Ten Common Author Mistakes. #3

Hi! How Are You? I’m fine! Good, Good. So, What’s New?

Using dialog to as filler. Letting prose do the heavy lifting.

Dialog is the gas to your story. It’s what makes the characters come to life. And characters are the story. Without them, we have nothing engaging to hold the reader for 400 pages.

Dialog is created to tell the story. It is not every day communication.

Dialog is not used to show the reader the protagonist is a nice Christian by saying “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” Show they are a Christian by the journey they take and decisions they make.

Dialog isn’t a place holder for storytelling prose.

I was recently reading a novel where the author told a lot of the story from the internal thoughts of the protagonist. She carried her story well, but dialog seemed to be placeholders. If the heroine saw her love interests, it went like this:

John came out of the house. “Hi, how are you?”

“I’m good,” I said.

Then we were right back into internal story telling. Granted, sometimes “Hi, how are you works.” Like, after the hero and heroine have just had a fight and walked away from each other to cool off.

OR, You can use the dialog to show the feelings and thoughts of the characters. How can you make it a bit more dynamic.

Let’s redo  our example:

John came out of the house. “I’m sorry about the other night… I wasn’t thinking. Then I got busy…”

“It’s okay. Look, I’m only here for a few weeks.” I didn’t expect to find true love.

See? The dialog tells us more. Gives the characters more to react to and a little internal thought makes a nice side. Deepens the emotion.

Dialog does the heavy lifting of storytelling. It’s the protagonist and secondary characters who speak and act. Think of a play. Unless the characters talk, we have no idea what’s going on. Unless, we observe their actions. Kissing. Hugging. Dancing. Fighting. Sleeping. Cooking.

Dialog v. Prose

Dialog shows us the characters.

Dialog tells us what they are thinking and feeling.

Dialog reveals heart and character.

Dialog moves the story forward.


Prose connects the dialog with the action.

Prose delivers some of the emotion.

Prose delivers thoughts that can’t be said out loud.

Prose paints the setting, story world and the five senses.


Prose is key to telling the story. But prose should NOT do the heavy lifting of dialog.

A reader should never have to wade through “How?’ “What?” “Hi.” “I’m sorry,” dialog while the prose does all the work. A reader should never learn critical back story information in prose. Again, hint at it, set it up. But let the protagonist say it.

Rule: “Tell the story between the quotes.”

Workshop it: Go over your WIP. Is your dialog doing the heavy lifting of storytelling?


Why should I read your book?

It’s early on a Sunday morning, and the house is quiet. It’s my favorite time to read so I wander downstairs to my bookshelves to hunt up a book. I have over 500 books, many that I haven’t read. Twenty minutes later, I’m still hunting (It’s not unlike trying to find something to wear!)  What am I looking for?  Voice, Character Sympathy, an intriguing plot…and the most important element…WHY.

This is the last – and the most important trick to writing a suspense.

W – Why – Why should they read your book?  So it’s fun?  So it’s romantic so your character has overcome some dangers and saved the world. The key to a great suspense is that it more than just a romance, more than just a thriller. A great book says something about life, about God, about the human experience that the reader can resonate with.

A great book makes us think, long after we put it down. A great book might even change us.

Yes, even a suspense.   Why were Tom Clancy books so popular?  They posed a “What if?” that made us sit up and panic, our hearts in our throats. Really, was a terrorist attack right around the corner?  (Sum of all Fears). Or, did we really narrowly miss WW3?  (The Hunt for Red October).

How about the Vince Flynn thrillers?  Or the John Grisham books that make us think about issues in our legal system.  A great suspense can confront global issues…or personal ones.  How about the Harlan Coben books?  He’s made a career out of asking scary “what if” questions about everyday people.  What if you came home and discovered your wife missing?  What if someone from your past showed up to threaten you?  Scare questions that can make a person think about how they live their life.

A story that resonates is a story that gets under our skin and asks questions that don’t leave us alone.  How do you do this?

Ask yourself – what will my reader learn from this story?

Then ask:  What truth am I telling?   A great suspense embeds not only a story question – but also a universal truth into a reader.  e.g.  Harlan Coben has convinced us that yes, your past will come back to haunt you.  Tom Clancy has embedded the idea that there are always evil forces at work in the world.  It’s these truths that linger with the reader and keeps us up long after they put the book down.

What is the universal truth of Dante’s Peak?  That even in the midst of trauma and trial, two people can find true love.  Bird on a Wire? – That true love is worth waiting – and fighting – for.

In my book Expect the Sunrise, it’s that each day is a new day with God, even when there are terrorists chasing you across Alaska.

Ask WHY.

The Answer is the trick that will sell you story.

In the past six months we’ve talked about the three Acts:  The Game, the Guts, The Glory, and talked about the tricks:  The Glow.  Master these elements and you’ll create a suspense novel that will keep your reader up all night long.

Next month we’ll start looking at the wordsmithing of a suspense, and how to apply the elements of the three acts into powerful scenes!

Have a great writing week!

Susie May


Don’t go over the top – another trick of writing suspense.

Tricks! We’ve been talking in the past two weeks about incorporating a few tricks to writing a powerful suspense.  Last week we talked about the Hook, and leaving the reader hanging.

