Thursday, March 26, 2015

When the Sh*t Hits the Fan: Ramping Up Toward the Conclusion

We've thrown soft lobs for the past few weeks for the roundtables, so it's high time we get back into some practical, useful advice for writers from our shared experience.

Obviously, there will be some difference between writers, and between writing styles (pantsers vs. plotters, etc.), but the end result is the same -- there comes a time in your story when it's time to shift into the higher gears and work some emotion and action and intensity toward your conclusion.


When you're either writing as a pantser or plotting as a plotter, how do you know when that moment has come, when it's time to ramp up the story and begin that third act in earnest?

Jim D. Gillentine: I'm a pantster. So I guess I'll start. I try to do a slow build up from about the middle of the story. I make it more and more intense by each chapter. My editor told me I achieved this with my latest book, Crossroads, the sequel to The Beast Within. As each chapter played out, she told me she was getting more and more drawn into the story. Feeling anger at what was happening to my two main characters that had been captured by the big bads in my little tale. Until, BOOM! They fought back to regain their freedom. She said it was a perfect build up of tension that reached a point where as reader she cheered when the shit started to go down.

I.A. Watson: That point comes when all the pieces are on the board and now its time to crash them all together. It's very rare that there's a "new element" in the third act. It all has to have been Chekhov Gunned by them. When all the dominoes are finally in a row -- push!

Frank Fradella: I think almost strictly in terms of character, tension and event. Your main character should have a desire, a motivation. They want something. That's obvious, right? Your story arises when someone or something has a conflicting motivation, preventing your character from getting what they want. If you look at the second character exactly the same way you would your main character — that is to say, not a prop who exists solely to provide an obstacle to your hero, but the hero of their own story — then you drive them forward toward their goal with the same zeal you do your protagonist. There's your tension. There's your conflict. Introduce events to bring them together, drive them apart, up the stakes, but the driving force should always be the conflict between these two uncompromising drives.

My favorite example from comics is Magneto and Professor Xavier. Magneto is a compelling character in his own right. He's not a cardboard stand-up waiting for some random X-man to knock him down. He's a purpose-driven protagonist in his own story, dedicated to the preservation of his people by any means necessary. Then some bald idiot in a wheelchair wants to get everyone in a group hug and sing kumbaya. Jerk.

Selah Janel: I fall in between the two categories -- I have very specific moments I want to hit, but I also leave a lot of room for characters to develop and guide the plot, as well. For me, that moment where things really turn a corner and bear down is always a pretty natural escalation. I usually know that's the moment I'm building toward, and make it a point to guide the plot and energy to it. Now, I may go back after the first draft and hone things to make it more of a specific build, but I usually have at least one moment that things are being guided to.

Ric Martens: For me its kind of an organic thing... when the story is at a point it can't handle the pressure.. then I know its time to ramp up the end.

Corrina Lawson: I usually know that moment when I start and write to it. If I don't or have an inexact idea, I write down several, discard what I've done or seen done before and instead pick the more original idea.

Walter Bosley: It's time to ramp up and begin the third act when I've finished the second act. I don't mean to be flippant, but even though I know what my ending will be, I pretty much go with the intuition and appropriate degree of faith in format and structure as to when I've reached the end of the second act. For me, in my stuff, it's clear when I've reached that point and then I simply ramp it up because I'm "officially" in the third act.

Stephanie Osborn: Well, to be honest, since I don't write sequentially anyhow, it's not unusual for the climax to be one of, if not THE, first thing I write. Usually what winds up happening for me is that I have all the major plot points written, and then it becomes a matter of connecting the dots. Rarely I will realize that the climax is going to be so intense that I will put off writing it until the end -- usually the VERY end.

Bill Craig: My stuff is all very character driven and as the tension begins to built toward the home stretch things start to happen and the clock starts to tick for them and they find things moving fast around them and their reactions ramp it up even more.

It is all about the character's reactions. Sometimes they know it is SHTF time before I do. How they react and talk pushes the action forward.

What, if anything, changes about the way you either write (technique) or approach writing (such as workspace, music, etc.) when you ramp up the intensity?

Stephanie Osborn: I will procrastinate for a few days. This is actually necessary, as I am gathering up the energy to write the thing. (I find that it takes a LOT of energy to create a story. My writing mentor, Travis Taylor, likens it to running a mental marathon. When I finally finish a manuscript, I plan to take a few days off to recover, just like you would an athletic competition.)

