Saturday, 18 April 2009

Narrative hooks and coherence


First some definitions perhaps.

A narrative hook is a sentence that raises an unanswered question - typically, "what happens next?" It is a device to keep the audience reading the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page and the next chapter.

Coherence is the flow of text, where one paragraph leads smoothly on to the next. In fiction, it would also be the way in which one scene drives on to the next.

Now, conventional advice is to incorporate something dramatic in your first page that keeps the reader - errm - reading. More importantly, perhaps, it keeps the agent and publisher reading!

So, your first sentence should be a narrative hook. The reader is almost forced to read on. But then end of the first paragraph also needs to be a narrative hook, so that the reader continues to paragraph two and so on.

We also have to hold the concept of coherence in mind, where paragraphs flow smoothly and imperceptibly into each other.

Have a look at this example, from "Phase-Up", a short story by - well, OK, it's by me. And why not?

The end

I can quite clearly remember the moment of my own death. The feel of the poison ripping through my guts: the pain, the sweat, the muscle spasms, the burning. The cold circlet of metal against my temple. A brief flash of light, then nothing. Just black, soothing, nothingness.

I always did like to be thorough.

After the end

When I was next aware of myself, my surroundings were so strange, so … alien, that for a long time I could do nothing but stare in disbelief.

Imagine if you will a vast grid of shining blue lines...

Apart from the sub-heading, which itself is a sort of narrative hook - I mean, who in their right minds starts a story at the end - the first sentence is a corker (or so I am told).

I can quite clearly remember the moment of my own death.

I might revise that now, removing the redundant word 'own'. But even so, the reader thinks - weird, what's next? Must read on!

Next comes the details - how did I die? Raising the question at the end of the paragraph - why poison and gunshot? Must read on!

The second paragraph answers the question. Why? Because I like to be thorough.

OK, so that's the end of the story, isn't it?

No! Because the next sub heading tells you that there is more - there is something 'after the end'. Must read on!

I wake up in very strange surroundings.

Raising the question - why are they strange? Must read on!

And so on. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page sweeping the reader on, as helpless as a paper boat in a torrent. Resistance is futile. The reader must read to the end.

Well, that's the idea anyway.

Remember the old adages about paragraphs. One paragraph = one subject; start with topic sentence, fill in the details, finish with a conclusion. Or, as Rita Webb says in her blog, when writing about scenes: "Hook, intensity, push". Frankly I prefer Rita's version. Hook the reader, build or reduce the intensity as desired, leave a push at the end to nudge the reader onwards to the next bit.

That's coherence.

Don't regard words as your building blocks when writing. Don't even think of sentences as the basic unit.

Think of paragraphs as the building blocks that create a scene or a chapter. Start with a high, fill in all the bits that the reader needs to know to enhance understanding of action, setting or character (but no more detail than that), and end on a high.

So we have hook, detail, hook ... hook, detail, hook ...

Easy, isn't it?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Away for a week

I'm off to Wales tomorrow for a week - no phones, no Internet - but we do have electricity. So, I'll take the laptop and write a full-length film script in a week! Do some general building and gardening in the afternoons. And some reviewing as well.

Bliss! (But I'll miss you all.) I expect I'll have 9000 emails to page through when I get back ;)

Then I'll get to writing somemore writing technique things - narrative hooks and POV, before a biggy: developing characters.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Romantic interest 6


It is too late for Rhian to go home. She spends the night snuggled up to Gaz, just sleeping.

The next morning…

When she came downstairs, breakfast was almost ready. She had dressed again, and seemed oddly shy, as if unsure of the reception she'd receive.

"You've shared my bed and my toothbrush," I said, "so it seems only right that you share my breakfast as well."

I removed any lingering awkwardness by giving her a hug, planting a quick kiss on her mouth.

"Good morning," I said. "You look good in the morning."

She blushed.

"I feel good," she said. "Better than I have in a long time."

I pulled a seat out for her at the drop leaf table and watched in pleasure as she stowed away bacon, egg and toast, washed down with several mugs of tea.

She glanced at the clock as she finished off the last piece of toast.

"I have to go to work in a minute," she said.

"Yes, where do you work?" I asked. "You didn't say much about yourself last night. Well, I suppose you didn't really get much of a chance, did you?"

She put her hand on mine.

"I'll tell you all about me the next time we get together." She put her hand to her mouth in shock. "Oh, God, I didn't mean to sound clingy, or possessive. There will be a next time, won't there?"

I squeezed her hand.

"Of course there will," I said quietly. "I hope there'll be a lot of other times. And thank you, Rhian. For being my friend, for listening to me, for staying with me. I'd like to think that we could be more than friends, in time."

She surprised me by laughing.

"Gaz, I've always been half in love with you."

I gaped at her. She laughed again.

"You mean you didn't know?" she asked.

"No," I said blankly. "I had no idea."

"I'm only sorry that it's taken us twenty years to get that out in the open," she said. "I know we didn't exactly waste those years, but still…" She blushed again. "Oh, and I work in the library."

They are now a couple. All that remains is for the relationship to get physical, but I'll leave that to your imagination… :)

Romantic interest 5


OK, so our couple have had a kiss and a cuddle. But it is not necessarily a close relationship yet. Gareth now forces himself to make a commitment - to trust Rhian and share his past with her, as well as sharing the real reason he has come back.

Then Rhian pushed herself away.

"Why are you back, Gaz?" she asked, staring into my eyes.

"I don't think my folks died of heart attack and stroke," I said flatly. "While I was killing total strangers in Guatemala, someone here in Brynddu was killing my parents.

"I want to know why, and I want to know how, and I want to know who. When I find out, I'm going to make them pay."

She stared at me in bewilderment, like someone who calls out to a friend only to find they are talking to a total stranger.

"How would you know your Mam and Dad didn't die naturally?" she asked. "You're just a squaddy, aren't you?" She pressed her hand against my chest, partly for contact, partly to keep me at arm's length. "Aren't you?"

I felt an unfamiliar sensation; anxiety.

"Rhian, if I tell you what I am, what I've done, I'm afraid you won't like me anymore. That would hurt."

I gazed at the floor, dreading her next words. I felt a flood of relief and shame as she stroked my cheek.

