Sunday, July 24, 2016

Tahoe Dark Signing Schedule

Hi Everybody!

My new book, TAHOE DARK, is about to launch! My initial signing schedule is below. 

TAHOE DARK is the 14th book in the Owen McKenna Tahoe Mystery series. The prestigious Kirkus Reviews refers to Owen McKenna as:

"A hero who walks confidently in the footsteps of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer"
Kirkus Reviews

TAHOE DARK is about a young woman named Evan Rosen, whose dreams of one day attending law school are ruined when she is arrested for murder...

Here's my initial signing schedule organized by area. More dates will be added as they area scheduled, and they will be put on my "Events" page on my website.


July 29, 2016, 4 - 7 p.m. Signing TAHOE DARK, Artifacts 4000 Lake Tahoe Blvd (in the Raleys Village Center just     southwest of Heavenly Village) (530) 543-0728

August 3, 2016, 6:30 p.m. Talk and Signing my new Tahoe mystery TAHOE DARK at the South Lake Tahoe Library, Rufus Allen Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA

August 7, 2016 8:30 a.m. Signing for TAHOE DARK at The Red Hut Cafe at Ski Run and Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA


July 30, 201611 a.m., Talk and Signing for TAHOE DARK, Sundance Bookstore at 121 California Avenue, Reno, NV (775) 786-1188

August 13, 2016 8:30 a.m. Signing for TAHOE DARK at The Red Hut Cafe 3480 Lakeside #1, Reno, NV


July 30, 2016 3 p.m. Signing TAHOE DARK at Geared for Games, Boatworks Mall, Tahoe City, CA


August 4, 20165-7 p.m.signing TAHOE DARK at "Truckee Thursdays" in The Bookshelf tent, downtown Truckee, CA


August 5, 2016 6:00 p.m. Talk and Signing for TAHOE DARK, at Shelby's Bookshoppe, 1663 Lucerne St. in Minden Village, Minden, NV 775-782-5484

September 24, 25, 2016 Exhibit and sign books at the Candy Dance Festival, Genoa, NV

October 5, 2016, 4:30 - 6:30 Exhibit and sign TAHOE DARK at the Minden Library Author Day, Minden, NV


August 6, 2016 8:30 a.m. Signing for TAHOE DARK at The Red Hut Cafe 4385 S. Carson, Carson City, NV

September 27, 2016 6:15 p.m. Talk and signing TAHOE DARK at Browsers Books, 711 E Washington St, Carson City, NV (Across from the Carson City Library)


September 10, 11, 2016Exhibiting and sign books at the Mountain View Art & Wine Festival, Mountain View, CA

November 11, 12, 13, 2016  Exhibit and sign books at the San Mateo Harvest Festival, San Mateo, CA

November 25, 26, 27, 2016 Exhibit and sign books at the San Jose Harvest Festival, San Jose Convention Center, San Jose, CA


November 4, 5, 6, 2016  Exhibit and sign books at the Sacramento Fine Arts Show,  Sacramento Convention Center, Sacramento, CA

November 18, 19, 20, 2016  Exhibit and sign books at the Sacramento Harvest Festival, CalExpo, Sacramento, CA

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Vegetable Gardening In Tahoe - Ha! It's Going To Freeze Tonight!

I've written about this before...

One year, I decided to try growing some veggies. It turned out that the last freeze of "spring" was in late June. And the first freeze of "fall" was in early August.

Less than six weeks of growing season.

I was thinking about that today, July 10th, when I looked at the National Weather Service website. It is supposed to freeze in Tahoe tonight. I guess that puts an exclamation point on Tahoe's growing season!

Here's the full screen shot:

Here's the closeup of today and tonight: (Remember, this is JULY 10th !)

