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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Action and Suspense

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Building a Creepy Setting

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

I won’t lie. I’ve been waiting to do this post for ages, as it covers one of my favorite aspects of writing, particularly for the supernatural and horror genres. So I’ve saved the best for last. Today I want to share some tips with you about building a spooktacular setting for your next story. Maybe it’s filled to the brim with creepy stuff, or perhaps it only has fleeting moments of horror. But whatever the case, it’s important to know how to craft a strong element of the heebie-jeebies. Without them, tension will be lost, and you’ll risk losing authenticity and the reader’s connection to your story.

Environment

Location, location, location. Ever heard that one before? It’s true that other elements play a factor in building a creepy scene, but environment is pretty dang important. Those of you who have read some of my horror shorts know that I’m a fan of eerie buildings and traditional haunted houses, but your creepy environment certainly doesn’t—and shouldn’t—be limited to such locations. After all, ANY space can be a spooky one, given how you present it in a scene.

For instance, take a child’s playroom. There would likely be tons of toys and cute decorations adorning the space, not to mention fluffy stuffed animals and fuzzy blankets to cuddle. Probably the farthest thing from scary imaginable. But let’s transform that space for a minute. What if some of the toys were broken or floating in mid-air with no logical explanation for the force holding them up? And perhaps the wall decals have been drawn over with sinister images or have peeled from the walls, giving the sense of abandonment or intrusion. Go one step further and have the room be dimly lit, a child’s plaything ripped apart and lying on the floor, stuffing spilling from it with no child in sight, only a lone blanket crumpled next to it and left behind. That sweet, innocent playroom has now shifted into something much less inviting, likely causing the hairs on your neck to prick up. That’s what a stellar setting can do for your story. It can literally up the creep factor tenfold.

Pace

The next layer to building a creepy setting is the pace of the scene. The action will drive it, but how you execute it sets the tone. Suspenseful scenes often have quick pacing, giving them a sense of daunting doom that is waiting to break through. A great example of this can be found in Blake Crouch’s collection Fully Loaded. In one of his opening stories, a voicemail of a woman being murdered is left on the answering machine of a young couple. It’s a broken message with small bits of information relayed throughout it, but during the scene, one thing rings true: the pace is fast. Sentences are chopped short, they’re kept simple, and most importantly, there is rapid motion to the words. No flowery language, no extra clauses.

By keeping the sentences short and the action moving forward, Crouch achieves the perfect pace for an intense, suspenseful short story that riddles your body with chills. The subject matter is intense enough, but its execution is everything in that piece.

Sensory Details and Body Language

Let’s delve into sensory details for a moment. If someone tells you that a character is tapping his foot, what do you picture? If someone then tells you to picture someone tapping their foot in the waiting room of the ER with doctors rushing to and fro, machines beeping, and orders being called out from the loudspeakers, how does that imagery change? Does it change further if someone describes the intense, rapid beeping and the overwhelming chatter of “His vitals are dropping!” and nurses and doctors bustling about while that character is brushed to the side of the room, blocked out by the privacy curtains as he runs a hand through his hair and paces? Chances are, the situation has grown clearer with each added detail, and by now, there’s even a sense of emotion surrounding the scene.

Images and body language are your most powerful resources for building setting. If you can create a vivid picture for the reader by providing clear motions and enough sensory details, you’ll automatically set the tone and mood for the scene. Movies often use this approach, focusing on what camera angles work best for the current action and layering in music to add depth of sensory effects on top of things like heavy breathing, a character pacing, their hands trembling, etc. But in books, writers don’t have luxuries like music. We instead must rely on our words for establishing a clear setting and planting the correct mood in the reader’s head, so it’s important to get it right and to couple that with strong body language.

The best way to do this is to incorporate sensory details into the action. Sight is the easiest one to tackle, but I encourage writers to include things like sounds, tastes, smells, and even textural details where fitting. The combination of those is sometimes more powerful than anything sight can provide. For instance, think about the climactic moments in thrillers and horror movies. When the character is waiting in the dark, where they can’t see anything and have to rely on their other senses to detect what’s out there, what kind of effect does it have on them? And what kind of effect does it have on you as the observer? Feelings of anxiety and fear probably overwhelm you in that moment, even though you’re not directly experiencing what the character is. And just like in good movies, good books do the same.