"Look at me Gaz," she said. "You've always been my friend; a good friend. Even when we were little, and it wasn't done to be friends with girls, you were my friend. You're a nice man. Anything you've done, I'm sure you did it for a good reason. I trust you."

It was her turn to tilt my head. She kissed me on the lips, slowly, gently, lingeringly.

"You don't have to tell me anything about the past if you don't want to," she whispered, her breath tickling my face. I put my arms around her waist, pulling her close again.

"But I do want to," I said. "I've wanted to be able to tell someone I can trust for years; to share the shit I've paddled through with someone who won't run to the News of the World or Special Branch." I paused, trying to choose the right words.

"I'm not going to be melodramatic and say that if I tell you, your life will be in danger. But I'm being truthful when I say that if I tell you, and you tell anyone else, my life will be in danger. So I'm trusting you now. Do you want to hear it? My past?"

She kissed the end of my nose.

"I want you to make me a promise first," she said. "From your heart; from your soul. I know you might do things that hurt me. I know you won't want to, but you may have to. But I want you to promise me that you'll never lie to me."

I held her hands and gazed into her eyes, deep blue, almost violet.

"I will never lie to you Rhian," I said. "I promise."

She pulled away, all briskness now.

"Right, let's get some more beers and you can begin."

I glanced at the mantel-clock. It was nearly eleven.

"It's getting rather late," I said doubtfully. "Would you like to leave it for another day? I expect you have work in the morning."

She shook her head.

"I don't want to wait. Do you?"

No, I didn't. I ached to be able to put my trust in someone, to confess and bare my soul to a friend, to Rhian. She was perhaps becoming more than a friend, but only time would reveal the weave of that tapestry.

"I think I need something stronger than beer for the stuff I'm going to tell you," I said, opening one of the wall cupboards and removing another bottle of JD.

I looked at Rhian. She nodded, so I poured us both a generous shot as she opened another couple of bottles of Hobgoblin.

She sat on the sofa, patting the cushion beside her.

"Come on then, tell me," she smiled. "And I don't believe that you're afraid. You've never been afraid."

I sat next to her. If only she knew, I thought. I'd been afraid, terrified, on more occasions than I could count.

She snuggled up to me, legs curled up on the cushions, an arm round my shoulders, gazing at me with trust and innocence in her eyes.

I began.

Gareth now shares some of his tormented past with Rhian.

"I was a squaddy, for 3 years," I said. "In Three Para. I moved from there to Special Forces, just in time for the Gulf War. The first one, you know, Desert Storm and the mother of all battles."

I briefly relived the hot, sandy, fly-infested hell that had been Iraq; outlining my part in it to Rhian.

It was hard, telling her of the seventeen years I had spent with the SAS. I had spent time in nearly every shithole in the world, doing various nasty things on behalf of an indifferent Government.

I told her of the fire fights; of the bombings, the sniping; of the friends I had made and lost in remote parts of the globe. I told her of the petty warlords and dictators I had helped overthrow, or prop up; sometimes both in successive months as Government policy changed. I told her of the squalid corruption I had encountered at every level - in our system as well as the foreign ones. I told her of the honourable people; of the betrayals and abandonments.

I told her of the dead who visited me in my dreams, the memories that tormented and goaded me through the day, of the way that certain sounds or smells dragged me back into the hell that had been my past.

When I had finished, Rhian was crying again, but she had also snuggled closer, empathising with me.

"No-one should have to bear all that suffering alone," she said. "Was there no-one who could help you? A counsellor or a psychologist?"

I laughed, but there was very little amusement in it.

"There was only one psychiatrist who had a high enough security clearance to be able to listen to me without breaking the Official Secrets Act," I said. "And he committed suicide a week before I was due to see him. He couldn't stand the sort of thing he had to listen to, I guess. Even second-hand it was too much for him to stand.

"Besides, if the Foreign Office, or MI5, or the SIS even thought that I was going to start revealing their dirty laundry, to anyone, I'd have ended up as just another traffic fatality."

Rhian hugged me tight, resting her head on my shoulder.

Then I told her of the endless training between missions. Of the Bachelor's degree in computer science I had gained in my spare time; of various Master's degrees in the same field. Of the security consulting I now did, mainly for Western Governments. Of the languages I had picked up while working undercover in South America, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia.

"Which is ironic really," I said, "because that was what caused the rift between my folks and me. They were dead set on me going into research, building in a career using my first degree. You know, settling down to a secure, respectable, professional career, getting a wife and two point four children, buying a house - all that conformist stuff.

"But I was too restless. I actually wanted to do something real, to see a bit of the world before I settled down. So I joined the Army. That was what we argued about, and because of it, I hadn't seen them in twenty years. Then it was too late.
I was in Central America removing a so-called terrorist leader when my folks died.

"I think they'd have been happy that I had made a career for myself eventually. I'm one of the most expensive security consultants in the world now. I even had Linda and children. Then I was sent off to Afghanistan again to remove some minor warlord. And my family died."

I sighed.

"It's almost like it's a pattern, don't you think?" I asked bitterly. "I get sent somewhere to kill some asshole, and as a balance, someone close to me dies."

"Oh Gaz," Rhian sobbed. She held me tight, stroking my chest.

I actually felt better now, having told someone my awful past, and finding that they didn't look at me like some loathsome creature in the bath.

They have bonded now - there are only a few more steps to go in the relationship. See next post.

Romantic interest 4


Our protagonist's relationship with Rhian progresses as they go out together.

One thing about Rhian - she didn't believe in this 'fashionably late' rubbish. She never had done. To her, seven-thirty meant seven-thirty. One of the reasons I had always liked her. Her Volvo estate pulled up to the kerb as I was reaching for the takeaway door.

"No dark glasses?" I said as she swung herself out of the car. She was wearing a pair of tan slacks and a snug pink sweater - cashmere possibly, though I wasn't an expert on that sort of thing. She looked stunning.

Rhian smiled at me.

"No, I decided I wouldn't be too embarrassed to be seen with you," she giggled. "This is silly, I feel like a teenager going on her first Prom date."

"I'm flattered," I said, meaning it. "I feel pretty good too."

She took my arm in both of hers, leaning against me.

"Come on then," she said. "Feed this girl. I'm starving!"

