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Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page, Part II

Tension on Every Page, Part II

In Part I, we talked about the importance of including conflict and tension of some sort on every page of your novel. Why? Because in fiction, “the best times for the writer – and reader – are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” (Jack M. Bickham)

 

Referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known quote about effective film-making, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out,” James Scott Bell says, “You don’t want dull parts in your fiction, and dull parts are those without trouble. The greater the trouble, the greater the intensity.”

Bell goes on to advise us, “You want to have some sort of tension in every scene, though it doesn’t have to be of the highest sort. That would wear out the reader. Modulating tension is one of the keys to writing fiction. You give your readers some breathing room, too. But when they breathe, let it be with a tight chest.”

And as we said in Part I, you need to include tension right from in your opening paragraph, in order to hook your readers in. Donald Maass says, “Bridging conflict carries the reader from the opening line to the moment when the central conflict is set.” Then you’ll need to continue to include tension and conflict, whether external (arguments, fights, verbal sparring, threats) or internal (worry, anger, hurt, indecision, fear, angst, frustration, regret) on every page of your novel.

What are some techniques for achieving this? Here are some practical tips from writing gurus for revising your WIP to add more tension and spice up the scenes.

Create conflict between two people, not just accidents

Jack Bickham insists that effective tension in fiction involves conflict between two people, not just random accidents and bad luck for your protagonist. Give your hero or heroine something they can fight against, to challenge them and help them grow and develop their character and inner strength.

 

Conflict, according to Bickham, is “active give-and-take, a struggle between story people with opposing goals. It is not, please note, bad luck or adversity. It isn’t fate. It’s a fight of some kind between people with opposing goals.”

Why not just have your character get into an accident? That works well once in a while to throw a wrench in the works, but, as Bickham says, “Adversity in all its forms may create some sympathy for your character. But your character can’t reasonably try to understand it, plot against it, or even confront it in a dramatic way.

“Conflict, on the other hand, is a fight with another person. It’s dramatic, onstage now, with the kind of seesaw give-and-take that makes exciting stuff. When in conflict, your character knows who the opponent is and has a chance to struggle against him. In conflict, your character has a chance to change the course of events.”

“Never duck trouble – conflict – in your story. Seek it out,
because that’s where excitement and involvement – as well as
reader sympathy for your character – lie.” – Jack M. Bickham

How do you make sure you have the protagonist involved in real, compelling conflict, and not just some blind bad luck? According to Bickham, here is the recipe for effective, page-turning conflict:

* You make sure two characters are involved.
* You give them opposing goals.
* You put them onstage now.
* You make sure both are motivated to struggle now.

Pay attention to pacing and scene structure

The above is also the perfect recipe for writing a scene. Don’t start out your novel with your protagonist getting out of bed in the morning. No need to tell us what she had for breakfast, or her drive to work – or her drive home later (unless something significant and tense happened during the drive). Just use a sentence or two to mark transitions, or jump right to the telling scenes, the scenes with tension and conflict, scenes that drive the plot forward and contribute to character development.

“Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It’s the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving.” – Jack M. Bickham

Pay attention to the structure of every scene you write. As Maass says, “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, a rise, and a climax or reversal at the end.”

Maass is not a big fan of the reaction-type scenes in which nothing new happens: “The so-called “aftermath” scene, in which the hero digests what has happened to him and settles on his next step, is an outdated technique.” Today, breakout novelists frequently use interior monologues instead, to deepen dilemmas and increase tension.

Irresolution and mixed feelings are by definition tense, but, Maass says, “if your protagonist is merely going to wallow or rehash what we already know, I suggest leaving such passages out of your book.”

Part III will discuss creating complex problems with escalating conflict.

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them); Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

 


Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page, Part I

To kick off your 2012 writing, Jodie has kindly written and new 3-Part series on adding TENSION to your writing. Here is Part 1.

 

Tension on Every Page – Part I

What makes you, as a reader, put down a novel after only reading a few pages or a chapter or two? It’s almost always because, rather than getting hooked in, you’re getting bored. Your mind is wandering because the writing lacks tension. Tension and conflict are the essential elements that drive fiction forward. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Happy characters are boring, and if there is no conflict, there is no story.”

“Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Highly respected literary agent Donald Maass tells us, “Conflict is the magnet that draws reader interest, the discomfort that demands our attention.” As Maass counsels aspiring authors, “Without a doubt, the most common flaw I see in manuscripts…is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest.”

Jessica Page Morrell agrees. “There is nothing as unsatisfying and lacking in suspense as a story line where problems are easily solved, clues appear is if by magic or intuition, love is instantaneous and seldom rocky, people always agree and are agreeable, and everyday conditions never interfere with the protagonist’s comfort.”

“Plot is characters under stress.” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

James Scott Bell concurs: “Every scene in your novel should have tension, whether that comes from outright conflict or the inner turmoil of character emotions.” So it’s not necessary or even desirable, to show nonstop edge-of-your-seat high-tension conflict – that would wear your readers out. But, as Bell says, “Even in scenes that are relatively quiet, characters can feel inner tension – worry, concern, irritability, anxiety.”

What is conflict in fiction and why do we need it? According to Maass, “Conflict is the unsettling core of events that makes us stop and look, wanting to understand, wondering what will happen, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. When the conflict level in a novel is high –that is, when it is immediate, credible, personal, unavoidable and urgent – it makes us slow down and read every word. When it is low, we are tempted to skim. We do not care. We wonder, what’s on TV?”

Your opening, and bridging conflict

Today’s best-selling novels almost all start with tension and conflict, right from the opening paragraph. This initial tension may not – and probably won’t – be the main conflict of the story, but it needs to be meaningful and intriguing, in order to draw the reader in long enough to lead up to bigger problems the protagonist faces. As Morrell points out, “The inciting incident, the first threat, sets the story in motion and tilts the protagonist off balance.”

Maass calls this initial opening tension a “bridging conflict”: “There is, in any great opening line, a mini-conflict or tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step in the narrative. Its effect lasts, oh, perhaps half a page, a little more if it is really good. After that, another electric spark of tension needs to strike us. If it does not, our interest begins to weaken and will pretty quickly fade out.”

So, to use this technique of bridging conflict, it’s best to hook the reader in right away with a series of smaller conflicts that serve to capture and keep their attention until the main conflict or first large event of the story arrives.

As Maass reveals, “The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the main conflict in place quickly enough; or perhaps, a failure to use bridging conflict to keep things going until the main problem is set.”