Bottom line is that we should really enjoy our farmer's markets and supermarket produce sections, because we ain't gonna grow no veggies to speak of!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Best Hikes In Tahoe - (Near The Northwest Shore) Five Lakes Trail

Category - Moderate (although a no-nonsense trail - As with all hiking, No Flip Flops!)
View Rating - 4 out of 10
Distance - Approximately 4.5 miles round trip (The trail continues past the lakes and on into the Granite Chief Wilderness Area)
Elevation Gain - 1050
Highest Point - 7600

The Five Lakes Trail is a nice way to experience a bit of "single-track" trail hiking in the Sierra. It does not have spectacular views compared to many of Tahoe's more amazing hikes. And in fact there isn't a single view of Lake Tahoe, which lies to the southeast. However, the trail takes you to a group of small, pretty lakes nestled in a forested "saddle" on the trail. The trail isn't too long, and it is a great way to get a feel for what the Alpine Meadows ski area is like in the summer. (Don't worry, you won't see much ski area stuff, just a few lift towers from a distance.)

The trail climbs across the slope where the owners of Alpine and Squaw Valley hope to one day put in a gondola to connect the two areas. If that happens, the combined area will - by some measures - become the largest lift-served ski resort in North America.

The trail head is almost hidden in the woods to the right of this photo and opposite where Deer Park Drive intersects from the left. Parking is along the side of the road.

To get to the trailhead, drive about 4 miles west from Tahoe City on 89 (or about 10 miles south of Truckee on 89). The road follows the Truckee River, and if the rafting conditions are good, you may see dozens of rafts plying the light rapids.

When you come to the River Ranch hotel and restaurant, turn west up Alpine Meadows Road. 

Drive 2.1 miles up Alpine Meadows Road to where Deer Park Road intersects from the left. The trail head is in the trees to the right.

 The same trail that leads to Five Lakes also accesses the PCT and other trails.

For hikers heading past Five Lakes and into the Granite Chief Wilderness, there is a sign.

As with all trails, if you see what looks like large fireworks or small artillery or tubes that could be dynamite, DON'T TOUCH! These are avalanche control explosives that didn't detonate when they were supposed to. They are still very lethal and may go off at any time.

As the trail heads up, you get your first view of the peaks that make Alpine Meadows skiers very happy. This is one of our favorite ski areas.

This isn't considered a great wildflower hike, but there were still some delights.

Soon, the trail emerges from the forest, and you get nice views.

Ski lifts in the distance.

Ski resort lodge down in the beautiful bowl that makes up much of Alpine Meadows. (Although a good part of the resort is on the far side of the mountains toward the rear of this photo.)

If you turn around and look to back to the east, Lake Tahoe sits in the blue valley in the distance.

Looking up above to the north, you can see the top of Squaw Valley's KT-22 lift, which comes up from the far side and services black-diamond terrain down to Squaw Valley.

The trail rises up to a saddle for a nice level stroll, and goes back into the forest where the shade is cool. Soon, you will come to the lakes.

To the northwest is the back side of Squaw Peak at 8900 feet.

Don't worry about finding all five lakes. Three of them pretty much hide in the woods, and two of them become one when the snow runoff raises the water level in spring and early summer. The lakes are fun to explore and swim. They are also stocked with trout for fishing.

A delightful hike, not too long, not too high. And if you don't demand the greatest views, it could be just right.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sneak Preview - TAHOE DARK!

Coming in one month...


In TAHOE DARK, Tahoe Detective Owen McKenna fights to save a young woman who appears to have been wrongly accused of murder. 

Three people have been killed, and Evan Rosen, a house cleaner with dreams of someday attending law school, had a strong motive to want the victims dead. Worse, she had opportunity and she was found in possession of a murder weapon. Maybe Evan has been framed by a devious killer. Or maybe she's guilty...

The only way McKenna can get her off death row is to find the real killer. But it looks like the real killer is going to find McKenna and his Great Dane Spot first...

TAHOE DARK is not yet in most book data bases. Sometimes, knowing the ISBN number makes life easier if you want to place an order at your favorite bookstore. If so, here's the info:

TAHOE DARK ISBN: 978-1-931296-24-3

Stay tuned for my initial signing schedule...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 7 of 7

Here's the last part of my writers' conference talk on creating suspense.

Here is a list of some of the main things that lead to suspense.

1 Start by plunging your protagonist into life-or-death trouble on the first page of your story. Work all other information into the action. You don’t need to spend any time setting the stage. Readers are smart. They’ll figure it out. This is especially important in your first several books before you’ve developed a reputation for good storytelling.

