Reactive and Proactive Characters: Buffy vs Bella

Your main protagonist should begin as reactive and eventually progress to proactive. Buffy (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was this bada$$ character who didn’t take junk from anybody including Spike. Everywhere she went, she influenced the action around her. Bella (from Twilight) seems to be in need of rescue all the time.

Buffy the vampire slayerI love movies and television – anything that will bring me into a great entertaining story. I especially LOVE vampire stories – everything from Bram Stoker to Buffy to Twilight to Van Helsing to Daybreakers to Underworld. Bring it on. (Hence today’s title.) I love a strong female character, one who doesn’t take junk from nobody. I have no patience for the Daphne’s of the story world – remember Daphne? The female fashionista from Scooby-Doo who gushed over Fred and was always being kidnapped – ALWAYS. That’s annoying. I mean, even Scooby and Shaggy decide to be monster bait after some Scooby snacks.

At some point in your story, your protagonist needs to go from reacting to situations outside of their control, to taking control and influencing the action – otherwise (as a general rule) your readers will quit the story. Gone are the days of the 50’s pirate romances where the damsel in distress is kidnapped by the pirate and by the end sees all his redeeming qualities beneath that hard damsel-stealing exterior and falls in love with him. Oy. That’s where I quit reading and beat myself with the book as punishment for wasting my time.

Reactive characters

Usually every novel begins with a reactive protagonist. Cue the ‘normal’ scene with Buffy at school or waking up, and then BAM – a vampire appears out of nowhere and knocks her flat. She’s forced to react to a situation outside of her control or influence. Bella is reactive for nearly the entire novel – but more on her later. Most stories begin by putting the protagonist in a situation outside of their control they can’t walk away from, often a life-threatening situation. The kind of novel you’re writing will dictate what kind of situation this is and what the stakes are.

You raise the stakes for your protagonist by continuing to heap problems on them they can’t walk away from. It’s like a cliche country song – first your truck dies, then your dog dies, then your girlfriend leaves you… But reactive characters depend on others for solutions to their problems.

Proactive Characters

Proactive characters are the ones who take action into their own hands. This is when Buffy goes all – ‘that vamp’s so dead,’ and marches out of the library wooden stake in hand. She makes a decision, good or bad, and acts on it – and her action moves the story forward. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Spike had to always kidnap Buffy and Angel rescued her. Yawn. What kind of vampire slayer would that make?

The proactive character doesn’t wait for others to create a solution, he is involved in creating his own solutions. They make decisions about their situation, maybe come to a fork in the road, maybe make a bad decision – but they don’t wait around for others to fix things. These characters are more interesting to read about, and because the reader is along for the decision-making process they’re invested in the character.

The Problem With Bella

Bella in school parking lot

I really enjoyed reading Twilight, it’s light and entertaining. A welcome escape from reality for a bit. However, here’s my biggest beef with Twilight – Bella is reactive. Stuff happens to Bella and she waits for Edward to rescue her throughout almost the entire novel.

She’s almost smushed by a truck in an icy school parking lot – Edward rescues her.

She’s a social outcast who’s never had a boyfriend – Edward, the guy every girl wants, decides to date her.

She’s targeted by vamps who want to eat her – Edward whisks her away to safety.

It’s not until the third-last scene in the book that Bella takes one small proactive step and agrees to escape her protectors to meet the bad guy to save her mom – and then what happens? Edward rescues her. She gets bitten – Edward sucks out the poison. A model for teen girls Bella is not.

If you’re stuck in a vamp-infested cellar in an all-out smackdown – who do you want with you? Bella or Buffy? Point made.

Luke Skywalker vs Anakin Skywalker

My son is a huge Star Wars fan. But here’s my problem with Star Wars – if you watch all 6 movies it becomes clear that the whole series is really about ‘the chosen one’ Anakin Skywalker, not Luke Skywalker as those fans of the first trilogy thought.

Everyone loves Luke. Luke runs back to save his aunt and uncle, he decides to follow Obi-Wan into unknown danger, he trains to be a Jedi with Yoda, he rescues Chewie and Leia and Hans, he faces his fears and not only defeats Darth Vader but redeems him as well. He creates his own solutions.