Give them someone they’ll want to worry about

But in order for readers to invest any interest or concern about what happens to the protagonist, they first need to actually care about him. So it’s critical to present your main character as a likeable, resourceful, smart, strong – but vulnerable and conflicted – basically warm person the readers will want to root for. And make it clear early on what he really wants or needs. Then start to set up obstacles in his path that force him to reach down deep inside himself to find inner resources and hidden strengths in order to overcome them. His ongoing struggles will form your compelling plot and will contribute to his growth as a person, making him ultimately stronger, wiser, and even more likeable.

So if you want to write a novel that sells, remember Maass’s words of wisdom: “Tension on every page is a technique that keeps readers glued to a novel…. It is a key breakout skill.”

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Parts II and III will discuss practical strategies for making your novel more compelling by ratcheting up the tension on every page.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page. Part III

Tension on Every Page, Part III

In parts I and II of this series, we discussed the importance of showing tension on every page of your novel; specifically, creating a gripping opening, using bridging conflict, leaving out the boring bits, and making every scene compelling. Here, we’ll take it one step further to give tips on creating complex characters with complex problems, continually complicating the issues and raising the stakes, and writing a satisfying conclusion.

Create a complex, many-faceted, determined, sympathetic protagonist

Readers won’t start to worry about a character they don’t care about. Make your main character interesting, multidimensional, determined, clever, and likeable – but with inner conflicts – and give readers enough detail about him early on to make them empathize with him and start to bond with him.

Create complex problems with escalating conflict
The more complex and challenging the problems your protagonist faces, the more compelling a read it will be for your readers. And as your hero struggles to overcome the odds, raise the stakes even more. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “As your protagonist becomes more and more entangled in obstacles, make certain that what he fears most is on the stage. […] Then, as these fears are exposed, toss a wrench into his plan.”

And his problems and conflicts need to be difficult and complex enough so readers don’t see an immediate solution, which would dissipate all the tension. As Donald Maass says, “Easy-to-solve problems are easily forgotten. Complex conflicts, on the other hand, stick in our minds, nagging for our attention.”

Also, in terms of fiction technique, Maass specifies, “conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen and grow. Without that constant development, a novel, like a news event, will eventually lose its grip. To break out, simple plot structures need high stakes, complex characters, and layered conflicts.”

So how can you improve the plot of your breakout novel and make it more compelling? According to Maass, the solution is to “make conflict deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.”

“In breakout fiction, the central conflict is as deep and as bad as it can possibly be.” – Donald Mass

 


The problems also need to be serious enough, and the antagonist clever, determined, and nasty enough that they’re worthy of your hero, so he’s sufficiently challenged to create a compelling story, and his struggle results in definite character development and growth. (See my article, “Creating a Worthy Antagonist”.)
Conclusion

In summary, Donald Maass spells out in detail the kind of ongoing, deepening tension needed for creating a page-turner, a breakout novel: “Conflict that holds our attention for long periods of time is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved, and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.”

On the other hand, “Problems that are abstract, remote, trivial, ordinary, easily overcome, and/or happening to someone for whom we feel little … cannot fuel a gripping novel.”

The five essential plot elements, according to Maass, are: sympathetic character, conflict, complications, climax, and resolution.

And of course, in fiction, we want all or most of the problems and conflicts to be resolved at the end, for greatest reader satisfaction – but preferably in a surprising way, with an unexpected plot twist, and resonance. As James Scott Bell say, “The key is to leave readers satisfied in an unpredictable way.”

Maass sums it up: “So, what is it about conflict that makes a story a story?

* It makes us care by bonding us to a character.
* It sustains our interest through constant development and escalation.
* Finally, at its unavoidable peak, it brings us face-to-face with our deepest anxieties.
*If we face them and prevail, our anxieties are relieved. In the resolution, we enjoy peace.”  (Jodie’s bullets)

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Pacing For Power, Part II

Pacing for Power, Part II – Increasing Tension & Suspense

Using style and pacing techniques to increase tension and suspense:

In Part I, we discussed techniques for picking up the pace in your novel to create a real “page turner.” But at some of the most critical, tense or emotional moments of a story, you actually want to slow things down, in order to give the reader a chance to realize the significance of the problem and appreciate the challenges the character is facing to overcome the obstacles. This stretching-out technique also increases the tension, draws out the suspense and intrigue, and emotionally engages the readers to get their adrenaline flowing. So don’t zip past those crucial pivoting moments of the story. Milk them for all they’re worth.

Here are some techniques to maximize the tension, suspense and intrigue in nail-biting scene.

Tips for increasing tension and suspense by slowing down pacing:

* Write longer, more involved sentences. This forces the reader to pay more attention and concentrate on every word.

* Use more description to show exactly how and why the setting, circumstances, and characters are significant and ominous.

* Exploit setting details to maximum effect by using darkness, shadows, harsh weather, eerie stillness, ominous sounds, suspicious smells, etc.

* Make time pass in slow motion to create anticipation, anxiety, and rising tension.

* Move the camera lens in close and show minute details that seem off or could be important in some way.

* Heighten the senses of the POV character and show the results—tell us every little sight, sound and smell they’re picking up, since what they perceive could be critical to their survival.

* Let us know what the POV character is thinking and worrying about, analyzing and planning.

* Show your characters’ increased apprehension and other heightened emotional reactions to what’s going on around them.

 

An extreme but very effective example of this is when bestselling thriller writer, Lee Child, goes into slow-motion to show a pivotal scene in his novel, Worth Dying For. Our hero, Jack Reacher, is approaching a suspicious-looking guy in a deserted parking lot. He needs to make a split-second decision, and if it’s the wrong one, it will very likely cost him his life, and the bad guys will continue terrorizing the town and harming innocent people, including children. Lee Child uses five pages in Chapter 32 to show/describe an action that literally takes seconds, including Reacher’s thought processes, decisions, actions, and reactions. Child uses lengthy, highly detailed sentences and long paragraphs that rivet our attention as we zero in on every word. One sentence actually goes on for a page and a quarter, and several others are half a page long.

Here’s the second half of one of those sentences, after Reacher decides to slug the guy hard in the gut:

“…his head snapping forward like a crash test dummy, his shoulders driving backward, his weight coming up off the ground, his head whipping backward again and hitting a plate-glass window behind him with a dull boom like a kettle drum, his arms and legs and torso all going down like a rag doll, his body falling, sprawling, the hard polycarbonate click and clatter of something black skittering away on the ground, Reacher tracking it all the way in the corner of his eye, not a wallet, not a phone, not a knife, but a Glock 17 semiautomatic pistol, all dark and boxy and wicked.”

