bad language’.

Yet people swear in real life. Even those normally careful with their language might let the occasional ‘bad word’ slip in times of stress. And characters in books, especially thrillers, are under stress. They fight for their lives, against powerful enemies. They race against time. In situations like this, to believe that nobody would swear seems incredibly unrealistic.

Dawson doesn’t shy away from using swearing in his books, but it’s rarely in the mouths of his ‘good’ characters. Some of the supporting characters use swearing as a colour, and there are occasional harsh words from the baddies. He doesn’t use cursing all over the place, though‌—‌like all words, especially strong ones, he uses them for effect, when they are most appropriate.

After reading the description of the female character, I anticipated some choice language from her. She’s in scenes where she’s joking with ‘the boys’ (tough sheep farmers in Australia, where I imagine swearing would usually be as common as punctuation.) She’s also, as the story progresses, in great danger.

Yet throughout the whole book, she only swore once. She fought for her life, and she got into arguments, both playful and deadly serious. We’d been told she swore a great deal. And yet, she only uttered one solitary curse-word over the whole book.

I’ll admit, this bothered me more than it should have done. It was the mismatch between expectations and reality that bugged me. As a reader, I’d been told one thing but shown something contradictory.

I’m sure the majority of readers would gloss over this, most likely not even notice. And I’ll repeat that I enjoyed the book. I have a great deal of respect for Dawson and his work.

It got me thinking‌—‌what would I have done to avoid this apparent contradiction?

I came up with a few solutions.

She could have used swear-words throughout her dialogue. But I can understand how this would have the potential to alienate the book’s target audience, including long-time readers of the series. When swearing has only been used on occasions, changing things up can cause problems. It’s not a smart commercial move.

Another possibility‌—‌the line about swearing could have been removed from the original description. However, it gives us an insight into her character‌—‌she’s grown up in a ‘man’s world’, and she faces her male colleagues on equal terms, does what she can to be their equal. She has found her place in an ‘un-feminine’ culture. Those few words tell us a great deal more than simply how she speaks.

I needed a third possible solution. And, after some thought, I think I have one, with the addition of a few words to that original description.

If the line had read something like ‘When the mood took her, she could swear like a trooper’, we have a get-out. Yes, she can turn the air blue, most likely be so crude that she makes the men blush. But only when she chooses. This line implies that she can control her language, so we’re not unsurprised when she doesn’t swear too often. And when she does curse, in a moment of high stress (when such language can heighten the tension), we can’t complain that we haven’t been forewarned. As far as promises to the readers go, being told that she can swear a lot becomes a warning rather than an expectation.

As I said before, it’s only a small thing. I still enjoyed Headhunters, and would recommend Dawson’s books to anyone who liked thrillers. But I’m still (constantly) learning. I’m constantly on the look-out for lessons that can improve my own writing. And Headhunters has taught me that I need to be careful not to tell the reader one thing only to have the characters show something contradictory.

A look back at 2021, and plans for 2022

Do I need to say that 2021 was another strange year?

My first thought, on looking back, is ‘where did the last twelve months go?’ My second is, ‘what did I do with the year?’ It’s felt very unproductive, and writing has been a struggle.

But I did get things done. I released the final three novels in my Dominions series, a short story, and a novella (which is currently only available to newsletter subscribers). True, most of the writing and editing happened in 2020, but putting five books out in 2021 isn’t too bad. And it’s an achievement to reach the end of the nine-novel arc.

I worked on a new series, too.

This had a number of false starts‌—‌ideas that didn’t feel right, even after completing first drafts of novels. But I eventually settled on a follow-on to my Shadows trilogy, and I currently have the first two books of this series nearing completion.

So this year (2022), I intend to release both those books. I also want to have the third book in that series (the working title is ShadowTech) written and in editing by the end of the year.

I also have ideas for another series (I’m not ready to give any details yet, but it’s a bit of a departure), and aim to have at least two books in this nearly finished. I’m not looking to publish this second series yet, though‌—‌that will be for 2023.

So I have quite a bit of writing (including planning and editing) scheduled for this year. I also need to work on marketing and business.