As we entered the takeaway, I saw our reflection again. We looked even more like a couple than we had before.

After the usual five minutes deliberating over the menu, we handed our order to the plump, smiling, middle-aged Chinese woman behind the counter.

"I'll pop to the offy and get the wine," Said Rhian. "What sort do you like?"

"I'll leave the choice to you," I said, gallant to the last.

She looked at me for a second, as if pondering a difficult decision.

"Will you think I'm really uncouth if I tell you that I don't really like wine?"

"Not at all. I don't care for it that much myself. What do you like then?"

"I'm a real ale girl," she said, fluttering her lashes in parody. I stepped back a pace, clutching my heart.

"I'm in love!" I cried, falsetto.

The comment wasn't taken in the spirit in which it was meant.

Rhian's face clouded.

"Don't say that to me Gaz," she said in a low sombre tone. "I've had too much of that crap in my life already."

She stood unflinching, waiting for my response - whatever form it took.

I put my hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Rhian," I said. "I do like you though. I always have. You know that, don't you?"

She rested her palms on my chest. When she smiled, it was a sad, sweet smile that hit me like a blow to the stomach.

"I know," she said. "And I am glad you asked me out."

She brightened, smiling in happier fashion.

"Now, are you going to trust me to get real beer? I am just a girly you know, not a macho hunk like you."

"Go on," I said. "I trust you. Just remember, real ale doesn't come in pink bottles."

I laughed. After a second, she joined in, and the evening was back on track again.

Rhian indicates that she has had some pain and trouble in her life before. But an important point is established here - they like and trust each other. They have done for years.

So where do they go from here?

We sat back on the sofa, bloated with king prawn, Szechuan beef, noodles, rice and sundry other bits of Oriental cuisine. Mugs of Hobgoblin foamed darkly in our hands.

We had enjoyed a relaxed evening, eating, sharing food off each other's plates, off each others' spoons. There had been a mildly hilarious interlude when I tried to teach Rhian how to use chopsticks properly. I'd made a note in the book to clean the carpet in the morning.

We'd talked about old times, at school, college (I had gone to London, she to Aberystwyth, but we had visited each other on a couple of occasions) and fun, drunken evenings out in the long summer vacations. We'd played the 'whatever happened to so and so' game, and the 'do you remember thingy' game. We'd both, I think, made a conscious decision to avoid more recent events.

Unfortunately, the topic could be avoided no longer.

"I met Owen Lewis today," I said. "I've hired him to do the renovating."

"Mmm, I haven't seen Owen for months. How is he?" asked Rhian.

"Seems OK. He likes a pint. He was telling me about this Order of Agrona."

Rhian flushed and almost jumped off the sofa. She banged her mug on the table. Beer slopped out, over the wood. She stood glaring at me.

"Is that why you asked me out?" she snarled. "So you can get information out of me?" She started towards the door.

I jumped up and caught hold of her arm. She whirled, hand smacking hard against my face.

"Get your hands off me! Don't touch me!"

Her voice was wild now. Tears glistened in her eyes. I pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her and holding her despite her attempts to punch my chest. Her struggles subsided. I stroked her hair as she started to sob convulsively; great racking gasps that shook her entire body.

"Ssshhhh…" I said, continuing to stroke her hair. "It's alright Rhian."

Her voice was muffled against my chest now.

"I thought better of you than that, Gaz" she said quietly. "You didn't have to pretend to want to see me. You could just have asked me about Agrona straight out. I thought you were my friend."

I put a hand under her chin, tilting her head so I could look into her eyes. Tears were trickling down her face. She made no effort to wipe them away. I cradled her face with my hands, brushing the tears away with my thumbs.

"I am your friend, Rhian," I said quietly. "I've enjoyed tonight more than anything else in the last year. I asked you out because I like you, I like your company. I wouldn't lie to you, or use you. I'd never knowingly hurt you."

Very slowly, giving her time to refuse, I lowered my face to hers and kissed her eyes, left then right. Then, gently, I kissed her lips. She stood like a deer in headlights for a minute, then, like frightened animals, her hands crept round my back, holding me as I held her. She put her head on my shoulder, and I stroked her back, tracing her spine through her jumper.

We stood together like that for several minutes, not speaking.

Here, in the space of a couple of pages, I've employed the old cliche - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl - which tightens (I think) the narrative by compressinbg the course of the relationship into a single evening.

The rest of the evening in the next post.

Romantic Interest 3


What if they do like each other at the beginning? What if they are already friends?

Let's consider an extract from my novel, 'Revival'.

The basic scenario is that a man has returned to the old family home after twenty years. His parents have been dead for two years, and he has had his own family killed in a car crash nine months ago.

The second day back, he is going into a shop.

As I went to go in through the swinging glass door, a woman was trying to come out. We spent perhaps fifteen seconds performing that curious dance of the socially inept, each deciding simultaneously to give way to the other, hopping from side to side like exotic birds of New Guinea in a previously unseen mating ritual.

Then the woman stopped in the middle of the doorway and stared at me.

"Gareth?" she asked hesitantly. "Gareth Lloyd?"

I looked at her. Perhaps forty, the same sort of age as me. Someone who knew me from when I had lived here? Memory tugged like an undertow. Curly blonde hair, nice face despite the little encroaches of age.

"Rhian?" I offered.

"It is you!" she said triumphantly. "I heard that someone had come back to the house. I thought it might be you." She thrust out a hand and we shook. Someone muttered behind me, and we moved out of his way onto the pavement, still holding hands.

"Sorry," I said, releasing my grip. "You're looking well."

Rhian Davis had been one of the children I had gone to school with, and later one of the adolescents I had hung out with, when we both attended the secondary school here. We had been friends, I suppose, but never quite made it to the stage of a couple, despite a few kisses and cuddles in bus shelters and taxi ranks when waiting to come back from a night club in nearby Barmouth or Aberystwyth.

She was indeed looking well. Under the baggy jumper and jeans tucked into green Wellingtons, her body looked trim and fit. She still had her fresh country complexion and clear blue eyes. Almost unconsciously, I looked at her hands. No rings or recent evidence of rings.

"Is it still Davis?" I asked. She shook her head, smiling a little sadly.