Today…we’re going to talk about what NOT to do.

The hallmark of suspense is the unexpected twist and turns, the increasing tension and dangers.  Readers read suspense for the adrenaline ride and the breathless moments – and you as the author want to give this to them.

Some of the breathless moments I’ve included in my suspense have been:

Trapping my hero and heroine in a burning house.
Pushing my hero and heroine off of a cliff into a raging river.
Making my heroine jump out of a moving plane.
Having my hero chase a suspect through Epcot center.
Pushing my heroine off the roof of the Plaza hotel while the hero races through the streets of NYC.
Nearly drowning my heroine in her wedding dress.
Sneaking my hero into a terrorist camp in Africa to rescue a child soldier.
These are all high-action events. However, each of them had the potential of being unbelievable if I didn’t build in plausibility.  The key to keeping your reader from closing the book and shaking their head is…

O – (Don’t go) Over the Top –
Over the top is Bruce Willis is running barefoot down a tarmac in the middle of winter trying to get aboard a plane that has already taken off.  Or Bruce Willis driving a car into a helicopter.  Or Bruce Willis taking out a F-15 with a semi.

Or any Die Hard movie, for that matter. We stay with it because, well, it’s Bruce Willis and we are lead to believe that he can save the world. But for the rest of us, we need to keep our events in the realm of reality or we’ll lose readers.

Ask:  Could this really happen?  How?  If you can support your actions and make it plausible, then by all means – use it!  However, there are two questions to ask to keep your plotting from going Over the Top.

1. Before each action, you need to support it the question…WHY should they do it?  If it’s just for effect, then you’ll lose readers.  Make your event a necessary evil, something they must do to save the day.
2. The key to keeping it from being over the top is adding in the HOW. How will they accomplish this feat?  How do they know this information?   In your story you want to trickle the clues out so that it makes sense to the reader and to the characters each step of the journey.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the final trick, the element that makes your book keep them even after they put it down.

Susie May


Ten Common Author Mistakes. #2

Last week I started this perilous journey. Talking about author mistakes. I hate to even start down this road. Author mistakes? Really? Is there such a thing? I read all kinds of books that defy craft rules and guidelines. They sell well. They win awards.

But for new authors, it’s really important to watch a few key things, to watch the writing pitfalls we easily fall into. I found this web site talking about author mistakes, but the author talks about small things that can easily be overlooked and fixed. An editor probably won’t reject a manuscript for most of these reasons. Nevertheless, the site highlights good things to be on guard for as you write. If you Google “author mistakes” you’ll find a plethora of sites.

The first of July, I taught at the Minnesota NICE  ACFW chapter’s retreat. I went through the “ten common mistakes” from a craft point of view. I listed items that might hinder your story telling success. Things that might get your manuscript rejected. An editor or agent might say, “the writing is good, I just didn’t like the story.” Or, “the story didn’t grab me.”

My list is designed to help discern where your story might be sagging and dragging.

Here’s the first one from last week! I Was Born the Son of a Sharecropper — Starting the story with too much “pipe.”

Here’s number two:

Once Upon A Time, In A Land Far, Far, Far Away

Breaking the action with too much back story.

By the way, what exactly is back story? Definition: Back story is the purposeful introduction of events and history of the past that does NOT relate to the current action.

Weave in back story as it relates to the current events on the page and answers or helps round out the “why” question of the goal and motivation of the scene.

How to know if back story is relevant? Ask yourself these questions: Does it help us understand the protagonist motivation? Does it create an intimate moment between the protagonist and another character, thus deepening the emotional layer? Does it help round out the story world? Does it add a layer of likeability to the protagonist(s)? Does it hint at or reveal a secret that is part of the character journey?

We need back story to help round out characters and create empathy/sympathy. Even to help the reader understand the plot. But make sure you’re not telling back story for the sake of back story. As writers we do a lot of research and character work before the story even begins. It’s tempting to layer all of that work into the story. But you don’t need it. You only need a very little.

Back story is best delivered in dialog or small prose snippets (as it relates to the current scene dilemma) and introduced around page 50.

But what about Flashbacks? Flashbacks are subplots. They are not back story or a fancy way to deliver back story. A flashbacks must have a plot, goal, motivation, why/why not, fears and desires, black moment, epiphany and resolution. In other words, all the same elements as the main story.

A flash back is used to help define or highlight motivation for the protagonist in the present day. Flash backs use dialog, prose, action, all the great elements of a normal scene.

Flash backs must end up tying into the main plot action for a satisfying ending.

In the Songbird Novels, I used flashbacks. They told the story of Jade’s tragic youth which then told the story of why she had such a hard adult relationship with her mom. The flashbacks were in and of themselves, pieces of the plot, and tied into the main story.

Back story and flashbacks MUST relate to the motivation and goals of the main plot and protagonists. Readers do not need to know via back story or flashback that the heroine loved to play dolls with her grandma while she’s in the dilemma of taking a job in Chicago or not. Those kind of interjections interrupt the action and emotion of the scene. Readers are a gracious lot and will endure it one or two times, but not much more. They’ll walk away from a book if the author keeps jerking around their emotions.

Rule: No backstory until page 50. Back story must relate to the current scene’s dilemma and conflict.

Workshop It: go through your WIP and remove back story.