2 Illuminate your protagonist with telling details that reveal important aspects of the person’s personality and emotions. What the protagonist looks like is not important. How the protagonist feels and reacts to life-or-death trouble is very important, and that is what generates our empathy and worry.

3 Give your evil antagonist a background so terrible that we suspend our disbelief and buy into the evil. And make the bad guy much more powerful than the hero.

4 Allow us to witness the antagonist’s evil or have another character testify to that evil.

5 As your protagonist tries to cope with the terrible trouble, make certain it gets worse, and then worse still.

6 Build to a climactic battle on the antagonist’s turf. Give the bad guy all of the advantages so that it appears obvious that the protagonist doesn’t have a chance.

7 Have the protagonist appear to be losing the climactic battle in every way. Remember that your hero can’t benefit from luck or coincidence. When your protagonist finally wins at the end, he or she does so through grit and perseverance and innovative thinking.

8 Make your wrap up, what writers call the denouement, as short as possible. Leave your readers wanting more.

All of these these techniques will create so much suspense that your reader will stay up late to finish your novel and then will order every other book you have written.

Writers who create dramatic suspense are the most successful of all writers.

Thank You

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 6 of 7

More from my writers' conference talk on how to create suspense.

Aside from suspenseful story bones, there are other storytelling techniques that create suspense. One of them I already mentioned is foreshadowing.

We need to give readers an advance warning of anything remarkable that happens in the story. We use foreshadowing to eliminate a sense of coincidence, which readers won’t abide.

For example, if your protagonist is going to use kickboxing skills in a critical fight scene, then we need to see her going to her kickboxing class early in the story. You can’t spring such a remarkable skill on the reader, or the reader will feel cheated. Maybe a critical scene requires your protagonist to know how to play chess or speak French or be able to ski. All of these skills must be shown early in the story before they become critical at the end.

Your characters can’t benefit from coincidence. That’s not playing fair with your reader. Readers demand to see your protagonist survive by wits, not luck.

The flip side of foreshadowing is what’s called Chekhov’s Law. Chekhov said that if, in an early scene, a shotgun is prominently featured above the fireplace mantle, it must be fired at the story’s climax. In other words, if you make a big deal out of something unusual, it has to come into play later in your novel. This adds considerable suspense to your entire story. You will recognize your own susceptibility to this in books you read and movies you watch. For example, if you learn in a story that a bad guy who gets in knife fights has stolen a 15th century golden Aztec knife with reputed magic powers, you instinctively anticipate a coming scene when he will use it. And you will feel suspense about that throughout the book. That golden knife must be used later in the story.

Yet another way to create a constant level of suspense with foreshadowing is to add into your scenes a vulnerability so that the reader can see the constant potential for disaster.

The horseback trail ride camping trip includes a horse with a bad hoof, and the trail goes along multiple cliffs.

A young couple has planned a big wedding, and 250 guests are about to arrive. But the bride is in love with another man.

A college biology student gets a job on a research ship and is required to make daily trips on a little dinghy into Norwegian fjords to study whales. But the college student can’t swim.

One of the hero’s friends is really a spy working for the bad guy, so you will continuously wonder which one of the characters is the traitor.

You might ask, what if it turns out that nothing dangerous happens on the camping trip, or no spy is revealed, or the shotgun isn’t fired? The story will be nearly ruined.

Remember that everything unusual or really remarkable that happens late in your story has to be foreshadowed. And everything remarkable that is foreshadowed has to be used later in your story. Chekhov’s shotgun must be fired.

There are endless ways that foreshadowing can build suspense. We’ve already mentioned having other characters report on the evil that someone does. This often takes the form of a warning, sometimes from characters we call shapeshifters, characters who may or may not exist and whose forms may change. Perhaps a person with reported psychic abilities has a “vision” of something bad related to a certain character. Even if the reader and all the other characters in the story don’t believe in psychic abilities, the warning serves its purpose and puts the reader on edge, worrying that even if the warning is hocus pocus, the psychic may still know something we don’t know.