"It is now. I was a Johnson for a while, but it didn't work out." She looked at me again, putting her hand on my arm in a gesture that was surprisingly tender, almost intimate. "I was sorry to hear about your parents. They were well liked. I miss them. How's the wife and family doing?"

I swallowed. My voice was rougher than I intended when I answered her.

"Dead. They died in a car crash nine months ago."

Rhian's face showed shock and surprise. She had barely known Linda and the children, but she was one of the few who had sent Christmas cards every year after I went away.

Her hand tightened on my arm momentarily. I looked into the glass window of the newsagent and saw the pair of us reflected there. We looked like a couple.

"Oh, Gaz, that's awful. I had no idea."

"I was in Afghanistan at the time," I said roughly. "A drunk driver smashed into them head-on. Killed himself as well."

I didn't add that I had wanted to have the satisfaction of killing him myself, but it must have shown in my face, because Rhian withdrew her arm and took half a step back.

I took a deep breath and swallowed again, feeling the prickling in the eyes that presaged the pointless, detestable tears. Looking away for a second to get myself under control, I saw us again in the shop window. We didn't look like a couple now. My face, reflected in the plate glass, looked like someone who has been to hell, and brought some of it back as a souvenir.

"I'm sorry Rhian," I said, forcing myself to look at her once again. "I don't really want to talk about it yet. How are your folks?"

"They died a couple of years ago, just after yours," she said. "Within a few weeks of each other. A lot of people seemed to die round about then." There was a curious hardness in her tone. "I don't really want to talk about it either. Not here and now anyway. Are you staying long?"

I thought about it. Depended on your view of long, I suppose.

"I've moved back for good," I said. I'm going to do up the house and settle down here."

I felt a little stab of pleasure as her face brightened.

"Oh, that's good," she said. "Perhaps we could get together for a drink sometime next week." She seemed suddenly hesitant. "That is, if you want to. I mean…"

It was my turn to touch her arm.

"I'd like that," I said. "Let me have your phone number."

She recited the number and I jotted it down in my notebook. I remembered that, at school, she had always been good with figures.

"I'll ring," I promised. "Tuesday sometime?"

We parted. I watched her walking down the street for a moment.

When I turned to come face to face with myself in the window again, some of the hard expression had left my face. Now I just looked unkempt, shaggy, and vaguely lost.

Note how our protagonist feels a stab of pleasure when she is pleased he is staying. Note also the little tenderness - her laying a hand on his arm in sympathy; their reflection looking as if they are a couple.

OK, they have been friends for over thirty years, and they are both lonely and therefore vulnerable, but they could become more than just friends, if the writing is any indication.

Always start small and build. Don't start with a passionate kiss, start with a handshake, or a pat on the back.

This relationship develops thus:

On the way back through the darkening afternoon, I used the payphone on the corner to call Rhian.

"Hello Rhian, it's Gaz."

"You're a day early," she said, sounding surprised, and perhaps a little pleased. "I thought you were just being polite - you know, don't ring us, we'll ring you - that sort of thing."

"Well, I don't want to sound eager or anything," I said, "but are you doing anything tonight?"

There was a lengthy silence. I was determined not to be the first to break it. When Rhian answered, the pleasure had gone from her voice, replaced by caution.

"Why? What do you want Gaz?" she asked.

"I'm sitting in the old house alone every night," I said, "and you're one of the few people I still know and like in this town. I'd like some company, that's all." I was startled at how much truth there was in that. "I've been alone for nine months now," I added.

When she responded this time, the warmth was back in her voice.

"Oh, Gaz, of course. I could do with some company as well. What do you want to do?"

"You decide," I said. "I'm only just back, so I don't know much about the night life."

"Night life!" she scoffed. "The best selling postcard here in the summer is completely black on one side. Guess what the title is - 'night in Brynddu'. Why don't we just get a takeaway and a bottle of wine and go back to your house? I'll meet you in the Happy Garden about half-seven"

"Aren't you worried people will gossip?" I asked innocently.

"It's OK," she said. "I'll wear dark glasses and a scarf. No-one will recognise me."

"Half seven it is then," I said. "And I'll spring for the meal."

I was about to hang up when I heard her say something, very quietly, almost as if to herself.

"Thanks Gaz; thanks for asking me."

I felt another curious rush of warmth towards her.

"No, Rhian. Thank you for saying 'yes'".

I gently put the phone back in its cradle.

So they have a date! You youngsters, trust me. When you get to forty, or more, you no longer care about looking like an idiot. You will just ask someone out, just like that.

The next post will show the progress of this relationship.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


The relationship continues to blossom. (Funny how many botanical terms are involved in describing relationships isn't it? Bloom, flower, blossom…)

Now, in a hotel room decorated in early hideous, we finished our planning.

"So we're just going to spend a couple of days here absorbing the atmosphere?" asked June.


"And then move to Lamingdon and do the same there?"


"And then walk through the front gate of the Research Unit and start asking them questions?"


"You really are a master of strategy and tactics aren't you?" she said, fluttering her eyelashes.

"I try."

"So … beer and curry?"

I usually let her make major decisions like that. After all, she was nominally in charge.

Yep, getting along well. And shortly afterwards, June makes the first overt move to increase the depth of the relationship.

"And how do you suggest we get these samples?" June enquired sarcastically. "Kidnap one of them?"

I nodded.


"God, you are a ruthless bastard aren't you?" she said.

"Is that admiration in your tone?" I asked.

"Actually - yes. It is." She flushed slightly. "Never thought I'd hear myself saying something nice about you. Or to you."

For once, I had no ready answer.

June has actually admitted that she admires Player.

It takes danger for them to get physical though.

I put a hand on June's shoulder. She jumped at the unexpected contact. I put my mouth to her ear.

"Pull back," I breathed.

She looked at me, uncomprehending.

I gestured towards normality behind us, pulling her arm. She struggled. I persisted.

Our target stopped below us.

Directly below us.

He stood immobile, the tethered goat awaiting the tiger.

The bait in the trap.

June's face showed sudden understanding. We began to slide back through the elders and hawthorns.

Through this thin strip of woods lay an open field. The far side of that was in what we had begun to call 'the normal region'.

We ducked through a rusted wire fence and began running across the field.

Noises erupted in the woods behind us. A dozen men emerged from the sheltering darkness under the trees.