This is a constant struggle. Last year I explored Amazon ads (again), and while I did get an increase in sales, the profits didn’t justify the ad expense (although it came close for the Shadows trilogy). I did learn from it, and when I try again I’ll have a few different things in place. I also want to revisit some of the books and courses I have on marketing and advertising.

I also want to get back into writing short stories‌—‌not necessarily for publication, but as a way of developing my writing. Yes, spending an hour or so each week on short stories takes time away from novels and marketing, but it’s training. It’s important to constantly improve.

Short stories are fun. They provide an opportunity to play with different ideas, to try new things. As it takes less time to edit and polish a short story, there’s more satisfaction in having something ‘finished’. And, if the story’s any good, I can look for ways to get it into the world (website, anthologies, podcasts and so on).

Related to self-development, I intend to continue writing a post every two weeks, detailing something I’ve learnt through reading. Apart from adding fresh content to my website, this also forces me to think about what I’m reading, and encourages me to read a wider range of books.

So, a quick summary of my plans for 2022:

  • Writing: I’ll have the first two books of the new ShadowTech series out, with a third close to completion. I’ll also have two books in another new series close to completion.
  • Marketing/business: By the end of the year I’ll have a constant stream of money coming in from my books. I’ll have a better understanding of advertising.
  • Training: I’ll write more short stories (ideally at least one a month) as a way of improving my writing. I’ll also continue to write a post every two weeks on what I’ve learnt through reading.

It’s not a particularly detailed plan, but one thing that’s been clear over the last couple of years is that plans can (and will) be disrupted. At least these few points give me something to aim for.

The Importance Of A First Line

MIckey Spillane is quoted as saying ‘the first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.’ Well, something like that‌—‌I’ve seen variations in different places (first/last line, first/last sentence, and so on). But the details aren’t important‌—‌it’s the idea that counts. The ending of a book should leave us satisfied but eager for more. And the start of the book should pull us in so we can’t not continue.

I’ve read a couple of stories recently where the openings did just that, and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is from Brandon Sanderson’s novella Snapshot. It had been sitting on my Kindle for a while, so when I dove into it I had no idea what it was about. And I read this:

Anthony Davis‌—‌one of only two real people in a city of twenty million‌—‌caught the burrito his partner tossed to him. “Which end is the mustard on?” he asked.

I was hooked.

But I also wanted to understand why this worked so well. After all, there’s not a lot going on here‌—‌at least, not on the surface. A character called Davis is eating a burrito with his partner. It’s not riveting stuff. It’s ordinary.

But it’s that phrase in the middle‌—‌‘one of only two real people in a city of twenty million’‌—‌that throws things out of kilter. It gives rise to so many questions‌—‌if the other twenty million aren’t real, what are they? Is this some kind of virtual reality thing? If that’s the case, how come Davis and his partner are simply eating burritos? What’s with the mustard? Is this important? And how can Davis be so blase about being one of only two real people?

We want answers. We have to read on.


The next comes from the Mark Leslie short story This Time Around: A Canadian Werewolf Story.

This time I woke to find myself sprawled naked in the grass, my shoulder nestled in a shrub and the coppery aftertaste of blood in my mouth. It was a cool morning, but humid, the unmistakable scent of the Hudson River hanging in the air.

This one didn’t grab me as hard as the opening to Snapshot, but it’s worth spending a moment examining these two sentences.

We know, from the book’s subtitle, that we’re dealing with werewolves here (or at least one werewolf). When I read these sentences I immediately recalled the scene in An American Werewolf In London where the main character wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure in London Zoo, after his first transformation. So it seems likely that the narrator in This Time Around is in a similar predicament.

There’s also the aftertaste of blood in his mouth‌—‌he’s fed. But on what? Or who?

Yet there’s something almost comforting in this opening, at odds with the apparent violence beneath the surface. The description of the surroundings is relaxing. Notice the use of the word ‘scent’‌—‌not an unpleasant stink, but a neutral smell. And it’s not cold, but cool.