And of course in my field of writing mysteries, the identity of the antagonist is not known until the very end. On top of these suspenseful story bones, a whodunnit story puzzle creates a constant suspense separate from all of these other techniques, which is one of the reasons for the popularity of mysteries.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 5 of 7

In the previous post, I talked about how to use expert witness and anecdote to describe a background that make believable motivation for a really bad guy. So to continue...

When you set this evil antagonist on a collision course with an innocent protagonist, every aspect of your novel will be imbued with suspense. As you tell of Violet’s nightmares of a bad man watching her through her bedroom window while her stoned guardian uncle is largely absent, the reader will continuously imagine the child killer trying to assuage the torment of his own past by stalking the girl. The suspense is built in to this plot and these characters.

However, while I will want to know what happens, the story sounds pretty cliched and with little depth. At its core, the basics of suspense can be easy to create, and it does the job of getting the reader to turn the page.

But cheap suspense cheapens your novel. Readers are sophisticated, and they will only come back for more of your stories if you give them something more nuanced, something more complicated, something more redeeming.

So you complicate the story in a way that makes it more interesting and adds even more suspense.

Let’s say that back when the killer escaped, perhaps one of the people in the courtroom was a disgraced ex-cop named Kyle who once moonlighted as an off-duty guard ten years before. He’d been hired to be the bodyguard of a teenaged girl, the daughter of a wealthy mob-connected businessman who had been threatened. One day, the teenager wanted Kyle, her bodyguard, to take her to a fashion show. While Kyle was distracted by the pretty models, the teenager was kidnapped by the businessman’s enemies and never found again.

The result of the teenager disappearing was tragic beyond description. Kyle was sued for millions by the businessman, fired by the police department, and vilified by the community. He began drinking to excess. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. His wife divorced him.

Kyle struggled with life, seeking some small redemption ever since the tragedy. He began going to murder trials, studying defendants, trying to find something to suggest that he wasn’t as bad a person as the killers on trial.

When the defendant stabbed the bailiff and escaped, Kyle decided to make it his personal mission to track down the killer. He believes that if he can catch the killer, he can begin to rebuild his shattered life.

Now you’ve got me totally involved with Violet and the escaped killer and the ex-cop who’s looking for redemption. I’m eager to find out what happens with all three characters.

This story also allows you to go in two directions because you have two potential protagonists. You can have Violet be your hero and show the story of a child reacting to rising danger. In the climactic battle, you can have Violet demonstrate a wily brilliance in using her small size and a child’s instinct to evade and even help the cops bring down a killer.

Or you can have the ex-cop be the protagonist, up against a younger, stronger, smarter, more vicious killer. The cop is fighting not just to save the little girl’s life but his own life and reputation as well. The story of redemption can be almost as powerful as the story of saving a child from a killer. Redemption can be a background that informs every aspect of the more immediate battles.

These story components create ongoing suspense.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 4 of 7

This is part 4 of my TMCC Writers' Conference talk on suspense.

Last week, we were imagining a story about a young girl named Violet who's just run into rush hour traffic to save a bunny rabbit.

Let’s revisit the trouble that drives your story. This trouble, the terrible trouble, comes from the antagonist, the bad guy.

The antagonist need not actually be a person and can instead be an addiction or a plague or a monster. But the antagonist usually takes human form be it a scary-looking street punk or a pleasant looking middle-class, father-in-law.

The most important component of the Bad Guy is that he or she has to have a believable motivation for his badness. We simply won’t suspend our disbelief if a normal person from a nice family who never experienced torment is suddenly revealed to be a serial killer who dismembers his victims. The Bad Guy has to have a history so horrible that we buy into the notion that he’s a serial killer.

Many times when you read a story that seems lame, or watch a movie that just isn’t gripping, it’s because the bad guy does bad stuff for no reason. These antagonists without motivation, that just come out of the woodwork for no reason, are always unsatisfying.

We make the bad guy credible by giving him a background that is bad enough to motivate his actions. This is the most important motivation of all the characters in your story. Why? Because it’s easy to believe it when your good guy protagonist responds in reasonable ways to severe trouble because you, the reader, would respond that way too. Because of this, we’re inclined to believe what good characters do. But the writer needs to go to great lengths to give the antagonist a compelling reason to do the terrible things he or she does.