But Anakin? He’s found. He’s trained. He follows Obi-Wan. He does what he’s told – he complains, he cops an attitude – but he still does what he’s told by everyone: the Emperor, Padme, the Jedi Council… He reacts. He does four proactive things in 6 movies: he kills his mother’s murderers, marries Padme, and he agrees to serve the Emperor and become a Sith – which lands him in yet further reactive situations until he throws the Emperor in a pit. I think that’s a big reason why there are more fans of Luke than Anakin.

But Twilight‘s a NYT Bestseller – and it breaks this rule

I hear what you’re saying – ‘but Bella sold A LOT of books.’ Really? Bella is the point of view character, but which characters are selling that series? I would argue it’s not Bella, who is the one telling the story – you’re never in Edward’s head and only briefly in one book do you get to see inside Jacob’s head. But it’s Edward and Jacob (both proactive characters) who sell the story to fans, not Bella. Are you on Team Bella? Point proven. The secondary protagonists steal the show. I think that story would be a lot more interesting if Bella was a bit more Buffy.

Camy Tang has a really great article on proactive characters if you want to read more on the topic.

What about you? Do you agree that proactive characters are more interesting than reactive characters? Who’s your favorite character – are they reactive or proactive? What about your main protagonist?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Editing For The Second Draft

So, you’ve gotten the first draft finished. Congrats! Now the hard work begins – editing. I thought I’d let you all have a sneak peek behind the laptop and see what steps we’re taking with the second draft of our WIP.

Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period. – Nicholas Sparks

If you haven’t yet finished your first draft, this is my best advice: Try to resist editing as you write your first draft. Otherwise it’s easy to get bogged down and then your writing stalls. Just get it out.

writing on laptopDifferent people have different methods of editing, and our second draft is a quasi mixture of steps that should be done before you start writing as well as those needed in a first edit. Generally there are two steps writers take when working on a project of any size. The first step is the BIG picture edit. Step back and examine the structure of your story – will it hold itself up? The next step is the copy edit where you’re going to take the work chapter by chapter and examine every sentence and word. Don’t try to do both at once. If you haven’t got the big picture elements sorted, the copy edit is useless.

Plot And Conflict

This is a chance to critically examine your WIP as a whole work. If there’s a scene/chapter/character that you could remove and not affect the story line, it should go. Be ruthless. Does every scene contain relevant conflict – the kind that propels or forces the characters to react or change? If not, you need to edit for that.

This point was made clear to me in an interview with Peter Jackson, Director for New Line Cinema’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. If you’ve read the story by Tolkien, you know that the movies left a lot out. Peter Jackson said (I’m paraphrasing) that the movie focused on the path of Frodo and the ring. Everything else from the book didn’t make the cut. He had to narrow the focus of the story for the movie significantly. Big picture focus right there.


Who is your book for? If you don’t know, figure it out. And don’t just say – for adult women. Narrow it down. For more on audience, check out our Know Your Audience post. For us, we knew that we had to edit for a different audience than we had planned for in the first draft. Changing the intended audience is a huge undertaking. The first draft was written for a female Christian (uber-conservative) market, and we’ve switched to a general market audience, mostly male. That means, for us, ramping up the battle scenes, and instead of the male and female protagonists having an equal share of the time, the male protagonist gets the bigger spotlight, etc.


Determining your market is so important – especially if you’re writing genre fiction: romance, historical, horror, etc. You MUST know the genre you’re writing in.

We intended our WIP to be a historical romance with the first draft, so the focus was more on the romance in a historical setting. Now, we’re editing for a historical market. There is still a strong romantic element, but the focus has shifted from the love between the two protagonists, to the historicity: society, intrigue and politics of the historical setting. We had both read dozens of historical romance novels, but now we checked out at least a dozen historical novels that share a historical setting with our novel, and really studied how those authors described things, and made their worlds rich.


Whether your novel is plot or character driven, knowing your characters’ motivations and desires is absolutely essential to a successful novel. This is one of those big picture items that really should be solidified before you write your first draft. Editing for a minor tweak in a character’s motivation or desire early in the novel can affect his/her whole character arc resulting in significant editing to the plot and conflict. Ask yourself why is your character acting/doing/reacting that way in every scene – and what do they hope to accomplish/gain/achieve in every scene. If you don’t know, your readers won’t have a clue. Confused readers stop reading.


This is a first draft step, but we realized we hadn’t done enough research. We Googled the time period, the people groups, etc. We visited sites for historical reenactment groups. We read thesis papers about the time period by grad students. We searched flickr for photos of artefacts. We searched Youtube to see many things. We read the historians of the time. We read archaeology reports, and historical theories. We checked out books on art, we studied tattoos. We picked Marcy’s husband’s brain – as a former US Marine his experience in warfare has been valuable.