They ran after us.

We ran faster.

The noise behind stopped. June looked back and tripped, falling into the uneven wet grass. I pulled her up, looking behind.

The men had stopped in an even line about halfway across the field. They reminded me of footballers waiting for the national anthem.

They stood and stared, motionless.

We walked towards what we hoped was safety.

As if in response to some unheard signal, the men turned and retreated into the woods.

We watched them go.

"Back to the car then," I said.

"How did you know?" asked June.

"Too quiet somehow podner," I drawled.

We sat in the car. I told it to go to the hotel. As it glided away June threw herself at me, wrapping her arms around my neck, pressing tightly.

I could feel her heartbeat. She whispered into the side of my neck.

"I was so scared. Thank you. Thank you."

I could feel my heart beating too. I'd been scared, but that wasn't the main reason for my racing pulse.

She kissed me, her lips moist, her mouth opening slightly, her tongue probing.

I didn't resist much. Actually, I didn't resist at all.

He has saved her from being caught by the aliens. We now have physical contact and a kiss. A passionate kiss.

They go further.

"We obviously need a different game plan," I said as we recuperated in the hotel room. "It seems to me that we need to start with small things that don't fight back."

"Like what?" asked June sarcastically. "Blades of grass?"

I nodded.

"That might not be such a bad idea," I said seriously. "Maybe throw in an invertebrate or two - see if their behaviour is different."

"Invertebrates don't have behaviour," she retorted.

"Ants do, bees, any social insect."

"And I suppose we use the SAS to perform this daring mission?"

"Why not? I don't really want to be transformed into a zombie.

I quite like myself the way I am."

She grinned at me.

"You do start to grow on one after a while. And after half a bottle of Jack Daniels."

June leaned across me to pick up the bottle. As she did so, she pressed a firm young breast against my arm.

"How old are you, June?"

She poured my drink before answering. Her tone was defensive as she did so.

"Sixty-three. Why, does it matter?"

"Not to me. I wouldn't have put you a day past eighty."

She put most of her weight in a very sensitive spot as she leaned back. I yelped. She raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing," I said. "It was nothing."

"You're eighty-one, aren't you?"

I nodded.

"You look about thirty, thirty-five. God, isn't technology wonderful?"

"Mmmm. Have you been married?"

She sighed.

"Couple of times. They didn't work out. And you?"

"The same. Except it was me that didn't work out."

I sometimes have these painful attacks of honesty.

June stood up, grabbing my arm and pulling me up off the bed.

"Your room or mine?"

It ended up being both of them.

And the bathroom in-between.

So we now have a full-on relationship. This is signalled by the relaxed intimacy they now share and the exchange of sensitive personal information.

Their relationship will get deeper and more intense as they become more and more threatened.

Nearly every story should have an element of romantic interest. Without sounding like Mills and Boon, love and romance are important elements in most people's lives.

The good side is, of course, falling in love. The bad side is the breakup of relationships. Nearly every reader or film goer has had the experience of falling in and out of love. You strike a chord with them; you recruit their encouragement or their sympathy when you detail these things. The reader has suddenly become engaged - he or she is now your tacit partner in the book.

This is why it is so important to have love and romance in your work. Not many people have met a seven foot, blue-skinned alien wielding a ray gun. The readers have to use their imagination there. They don't have to imagine what it feels like to be in love. They know.

Note that the title of this section is romantic interest. There are of course many other kinds of love, and you could quite profitably use all of them in your works: love of parents; love of children; love for a house, a piece of land or a country. Nearly all your readers will also know what those emotions are like.

It is also quite easy to write romance and other loves well. Just honestly examine your own feelings. How did you feel when you met someone special? How did you act when you were in love? What was it like when the relationship turned sour?

See, you know how it feels, don't you?

As Frank Herbert says in 'Dune': 'beginnings are such crucial times'.

Extreme care must be taken at the beginning of something.

Consider the first meeting of boy and girl (or man and woman, or any other combination you might want). The two may not initially like each other. Your path in this situation is to, gradually, over the course of the first half of the book, find ways in which they can come to admire and respect each other.

That admiration must turn to mutual liking, and then to love. It could well be that boy rescues girl from life threatening situation. The sex follows, as a celebration of continuing life.

Here is an example from my work in progress, "The Symbiont".

There were two people in the office. One was Under Secretary Whitehead, who always reminded me of a surprisingly clever caricature - the toad in human guise.

The other occupant was obviously a woman and, less obviously, an American.

Mister Charm-and-Personality was the first to speak.

"Where the hell have you been, Player? I've been tickling you for nearly two hours!"

Amazing! Even his voice was a guttural, batrachian croak. I replied with considerable restraint and dignity. Well, I thought so anyway.

"In the pub, where do you think? Tickler must be malfunctioning again."

His face turned an interesting shade of ugly.

"Your contract says forty-five minutes for lunch, not four hours!"

"Fine; so fire me. Better yet, I quit."

I turned to leave.

The woman, who had been following the conversation like a tennis spectator spoke for the first time; confirming that she was indeed American; West coast probably. The tan strengthened that impression.

"Can you quit in a few weeks? We need you for a while longer."

I looked at her with as much insolence as I could muster. And that was plenty. I've had lots of practice.

Pretty, shoulder length dark hair, oval face, nice body. Dressed in American office-casual - slacks and sweater, trainers, white socks. No rings or other jewellery.

She withstood my look with composure. Obviously she was another with more than the usual quota of arrogance.

"You want me for what exactly?"

She picked up a buff file from the corner of the Whitehead's desk. She quoted from it at length, without once looking at the pages themselves. Impressive.

"So you're the famous Richard Player? A legend in his own lifetime. How many research programmes have you -" she mouthed the word as if it were tasty - "sequestered?

"Don't strain your memory; I'll tell you. Seventy-two."

I shrugged. She continued.

"Which is the only reason you're still working here. Your personality profile puts you at borderline sociopathic. A drunk, a loner, a misfit; who hates himself marginally less than he hates the rest of the world.

"Make no mistake Player. You are only here on sufferance - because you're a useful tool. As soon as you cease to be useful, we'll put you in a psych ward for the rest of your miserable life."