In addition to giving your bad guy a powerful motivation to be bad, the reader also has to witness him being bad, or else we need the antagonist to have a proxy show how bad he is.

There are a couple of ways the reader can discover how bad the antagonist is. One is having an early scene showing a character coming up against the Antagonist’s evil. After the reader witnesses this evil and views the carnage, then the story moves from that first character, who may even be dead, to the protagonist. We naturally worry that the protagonist might succumb to the same fate.

An alternative way to demonstrate the Antagonist’s evil is with anecdotal telling by a third party. For example, maybe your story begins with an FBI psychologist on the witness stand at a trial of a man accused of killing children. The profiler tells the court that she’s studied the defendant’s background, especially the defendant’s father who kept the boy chained up in a dark basement cellar. The FBI’s expert says that people with such childhood backgrounds of deprivation often develop a type of psychopathy that is as wicked as people can get. This expert testimony gets me, the reader, believing that the Bad Guy is really evil because of his childhood background. Because of the anecdotal telling about the bad guy, I suspend my natural disbelief and buy into your story.

If, after the expert’s testimony, the defendant suddenly reveals that he has a sharpened toothbrush handle hidden in his cheek, and he gets it between his teeth as he jerks his head forward toward the bailiff, stabbing the bailiff in the neck, and then he escapes, I’ll give up any further doubt that anyone could be so wicked. I’ll now believe that there is no evil the killer isn’t capable of. The suspense ratchets up with every thought of this killer who is now on the run.

Now imagine that your story shows this escaped killer hiding under a freeway bridge. He’s feeling very angry about children and what he had to go through as a child. And he’s watching a little girl run into traffic to save a bunny rabbit…

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 3 of 7

This is part 3 of my TMCC Writers' Conference talk about suspense.

Let’s go back to our protagonist who’s in major trouble. It is always tempting for a writer to delay bringing on the trouble. As writers, we like to set a careful stage. But resist this desire. Now you may be thinking that you’ve read many books that take their time getting the danger up to full speed. But they were almost certainly books by writers you already knew about. It was the writer’s reputation for developing a good story that kept you reading through a slow beginning. But a new writer doesn’t have that luxury. When a reader tries a book by a writer they’ve never heard of, the only reliable thing that will get them to turn the pages is trouble. And not just any trouble, either. For the trouble to grab the reader, it needs to be life-or-death trouble. This can be literal life or death or, less commonly, metaphorical life or death. If metaphorical, it’s critical that the protagonist is in danger of losing the very thing that he or she cares about most.

While your protagonist should be sympathetic, this doesn’t mean he needs to be sweet and good or even likable - think Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita or Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But the protagonist is often kind and beneficent. Nice or not, the protagonist is made sympathetic with specific, descriptive details. Not just any details, but telling details that reveal deeper aspects of his character.

For example, if you tell me that the protagonist of your story is a sweet little girl who dearly loves all creatures, I might immediately begin to get sleepy. But if you begin your story by showing a seven-year-old girl named Violet running out between racing cars and trucks on the highway and scooping up a baby bunny rabbit that had wandered across the asphalt during a lull in traffic, I’ll begin to know and care about this character and wonder why no one is supervising her actions. If the following action reveals that Violet was recently orphaned and her guardian uncle didn’t notice her running onto the highway because he is smoking a joint with a friend in nearby pickup, the cargo bed of which is filled with a stolen shipment of flat-screen TVs, my empathy for Violet will be at full attention. When Violet runs with the bunny back through traffic, I will be on hyper alert for all the dangers in Violet’s life even if she turns out to not be a very nice person.

When Violet’s uncle finally takes her home to the motel where they are living, you continue to slip telling details into the action. The more specific those details, the more believable the story will be. This applies not just to characters but to all aspects of the story. If, as John D. MacDonald said in his essay on writing, you tell me that the motel room where Violet and her uncle are living is worn and seedy, I may not care. But if I read through Violet’s point of view that the carpet nap near the door was worn down to oily rubber and the leaky air conditioner had dripped water down the wallpaper and formed a brown stain in the shape of Texas, I will not only believe that the room exists, I will smell the mildew.