Then I get everything organized that I might need while I am writing: full water bottle, tissues, good snacks, the phone, whatever. And I position them in easy reach. Depending on my mood and the scene, and how available it is, I may turn on some soft instrumental music to help me "flow."

Then I will read over the material leading up to, and do any editing I feel is needed, whether copy edits, or reworking parts of the material.

This allows me to simply continue writing at the end of the lead-in material. I will then usually write straight through until it's done, however long it takes, because if I stop I may lose the momentum.

Once it's done, I save it down, shut down the computer, and do something completely different to relax and unwind.

I.A. Watson: I try to write the first draft finale in one go, however long it takes. That way I can use the urgency in my imagination on the page too. Also there is caffeine.

Bill Craig: Sometimes I have to step back and take a breath because I am every bit as involved as they are, but I still can't shake the tension.

Walter Bosley: More coffee. And a desire to see the work finished. But the way I work does not change otherwise.

Selah Janel: Technique wise, once the intensity is ramped up, I know I'm going to be hunkered down devoting whatever time is necessary until that bit is finished. For me it's the equivalent of a roller coaster - the worst thing is to have to stop midway through, so I usually ignore everything else until those moments are written and tend to be totally oblivious to everything else. I also either get insanely critical of myself trying to get certain bits right or I'm so deep in the moment that I can let all that go until that section is written - it's usually one extreme or the other.

Frank Fradella: I don't generally outline when I'm writing novels, but I do know the major beats of my story, and I know what the "final battle" between these two forces is; where it happens, why, and how. Nearly all of the pages prior to this are me driving to this destination. That may sound single-minded, and it is. Other authors have their subplots and B-stories and pages of exposition about the shrubbery or curtains. I'm just not that guy. I tend to strip away anything that isn't my reason for telling the story in the first place.

Ric Martens: I tend to get uber focused at this point, not sure I change anything, more just get lost in the world.

Corrina Lawson: I have the opposite problem -- I have to work more on quiet scenes.

What is the difference between ramping up the action, ramping up the emotion, and ramping up the intensity of the story? Or is there no difference?

Selah Janel: I think both an increase of action and increase of emotional tension contribute to the intensity and forward-momentum of the story. You have to raise the stakes, and that will make the characters react in equally amped up ways (hopefully). I love playing with emotional intensity with my characters, probably more than writing action, but a lot of times (especially in genre fiction), that visual element is so important. Still, for me personally, how characters react and how those experiences either build or break them is always the most fascinating and visceral part. I know if I'm on target or not as soon as I write their reactions, and that can either really propel a sequence along or derail me into reworking other parts of the build up. The action may propel the visual and "plot" elements, but the emotion is going to help a reader connect with a character and ramp up the visceral connections. Plus, it all has to be its own complete journey. As a reader, I want a book to feel like listening to a complete song, or going on a theme park ride - you want that full experience, and you want it to feel like a constant build of energy -- a crescendo and decrescendo of sorts. Whether that's action or emotion based really depends on the type of story, but you need that momentum and resolution for the story to feel like a complete unit.

Bill Craig: The ramping up comes on all levels, but it comes in different ways, but it all comes from the characters. for example in this excerpt from my forthcoming Caribe spy novel this new character is introduced but the tension builds quickly as he knows something is about to happen but he doesn't know what.

Erin Banacek looked up when he heard the sound of helicopters. The Ares Oil man frowned. While they had excavated a lot of jungle on the site, he had gotten no word of equipment arriving. From the sound of the rotor blades, these were the heavier Sikorsky choppers that carried heavy machinery and equipment. “Bloody Hell!” he snarled as he stood and headed outside into the compound. “Davies, what the hell is going on?”

“No clue Sir. Who are these guys?”

“I wish I knew.”

“Get security armed and ready. I don’t like the smell of this.”

“Right Boss!”

Banacek headed back into his tent. He wanted his gun handy when he met the choppers. He grabbed his satellite phone too. He wondered if he should call Ms. Connelly about this, then decided that could wait. If this was something she had put in motion, it wouldn’t due to question it. Better to wait and see what was going down and then complain about it later. He put the sat phone in one of the cargo pockets of his pants as he buckled on the pistol belt that held his Colt Government Model 1911-A1 and six spare magazines. He pulled up the flap and drew the pistol, racking back the slide to chamber a round. He stuck it back in the holster and stepped outside, leaving the flap unsecured.

