Have you ever wondered how authors create a gripping story? At the “Monsters & Mayhem” panel on Sunday at 1PM in the Hyatt Embassy D-F, a distinguished panel of writers—Bill Fawcett (moderator), Elizabeth Moon, Esther Friesner, Peter David, Rebecca Moesta, and Larry Correia—discussed techniques they use to keep readers reading.
When posed the question of what keeps a reader reading, David said, “Writing is an utter mystery.” He writes things that are entertaining to him. Except for his book Artful, which he intentionally wrote in Dickensian style, he does his best to keep the language brisk and accurate. He said that he is “always trying to do new things,” pushing himself beyond expectations.
Moesta likes to put her characters in strange and interesting situations at the end of a chapter, so people want to continue reading. She also keeps extensive files on her characters, including their belief systems and weaknesses, which she uses as she writes.
Correia brought up the importance of sympathetic characters. “Write them as people,” he said, and make sure they’re enjoyable. “When I’m having fun, I know it’s contagious.”
“Be a vampire,” Moon added. “Look at everyone, listen to everyone … build up a fund of understanding of people.” A writer with that knowledge can make characters come alive and keep those pages turning. She said that she lets her characters come alive in her mind and tell her what they are most afraid of, what they really want. “You need the emotional driver of that person.” Everything a character has done is a part of them. Don’t make them perfect, she warned. Let them be spiky, like the seed of a gumball tree. Characters, she said, should be like geodes—you don’t know exactly what’s inside them, but give your reader’s glimpses when needed.
Friesner said that it’s also important to be able to put yourself in the culture of the tale. When she writes YA, she has to think like a teen, which doesn’t seem to be difficult for her. She joked that her editor once told her, “You’re a 14-year-old boy.” She is careful to place herself mentally in the culture of the time period and group she’s writing about. “You have to be there with them, as they were,” she said. When asked how she writes humor, she said, “by osmosis,” and credits her family’s great sense of humor. She also said it’s important not to attempt to dissect humor but rather to enjoy it, to play with humor and language.
Fawcett asked the panel to give examples of a cliffhanger they wrote and explain why it worked. Moesta described a protagonist who gets her arm chopped off but decides not to replace it with a bionic one. At the end of a chapter, she finds herself holding on with one hand beneath the cloud city of Bespin and reaching with the non-existing hand to save a falling comrade. Her choice not to replace her missing hand results in a shocking end of the chapter.
As a favorite cliffhanger, David chose a turning point in his novel Sir Apropos of Nothing, where Apropos realizes that he is going to be a side character instead of the hero of the story. Rather than accept his place, Apropos says, “Screw that,” charges in, and knocks out the hero.
Correia explained that short chapters often make great cliffhangers, but ending a book that way can be a problem. He ended only one book on a cliffhanger, Swords of Exodus, in which he left a character dying on a mountainside. Correia planned to write the sequel in the next six to eight months, but his coauthor, Mike Kupari, got deployed—twice. It took them four years to get back to the tale, although Correia wrote seven other books during the intervening years. The sequel is finally done and is scheduled for release next summer. He apologized to his fans for the long wait.
Friesner suggested that just when everything is going beautifully right in a story, that’s the perfect time to make things go horribly wrong, particularly in the middle section of the tale.
Each author gave the following suggestions on mistakes to avoid:
Correia: Watch out for what he called the “Michael Bay effect.” Vary the tension, he explained, like waves. Don’t keep it continuously high.
Moesta: Avoid the overuse of cheap shots, like the mysterious envelope that eventually turns out to be nothing more than a birthday card.
Friesner: Writers shouldn’t feel sorry for their characters. “That’s the reader’s job,” she said, and it’s the writer’s job to do terrible things to them.
Moon: Pacing is key, but remember that “all rules can be broken if you don’t bore the readers.”
Fawcett: The story arc must be compelling, and tension must be maintained throughout.
David: Don’t be boring because it’s “all about entertaining the reader.”
From start to finish, the panel exemplified David’s advice and ended with a rousing cheer of appreciation from the audience.