We wanted as many concrete details as we could get to make as few assumptions about this world as possible. This set us back at least 6 weeks (remember we each did half the work and shared what we had learned).

Sensory details and description

Marcy and I are sparse writers on the first draft – so we write knowing those details are something we’ll edit for. The last note I received from Marcy: You sure you want to have them climb an elm tree? I looked it up. Elm trees are supposed to smell like poop. See how much fun co-writing is? We are now going through every scene and including details that will make the world come alive for readers, to bring them into the action of the story.

Your turn. How is your WIP coming along? We’d love to hear about the ups and downs.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Paint Your Characters Into A Corner – Guest Blog by Linda Hall

What makes for a page-turner? If you ask award-winning novelist Linda Hall, it’s suspense. We’ve invited her to guest post for us today to give you some tips on how to create suspense in your novel, regardless of the genre.

Since her first book, The Joshia Files, was published by Thomas Nelson in 1992, Linda Hall has written 18 other suspense and mystery novels. Alongside writing novels, she’s been the keynote speaker at conferences such as Write! Canada, part of the faculty of the University of New Brunswick’s Maritime Writers Workshop, and is a regular contributor to Deeds of Darkness, Deeds of Light, a blog that examines the murder mystery/thriller/crime fiction genre from the viewpoint of readers, writers, editors, agents, and librarians.

Take it away Linda . . .

Linda Hall How to Create Suspense in FictionI’m pleased to be invited to guest blog today. Summer means lots of summer reads for me, and I’m currently in the middle of a Dean Koontz thriller, The Good Guy. This book is basically a “chase” book.

I admit it. I’m staying up too late reading it, and, being a writer, I’m constantly asking, “How does he do that? How is he making it so that I can’t put this one down?” The writer in me is doing a bit of analyzing.

Before we go any further I want to define a few terms.  To me, suspense is a technique, not a genre. Suspense needs to be a part of every bit of writing that we ever do from nonfiction to fiction to poetry to comedy. Simply put, suspense is that all important key ingredient that keeps the reader turning pages, no matter what she’s reading. News articles need suspense. This blog needs suspense.

It’s possible to write a thriller that has little or no suspense. I’m sure you’ve read some of these. The plot premise on the back of the book is enticing.

“With an idea like that, I can’t wait to get into it,” you say to yourself.

But then something about the book falls flat. Your interest wanes, and you keep putting the book down. Sure, it was a thriller, but the suspense was missing.

So, back to Koontz who is, in my opinion, a master of the suspenseful thriller. How does he do it?

1.   Right in the middle of the action, he switches points of view.

We are following along with The Good Guy and The Innocent Female as they ditch cars and buy food and attempt to figure out why The Assassin wants them both dead. They are behind the door and hear the bad guy right behind them, and then we switch into the bad guy’s point of view.

He doesn’t see them, doesn’t hear them. Whew! We can wipe our brow once more. But then he figures it out! And now he has them in his sights! There is no getting away this time! And then, Koontz switches into the point of view of the police officer who’s sitting at his desk at home, and it’s night and it’s dark and he’s and trying to sort it all out.

2.   He creates a multiplicity of problems, and the obvious solutions don’t work.

The Good Guy started off with one problem. Someone mistook him for a hit man and gave him a bunch of money. Then the real hit man comes into the bar. The obvious solution would be to dial 911–that’s what you or I would do, right? And The Good Guy is about to call the police, when he sees the guy drive away in a police car. The police are in on this? He closes his cell phone.

So, if you have your heroine wandering down into a dark basement in a storm because she hears noises, she better have a good reason for doing so.  Facing the same situation, you or I would run lickety-split to the neighbors and call the police. You have to make sure the obvious won’t work. If her child was in the basement, or her dog, that would be a compelling reason for her to throw caution into the gutter and go down there.

3.   He adds specks of doubt into his characters.

In this Koontz book, suddenly I am wondering about the Innocent Woman. What is her story? Why isn’t she forthcoming about her personal life? Why is her point of view conspicuously absent from the points of view that the story follows? Maybe she’s not the innocent bystander that I thought she was?

Try doing that. Or, if you’re writing from the first person, a way you could do this is would be to have your heroine  read an email or a letter, but keep the contents from the reader. Keeping small things from your readers will enhances the suspense even in your romance.