The feel of the opening sets the tone for the rest of the story. This isn’t a jump-scare horror, or a gore-fest. It’s the story of one man dealing with his affliction. It poses an initial problem, and hints at what we can expect as we read on.


I’ll turn to another first paragraph, this one from Amanda Carlson’s Danger’s Halo, which does a very good job of setting up the main character and the world.

“Nobody survives that jump, kid.” Judging by the boy’s ragged clothing, he’d been living on the streets for a while. He couldn’t have been more than about ten. “It’s a lie. They tell you that so they can steal from you once they discover your dead, mangled body on the rocks below.”

It’s intriguing. It throws us directly into the story, yet it still gives us a great deal‌—‌not in details, but in impressions. This is a dangerous world‌—‌if ‘they’ have no qualms about luring a child to his death, then nobody is safe.

The tone of the passage‌—‌and especially the dialogue‌—‌says a lot about the main character. She’s tough, not someone who’s likely to show her emotions. She doesn’t plead with the child not to jump, but tells him he won’t survive if he does. Even though he’s young, she leaves the decision to him.

She calls him ‘kid’. That could be dismissive, or simply the way she talks. But the fact that she’s even bothering to talk to him indicates that she cares what happens.

Already, there are depths to this character. She’s clearly got an attitude, but possibly a caring side. And she seems to know the streets, has probably gone through a lot in her life. She’s a survivor.

And we want to learn more. We want to continue reading.


Three very different openings, setting up three very different stories. But in each case the first few sentences did their job admirably‌—‌they draw the reader in, settle them into the story, leave them wanting more.

How Samuel Delany increases tension in a scene with little action.

I recently read Samuel R Delany’s Nova, the first of his stories I’ve experienced. He’s not one of the big names in classic sci-fi, but he’s a fantastic writer. Maybe his more literary style put off many genre readers‌—‌which is a shame, because there’s so much in Nova that impresses.

Cover of Samuel R. Delany's 'Nova' (SF Masterworks edition)

For example, there’s a scene about halfway through that develops into a Tarot reading. On the face of it, not much is happening, but there’s an incredible build in tension. In some ways, it’s a pivotal scene, the moment when the characters realise how their fates are entwined in one another and their captain’s mission. Yet there’s no action, besides the turning of cards.

I was intrigued‌—‌how does Delany build tension in such a seemingly passive scene?

The scene starts relaxed. Tyy (the character doing the reading) is initially using the cards for her own enjoyment. When Lorq (the captain) talks to her about the cards, it feels like a simple, friendly conversation. Katin joins in, spouting information about the cards as if he’s some kind of expert. Another character, Sebastian, sits quietly on the fringes.

And then there’s the Mouse. Despite coming from a social class that uses and believes in the Tarot (as Katin is quick to point out), the Mouse is sceptical.

This is important. Tyy seems to believe in the cards through something like faith, Lorq could be going along with it simply to keep his crew on-side. Katin approaches the whole area with logic and study. And the Mouse doesn’t believe.

Straight away, Delany’s set up uncertainty here. As readers, we’re unsure if there is anything believable or even important in the Tarot reading Tyy gives the captain. Should he trust her impressions, or disregard it? The cards are open to interpretation, which increases the uncertainty. As the reading progresses, Katin tries to show off his knowledge, but is often put in his place by Tyy, who offers alternative meanings. Who is right?

The cards are initially drawn slowly, with much talking (arguing?) between each one. But the pace increases‌—‌and this builds the tension. Any talking is in fragmented sentences now. Even Katin isn’t as verbose as we’re used to. He’s cut off with a look from the others:

“The Tower reversed!” Katin whispered. “Uh-oh. I know what—” and stopped because Tyy and Sebastian looked.

With earlier cards, Delaney gave a description of the images they showed. But as the pace increases, the description disappears. The prose itself becomes sparse.

“Again choose.”
Lorq chose.
“The King of Swords. Here it place.”
The King went to the left of the cross.
“And once more.”
Lorq drew his ninth card.
“The Three of Wands reversed.”
Which went below the King.