I couldn't help myself. I laughed. A look of surprise crossed her face; then she followed suit. Her nose wrinkled nicely as she did so.

I pulled one of the nice leather swivel chairs over next to her and sat.

"You must know I'm a sucker for flattery," I said. "So, once again, what is it you want me to do?"

So what is happening here? Player, our protagonist, has just met this woman. He finds her attractive. This is clear by the sentence Pretty, shoulder length dark hair, oval face, nice body. So he is interested.

She, on the other hand, is not interested. She describes Player as borderline sociopath. Not an ideal start to a romance is it?

However, towards the end of the passage, they do find something which they can share - a laugh. A contact has been made.

Later we have this passage:

She looked at Whitehead in surprise - almost as if she had forgotten his presence.

I found myself almost liking her.


"You want?" she enquired. Whitehead reverted to Civil Service Mandarin mode.

"That is to say, that my masters, the powers that be, require it."

"Then let it be so," I said. "Miss Hill, let's go to my office and start digging."

We walked out together. I was old school enough to open the door for her. She was old school enough to take that as a courtesy and not a sexist and demeaning act that forever trapped her in an inferior socio-economic stereotype.

We talked as we drifted down the slo-tube.

"What is your name then, Miss Hill?"

She actually blushed.

"Juniper Hill," she said. "And please don't make any pathetic jokes about it sounding more like a piece of real estate. Call me June."

I bit back my flow of those exact pathetic jokes.

"Call me Dick, and please no jokes about it sounding more like a hobby."

She laughed again.

"OK, it's a deal".

We shook hands and left the slo-tube.

Now we have dialogue and the beginnings of a relationship. It is still a fragile bud, which could be destroyed by a single careless word or action.

Player and June work closely together for the next few days, building the relationship.

Oh, and let's not forget the murder of crows patiently stalking a cat on the outskirts of Lamingdon itself, seen from the train window.

"A murder?" enquired June.

"Collective noun for a group of crows," I explained.

She looked at me for a moment.

"You're just full to the brim with useless information, aren't you?"

"I try my best," I admitted modestly.


For the last two days we had carried out a ceaseless verbal war of sarcasm while we worked.

Fuelled with beer and Jack Daniels - the real stuff, the harmful version, not the New No 8, bland and packed with nanites.
June had spent both nights at my flat, though not in my bed.

"I'm claiming expenses for a hotel, of course," she confessed. "But I don't actually want to waste perfectly good money on a room. I'd rather invest it in alcohol."

"Thought all you Americans were sober, industrious, clean living, all that good shit."

"Yes, maybe, in America; but this is like being on holiday for me. I'm just copying the habits of you English natives."

"You picked a good role model then," I said.

She winked and drinked.

They are getting along quite well now, on a basis of good-humoured banter.

I think the simplest way to show how to write an action scene is to give some examples (good and bad).


Extract from 'The Yillian Way' by Keith Laumer.

…Retief stood, the Yill topping his six foot three by an inch. In a motion almost too quick to follow, Retief reached for the sabre, twitched it from the Yill's grip, swung it in a whistling cut. The Yill ducked, sprang back, snatched up a sabre dropped by another dancer.

"Someone stop the madman!" Spradley howled.

Retief leaped across the table, sending fragile dishes spinning.
The other danced back, and only then did the orchestra spring to life with a screech and a mad tattoo of high-pitched drums.

Making no attempt to following the weaving pattern of the Yill bolero, Retief pressed the other, fending off vicious cuts with the blunt weapon, chopping back relentlessly. Left hand on hip, Retief matched blow for blow, driving the other back.

Abruptly, the Yill abandoned the double role. Dancing forgotten, he settled down in earnest, cutting, thrusting, parrying; and now the two stood toe to toe, sabres clashing in a lightning exchange. The Yill gave a step, two, then rallied, drove Retief back, back -

And the Yill stumbled. His sabre clattered, and Retief dropped his point as the other wavered past him and crashed to the floor…

So what's good about this?

Look at the paragraph length - very short. Frequently, only one sentence. Sentence length is very short as well.

Look at the choice of active words - pressed, chopping, relentlessly, abruptly, lightning…

All these words are indicative of speed and motion. Dramatic words abound - cutting, thrusting, parrying - a sequence of verbs separated by commas. More evidence of violent motion and speed.


This is one I created specially for this workshop.

The alien, that was hideous with its mottled orange and green skin, charged towards me. I was forced back, retreating, having to block its talons as the swung towards me again and again.

I was panting, gasping for breath. My heart was pounding. The blood was throbbing in my temples. I tripped over a rock, falling to the ground as if in slow motion.

The alien towered over me, resting a clawed foot on my chest…

So what's wrong with this passage?

Have a go at rewriting it following the pointers I gave for the good passage.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009



If you write horror, SF, fantasy or action thrillers, you will probably want to have your book accelerating throughout to a slam-bang breathless climax at or very near the end.

But you also need to have a great opening page to hook the reader’s attention – and the attention of the agent and publisher.

So what bits can be slow, what bits must be fast, and how do you set the pace anyway?

Before we get to the mechanics of changing pace, I’d like to give everyone a little repeat of the Aristotelian plot structure of a book (or film).

Act one – the first quarter of a book.

Act two – the middle half of the book.

Act three – the last quarter of the book.

The opening pages of a book may well show the main character, the hero, going about his or her daily life. Then something happens that forces the hero to do something out of the ordinary. That something is called the inciting incident. This should definitely come near the beginning. (Of course, you could argue that in some instances, the inciting incident might well happen before the start of the book, and this guarantees a reasonable pace, because we’re already into conflict and drama at the very beginning.)

About a quarter of the book is spent establishing all the characters and settings, equipment, introducing all the major themes. This is Act One. This is where you will have descriptions – of people and places, of the characters state of mind, feelings, interaction with others, setting up dialogue – so Act One is of necessity going to be moderately paced. Your problem is actually making sure that it’s not too slow.

A word of caution here – one thing you should always avoid is expositional writing – i.e. telling the reader things. Never, ever tell the reader anything – show them. If it is significant that the hero’s parents died two years ago, introduce the fact in some dialogue with an old friend. Much better and more natural.

You might well want to go through your descriptions weeding out redundant words. The word “that” can usually be cut out completely. “Was running” can be replaced with “ran”. Changing these words for active verbs has the effect of heightening pace.