The Human Psyche

Red herrings and intense emotions are probably my favorite tools for manipulating—I mean, crafting—a creepy scene. Cue the shifty eyes, sudden movements, random glass breaking, and off-key organ music. In all seriousness though, knowing how to control and convey emotions in writing can create amazing scenes and give tremendous depth to your story and characters. Tapping into their emotions unlocks a connection with the reader, one that floods you with primal instincts, resulting in a lasting impression. If you take that one step further and create a setting and mood so vivid that the feeling of it comes to life and resonates with the reader, then you’ve accomplished something brilliant. That means long after someone has finished reading your book, they’ll remember it and relive it in their mind. Which, if you ask me, is an awesome compliment, no matter which genre you write.

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Where Have All the New Ideas Gone?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

A huge challenge every fiction writer must face at one point or another is conjuring a unique idea to write about. It seems like everything under the sun has been written about, especially when it comes to the supernatural genre. Vampires and zombies have been plaguing the publishing and entertainment industry for several years now, and though tales about them have been floating about for hundreds of years, many readers beg for some new material, something that will set those books apart from the overused ideas that haunt modern-day writers.

So what is a writer to do? Well, Mark Twain would argue that the problem isn’t new ideas but rather the need for a new perspective.

 “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

—Mark Twain

With that in mind, I’d like to propose to you that there are three elements you’ll need to craft a bestselling idea: unique perspective, a killer voice, and twists and turns.

Developing a Unique Perspective

Of the three, perspective is perhaps the hardest to master. Not only does it take some critical thinking to procure, but it takes time. Some of the best ideas are ones that people let sit and stew for ages before landing on just the right angle to play. With my most recent series, for example, I came up with the idea for the first part years ago. But it took months and months of tweaking and revamping it before it was finally ready for its debut.

Perspectives are usually shaped by our own life experiences and viewpoints. For some of us, writing is an outlet for our fears, wishes, frustration, and anything else that we’d otherwise keep bottled up. For others, it’s a way of sharing pieces of ourselves with others. Though, for many of us, it’s usually some wild combination of the two that comes into play. But the two things that must be considered when approaching a topic are audience and purpose. Who are you writing for, and what do you want to tell them? Even in fiction, you should think about your purpose for writing, whether it’s for entertainment's sake or for relaying a specific message to the readers. Once you have figured out those two things, you’re ready to hone in on your voice.

Crafting a Killer Voice

A voice, in writing, is a fancy way of saying style. It’s your unique approach to the narrative and how you want to tell the story. Many of our favorite authors have a place in our hearts simply because we connect so deeply with their voice. Without that strong voice, neither their characters nor their stories would be all that memorable. Take one of my favorite authors and biggest influences for example: Edgar Allan Poe. I think just about every person on the planet can recite at least part of "The Raven" from memory. But what is it about his poem that makes it so quotable? Is it the characters? The subject? The storyline? While all those things do play a role, I’d argue that the key factor in it—and in most of his writing—is his wonderful and unique voice.

Poe has a way of drawing us in, even from the very first stanza:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
     Only this and nothing more."

—Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"

Each line has a musical and soothing, if not a somewhat dreary, quality to it, an echo of precisely the story unfolding within it. As the poem progresses, we see sharp intervals of “Nevermore!” interrupting that solemn mood, and the pacing picks up as well. It’s a fantastic example of how you can blend music with writing, using cadence to enhance the mood.

This unique blend of cadence and melancholy is the driving factor behind a lot of Poe’s pieces, which has established the incredibly memorable and captivating voice that most of us have come to know, one that makes it easy to distinguish his work from that of others.

Incorporating Twists and Turns

Another component writers can weave into their supernatural writing (and that of other genres) is the element of surprise, usually in the form of some unexpected twist that leaves readers on the edge of their seat. In the previous post for this series, I covered different approaches for foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is, in fact, the key element for creating such stellar twists and turns. Though this will work for many genres, I’m going to focus on horror for a moment since it, along with the thriller genre, is particularly known for surprises. There are also some striking similarities between the two. If you do a search on Amazon for horror books, for example, you’ll come up with a multitude of stories ranging in everything from paranormal events to serial killers and everything else that goes bump in the night. So how do you create a story that is unique enough to stand out from all the others…especially if there are no “new” ideas to be had?

One possibility for approaching this is to switch up the perspective, as I’ve already mentioned. Say you have a story from the viewpoint of the killer rather than the victim. Take the series Dexter, for instance, which has received high acclaim both as a book series and as a television show. Each story is told from the perspective of a serial killer while honing in on the events revolving around his victims. This approach has gone over quite well with readers and viewers alike, earning both the books and the show an outstanding amount of praise.