Notice how matter-of-fact this is. Also notice how (almost) every sentence is its own paragraph. Gone are the flowing sentences and long paragraphs. This is sharp and punchy, urging us on.
Then we get this exchange:

“Do you see Prince in there?” Lorq asked. “Do you seem me, and the sun I’m after?”
“You I see; and Prince. A woman also, somehow related to Prince, a dark woman—”
“Black hair, but blue eyes?” Lorq said. “Prince’s eyes are blue.”

Notice how Lorq is putting words into Tyy’s mouth. Lorq wants (needs?) this reading to be true. There’s a desperation about his questions that feels out of character, hinting at an urgency beneath his calm exterior.

And then there’s the Mouse’s reactions. Initially, it feels like he’s trying to ignore the whole thing, seeing it as superstitious nonsense. But that changes. Take this exchange, for example [the first speaker is Tyy]:

“The cards mostly swords and pentacles are. Much money I see. Also much struggle about and around it there is.”
“With seven tons of Illyrion?” the Mouse mumbled. “You don’t have to read cards to see—”
“Shhh…” from Katin.

The Mouse is being drawn in. And notice how Katin cuts him off. Interrupted sentences help give a sense of urgency and pace. The Mouse might not place any importance in the cards, but others do‌—‌and Delany uses that to pull the reader along. And near the end of the scene, he gives us this:

“That with material increase you are concerned, this card reveals. But the Page of Swords you crosses.”
“That’s Prince?” [this is Lorq talking.]
Tyy shook her head. “A younger person it is. Someone already close to you now it is. Someone you know. A dark, very young man perhaps—”
Katin was first to look at the Mouse.
“—who somehow between you and your flaming sun will come.”
Now Lorq looked up over his shoulder.
“Hey, now. Look…” The Mouse frowned at the others. “What are you going to do? Fire me at the first stopover because of some stupid cards? You think I want to cross you up?”
“Even if he you fired,” Tyy said, glancing up, “it would nothing change.”
The captain slapped the Mouse’s hip. “Don’t mind it, Mouse.”
“If you don’t believe in them, Captain, why waste your time listening to…?” and stopped because Tyy had replaced the cards.

If the reading meant nothing, the Mouse would’ve dismissed Katin’s accusation offhand. But it gets to him. He struggles to put his indignation into words. Then he turns to his captain for support. Does he get that support, or is Lorq only pacifying him? It’s hard to say.

But there’s tension within the crew now. Even for the sceptic, this Tarot reading has changed things. Notice that the Mouse stops talking when Tyy returns to the cards. The Mouse can’t ignore them now. Even though he doesn’t believe it of himself, could he betray the captain?

The scene has gone from friendly banter to something far more threatening. Delany brought this about through subtle changes in his characters, and backs this up with the way he moulds his words. He shortens sentences, and cuts description.

It’s definitely made me want to check out more of Delany’s writing.

Why is dialogue and inter-character tension so important? A look at Andy Weir’s ‘Project Hail Mary’

[SPOLIER ALERT: The following might give spoilers to Project Hail Mary.]

Andy Weir made his name on the survival story The Martian. That book was impressive for a number of reasons, not least how Weir holds the reader’s attention when the majority of the time is spent with a single character.

Good stories need tension and conflict. They also need believable, interesting characters. Even in stories with external tension, much of the conflict will be inter-personal. Characters will argue. They’ll say one thing but mean another.

It’s tough to get this kind of tension with an inner monologue, so it’s no surprise that dialogue drives many stories. This is especially true with stories on the screen, despite film and TV being very visual media. A script will be predominantly dialogue.

So coming up with a riveting story when there is no dialogue is very hard. Weir pulled it off in The Martian. For his next book, Artemis, he had a cast of characters interacting, but in his latest book, Project Hail Mary, he’s returned to the lone character struggling to cope with a difficult situation.

So how does Weir keep our interest in this new book? How does he stop the challenges becoming introspective and dull?

First off is the premise. The character/narrator in Project Hail Mary is suffering from amnesia. He emerges from a coma to find himself aboard a spacecraft far from home, his two crewmates dead. He can’t remember their names. He can’t even remember his own name.