I don’t think it’s necessary to slow the action down this much to be riveting, and you certainly wouldn’t want to write or read a whole novel with lengthy, minutely detailed sentences like these! But used well, this technique can be very effective. Not everyone can successfully pull off this kind of stretching out of a moment for maximum effect, but it’s useful to read bestselling thrillers to find different successful renditions of this technique.

Do you have any really good examples to share of novels where time is slowed down for pivotal scenes?

 

 

 

Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers and other crime fiction. Her craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on five other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website or blog.

Jodie’s popular 42-page e-booklet, Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction, is only $0.99 on Amazon or PDF.

 

 
7 Comments

Posted by on August 22, 2012 in Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Pacing For Power, Part I

Pacing for Power, Part I – Picking up the Pace

We’ve probably all read (or at least started) novels that just seem to drag in parts, where the author has spent too much time on static description, lengthy backstory, analysis and rumination, or other explanatory lead-ups instead of grabbing our attention and hooking us in with compelling characters faced with critical challenges, and lots of action and dialogue. Most readers these days have little patience for an overly leisurely, analytical style, and it definitely doesn’t work for suspense-thrillers and most other best-selling fiction.

On the other hand, I’ve seen movies where it’s nonstop car chases, with buildings, cars, and people being blown up left and right. Too much of that gets old fast, making us just feel exhausted or just numb.

Readers’ tolerance or desire for either a leisurely pace or lots of action depends on the genre, of course. A literary fiction will usually have slower pacing than an action-thriller, for example. But in any successful novel, the key is to vary the pacing, and of course in “page-turning” suspense fiction, the pace should be generally brisk, with lots of conflict and tension. But even if you’re writing a fast-paced thriller or action-adventure, you don’t want to write your whole book at a break-neck pace, as that can be exhausting for the reader. Give them a chance to catch their breath from time to time before the next onslaught.

Successful writers use a variety of techniques to either slow down or speed up a story. Here in Part I, we’ll start with some tips for picking up the pace for faster, more exciting action scenes.

You can first find ways to increase the pacing of your story on a macro level, by considering scenes and chapters—do you have passages where not much is happening? Any slow-moving, boring scenes should be condensed, rewritten, or even deleted. Next, analyze the pacing at a micro level and tighten up your paragraphs and sentences, eliminating repetitions and reducing convoluted phrasing and excess wordiness. And while you’re at it, replace abstract, vague or obtuse words with more concrete, powerful, sensory, to-the-point words.

Some Tips for Picking up the Pace in Your Story:

* Keep chapters and scenes short, and change scenes rapidly.

* Show compelling action scenes in real time, and skip over slower transition scenes. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller or action-adventure, summarize, reduce or omit the “reaction/reflection/regrouping” type sequels so integral to romances. Also summarize to condense long passages of time where not much happens.

*Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, not with a lengthy warm-up. Your story and every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them want to keep reading.

* End each scene or chapter as early as possible, rather than spending a lot of time wrapping up. And it’s best to end most scenes and chapters with a “cliff-hanger”—some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat to make the reader want to turn the page and start the next chapter.

* Action scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. (See my article “Show, Don’t Tell.”)

* Limit descriptive passages, backstory, and analyses.

* Use short, powerful sentences, with strong verbs, to-the-point dialogue, and lots of internal and external reactions.

* Keep transitions short from one scene to another. Use a sentence or two to take the reader from one telling scene to the next. Or just cut directly to the next scene.

* Add tension, conflict, intrigue, and change to every scene. This will keep the readers turning the pages to find out what happens next. See my article, “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change.”

* Use rapid-fire dialogue, with short questions, abrupt answers, lots of tension, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection.

* Use concrete words, strong nouns and powerful verbs, and shorter sentences and paragraphs. Write tight—take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and phrases.

* Use active voice to add urgency: “The detectives questioned the suspects,” rather than “The suspects were questioned by the detectives.” Or “The tornado damaged buildings,” rather than “Buildings were damaged by the tornado.”

Writers and readers—do you have any suggestions to add for picking up the pace in fiction?

In Part II, we’ll discuss techniques for using a slow-motion, heightened style of pacing to increase tension and intrigue.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers and other crime fiction. Her craft-of-fiction articles appear here and on five other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website or blog.

 

Jodie’s popular 42-page e-booklet, Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction, is only $0.99 on Amazon or PDF.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part III

Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense

 

* Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music; harsh, stark, or very low lighting; strange camera angles; or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…

* Mood and pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.

* Compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.

* Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)

* Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?

* Add obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.

* Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…

 
* Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?

* Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?

* Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. A phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast, etc.

* Use the occasional omniscient tip-off. The author (omniscient narrator) steps in to clue the readers in on something unknown but ominous that’s about to happen, with a statement something like, “If Henry had known what lurked in the house, he never would have gone in,” or whatever. Can be very effective, but use this one sparingly, as it’s kind of “cheating.” Best to stay in the story world, in the point of view of the POV character for that scene/chapter.

But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins.

Resources:

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

See also: 20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller; Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part I

Today begins a new three-part series from Jodie Renner on heightening the suspense in your stories. Thanks, Jodie.

 

 

Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic suspense, mainstream novel or any other genre of fiction, your story needs plenty of tension and conflict, and also a certain amount of suspense, to keep the readers turning the pages. As Jack M. Bickham says, “In fiction, the best times for the writer — and reader — are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst.” And all this curiosity and worry keeps him turning the pages, of course.

 

What is suspense, anyway? Hallie Ephron relates this story: “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a café. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.”

 

And as Steven James said in his excellent workshop at Thrillerfest, “Suspense needs apprehension. Apprehension is suspense. And impending danger creates apprehension.” James says that suspense is about first “making a promise” (setting reader expectations that your characters and story are going to intrigue them) and then providing a payoff. “The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff,” says James. “Give the reader what he wants or something better.”

 
What are the main elements of suspense?