4.   And finally, he isn’t ever afraid to paint his characters into a corner.

Don’t fear this. Just do it. Something always turns up. The more corners you can paint your characters into, the better your reader will like it!

Who are some of your favorite authors and why? I bet it has something to do with the technique of suspense.


Want to connect with Linda in other places? Visit her website or her Facebook page.

5 Tips For Writing Deep POV

“What is the key to spellbinding, page-turning writing? Emotional connection between your readers and your characters! Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, learning the secrets of deep POV will make your writing come alive in the hearts of your readers.” Simon Presland

What is deep POV?tandem skydive landing

Deep POV (deep penetration point of view) is intimate or limited third person point of view. This style of writing doesn’t just put the reader in the car with the main character, or even in the passenger seat, but puts them in the character’s lap in the driver’s seat. The reader wants to experience in real time the vibrations in the wheel, the wind in her hair, see what’s in the rearview mirror, and feel the slide of the stick shift into the next gear.

One of the best advantages to learning deep POV is that it almost entirely eliminates telling in your writing. Check out our post on 5 ways to know if you’re showing or telling. Here’s a crash course in deep POV:

Tip #1 – Eliminate Distance and be Immediate

For deep POV, readers want to be in the action as it happens.

Tony watched as a beautiful woman walked across the room. He felt his body react until he saw her greet a tall young executive with a kiss. What he wouldn’t give to switch places with that guy, he thought. Ho Hum

In deep POV: Tony leaned forward, mesmerized by the swish of her short skirt as she strutted across the room. Hands trembling, he swiped at the sweat budding on his forehead. She stopped in front of a seated executive in a power suit and greeted him with a possessive kiss on the lips. Figures. Tony’d give anything to switch places with that guy.

I put you in the action of the scene by removing he watched, he saw, he felt, he thought. I added emotion by showing how he was feeling through a physical reaction. Remove words or phrases that keep readers at a distance such as: watched, felt, knew, saw, appeared, looked, seemed. Every sense, thought, feeling must be immediate and transparent to readers so sparingly use words like as, when, until, etc.

Tip #2 – Emotions

Deep POV is more than just internal dialogue (a character’s thoughts). Deep POV is concerned with emotions primarily, those gut reactions that influence our thoughts and actions – something we all do often without realizing it. Show a character’s emotions through what they see, hear, feel, sense, remember, experience, etc. You need to invoke all the senses and dig deep for a full range of emotion within a character’s personality and motivations to pull this off. Make your readers care about your character, and they’ll keep reading.

Exercise: I picked up this exercise from Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. Think of a recent event or experience that brought out a strong emotion in you – love, anger, fear, etc. Mentally relive that event and shut out everything else going on around you. To take this further, capture the rhythm of the moment by patting your thigh – the higher the tension or emotion the faster you pat. After a minute, stop. Take stock of how your body has reacted. Are you tense? Achy? Tired? Is your brow furrowed? Is your heart racing? Your body reacts physically without you being consciously aware of it – but this is how you SHOW your readers what’s going on with your character through deep POV instead of telling.

Tip #3 – Characterization

Crafting three dimensional characters is critical, but in deep POV if a character is flat your story falls apart at the seams. Characters must have a measurable goal – desire, be compellingly invested in achieving that goal – motivation, and have a specific plan on how to reach their goal – plot. A great resource for this is Brandilyn Collins’ book Getting Into Character. Marcy wrote a great post on creating 3 dimensional characters. One caution – limit deep POV to 1 or 2 characters – your main protagonists usually. It can become draining and hard to read if all the characters in a story are written in deep POV.

For example: In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter’s goal through the story is to keep his family together. Peter’s invested in this objective because with his father fighting in the war, it falls to him as eldest to protect his family. He would rather die than go back to his mother and report that he’d failed in his duty. His plan? Keep his siblings safe by staying together and out of trouble. Story happens when obstacles to Peter’s objective force him to deviate from his plan – conflict.

Tip #4 – Voice

Deep POV automatically creates voice for your character. Take the rewritten example above for instance – the woman could have skipped, strolled, stumbled across the room. For the POV character he saw her actions as intentional and attention-seeking, she strutted. In his eyes, she knew that men were watching and encouraged it, enjoyed it, sought it – and it made him want her. That’s character insight and gives your character a voice.