Using your characters to drive the story will also set a natural pace. Yes, you have your plot points to meet and satisfy, but letting the characters arrive there in a natural and believable way will automatically set the correct pace.

Plot Point One is the end of Act one. It is a significant event. The hero meets the woman who is going to help him resolve the problem he has and overcome the nemesis.

Act Two, and the pace will begin to speed up. The hero may still be gathering the allies, talents or skills he will need to confront the nemesis, but there is also action. Ideally, quite a lot of action. Again to speed things up, eliminate words like “that”. Replace all passive verbs with active ones.

And here is a handy hint. Have shorter sentences. That increases pace.

Instead of your long, lingering, beautifully crafted sentences: the ones that contain multiple clauses; to increase pace, write simple sentences wherever possible.

Read the above paragraph again, and then read the paragraph below, where I say the same thing, but with much greater pace.

Abandon long sentences. Speak out against multiple clauses. Write only simple sentences.

See what I mean?

The mid-point though, about half way through Act Two, is the first major trial of strength between hero and nemesis. It should be fast. It may be inconclusive. It may be that the hero kills the nemesis’s chief lieutenant.

The hero’s low point, at the end of Act Two, Plot Point Two, about three quarters of the way through the book, can be slow. Indeed it should be slow. It is the calm before the storm. Our hero is gathering all his strength, resolved to win or die trying. You can have lengthy dialogue. You can have elaborate descriptions of his mental state.

Act Three, and now we gallop towards the inevitable climax that was prefigured in Act one and developed in Act Two. The climax comes about two thirds of the way through Act three. It should definitely be fast. Use the usual tricks again – no redundant words, active verbs, short sentences, abbreviated dialogue, little or no description. Just violent action and more violent action.

The resolution, at the end, can be as slow or as fast as you like.

As before, with the conflict section, why not post some of your writings up here and we’ll see if we can’t change the pace. It’s always better to have examples, don’t you think?

Establishing and escalating conflict



Every piece of fiction, whether it's a short story, a novel, a film script or a stage play, needs some sort of conflict. Life is all about conflict, and fiction reflects life, albeit in a distorted and microcosmic way.
Conflict involves an element of struggle. For example, your lead character may be an alcoholic. His conflict, or one area of it anyway, is therefore his struggle against his own addictions.
There are many different sorts of conflict:

Physical confrontations, including war, battles, and fights
Internal struggle - as in the example above
Emotional conflict - two conflicting desires, for example lust and guilt
A struggle against the elements - as in the battle to survive in a blizzard
Romantic conflict - he loves her, she hates him. The conflict here would be his battle to win her over.
Political conflict - the battle to win the votes, conflicting ideologies
Intellectual conflict - the struggle to win a court case, or prove a theory
Companion conflict - rivals become buddies (or vice versa)

If there is no conflict in a story, then there essentially is no story. Why would anyone waste time reading a story about nothing happening?

It is important to establish what sort of conflict(s) we are to expect very early in a story. Ideally, the inciting incident (or complication) comes in the first five pages of a film script, or the first, or at most second, chapter of a book. It is this inciting incident that signals what sort of conflict we can expect. This incident is what forces the hero into action.

Simplified, every story is the struggle of the main character, the hero or protagonist, to overcome his or her nemesis (enemy). It is the tale of the hero's journey to acquire the strength, skills, talents or companions he needs to overcome his nemesis.

To make the introduction and escalation of conflict more important, there is usually a time element involved as well - if Frodo doesn't drop the ring in the fire before Sauron conquers Minas Tirith, Middle Earth is doomed.


Using our categories above, we can use the following as examples:

o Achille's battle with Hector (Troy)
o Alex's fight with Dim (A Clockwork Orange)
o Nash's struggle with schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind)
o Sarah T (Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic)
o Adultery (lust and guilt) (Desperate Housewives)
o Jealousy - (Othello)
Struggle against elements:
o Cold (To Build a Fire)
o Storm (The Perfect Storm)
Romantic Conflict:
o Love/hate (The Taming of the Shrew)
o Obsessive love (Fatal Attraction)
Political conflict:
o A struggle to maintain ideals (The Candidate)
o Rebellion v oppression (1984)
Intellectual conflict:
o Uncovering the truth (A Few Good Men)
o Discovering the truth again (The Pelican Brief)
Companion conflict:
o Strangers become friends (Lethal Weapon)
o Friends become enemies (High Noon)


We will examine various types of conflict and how they escalate using a simple plot for a film. This is the plot.


A widower, Frank, lives in the house he has occupied for the last twenty years. His wife died three years ago. His children have long since grown up and left home.

Next door lives a woman, Julia, who was divorced two years ago. She has occupied her house for twenty five years. In other words, they have been neighbours for two decades. The two houses are an isolated pair on the top of a steep hill. It was a brake failure three years ago that killed Frank's wife at the bottom of the hill.

Both Frank and Julia are in their mid forties. Frank has lusted after Julia for much of those twenty years, but has never voiced this to her, even when they were both available.

Now she has a new boyfriend, Sam. Frank can occasionally hear them making love through the thin party wall. He can do more than hear them however, because over the years, he has comprehensively bugged the house next door. He watches Julia obsessively - photographing her when she hangs washing on the line, watching her on a monitor when she sleeps, watching her showering, making love. He imagines himself in Sam's place. One night, Sam, also a widower, proposes to Julia. She accepts. Frank looks on disbelieving. They set a date for the marriage - in three months time.

He hates Sam. He begins to plot Sam's death. He engineers brake failure for Sam's car, after extensive research on how to do it and make it look like an accident.

But Frank still doesn't have the nerve to reveal his desire (he calls it love, we would call it lust or obsession) to Julia, even though she is now available again.

He is sitting in a darkened room, watching her on a monitor as she sleeps. Suddenly, she throws back the cover and gets up, walking over to the concealed camera / microphone.

Bending close to the camera she whispers "The back door's unlocked. Come to me, Frank. I want you now." He thinks he is hallucinating, dreaming perhaps. She waits. When he doesn't show up, she speaks again.

"Come to me now. I've waited for you for twenty years. I killed your bitch of a wife - it was no accident. I want you. I've waited for you all these years. Come to me."