 

Jessica Page Morrell likens writing suspense in fiction to dancing a striptease, because effective storytelling requires teasing the readers initially with a tantalizing opening, an intriguing story question and an inciting incident, followed by hints and foreshadowing of trouble to come, which creates a feeling of unease. Then add in some delay and subterfuge to keep readers on edge, waiting for the layers to be peeled off to find out what’s going to happen next, or what that deep, dark secret was. Of course, you need to seduce the readers first by piquing their interest in your protagonist, so they’ll start identifying with him — otherwise, they won’t really care what happens to him. As William Bernhardt says, “If people don’t care about your characters, nothing else matters.”

 

Tantalize, but build slowly. This initial delay, according to J.P. Morrell, “creates unbearable suspense, and suspense manipulates readers’ emotions. Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong this trepidation for as long as possible.” As a result, “suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”

 

Suspense is about exploiting the readers’ insecurities and basic fears of the unknown, their inner need to vicariously vanquish foes, thwart evil, and win over adversity. The readers, if you’ve presented your protagonist effectively, are in her head, fighting right in there with her against her cunning adversaries and other dire threats.

 
Hallie Ephron outlines a typical arc of suspense. As she says, “You can build it gradually, teasing the reader with possibilities. The climax and resolution should feel worth the anguish of getting there.”

 

Here are the stages of the suspense arc, according to Ephron (my comments in parentheses):

 

1-Establishing and foreshadowing (set the stage, hint at danger to come)

 

2-Suspense begins (conflict and action start)

 

3-Tension escalates (danger looms), then loosens (slight reprieve, breather)

 

4-Turning point (critical point — can increase or release tension)

 

5-Sometimes a false payoff (false alarm)

 

6-Payoff (good or bad: resolved, moves to the next level or “to be continued”)
Repeat as needed throughout the book, always providing some reprieve between these tense, nerve-wracking scenes.

 

As Ephron says, “Think of a suspenseful scene as if it were a pressure cooker. First you increase it a little, then release it a bit, giving your readers and characters a little breathing space, then tighten again, raising the pressure even higher. Repeat until cooked.”

 

Part II of this theme will discuss a number of specific techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel.

 

Resources:
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
See also: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III

 

 

Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com

 

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III

Jodie is back with the final post of her three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
by Jodie Renner

 
More techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.
In Part I of this series, I passed along some tips for creating a compelling opening, complex characters, and a tight point of view. In Part II, I discussed creating a riveting plot with lots of conflict and suspense and a tight, to-the-point writing style. This final post in this series covers tension, dialogue, pacing, passion, and crafting a satisfying ending.

 
Put tension on every page.

 
This applies to all fiction, but even more so for thrillers. As Jack Bickham says, “Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It’s the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving.”

 

Bickham continues, “In fiction, the best times for the writer—and reader—are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies. Pour on all sorts of woes so your poor character is thoroughly miserable and in the deepest kind of trouble, and your story perks right up—along with your reader’s interest.

 

“The moral: Although most of us do everything we can to avoid trouble in real life, we must do the opposite as writers of fiction. We must seek out ways to add trouble to our characters’ lives, putting just as much pressure on them as we can. For it’s from plot trouble that reader interest comes.”

 

In his chapter called “Tension All the Time,” Donald Maass emphasizes giving your protagonist (and other characters) conflicting emotions and inner conflict.

 
All dialogue needs tension, too.

 
As Ingermanson and Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two of the characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.” So definitely leave out the “How are you? I’m fine. And you?” blah-blah-blah, and cut to the chase. Unless of course you’re trying to show seething resentment or subtle tension boiling up from under surface politeness. As Donald Maass says, “Conflict in dialogue can be as polite as poison, or as messy as hatchets. The approach is up to you. The important thing is to get away from ambling chit-chat and get right to the desire of two speakers to defeat each other.” So follow James N. Frey’s advice: “Decide you will have fresh, snappy dialogue and not a single line of conversation.”

 

Vary the pacing.

 

Although thrillers are generally fast-paced, it’s important to slow down the pacing from time to time, to give your readers a break. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “because readers need to put down a book from time to time, and because pacing can’t be as relentless as a runaway train, you need to bring down the temperature and tension in a story at intervals. A win for your character, as well as a slower or interlude scene, provides the pauses and quieter moments needed.”

 
Give your scenes conflict, intensity and intrigue.

 
Start and end your chapters and scenes with questions and intrigue. James N. Frey’s advice is to end each scene or section of dramatic narrative with a bridge, a story question to carry the reader to the next one.

 

Every scene, according to James Scott Bell, needs a degree of intensity. A moving force in the scene is trying to make something happen. Opposition or obstacles are keeping the POV character from meeting his objective. And the outcome is often not entirely satisfactory. In fact, Bell advises us, “Design your scenes, for the most part, so the lead is in a worse position after the scene is over.” This will keep the reader reading to find out how the protagonist tackles the new challenges and survives her new predicament.

 

Put passion into your writing.

 
Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, feels that the key ingredient to a page-turner is passion. “What do I mean by passion? … A passionate author has us in her grip. Passionate fiction is not bogged down, wandering, low in tension, or beset by the many bugbears of by-the-numbers novel writing, like stereotypical characters, predictable plots, cliché-ridden prose, churning exposition, buried dialogue, and so on.[…] When the purpose of every word is urgent, the story crackles, connects, weaves, and falls together in wondrous ways.”

 

How to develop that passion as a writer? Maass believes in learning from others. “Everything we need in order to understand the techniques of passion lies within the covers of novels that you will currently find on the shelves.”

 

Create a thrilling, satisfying climax.

 
Frey points out, “In almost all damn good thrillers, the hero is nearly killed in the climax, but then manages to kill or capture the villain and to foil his evil plot. Audiences find this motif satisfying….” An effective, satisfying climax has a surprise or two, good prevails over evil, and often the hero discovers something about himself or gains insight into the human condition. Don’t disappoint your readers by having a nebulous, wishy-washy, or tragic ending. Leave that to literary fiction, not your killer thriller!

 

Resources:

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

David Morrell, The Successful Novelist

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us

 

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in crime fiction. Check out her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

Jodie is back with Part II of her three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.

In Part I of this series, I offered some tips for creating a killer opening; staging intriguing, complex characters; and engaging your reader in your hero’s story through a tight, riveting point of view. Those techniques, used well, will set the stage and grab your readers early on, making them bond quickly with your hero, and start worrying about his plight.

How to keep your readers involved right through to the end of the book? Plan for conflict, tension and suspense on every page, and deliver it with a tight, to-the-point writing style. Don’t allow your reader’s attention to wander for a moment!

“Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong the trepidation for as long as possible.” (J.P. Morrell)

Plan a riveting plot, with lots of conflict and tension.

Conflict drives all fiction. And more conflict and higher stakes are of course necessary for a successful thriller. Put your protagonist in hot water right away. Then up the stakes and create more problems for him. Then more.

As James N Frey says, “Have your characters in terrible trouble right from the beginning, and never let them get free of terrible trouble until the climax. Keep the clock ticking and the excitement mounting right to the climactic moment.”
Unlike some other genres, in a thriller, you need high stakes and an urgent mission, and you need to keep the plot moving along briskly. Don’t bog it down with explanations and digressions and backstory. Add those in in small doses, marbling them into your story only when needed. And color any exposition (internal monologue) with plenty of tension, anxiety, inner conflict, questions, all expressed with a distinctive voice and lots of attitude.

Jessica Page Morrell, in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, has this advice for creating effective conflict:

Give characters opposing goals, agendas, and strong motivations.
Make sure the stakes for each character are high.
Stage confrontations as if they’re happening/unfolding in real time.
Embed dialogue with tension, subtext, and power exchanges.
Know your protagonist’s deepest fears.

Stir in lots of suspense.

As Morrell says, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst. … Suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”

Suspense is usually caused by threats, when the protagonist whose head we’re in is in danger, his life is about to become a living nightmare, and we have to keep reading to find out how it all turns out.

Some techniques to use to increase the suspense are subtle foreshadowing, delaying information, subterfuge, threats to the protagonist, time running out, inner conflicts, surprise twists, and cliff-hangers. All of these techniques involve delaying the resolution of the hero’s problems, piling on new challenges, and hinting of even worse dangers to come.

Use a tight writing style. Make every word count.

In a suspense-thriller (or any compelling fiction), it’s important to write economically. As Steve Berry says: “Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.” Succinct, to-the-point writing produces the predominantly fast pace demanded by thrillers.

Don’t meander or ramble. Don’t wax eloquent. Don’t use highfalutin words that sound pompous and will send your readers to the dictionary. Direct, sensory, evocative words are much more powerful. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood.” Avoid the convoluted, erudite sentence structure popular in previous centuries. And don’t say the same thing three or four times in different ways – we got it the first time! Also, stay away from those stale clichés.

As Harlan Coben says about writing his thrillers, “I want it to be compulsive reading. So on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to find a way to change it…. No word really should be wasted.”

For more details on effective writing styles for fiction, see my article titled “Style Blunders in Fiction.”

In Part III of this series, I’ll discuss effective dialogue, varied pacing, scene structure, and a satisfying climax and conclusion.

Resources:

Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008

Harlan Coben, in an interview by Jessica Strawser published in Writer’s Digest, “Straight Talk with Harlan Coben,” November 29, 2010.

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters.

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. For more info on Jodie’s her editing services, visit her website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Crime and Science Radio Rewind: Judging Science: Evidence and Courts with Marcia Clark

 

CSR 300x250

Courtesy of SUSPENSE MAGAZINE May/June/July 2018

Suspense Magazine May June July 2018 Cover Online copy

Marcia Clark: Judging Evidence

Interview by Jan Burke

Listen to the Interview

Former Prosecutor Marcia Clark is a person most people know. Whether you are an avid reader of thrillers and have been enjoying Marcia’s fantastic character, Rachel Knight; or you are one who is interested in the world of crime and punishment; or even if you are one who loves sitting in front of TruTV to watch high-profile cases play out in the courtroom, Marcia Clark has become a household name in one way or another. 

Recently, Marcia sat down with Jan Burke, host of Crime & Science Radio, to have an in-depth discussion regarding all areas of law and order. From the rules of evidence to some of the ways forensic science is used in the plots of her riveting legal thrillers, everything is covered.

Jan Burke (J.B.): Thank you for joining us, Marcia. Today we’re going to talk about some of your experiences as an attorney, your books, and the perceptions and misperceptions people have about the law, evidence, and science in the courtroom. To begin, how old were you when you decided to become an attorney?

Marcia Clark (M.C.): I did not start out to be one, actually. I took Poli Sci as an undergrad and soon found out the degree was basically worthless…

J.B.: I majored in the lucrative field of history, so I completely understand.

M.C.: I thought I was going to work in the State Department in the foreign office, which is what I wanted to do. And because I spoke various languages, I thought they would find that useful. Instead, they asked me if I could type. They really don’t like girls. I know a woman who works in the State Department now who says they still don’t like girls, so that’s interesting…

I floated around for a year or two and wound up saying: “Lawyer. I think that works.” And I applied at the last minute to law school and took the LSAT, hung over. I wasn’t exactly your most devoted fan of the law, but I became one.

J.B.: So you weren’t one of those people who in second grade stood up and said, “Objection!” to their teachers?

M.C.: I said all kinds of things to my teachers, actually, but not that one. That would have been a nicer one. But that’s a story for another day, Jan. When I was a kid I wanted to write. I liked writing, I liked acting, but I didn’t have faith in my ability to earn money doing either one of those, so…

J.B.: Which law school did you attend? 

M.C.: Southwestern, here in Los Angeles.

J.B.: And ended up working in defense?

M.C.: Yes, I started out as a criminal defense attorney. No way was I going to work for “THE MAN.” The thought of being a prosecutor never even entered my head. I clerked for a defense firm for about two years and then I worked as an associate for about a year and a half. When it came to the point where it seemed I was always defending violent criminals, I realized that I’d rather prosecute. In fact, I felt like I did not want to practice law anymore at all unless I was a prosecutor. So when I went in for my interview, the D.A. at the time was John Van de Kamp, I told him that I thought I was done with law if I couldn’t be a prosecutor. 

J.B.: So, you’ve worked in this field for quite a while and created Rachel Knight in your books. In what ways does the real life of a D.A. differ from what you see in books and on the screen?

M.C.: One thing for sure, is when it comes to books or TV, we all cut out the boring parts. Writing motions, doing research…not really sure how you could take that and make it exciting. Reading. Yeah, she’s still reading…. Typing. Yeah, she’s still typing…. We cut out all of the necessary but boring routine stuff. 

A D.A. is out in the field more, especially when speaking of the special trials unit. The thing with special trials is that we pick up the case the day the body is found, which means we’re out on the streets with the cops and detectives a lot. We interview all witnesses on every case. I never took a case to trial without talking to all witnesses first—outside; where they were—especially at crime scenes if I could, so they could walk me through, show me what they saw, where they saw it from, etc. That usually put me in a better position in court. 