Tip #5 – Memorize this: action, decision, thought, emotion

There are exceptions to every rule, but generally this is the predominant sequence of events when writing deep POV. Every scene should have action and reaction. (If a scene has no action or reaction, then seriously consider whether it needs to be there at all.) Deep POV is no different. Let’s walk through this.

(action) Knock, knock. “Landlord, open up!”

(decision) Danny ran for the window, heaved up on the sash, and climbed out on the fire escape. (thought)  I’m dead if he finds out I don’t have rent money again. (emotion) Heart racing,  he took the stairs three at a time down to the street, unable to keep the smile off his face.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It should be action, thought, decision, emotion (the last two could be interchangeable) – and when this action/reaction event happens in our brains that’s how it works. But in fiction, the general rule is action, decision, thought, emotion.

Deep POV is a more advanced concept, check out Marcy’s post on the most common point of view problems if you’re just beginning your writing journey.

Each of these tips could be a blog post on its own. So let me ask you – are you using deep POV? Do you prefer to read stories written in deep POV?

Today starts our second Mary DeMuth giveaway. Here’s what you need to do for a chance to win Watching the Tree Limbs:

(1) In the comments, answer one of the questions above.

(2) Tweet this post (make sure you include @MarcyKennedy somewhere in the tweet so that we see it). If you don’t use Twitter, you can post a link to this post on Facebook instead (and tell us about it on the Girls With Pens Facebook page).


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Why My Fiction Wouldn’t Sell

I’ve been to writers’ conferences, sat with professionals, been critiqued, read books and blogs, read more books. I sold articles and short non-fiction, but not my fiction. Here are some of the biggest flaws fiction writers struggle with that sink their chances with agents and editors.

My latest WIP has me really excited. However, in the writing process, a few very glaring differences have stood out to me between this work and my other past solo efforts and it’s been easy to identify why those others didn’t fly. This list isn’t exhaustive, but perhaps you also struggle with some of these issues. (And no, Marcy isn’t the difference – not entirely anyway.)

Not enough conflict

In high school, teachers had us recite and identify basic conflict structures: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, man vs supernatural. We learned to plot high conflict points on a graph and identify the denouement. There’s more to creating conflict a good story though, and without compelling conflict your story is bound to sink.

In a character driven story, every character must want something. What is it that drives them? And you need to be more specific than – to get a job and get married. In our new novel, our female protagonist Elena is next in line for her mother’s throne – but she needs to prove she’s earned the throne not just inherited it and she must do that by following all the rules—no exceptions. That’s a specific goal and dream with a clear path of how she plans to achieve that goal.

To create sustained and compelling conflict, we throw up obstacles that threaten to keep Elena from reaching her goal and force her to deviate from her ‘plan.’ Obstacles that force her to make choices that conflict with other dreams and goals she has. What would you give up, cheat on, do in secret, to achieve that one thing you want most? A really great resource for this is Brandilyn Collins’ book Getting into Character.

Not writing to my strength

My writing strength is dialogue. But I continued to write stories that required a lot of internal narrative. I’ve learned that my best writing comes when I write what comes naturally to me. Not to say I don’t work on my description or other things, but my stories come to me as dialogue, and when I tell a story through dialogue it’s a more compelling piece. Do you know what your strength is? This is where a critique is really helpful.

Finding my voice

What’s your voice? What makes a Stephen King story sound like a Stephen King story– or any other prolific writer? That took a very long time to learn: to stop trying to sound like a Ted Dekker or Lori  Wick or Karen Kingsbury and start sounding like Lisa. Learn to say things in a way that’s unique to you instead of copying other writers. You’re telling the story and you’re going to emphasize certain details more than others, that’s what makes the story yours.

Writing for a trend

The problem with writing to a trend is that when you account for the publishing time required for a novel to make it on the shelf at Chapters, the trend is over. It can take a year to two years from the time an agent or editor agrees to represent or publish your novel to when it hits the shelves. Generally speaking it’s very difficult to write for a current trend and have the story hit shelves in a timely manner.

Also, if you aren’t already a fan of whatever the trend happens to be, real fans will know. If you don’t particularly enjoy vampire stories, don’t make your main character a vampire just because vampire fiction is selling. Every genre has subtle nuances, understood traditions-and every writer must have a unique twist on that genre. Just writing for the trend will not give you that required insight. Write what you love to read, that’s what will draw a reader in.

