In one my earliest sessions working with Joshua Townshend-Zellner, he talked to me about how to hold tension in a scene, how to create and sustain suspense, how to keep readers turning pages. One of the first instructions he gave me was to examine my scenes and pull any lines that prematurely reveal what’s about to happen. “Make sure the reveal is where you want it and not too early. You don’t want your story to be predictable. You don’t want your audience to get ahead of you or they won’t need to keep reading.”
Joshua taught me how to allow the reader and the protagonist to have the same revelation at the same time. For instance, in Chapter 2 of The Burning Light of Two Stars, in the book’s inciting incident, my 80-year-old mother calls to announce that she’s moving to my town for the rest of her life. Here’s a clip from that scene:
“Laurie, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Oh yeah?” I was only half listening, maybe a quarter. I opened the fridge, rooted around for salad fixings.
“Why don’t you guess?”
“I dunno, Mom. What’s the surprise?”
“Don’t you want to guess?” I pictured her lighting another cigarette, residue of the day’s lipstick reddening the tip.
“Uh . . . you went to an audition and got a part in a play?”
“No, I’m afraid my acting days are over. Guess again.”
“Just tell me, Mom.”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“Of course, I want to know.”
“Darling, I’ve finally made up my mind.” She paused for effect. “I’m moving to Santa Cruz. I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Blood rushed from my head. I closed the refrigerator. Leaned back against the door. Pictures of the kids and little square art magnets clattered to the floor.
It’s true—years earlier, in a moment of generosity, I had invited Mom to move out to California “when she got old.” We’d talked about it once or twice, but I never thought she’d actually take me up on it. It had been ten years.
“It finally feels like the right time, Laurie. New Jersey just isn’t the same anymore.”
That’s right. Your friends are dying off, going into assisted living, or moving to be close to their children. Oh my God. That’s me. My hand tightened on the phone.
Notice how much more satisfying the scene is when you as a reader are in on it as it unfolds in the moment? You get be shocked and react right alongside me. And in the italicized inner monologue, “That’s right. You friends are dying off…..Oh my God. That’s me,” you get to climb right inside my head and body as I realize what just happened. Readers love to watch a character gaining insight, making a bad decision or a better decision, having a realization in real time.
See how much more vivid and engaging this is than, “It was shocking when my mother called to tell me she was moving to Santa Cruz,” Or, “One day, my mother called with some shocking news.”
Bring the reader into the immediacy of your protagonist’s thoughts and experience. It will engage them in your story, make them care about your characters, and keep them turning pages. It’s what we all want—authors and readers alike.
The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.
To receive this blog series in your inbox, subscribe here.