The film might end with Frank in tortured indecision - does he go? Does he call the police and play the tape of Julia's words?


Don't use that plot, because I've already written the script. Even as you read this, the script, called "Driven", is looking for a good home.

Now, how many types of conflict are there in this story?

Frank obviously suffers internal conflict: he lusts after Julia but is too afraid of rejection to voice that desire to her. This could also be characterised as romantic conflict. He probably suffers from guilt - bugging her house and watching her in the night would raise guilt in most people's minds. He has another conflict - he wants Sam dead, and decides to kill him in an engineered traffic accident. More guilt; more fear. There is physical conflict in that Frank undertakes a series of actions that will lead to Sam's death. The time element is present - he only has three months.

What about Julia? If she isn't a total psycho (and of course, she might be) she must be feeling guilt. Guilt about killing Fran's wife. Guilt about using Sam to provoke Frank into decisive action. She obviously feels lust and suffers from obsession.
There is really very little here about love - this is the warped version. Lust, desire, murder, and voyeurism - this is a seriously warped couple. They may well go on to be very effective serial killers.

So, how would we introduce some of these examples of conflict?

Start small. Don't reveal too much to the audience yet - whether readers or film-goers.
Frank watches Julia hanging washing next door.

That's it.

Except there is more. He is lurking.

He hangs back, obscured by net curtains, the archetypal peeping tom. He watches her with a vacant expression on his face. Only his eyes seem alive.

This is a nasty guy - a stalker. There is conflict expressed here. The way he hangs back expresses fear, indecision.

Julia wears jeans and a tight, white sweater. She bends over the washing basket. The movement reveals the crack of her bum.

There is a click. Frank photographs her. The camera is expensive, with a long, telephoto lens.

So what is going on here? Frank has obviously spent money to further his obsession. But what is Julia doing? Is she oblivious to her watcher, or is she deliberately teasing him, provoking him.

She turns sideways, putting her hands on her hips, arching her back to relieve the ache. The sweater pulls tight over her breasts. We hear another click and another as Frank takes more photos.

Yes, she is indeed provoking him. What is she up to?

We have just introduced internal conflict and perhaps a battle of wits between watcher and watched. But we started at a low level.


Where do we go from here?

The next escalation would involve Frank looking at his watch - perhaps seven in the morning.

He gets up, padding downstairs barefoot. He goes into a room filled with electronic equipment.

A beat focuses on an old newspaper. The headline revealed states 'Tragic death of wife in auto accident'.

Frank switches on a monitor.

We see the image of Julia showering, turning, running her soapy hands over her body.

Frank's gaze is riveted to the monitor

So, this conflict has escalated. Frank hasn't just spent money on his obsession. He's spent a shitload of money. He has broken the law, bugging his neighbour's house. Again, it is almost as if Julia is deliberately provoking him with her seductive movements. Do people really shower like that?


The next escalation would also involve Frank lying in bed awake.

Frank lies, staring at the ceiling. We can hear the rhythmic creaking of a bed; muffled moans of passion. Frank's face shows anguish.

He gets up, again padding downstairs barefoot. He goes into the electronics room, switching on the monitor and clicking a setting on the PC.

We see the image of the couple next door, making love. The frantic movements are seen reflected in Frank's eyes. Pulling back, we see his expression is stony. The sounds are clearer now. Julia is emitting little cries. We see her facing the hidden camera. We see her body and her face. It is almost as if she is staring directly at the hidden camera.


This time, we hear speech, transmitted into an earpiece.

An outside shot established that Sam and Julia are in a dining room. From outside, we see their lips moving, but cannot hear what they are saying.

A voice over reveals the gist of the speech.

A beat focuses on an earpiece in someone's ear. We pull back to reveal the ear belongs to Frank.

So, Frank indulges his obsession 24 hours a day? Serious stuff.

Sam is proposing to Julia. She accepts. They set a date for the wedding - three months time.

A close up of Fran's face reveals a tear trickling down his face.

He plays the conversation over and over again.

Gradually, his expression changes from grief to fury. He clenches his fist. His lips thin down to a narrow slit.

So, he is not going to take this lying down. He is going to do something. What?


We see Frank staring at a monitor. He is not watching the woman next door. He is looking at a schematic of a brake system. The system is for the make and model of car we have seen parked outside next door's house - Sam's car.

So the conflict has escalated to murder?

We see the stealthy night-time tinkering carried out by Frank on Sam's car.

So Frank is carrying out his plan for murder.

Sam is getting into his car. Julia opens the passenger door. Is she going to get into the car? Frank's face is a mask of fright and confusion. He goes to the front door, ready to run out. He hesitates, dithering.

Making a decision, he opens the door, running out.

Too late! The car is driving away, down the hill. He is going to run after it, but a voice stops him.

"Morning Frank."

It is Julia. She didn't get into the car after all.

We hear a screech of tyres, a crash, the crump of an explosion. Black smoke rises above the trees.

Frank has resolved his conflict with Sam. He has killed him. How will he resolve his conflict with Julia?


Frank sits in a darkened room. He watches Julia, watching her on a monitor as she sleeps.

So, is the situation back to normal?

Suddenly, Julia throws back the cover. She gets up, naked, walking over to the concealed camera / microphone.

Bending close to the camera she whispers "The back door's unlocked. Come to me, Frank. I want you now."

He thinks he is hallucinating, dreaming perhaps. She waits. When he doesn't show up, she speaks again.

"Come to me now. I've waited for you for twenty years. I killed your bitch of a wife - it was no accident. I want you. I've waited for you all these years. I saw you fiddling with Sam's brakes. I've got photographs.

A quick flashback shows Julia standing in a darkened window, photographing Frank. A pan around the room shows that she has hundreds of photographs of Frank in all sorts of situations.

"Come to me," she repeats, but now it is a command.

That is how the situation is resolved - with a dramatic twist.

So we can see how each segment involves little steps, but the steps are cumulative - each is a little worse than the one before. You are drawn into this sick couple's world.

We do not realise until the very end that Julia is as badly besotted with Frank as he is with her. Perhaps even more so.

They have had their little game with each other, but Julia has proved to be the winner, being more deceitful, manipulative, deadly.