Undeveloped characters

I have this really great US Marshals story sitting in a drawer. It has tons of built-in conflict, but the problem with it is characterization. I know my two protagonists inside and out – ask me anything and I can tell you what they’d do. But the villain in my story is this obscure ‘really bad person that people love to hate’ who serves a purpose but has no personality. My secondary characters are ‘just there’ to step forward and move the plot ahead when required.

You have to know these other characters also. What’s their motivation? You have to similarly identify their specific goals and place obstacles in their path to make them convincing—not perhaps to the same degree as your protagonists, but they have to have a reason for the choices they make. Cardboard bad guys and secondary characters can sink your story fast.

Are you able to identify what drags your fiction down? Tell us about it.


Creating Suspense in Fiction

Every book, regardless of genre, needs suspense. Suspense is what makes your readers turn those pages and recommend your book to friends. While creating suspense is a technique that requires more than 800 words to cover, here are some of the best tricks to get you started.

High Stakes

High stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they do have to be world-shattering for your characters.

If Melanie’s car gets stolen, I’m probably going to feel sorry for her, but it’s not going to keep me on the edge of my seat. She’ll call the insurance agent and get a new one. I’m probably not even going to care if the police ever find out what happened to it. The search for her car isn’t going to create suspense.

But what if her two-year-old was in the back? What if the gun she used to kill her abusive boyfriend was in the glove box and she needs to find the car before the police do? What if she was on the way to church to stop the man she loves from marrying someone else? What if she’d withdrawn her entire life savings to pay the ransom on her father and the money was hidden under the seat?

We’re now holding our breath to see if she finds the car or gets where she’s going in time.

Use What a Character Fears and Values

To create suspense in fiction, you need to know two things about your main character: their greatest fear and the one thing that matters most to them. Make them face the first and risk losing the second and you’ve instantly created suspense.

In Brandilyn Collins’ novel Exposure, Kaycee Raye’s biggest fear is that she’s being watched. Her snoopy neighbor’s tendency to spy ignites a fear that Kaycee knows is irrational . . . until it turns out that it isn’t.

Here’s how the first chapter ends:

Onto the screen jumped the close-up gruesome face of a dead man. Eyes half open, dark red holes in his jaw and forehead. Blood matted his hair. Printed in bold in the bottom left corner of the picture, across his neck: WE SEE YOU.

How could you not read on?


A trap works best when the reader knows about it and the character doesn’t. You’ll create suspense that lasts even after they fall into the trap as your reader wonders if they’ll emerge unscathed.

Traps are probably the most difficult item on this list to do well. You need to be a bit diabolical to write a great trap.

  • Use their greatest weakness against them.
  • Find a plausible way to remove all the reasons your character would avoid the trap or realize it’s a trap before it’s too late.
  • Let the reader know about the trap a few chapters before it’s sprung.
  • Don’t let your character out of the trap on their first attempt.

A good example of removing the reasons your character might avoid the trap is found in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. When Susie meets her neighbor walking home after dark, you’re screaming at her to run. But of course, she doesn’t.

If she’s uncomfortable with adults and cold, why doesn’t she leave?

The natural authority of his age, and the added fact that he was a neighbor and talked to my father about fertilizer, rooted me to the spot.

As an excuse to leave, she tells him her mom likes her home before dark.

“It’s after dark, Susie,” he said.

He tells her that it will only take a minute to show her the “hiding place” he’s built in the cornfield. Why, though, does she go into the underground structure he’d built when he’s been looking at her lustfully?

“What is it?” I asked. I was no longer cold or weirded out by the look he’d given me. I was like I was in science class: I was curious.

And once she was in, there was no way out.


When creating suspense in fiction, a cliffhanger can be anything that makes it impossible for your reader to put the book down when the chapter ends. It can be a situation where you’re not sure your character will escape unharmed or it could be an intriguing last line.

I became a fan of romantic suspense thanks to Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series. In The Truth Seeker, you’ll find examples of both types of cliffhangers.

At the end of Chapter Two, Quinn (the love interest) asks Lisa (the protagonist) a question:

“Where are we going?”

“To ask a man to exhume a cat.”

Because we’re in Quinn’s POV, we don’t know why Lisa, a forensic pathologist, wants to dig up the cat, but we know it has something to do with the murder she’s trying to solve. If you’re like me, you’ll turn to the next chapter to find the answer.