J.B.: That is a whole different level, the special trials unit for the L.A. County D.A.’s Office. I’m assuming this is a division that not every jurisdiction has?

M.C.: Or even every prosecutor. In L.A., the thing unique about special trials is we do that kind of vertical prosecution from the bottom up. Because they handle all the high-profile, complex cases, they need that time to go out in the field and get that information. Most prosecutors get the ordinary cases very shortly before the jury trial commences, which counts for the pressures that are most common. Other jurisdictions do it differently. I’ve heard New York actually does have, as a matter of routine, the prosecutors going out in the field with the detectives. I don’t know that’s true, but since everyone does things differently I would imagine the bigger offices where there is more crime would have less opportunity to do that. Because it would require an office with a lot of prosecutors to be able to do this kind of prosecution. The D.A.’s office in L.A. is the biggest in the world. Makes sense, the county is huge. If it were a state it would be the 7th largest in the U.S. 

J.B.: What would make it a special trials case? Would it be based on the high-profile and complexity of the case?

M.C.: Cases that will attract a lot of media attention. The Menendez brothers, for example, was a special trials case. Phil Spector. Those are the kinds of things that rate being a special trials case.

J.B.: We all have seen everything from L.A. Law to Law & Order, not to mention reading the legal thrillers out there. Can you name a few of the errors and clichés in those that make you go nuts. Such as, watching a legal drama where everyone in the room is riveted, yet you break out laughing because of the blatant error? 

M.C.: You know what you and I have laughed most about is the forensic stuff they do. Like finding an eyelash in a field that can be traced to just one person. And I say, “Really? Out there in the field with the alfalfa you found an eyelash? Wow!” 

They will also have those prosecutors arguing with the judge about what piece of evidence should or should not come in. You don’t really get to do that. They also strut around the courtroom which in real life most judges would never allow you to do. (Although some will, as we know.) There’s a certain level of showmanship for the sake of drama where an attorney will argue with a judge, whereas in real life the judge would say settle down. Not to mention the rulings. Judges offer rulings on TV that I wish in my wildest dreams I could get in.

J.B.: One of the things I’ve noticed with both the forensic science shows and courtroom dramas is the amazing amount of science that has not passed any rule of evidence I know about, getting in. I don’t even know if most people are aware of the rules of evidence. Not to mention the rules about what you can do to an arrestee to get a confession. 

M.C.: Exactly. You really aren’t allowed to beat them with phone books. That cracks me up on TV, having cops out there beating the suspect up and getting a statement that will later nail him in court and all will be fine. Which, of course, would never happen; that is the anomaly. Cops, by and large, do not do things like that and do not get away with them if they do. You need to read them their rights, you need to get a valid waiver because you can’t get the statement in without it. And on TV the statements always come in so clean. The suspect admits or denies. Easy. But in real life, if you get the statement, a confession is a “yes, but…” An approach avoidance. “I did this but I didn’t do that.” Which means the best thing for the prosecutor is not to use it at all. Unless you think you can’t prove the case without it. They don’t show reality and I think if they did, and what the prosecutor has to do to overcome, it would make for a better story. 

Then there’s the other thing you were talking about, the rules of scientific evidence. You don’t just get to put in scientific evidence because you want to. It has to pass muster. You usually have to have a hearing if it’s something new in the field. In the very beginning, when DNA was new, you had to have these incredibly long hearings where you had to show that the DNA testing methods were accepted in the scientific community. It was no easy thing to prove. So there are quite a few hoops to jump through before this stuff gets into evidence. 

J.B.: The person in a show who has discovered some new way of processing something, like photo-manipulations, really drives me crazy. The court certainly wouldn’t like you bringing in doctored photos.

M.C.: And they won’t let you. Not to mention, the defense will object. Even if it’s just a blowup, the defense can and will look at it to see if it’s distorted in some way. You don’t just get to do whatever you want.

J.B.: In the real world there are these tests that must be done on evidence, so the judge is going to ask you to bring in experts. I assume the defense gets to bring in their experts to say something is not reliable or accepted?

M.C.: Yes, each side gets to bring in their experts and the judge must make a ruling; basically saying it is or is not reliable, or accepted by the community, or meets the standard for admission into evidence, which requires testimony from both sides before a ruling can be made. Towards the end of DNA acceptance, the defense was more and more getting into the position of, “Never mind calling the witness, it’s not worth it. It will just come in.” And they would just kind of make a record by cross-examining the prosecution’s expert. We’re at the point now when the DNA evidence does all come in, but there will be new methods of DNA testing that will require the same expert testimony before its allowed in, in the future. PCR testing was relatively new when we were working on Simpson and that required all kinds of hearings: you were allowed to use it to exclude people but not to identify. 

J.B.: I think this week in the news they were talking about the third trial of some individual and how they had an expert at “touch DNA” who has apparently testified sixty times. That may sound like a lot, but when you look at the whole country, that’s not many trials. I think that is one of those areas when we speak about DNA and how small of an amount you actually need. I think a lot of people don’t understand forensic science. Things change. You can always find yourself feeling very sure about something in one decade, and yet a decade later it changes. I know the FBI goes through this with everything from hair evidence to bite marks; they even once thought fingerprints could be challenged?

M.C.: They don’t get too far with that, however, because proving two people have identical fingerprints is quite a reach. And fingerprinting has been around so long that if we really had a problem with people having identical fingerprints, we would have seen this happen by now. The fingerprint databases are so huge; they’re vast, in fact, and we aren’t finding people with the same fingerprints.

But with DNA being so new and the databases not nearly as vast, although they’re growing every day, the biggest challenge used to be that the databases were so small you could not justify that no two people could have the same DNA. Of course, as time moves forward, I think we are becoming certain of that fact. But the databases are still not nearly as big as the fingerprint databases.

J.B.: I think a lot of people have, for better or worse, watched trials on TV and probably noticed that there will be experts that contradict each other. How do you choose your forensic expert, or do you live with the guy the lab sends over to you?