Then there’s the narrator’s voice. The action isn’t a simple description of what happens, but is filtered through the character’s personality. Through his struggles (and his internal monologue) we get to know him as he finds out who he is.

His memories return, and Weir gives us these as flashbacks. In these flashbacks we get other characters, and we also get some of that much-needed interaction. The flashbacks provide a welcome respite from the solo scenes.

[Incidentally, Weir’s use of tense is worth nothing here. The flashbacks are all written in past tense, while the space scenes are written in present tense. This could’ve been annoying, but the main character’s voice carries through, and the change of tense almost becomes invisible.]

Still, much of the time is spent alone with the main character (Ryland Grace). While the puzzles he’s forced to solve are interesting on an intellectual level, for me the book started to flag. Watching him solve problem after problem felt too distant. I started looking forward to the flashback scenes because I needed that interaction and dialogue.

And the [spoiler alert] Grace comes across an alien.

At this point, for me, the book really picked up. There’s another entity in the story now, clearly intelligent, and Grace starts to communicate with it. While the intellectual problems remain (and are compounded now, in figuring out how to communicate and then work with a very different being), there’s more interplay. Grace and Rocky (the alien) develop a means to communicate, and start to work together. They develop a rapport, start to anticipate one another. They bicker, and they work together. Now, instead of Grace talking through problems to himself, there’s a dialogue. They bounce ideas back and forth.

They’re both trying to save their respective home planets, but they’re also trying to save each other.

This is worth considering in a little more detail.

We enjoy stories with high stakes, and there’s little that tops saving the whole of humanity. But high stakes like this, while exciting, are so far outside our personal experiences that it’s hard to relate. And if we can’t relate to the problems the character(s) face, we’re outsiders, passive observers. We don’t feel connected.

To help readers connect, there has to be something more personal. This is why so many high-stakes stories also involve the hero saving a loved one. Bond has to save the day, but he also has to save the girl.

Grace, in Project Hail Mary, has little attachment emotionally to anyone back on earth. Yes, he goes on about his kids (the students he teaches), but that’s as much a justification for his existence as a personal attachment to any of them. This detachment might make him suited to the mission, but it doesn’t make him relatable.

But as he and Rocky grow closer, he finds that connection. This isn’t a romance/love story‌—‌it’s more a buddy thing‌—‌but it gives Grace (and the story) an emotional edge that we, the reader, can relate to.
And this development is shown in the interplay between characters‌—‌in the dialogue, both spoken and non-spoken.

This struck home for me when, toward the end, Grace and Rocky go their separate ways. We return to the internal stuff. I found myself alternately trudging through these pages and rushing through them, wanting‌—‌needing?‌—‌to reach a point where Grace was with others, either human or alien.

The ending highlighted this even more. Without spoiling too much, the book ends with Grace finding contentment in others. It’s a decent closing to the book. We might not be able to relate to Grace saving humanity, but we can relate to him coming through his ordeal a changed man.

This book showed me how important inter-personal conflict is in stories. It also highlighted how dialogue can help engage readers, and how tiring description and internal monologues can be, no matter how well-written the character voice.

And on a final note, I love how Weir constantly pushed himself with his books. He could have so easily written a different version of The Martian (same ideas, different planet or something.) But he didn’t. He followed it with a thriller (Artemis, which I enjoyed a lot). And although Project Hail Mary starts with a similar feel to The Martian, it is a very different book. I look forward to the next book Weir puts out. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure it will be well worth reading.

Show, don’t tell … unless it’s better to tell

Show don’t tell. It’s a classic piece of writing advice. As Chekov (allegedly) put it:

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

But what does ‘show don’t tell’ really mean?

At the most basic level, it means the words shouldn’t be expository. They shouldn’t tell the reader what’s happening, but should describe the effects of what’s happening. Instead of telling us a character is sad, the words should show us the pain etched on their face, their struggle in putting words together, their reluctance to take part in a conversation. Instead of telling us a character is fearful, the words should show their frantic movements and their raised heartbeat.