But there is another option, and this is a personal favorite of mine. You can take a story whose outcome is largely already known by the readers and still make it quite enjoyable. This goes along the lines of the direct foreshadowing mentioned in my previous blog post. What’s the secret to making this method a success? It’s all about the twists and turns you include. For most readers, reading thrillers and horror stories isn’t just about discovering the outcome, though that is part of the experience; the main reason they read is for the journey it takes to get there. I’d even go so far as to say that’s the primary reason that most readers read: we want to get lost in the world that’s presented to us, to experience what the characters do, whether that’s triumph, loss, terror, devastation, hope, or any mix of those things. By expertly infusing dynamic scenes that leave you hooked up until the very end, you’ll have created a roller coaster of emotions, one that readers can’t wait to ride on again and again.

So to heck with new ideas. Take some old ideas and put your own spin on it! Look at what happened with the YA genre. It had just about worn out its welcome until the last decade or so, and now an astounding amount of bestsellers fall under that category. Living proof that old ideas can make be used to create awesome new books!

What books do you recommend that incorporate old ideas? Were they successful at their endeavors? Why or why not? I'd love to hear from you! Submit an ask to me on Tumblr with your feedback, and I'll feature you in my next newsletter. :)


For those who are curious, you can check out my take on an old idea with a fresh spin in my Porcelain Souls series, the first part of which is currently available (for free) on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble. Part two is in the final editing stage and is scheduled to be available for preorder within the next couple of weeks.

Kendra Merrick has a knack for spotting unusual trinkets and treasures, and she isn’t afraid of using unconventional—or illegal—methods to obtain them. When she meets Adam, a fellow sleuth and collector, they embark on their biggest adventure yet: the Whitson house. The house is a marvel, and its secrets are even stranger than she imagined. Kendra stumbles upon the find of a lifetime. But she may have signed on for more than she bargained. There’s a darkness in the house that wasn’t there before, a pair of eyes in every corner, watching, waiting. And Adam isn’t at all who he claimed to be.

Kendra Merrick has a knack for spotting unusual trinkets and treasures, and she isn’t afraid of using unconventional—or illegal—methods to obtain them. When she meets Adam, a fellow sleuth and collector, they embark on their biggest adventure yet: the Whitson house. The house is a marvel, and its secrets are even stranger than she imagined.

Kendra stumbles upon the find of a lifetime. But she may have signed on for more than she bargained. There’s a darkness in the house that wasn’t there before, a pair of eyes in every corner, watching, waiting. And Adam isn’t at all who he claimed to be.

Make Every Scene Count: Action and Conflict

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Action scenes are a crucial part of narration in a story. They aren't always sword fights or full-fledged battles, but regardless, the nuts and bolts matter. Whether the scene is a small plot point in the story arc or a large one, the craft of writing one should be done with care; action scenes can be tricky. So my advice is to focus on two main areas when getting down to the nitty-gritty: the writing structure itself and the minute details that make up the structure. Each contributes to the scene to make it more intense and realistic.

Writing Structure
First, pick up the pace. Use shorter dialogue and sentences to move things along. However, try to harmonize this with natural flow and keep things in "real time." By that, I mean describe the actions of each passing minute. A greater abundance of details in those short sentences lets the reader know that this scene is an important one that will likely have a long-term affect on the plot. Another trick to speeding things up is to make your characters react with their gut more than their brain; the act of deciding quickly without dwelling on future consequences brings a sense of urgency to the scene.

Action scenes are one of the few places where readers really expect and appreciate extra tension and big reactions. In other words, drama. Drama is one of those touchy elements that I'm not overly fond of personally. Too much drama throughout a book can be rather annoying, and it tends to make the book less believable. However, when paired with a specific action scene, drama has the power to intensify the situation and increase the reaction of both characters and readers. Adding unexpected consequences or extra conflict will heighten the drama in the scene and can increase the stakes, making the impending actions of the characters involved pertinent to the outcome of the plot.

Close calls will enhance that drama. They cause characters (and readers) to hold their breath and hope for the best. They can be used to build tension or to introduce new conflict. For instance, if one character is running from another and both have guns, a few near misses will likely be exchanged before someone is hit. But once one of the characters is wounded, the whole dynamic of the chase changes. If the pursuer is injured, the person he is chasing might very well get away, amplifying the stress of the situation and developing the plot further. If the character fleeing is the one injured, the reader will suddenly become tense alongside the character.