Chapter Three ends with Lisa and Quinn in a fire-damaged house. The floor gives way beneath them, and Lisa is impaled on something:

In the wavering light, she saw him flinch, and she tried to offer a reassuring smile. He yanked off his shirt, the buttons flying, “Hold on.”

She couldn’t get enough air to answer; she had to know. “What . . . land on?”

He didn’t answer her.

It must be bad.

She shivered and felt a warm flood rush across her hand as her vision went black.

I first read this one back when I was in university, and those lines almost made me late for class.

Ticking Clocks

A ticking clock is the classic way to create suspense in fiction. Give your character a deadline by which they must solve their problem or suffer the consequences. It immediately amps up the tension.

What are your favorite suspense-filled novels?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Everything Happens for a Reason

How many times has something completely random happened to you? A death for which you can see no purpose? A problem that you couldn’t see a way out of that seemed to solve itself? In real life, things happen for no apparent reason.

In fiction, everything needs to happen for a reason.

I love a page-turner. The more trouble and danger you can put your character into, the happier I am. But only if you can believably get him out of it by the end. When you don’t, readers like me are going to feel cheated and we’re not going to buy your second book. In fact, we might never get a chance to read your first book if the events aren’t plausible. Agents and editors want things to happen for a reason too.

Here are the biggest fiction felonies when it comes to plausibility:

Coincidence and Luck

Your character just happens to stumble upon the evidence that solves the stalled case. Money arrives from out of the blue the day before the bank plans to foreclose on your character’s house. Maybe it does sometimes happen in real life. But fiction isn’t real life, and this is one of the major differences between the two.

Rather than letting a coincidence ruin your book, lay a foundation early on for what’s going to happen. This is one thing I like about soft detective shows like Monk and The Closer. In the space of an hour, the writers for these shows manage to give Adrian and Brenda a plausible means for solving their difficult case, often through something in the secondary plotline that the writers have been developing from the start of the show. No accidents. No coincidences. No dumb luck.

Coincidence is boring. Worse, it doesn’t inspire your readers to deal with the problems in their own lives. Why should they bother if the message you’re sending them is that sheer luck will make it all work out in the end?


I might be treading on dangerous ground here because Christians debate whether or not miracles occur today. Some staunchly maintain that miracles continue to happen, while others argue that miracles stopped when the last apostle died. What I’m about to say has absolutely nothing to do with this debate. I’m not even going to tell you what my position is on the issue.

In your fictional world, regardless of what you believe about the real world, miracles should not take place. A miracle by definition is something for which there is no possible natural explanation. The only way it could have happened is through supernatural intervention. Birth isn’t a miracle. A woman’s body was designed to stretch enough to push a baby-sized object out of it. Money arriving just when you needed it isn’t a miracle (though it can be a coincidence if not handled properly). Someone might have found out about your need. The sun stopping in the sky for hours is a miracle. Can you think of anything in the universe that could cause the earth to stop moving so that the sun stands still while life continues as normal on the surface of the planet? Recently I read a historical novel where the main characters suddenly became invisible as the enemy army charged at them. That’s a miracle. And it annoyed me.

Miracles in fiction are lazy. They also ensure that your credibility with any non-Christian who picks up your novel is shot. Put the same amount of work into getting your character out of a tight spot as you did getting him in.

The Cavalry

Bringing in the cavalry to rescue your character isn’t always a bad thing. Your plot might hinge around Fred staying alive long enough for Arnold to find and rescue him. But that’s a very different story from one where Fred got into trouble and you don’t know how to get him out, so you decide to just have Arnold arrive in the nick of time. If that’s what’s happening in your story, figure out how to use the strengths you gave Fred to solve his own problem.

By now you may have figured out the common pattern: Lay the foundation for your ending in the beginning. Everything happens for a reason.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Anna is a devoted servant who idolizes her master and would do anything for him. You’ve established that as her personality because of some of the unsavory things you need her to do for her master. Unfortunately, for your plot to work, you also need her to willfully kill her master by the end.

If you simply have Anna do what you need her to do, you’re violating her character. You need to build in solid, believable reasons for Anna to do anything that would normally be out of character for her–from something big like killing a loved one, to something small like talking back to a superior when she’s normally polite.

Real people always have reasons (subconscious or conscious ones) for what they do. Your characters need to as well.

Have you come across any of the above fiction felonies in your reading lately? How did you get around a tight spot in your writing without resorting to one of the above? We’d love to hear about it.

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