One of the big show don’t tell ‘errors’ is in exposition. This is ‘stuff the reader needs to know in order to understand what’s happening’. It’s background or backstory, or maybe technical details. It could be details about the world (especially in ‘other-world’ genres like fantasy and science fiction).

There’s a danger of this becoming an info-dump‌—‌a passage that only exists in order to explain stuff to the reader. It can slow down pacing, and can drag us out of the moment.

A way around this is through dialogue, especially if one character is unfamiliar with the world or the situation. Then, a different character, one who is immersed in the world or situation, can explain things to the ‘new’ character. But this still has its problems. Readers aren’t stupid‌—‌they’ll see through this ploy unless it’s done well. Why is that character explaining all about the wizards from the north while the characters are running from the goblins? Why is that mysterious shady character suddenly talking like a textbook while telling the protagonist about that super-computer the bad guys have been working on? Why are those two servants telling each other what’s going on in the stately home when they both know all this stuff anyway?

(This last example is often referred to as ‘maid-and-butler’ dialogue‌—‌‘As you know, my dear, the master is due back from his recent convalescence at the coast,’ and so on.)

Descriptions (of characters, setting or objects) can cause issues too. Rich, vivid, poetic descriptions have their place, but for many books (especially genre fiction), the story is more important than the writing. Purple prose (fancy writing) can seem out of place. So a talented writer will embed the description in the action. For instance, rather than describe a character as tall, we’ll have the character reach for an object on a high shelf. Rather than being told that a character is loud, we’ll have them dominating a conversation. Rather than painting a picture of a desert with words, we’ll have a character suffering from the dry heat.

So what are we to make of passages like this, from James Patterson?

‘Justine Smith was an elegant, serious-minded, academically brilliant brunette in her midthirties. She was a shrink by trade, a forensic profiler, and Jack Morgan’s number two at Private. Clients trusted her almost as much as they trusted Jack. They also adored her; everyone did.’
(Private, Chapter 4)

This is straight description. Patterson’s not showing us who Justine Smith is, he’s telling us.

Is this ‘wrong’? Does this make Patterson less of a writer?

Some will argue that he’s a ‘popular’ writer, not a ‘good’ writer, but he’s one of the most commercially successful writers around. That doesn’t make him a hack‌—‌it means he’s a writer who delivers what his readers want, and does so with such skill that they keep coming back for more. And, as I mentioned before, readers aren’t stupid. The average reader might not know why a book doesn’t work, but they’ll know when they’re bored, or when the story just doesn’t work.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye, clearly.

Let’s take a step back.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a classic piece of writing advice. But it’s not a rule. In writing, there are no rules, only guidelines. Even grammar and spellings are fluid. While writing guidelines can help turn a messy first draft into a finely-crafted book, they aren’t set in stone. There are times when it is ‘better’ to disregard a particular guideline.

Patterson writes fast-paced thrillers. His readers want the buzz of the journey, cutting from scene to scene, racing through the story. They want‌—‌and he delivers‌—‌stories that start fast and don’t let up.

If Patterson rigidly followed ‘show don’t tell’, he’d have to slow things down when introducing a new character such as Justine Smith. He might write a conversation between her and a colleague or friend, or include a scene showing her at work. He’d have to take his time to paint a picture of her, to show us how her clients trusted her, so show us her brilliant mind at work. He might have others comment on the elegant way she wears her clothes, have someone moaning that they could never pull those combinations off. He’d throw in comments about her brunette hair and her age. He’d have to show how everyone adores her, with at least one example of why this is the case. He’d need to show her character over a conversation, a scene, maybe more.

And instead of a short paragraph, we’d have pages or chapters introducing Justine Smith to the reader. Those readers who want a fast-paced thriller would have closed the book before the story continued.

‘Show don’t tell’ is advice, not a hard rule. It’s a tool. A writer of Patterson’s standing, with so many satisfied readers, isn’t after fancy, award-winning prose. He’s telling stories. To do this successfully, he uses the tools in his writer’s armoury as and when they’re needed.