Details
Details help polish a well-written action scene. They are the last-minute touch that really dresses up good writing. Strong verbs are one of those details. The stronger the verb, the stronger the action that is conveyed. If you see a weak verb anywhere in an action scene (i.e. went), replace it with a stronger one (i.e. strutted).

The five senses are another great asset. They increase tension and urgency. When a description of those senses comes into play during an action scene, a short wave of slow motion can be perceived. This type of effect is quite simple to achieve in movies but is a bit trickier in writing. Adjectives as well as a few well-placed lengthy sentences can be used to achieve slow motion.


General Tips
If you're still struggling with perfecting that action scene, try these tips:
1. Act out the scene to get a handle on body movements before writing them.
2. Research any weapons being used in the scene and how they are used.
3. Study other writers, particularly ones that are known for their craft of writing great action scenes.

Overall, use action scenes sparingly and balance them out with other types of scenes. A nice balance of scene descriptions and effective pacing throughout the story can bring an intensity and power to the action scenes.

Sentence VaRiAtIoN

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

The topic I'd like to discuss for today deals with the style of writing. One of the biggest amateur mistakes with butchering the writing of a piece (apart from grammar and spelling) is not having enough sentence variation. What do I mean by that? Well, to illustrate, let me start by showing you how not to write a paragraph. Judy came home. She found her door wide open. Chills ran down her spine. Something seemed off. The lights were out. Nothing looked out of place. Something felt off though. She flipped the switch next to the front door. No lights came on. She grabbed her cell phone. She opened it. She used the faint light from the screen to look around the front room.

What's wrong with that paragraph? There's a clear lack of sentence variation. The sentences are short and choppy with the basic structure never changing. Each has a subject and verb (sometimes with an object thrown in) and nothing more. There is never any change to the length of the sentence or the style in which it is written. Now let's take that same paragraph, add in some strong verbs, some commas, and move the words around a bit.

Judy walked up to her front door, finding it slightly ajar. Chills jolted down her spine. Something seemed off. The lights were out, and nothing seemed out of place, but something felt horribly wrong. She flipped the switch next to the front door; no lights came on. She grabbed her cell phone from her purse and opened it. Using the faint light from the screen, she looked around the front room.

Now we see a plot starting to form, and it's clear that something bad is going to happen. Suspense has been heightened, and very real sense of the character's impending danger is developing. All this from sentence variation. Most of the same words were used; all that changed was the style of the sentences.

That's not to say that all literary problems can be solved by rearranging a few sentences, but there's certainly something about it that adds to any piece. If you opened a book and saw the original paragraph as the first one in the book, you'd probably close it immediately and never have a second thought about it again. But if you saw the second attempt at the same paragraph, you might be more interested in continuing.

In order to master sentence variation, one needs to study the types of sentences that there are a bit more. I won't go into great detail with all of these, but here are the main ones:

  1. Simple Sentence: A simple sentence is an independent clause that contains a subject and verb, expressing a complete thought. Example: Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water. There is a subject (or in this case, two), a verb, and one complete thought. Simple.
  2. Compound Sentence: Much as you'd expect, a compound sentence is two independent clauses that have been joined together by a conjunction, or coordinator. Example: Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. First, Jack fell down the hill and broke his crown, then Jill tumbled down after him. Two ideas joined together using a comma and the conjunction "and."
  3. Complex Sentence: Complex sentences contain both an independent clause (one that can stand on its own as a complete sentence) and a dependent clause (one that needs an independent clause attached to make it complete). Example: When Jack tripped over the rock at the top of the hill, Jill didn't notice. The first half of the sentence is actually the dependent clause in this cause. It signifies a specific period of time in which the event happened (when Jack tripped), and therefore, relies on an independent clause to clarify what the event actually was (Jill didn't notice). The semantics are more complicated and more in-depth than that, but there is the gist of what a complex sentence is.

Of course, you can have variations of these types of sentences within the English language, such as compound complex sentences, but as long as you at least vary between the three main types as you're writing paragraphs, the style and overall appeal of your will be more desirable. A well-written paragraph will sound almost musical. The length of one sentence has a big influence on the tone of the sentence, and when combined, different types of sentences can build paragraphs of suspense, bliss, and even turmoil.