Tag Archives: tools

Warning! Danger ahead!

I just finished reading Dan Wells’ new novel, “Extreme Makeover”, which I knew going in was an apocalyptic thriller. But even had I not known, I would have almost immediately. Each chapter heading includes a countdown of how many days to the end of the world, starting at 276 days and working its way downward.

I can think of several reasons for this approach.

First, he may have wanted to make it very clear to anyone who might not have figured it out from the cover (which is pink) that this is apocalyptic fiction. His original title, which was eventually trimmed down, was “Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition”. Certainly that would have made it more clear what type of story this would be, but the chapter headers do that job as well.

Second, it teases the reader. The novel starts with a scientist in a cosmetics company revealing a new skin care product. Not very scary stuff. Some readers may even be turned off. But by introducing that teaser countdown the reader knows this skin care story is about to get serious, so stick around.

Third, the countdown is a common thriller element to build suspense. Ticking time bombs, ultimatums from powerful people, deadlines; all these add suspense when we know that the characters only have a limited time to do whatever it is they need to do. It’s potentially even more suspenseful when the reader knows the countdown is ticking but the characters do not. Hence we can spend most of the novel figuratively tearing our hair out because the characters don’t seem to realize they’re doomed!

Fourth, possibly, is the reader’s desire to call his bluff. Is he really serious? 198 Days to the end of the world? Or will the characters find a way to stop it before it’s too late. I mean, he wouldn’t really give it all away like that, right? I suspect most readers know deep down it’s for real, but there’s a part of them that will wonder if somehow the inevitable can’t be avoided.

True, countdowns are a trope, even a cliché. But they are also very effective and hard not to incorporate in some manner. Whether they are explicit, in the form of an actual time bomb under the table, or implicit, such as surviving until the sun comes up, knowing that there is a time limit that either helps or hurts the characters will ratchet up the tension.

It doesn’t even have to be the main element of the story. In Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” focuses primarily on main character Jack Ryan and the politics in which he finds himself embroiled, but all throughout the novel we are given glimpses of a terrorist group creating a nuclear bomb to use against the United States. That sub-plot, we know, is literally a ticking time bomb that could become the main plot at any time. It helps add a feeling of impending danger to keep the reader engaged, even when the main plotline may be less suspenseful.

Adding a sense of impending danger is an important element of storytelling. Like any tool, learning to use it well  can yield big pay-offs for the writer and the reader. Used poorly, it can feel every bit like the clichéd trope it is. But when used well, you’ll grab your reader’s attention and hold it until they finally reach the end at 3 am, even though they have to get up for work in just a few hours.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Scapple: Initial impressions

ScappleI’m a Scrivener users, though I’m not completely sold yet. But I recently bought a new laptop and had to switch my licensing over, so I went out the Literature & Latte website. While there I noticed he had a ne w product out called Scapple, billed as “an easy-to-use tool for getting ideas down as quickly as possible and making connections between them.” I’ve heard of mind-mapping, though this doesn’t claim to not to be that, and I saw that I could get a free month trial (and the $15 price tag isn’t too steep if I like it), so I downloaded a copy and started trying it out.

The first use that came to mind was to help me trace my character and plot arcs for my novel I’m preparing to write. I’ve tried outlining before and found it to be too much detail. But I do like to have “sign posts” for my various plots so that I don’t forget key elements of the story. I wasn’t sure how well this would work for it, but I thought I’d give it a try.

So I started off selecting a character and plotting out all the main elements in his character arc. It took a while to get used to the interface. Let me just start by saying if you’re using only a laptop touch pad, don’t. You simply must have mouse or you’ll be playing Finger Twister trying to use the key strokes–if you can even remember them all.

The majority of the software revolves around double-clicking wherever you’d like to place a note. You type your text into the note and then click elsewhere. You can establish a connection between two notes by dragging one onto the other. This places a dotted-line connection between the two. If you hold down certain keys at the same time as the dragging you can create a solid-line connection with an arrowhead pointing in the desired direction (or both).

Each note can be formatted in a wide variety of ways. You can create other box elements to help group your notes. You can align sets of notes in various ways. You can drag pictures, text files, pdf images, and other files into your map and use them as elements. The map automatically resizes to accommodate your elements, and you can zoom in and out at will.

I’m starting to like it. It’s simplistic enough that it keeps me from getting carried away trying to write exhaustive notes (that’s what Scrivener is for), but gives you enough control that I find it easy to get a little obsessive about aligning my notes more often than I should. It takes a little time to get used to, and there are some formatting commands I wish had keyboard shortcuts.

But in the end I did find it helpful for visualizing the structure and flow of my novel and showing how the different events/scenes influence one another. As shown above, I ended up importing pictures of each of my characters and then running a series of milestones along each  “swimlane” to show the show the approximate sequence of events. Convergences I marked with elongated notes, formatted to stand out more. Wider color bars show the boundaries of individual books in the series (only one character’s arc extends beyond book one currently).

Once I got past the initial learning curve (I didn’t take the tutorial, and perhaps I should have) I found it went much faster. Hint: To undo connections just drag the same note onto the same note with the appropriate key stroke and it undoes the arrow. It took me a long time to get the hang of that one.

But I soon noticed that seeing everything laid out in one place like that encouraged me to expand my ideas farther than I might have otherwise. I was able to see how much each character was involved in the story and decide if I liked that or not. Some I left alone, but others I worked in more events.

Even though I’m partial “pantser” and don’t like to work out too many details in advance, I was able to see ideas coming together in unexpected ways. Characters who initially had no part in a sub-plot suddenly became integral in ways that made me feel quite clever.

Now that I’ve got my first novel mostly plotted I could even export it as an image, a PDF file, or even a series of text notes and pull them into Scrivener in various forms. For example, I could lay out my chapter names in Scapple, then drag them into Scrivener and have it create those sub-files automatically. I haven’t used that yet, but I see some benefits.

In short, I like this tool. I probably will end up buying it. If I remember I’ll try to post a follow-up review at a later date to discuss whether I continue using Scapple as I move into the writing phase and if I find any other uses for it. Leave me a comment if you’re interested in a follow-up post.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…