M.C.: Usually you have to live with the guy they send over to you. LAPD has a crime lab and the one who is assigned to you is the one you get. The only time you might get to choose outside that box is when their tech has a problem, can’t testify, or it’s a heavy-duty case. Not necessarily a high-profile case, but one that offers serious charges like murder. In that case, they might let you find another expert to back up what you have already done. Typically evidence goes straight to LAPD, especially now that they have a crime lab with a DNA lab up and running. Back when I began, before Simpson, we had to use Cellmark because the LAPD did not have a crime lab and were not set up to do DNA testing. Because there was such a big challenge in the Simpson case, we ended up sending our samples to not only Cellmark but also the Department of Justice. At one point, even before that, I wanted to agree to let the defense expert, Ed Blake, do the testing. I knew he was a good guy and we could share all of these results. But the defense didn’t want to share these results…

J.B.: Mmm. How funny…

M.C.: Typically, though, your jurisdiction has their own place. I think in the south part of California, in Riverside, they use Biotech. But whether it’s a private lab or one associated with the police station, you can reach outside that and get other experts—but only in very unique cases. 

J.B.: When we see defendants in courtroom dramas, they are quite often suave, well-behaved, in suits. But I would assume they are not people who represent the “average bear” brought to trial. Tell us, in your experience, the criminal mind and demeanor of the types of people who came before you, more often than not.

M.C.: I love that, too, that they always have the cool, charming types. Not to say that type of defendant doesn’t appear, but it’s rare. That kind of defendant is normally a sociopath. They are not necessarily a serial killer, but they commit crimes for pleasure, fun, and sometimes for profit. That kind of defendant is more in control of the instrument than your typical defendant. Typical defendant is: Johnny tells Eddie, let’s go rob that liquor store, and then they grab someone’s gun and go do it. And then, BOOM! They get locked up immediately because they’re idiots and wind up in court. Typical of these defendants is poor impulse control, and that poor impulse frequently finds its way into the courtroom. They’ll give hard looks to witnesses, pop off and say things in front of the jury, yell at their lawyers, and basically do things that are bad for them. 

J.B.: In a book or on TV you have to create a worthy antagonist. Not much of a story if it’s the Johnny and Eddie type.

M.C.: People ask me all the time about my books, “Are these the cases you handled?” I always say that if I told you the real story of real cases the book would be over in two pages. They went to rob a liquor store. BOOM! Story over. 

J.B.: Let’s talk about legal terms. People hear words that have legal meaning that they misunderstand sometimes. (For writers out there, I recommend getting yourself a great legal dictionary.) For example, I see a lot of confusion between homicide and murder and between murder and manslaughter.

M.C.: And that is a really common one. Homicide means that you have an indication of criminal agency. Somebody died at the hands of another, but whether what they did falls under first degree, second degree, or homicide is a separate issue. Homicide just means that a criminal agency is involved in the murder; someone is dead and didn’t get there naturally. If this is not true, then it’s deemed a suicide. If it is a homicide, you then move to the question of what kind/type of crime it was. Was it murder? First degree means it was a premeditated murder; there was some planning before the act was done. But as the jury instructions will tell you, planning does not require any particular length of time. If I pick up a gun and say, “I’m going to shoot you,” and then do it, that’s premeditation. In that one breath, that’s enough; first degree is an intentional killing and doesn’t require any particular length of time. 

Second degree can be a rash impulse. The kind of murder that occurs in the course of a fight or argument, which is not premeditated. Then you have manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is a killing where there is some type of mitigating influence. By that I mean, something that makes it less than murder. We are all familiar with killing in the heat of passion. For example: If you are in a bar fight and someone throws a bottle at you and you hit him over the head with a bottle and kill him, that’s most likely involuntary manslaughter. The other way you can receive manslaughter is if you believe, even if that belief is unreasonable, that you must defend yourself. Such as the George Zimmerman case. The theory behind this form of manslaughter is someone is threatening you and you honestly believe you need to defend yourself with force. But if it’s not a reasonable belief; there is no justification. This is called unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense. That, too, can get you manslaughter. Now if you have reasonable belief, that’s a complete excuse and you are not guilty of anything.

J.B.: And will you be the one collecting the evidence and coming to that conclusion? Who determines the charges to be filed? 

M.C.: The decision on what to file is also something specific to the special trials unit. The ordinary cases go through what is called the “Complaints Division” downtown. In branch court, they’re called filing deputies. All they do is when the cops bring in their reports and say, “I want to file charges against Joe Smith,” the filing deputies look at the reports and decide what they have there and decide what charges to file. When you are in a specific unit, like special trials, the detectives come right to me and say what they want to file against Joe Smith, such as, we think he’s good for murder. I review the reports, what we have, and I decide whether or not I agree with the detectives and then file whatever charges I see.

J.B.: I’m assuming this can lead to tension? When the cops believe they have a case every time?

M.C.: Not all of them. Some are reasonable. They will come in and say it’s a little skinny now but review the reports and tell me what you think I’m missing. Frequently, in those situations, I do a reject pending. Which means I reject the case pending further investigation, but that means it’s not really rejected. I’m just saying go out and get more stuff. If you’re working with reasonable police officers and you’re reasonable, it’s fine. 

On some occasions you will have someone chomping at the bit, snorting fire out of his nose, etc., who states: “I have Joe Smith for murder and you have to file this.” I have gotten into it on one or two occasions with detectives. Once they even went over my head and went to the big honcho and said, “I think we’ve got it and she’s wrong.” They backed me but, needless to say, it was a very uncomfortable time and a lot of tension and anger. They come in believing in their case and they should! Unless they come in and say they just need to show they’re working with a D.A. and looking for a reject pending which they’re fine with, that’s another story. But if they come in really believing there should be a specific filing, then they ought to be behind their own case. That’s why you need checks and balances. You can’t just have one person making all the decisions which is why it’s good to have a prosecutor on the outside saying, “Look, if I take this to trial the defense is going to say you’re missing x, y, and z.” For example, your eyewitness isn’t strong. Or he’s a gangbanger from the rival gang of the defendant who will say anything to nail the defendant, etc. Then they need to go find me corroboration.

J.B.: Getting back to some of those terms. What does reasonable doubt really mean? I think we’ve reached a point where people think anything can be proven with physical evidence. And that this evidence is always available, testing is available, and if you’re not bringing it in then you didn’t look hard enough for it.

M.C.: You’re right, it is a very big problem. You have these cases that get highly publicized with tons of evidence. There’s hair, blood, DNA, saliva—everything you can imagine and you have it all. That’s cool. But it is not common. First, not all crimes provide evidence; a burglary very seldom leaves you more than fingerprints and you rarely get those. Or you’re relying on an eye witness living down the street who got a glimpse of someone…good luck with that one. Juries have a skewed look at things. They believe we should always have DNA and a wealth of physical evidence. And maybe someday we will. Maybe one day evidence collection will reach the point where we will be able to get electro-static footprints out of dust, and all that cool stuff, but we’re not there yet. Most cases don’t provide such things and as a result juries wind up equating lack of physical evidence with reasonable doubt. 