The scene is set and you get an immediate sense of tension and danger.

Walter Bosley: I'd have to analyze that a bit more. I guess I simply have more 'action' and am less verbose in description. My protagonists get less patient with BS, my victims get more desperate, and the villains do more nasty things, I suppose.

I.A. Watson: Ramping up the action often requires heightened stakes, greater urgency, and sometimes a big set-piece event (or countdown to one). That calls for very clear descriptive storytelling, cause and effect stuff. Often it needs short, sharp sentences. For effect.

Ramping up emotion requires revelation, reaction, and usually at least one powerful point of view. Letting the characters loose to say their pieces involves as much plotting and set-up as a big action finale, but the techniques differ. Longer, more elaborate sentences offering insight to inner thoughts and feelings allow for a better reader journey through the characters' torments.

Ramping up intensity is all about how desperate the reader needs to be to turn the page. Either action or emotion can achieve that, as can horror or mystery or wonder or other visceral devices. The key to intensity is pace, and gradually magnifying it. That may mean the pace quickens, as in action scenes, or that each story beat hits harder and heavier, punch after punch. And often, when the spring is wound so tight that its about to snap, there's a roller-roaster release that pays off after.

Ric Martens: There is no difference for me.

Corrina Lawson: They're all entwined. If no emotions are invested, why would we care about a fight? However, I usually try to make the climax big, bigger than any previous action. All at stake, larger action-lime the end of Winter Soldier when everything is in play.

Stephanie Osborn: There are differences, but they are subtle. Usually ramping up action ramps up the other two to some degree. Ramping up emotion tends to ramp up story intensity. Given I write science fiction mysteries for the most part, often the emotion has already ramped up, and the action taken for the climax is like a dam breaking -- it releases the emotion and things run rampant. (At least if I've done it right.)

Do you find that your involvement with the story grows more tense or more relaxed when you're in that "home stretch" of the tale? Why?

Ric Martens: I get way more tense and focused.. I think because I know I am nearing the end and its kind of intense and scary all at once.

Corrina Lawson: More intense. Because if it doesn't work, the whole story falls apart. Plus, I like writing endings whereas middles aren't so fun.

Stephanie Osborn: More tense, much more tense. Because I'm feeling what my protagonists are feeling, and I always have to be a few steps ahead, if not already at the resolution, even if my protag is Sherlock Holmes. Which is really hard to do. Takes a lot of effort. And 99% of the time I am completely caught up in the events. If my husband were to walk up to me without warning me of his presence, he'd have to peel me off the ceiling fan blades, because I'm not "here," I'm "there."

Jim D. Gillentine: As a writer, that is my main goal when I write. I want my readers to be feeling the pain and anger my characters are going through, and if I achieve that going by the seat of my pants, then I did my job to entertain you.

Frank Fradella: As far as tension goes? I think that ramps up naturally, if you're dealing with character first. Most people don't jump to a nuclear option right away. They try the easiest path to their goal first, and only escalate their efforts when they find that blocked.

Walter Bosley: I have to keep myself in check that I maintain whatever "quality" I've metered out through the story to that point, rather than rush through it and crank out a weak third act. I suppose then I must relax as I write it regardless how intense the story gets. I don't see my action as the strength in my stuff. My strengths are the attitudes and dialogue and where I'm willing to go with subject matter.

I.A. Watson: It depends on the kind of story. I generally prefer to get my explanations and motivations clear before the climax, so readers know the stakes and understand the issues (with all due respect to Dumbledore's 25-page justifications and footnotes in the infirmary after each time Harry has saved the day). Making sure that every point is clear and that each character gets a pay-off is quite a cerebral task and can be the hardest part of the writing. But then sometimes there's a wonderful sleigh-ride back to base, where all the hard work getting there just makes the last stretch a joy.

Selah Janel: It depends -- I either want to get everything right or I completely surrender to the story. It really depends on what it is and what my state of mind is at the current moment. I usually want to just let it pour out of me, and that's when I feel I'm at my best, when I can just be a conduit for all the action and emotion and let it happen, leaving the polishing and fine details for later. Even if I re-work that section, I usually have some of my best dialogue or emotional moments come from that initial outpouring. There's something to be said for letting yourself get immersed and letting the story work through you. At the end of the day, if you've done your homework and if your characters are well developed enough, the story knows what it's doing.