But, here’s the thing, Jan. I handle criminal appeals across the state of California from the northern tip to the southern tip now, so I have a better chance to see, overall, what juries are doing than I ever did before. I see them convicting without physical evidence all the time. But in other cases, juries may come in and decide they simply like a defendant more than they like the prosecution or the victim. I just handled a case, which was quite interesting, where they charged three defendants with murder and the three defendants came off better than the victims did. The jury ended up acquitting two and convicting the third on manslaughter. Ordinarily, a case like that where the victim is unarmed and the defendant went and got the weapon used, would have led to murder convictions across the board. But this jury did not cotton to the victim and it went the other way. That wasn’t about physical evidence or lack thereof at all. 

That’s why reasonable doubt bothers me because it is a very elastic term. The problem is a jury can say reasonable doubt when really, objectively speaking, isn’t what they’re doing. What they are doing is converting “reasonable doubt” to “reason to doubt.” People find a reason to doubt that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. Apocalypse tonight and the sun doesn’t rise. That’s a reason to doubt. But is it reasonable? No. But that’s what happens with juries which is sometimes why you end up with odd verdicts. They come out and say there’s reasonable doubt and the people watching say, “What? There was a reason.” Well, you’re right, but the jury found a reason to doubt.

J.B.: Now, what does circumstantial evidence mean?

M.C.: Keeping it simple, circumstantial evidence is, say, a fingerprint. Why? Because you have to deduce from the fingerprint that the person who left that print is guilty of the crime. You didn’t see him do it, because that would be direct evidence, so that’s the short version of it.

J.B.: Which means most all evidence is circumstantial? 

M.C.: Yes. Anything short of the defendant saying, “I did it,” or an eyewitness picking them out of a line-up is circumstantial.

J.B.: Here’s another one I believe people don’t quite understand: Legally insane.

M.C.: Here’s the thing. It is a very high standard to prove someone is legally insane. You have to prove they did not understand the nature or quality of their act, and that they could not control their behavior. Basically, they did not know what they were doing. You’re talking about a person walking into a bar, shooting three people, but actually believing that he was spraying flowers with insecticide. You know what I mean. It’s that level of disorientation or lack of reality in what he’s doing and very, very few criminals can meet that test. It is very rare. Legally insane really does mean a person who does not understand or appreciate the nature and quality of his act. And who does that really fit?

J.B.: So those sitting at home saying you must be crazy to want to take someone’s life…that’s not the standard. 

M.C.: And if it were, you would have to rule everybody legally insane because what sane, rational person decides they have to kill somebody. No matter what that person might have done to you, do you really have to kill the person? We used to have a test in California a long time ago called “Irresistible Impulse.” That was where they said, if a defendant had an irresistible impulse and could not control himself and stop himself from committing the crime then he was legally insane. But the problem with that test is, was it really an irresistible impulse or was it just an impulse they didn’t resist? Well, isn’t that all crime? An impulse you didn’t resist?

J.B.: I am waiting for the day neuro-science brings us to a whole new understanding of how the brain works. We’re starting to see it now, in fact.  

M.C.: True. They are doing some interesting testing now with the psychopath and showing the empathy center in their brain is inactive. There is really a physical difference between them and “normal” people that you can see.

J.B.: And they respond differently to various violent images, even differently from other criminals, even those criminals who committed violent crimes.

M.C.: Yes, people seldom appreciate that the psychopath is only 2 to 5 percent of the population. Very small; you would even call it statistically insignificant. The majority of criminals are not psychopaths. They’re messed up, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they’re the picture of mental health, but they’re not psychopaths.

J.B.: Just a couple left on my list. What about hearsay? People don’t understand that a lot of times.

M.C.: Lawyers don’t understand that one a lot of times, either. Hearsay requires its own study. Simply defined, it is a statement made out of court offered for the truth of the matter asserted. Even if you’re on the witness stand and you want to testify as to something you said to someone else during a crime; that can be hearsay. If you are not offering a statement to prove what you’re saying is true, then it’s not hearsay. For example: If you asked me, “Marcia, what are you doing?” That is not hearsay; that is a question. What truth are you asserting? There is nothing you’re proving with that statement. It might do other things, but what it is not is hearsay. 

Generally speaking, we do have exceptions which is where the confusion comes into play. For example: If I am the prosecutor and a defendant made a statement during a crime like, “Lay down or I’ll shoot you in the head,” I am allowed to put his statement on. The witness is going to say that the defendant said, blah, blah, blah. And you are going to say that what the defendant said to the witness is hearsay so how can the witness testify to it? He can because it is a party admission. Under section 1220 of the Evidence Code, that statement comes in if the prosecution is proving it. The defendant cannot do that. If he wants to put in his own statements, he has to take the stand and find a way to put it in. He cannot elicit his own hearsay; only the prosecution can do it. So that’s where it gets confusing because you have all these exceptions where this side can bring it in and this side can’t, etc. That’s why there are a lot of arguments about it. There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to the hearsay rule.

J.B.: Another thing…plea bargains. People don’t often understand why attorneys go for plea bargains rather than trials. As taxpayers they should understand, but maybe you could explain a bit about why plea bargains are necessary to the system.

M.C.: Well, I believe that if we didn’t have plea bargains, the system would collapse. There is just no possible way to have the resources to take all cases to trial. I mean, there are thousands and thousands of cases. It boggles the mind just to think of how many are in the system in L.A. County, alone. Now, defendants want plea bargains because it limits their exposure. If they go to trial they face the maximum sentence possible for all of the charges they get convicted of. If that amounts to, say, 99 years to life, and the prosecutor says I’ll give you 25 to life, then yeah, he’s going to save himself the grief of going to trial and risking the (what we call) twelve-headed monster convicting him of everything.

We wish to thank Marcia Clark for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this in-depth interview. For those who wish to check out more about “Killer Ambition,” head to http://www.suspensemagazine.com. And take a moment to check out http://www.suspensemagazine.com/CrimeandScienceRadio.html where Marcia and Jan posted additional links. 

Originally aired on Crime & Science Radio; October 2013. 

 
 
 
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