Specific details bring a story to life.

Next week: How Terrible can the Trouble be?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 2 of 7

Last week, I excerpted a portion of a talk I gave at the TMCC Writers' Conference on Creating Suspense. I left off making the point that the protagonist - the hero - in a suspenseful story almost always appears inferior to the antagonist - the bad guy. The protagonist is always the underdog.

To continue:

When the mythologist Joseph Campbell detailed these aspects of heroes and villains and story format, some people used his concepts in great detail. Back in the 1970s, there was a young man studying cinematography at USC. As he later explained, he took Joseph Campbell’s iconic character and story analyses and wrote a script that utilized them point by point. He then filmed a movie that conformed to every detail of Campbell’s story vision. The student’s name was George Lucas, and his little movie was called Star Wars. Movies have never been the same since.

In 1993, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a divorced mother on welfare began writing a different kind of story, but a story that nevertheless used those same concepts that Campbell and other academics had described. Her protagonist was a kid named Harry Potter. Books have never been the same since.

When you construct the bones of your story according to these basic story principles that have been handed down through the ages, you will have major suspense already built in.

Let’s look at those principles of successful stories.

In nearly all gripping stories, the good guy, our sympathetic protagonist, runs into terrible trouble in the form of an antagonist or an agent of the antagonist. Immediately, we the readers begin to stress. The reason is that the antagonist, the Bad Guy, is usually smarter, stronger, and better prepared than our hero. The Bad Guy always has more powerful weapons than our hero, whether those weapons be physical or psychological. The antagonist also has more knowledge of the territory. This combination gives the antagonist overwhelming advantages, and the poor protagonist is hopelessly out-gunned. This applies across all genres. Even in a romance, the antagonist, whether male or female, is often more charming, richer, better connected, and even better looking than our hero.

These attributes feed our story hunger. As we dive into an entertainment novel, we want to get short of breath and be astonished by the dangerous extent of the hero’s trouble and the depth of depravity that rules the Bad Guy. We never seem to tire of an antagonist whose evil traits seem unlimited. The Bad Guy can be someone as wicked as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or Jack Torrance in The Shining. The Bad Guy can be as fantastical as Captain Hook or Moby Dick, as evil as Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth. All rivet our attention.

When we are amazed and struck by fear and hatred of the Antagonist, that generates our emotions of empathy and worry for the Protagonist.

Leave it to the psychologists to explain why we crave these feelings. Suffice to say that they drive us to read. A really evil, powerful villain makes us hunger for a story in which the underdog hero, battling against enormous odds, eventually wins through tireless grit and innovative thinking.

Next week: A closer look at how Trouble, with a capital T, is the key to suspense.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 1 of 7

I was asked to give a talk on Creating Suspense at the 26th Annual Truckee Meadows Community College Writers' Conference.

The response was so positive, I decided to serialize it here on my blog. I've divided it into seven parts.

I hope you writers find it useful!

Today I want to talk about how to create suspense in your novel. First, I will give you some general concepts that automatically create suspense. Then I’ll go over specific techniques that set readers on edge. After that, we’ll have some time for Q and A, so please make a note of any questions.

Let’s start by distilling out the common components of stories. Once we have a clear picture of the structure of most stories, the bones as it were, then we can easily see where and how to construct them in a way that naturally grips our readers. More than anything else, suspense is created by a type of story structure.

All stories, and thus all novels, both literary and entertainment novels, are built around conflict. As readers, we get engaged in that conflict, and we want to see how it will turn out. At the most basic level, it is this conflict and its resolution that form the seeds of suspense.

In literary novels, which are written first as art and second as an engaging story, the suspense is often of a lower amplitude. We care of course about how the story will resolve itself, but we are often more focused on the complex, tormented characters, the lovely sentences, the rich metaphors, the deep, moody atmosphere, the thoughtful and heart-wrenching moral dilemmas.

In entertainment novels, which by contrast are written first and foremost and forever focused on an engaging story, the suspense is up front. We still may find a measure of art. We still want well-constructed characters and good prosody and scintillating sentences. But more than anything, we want suspense. I should point out that when I refer to suspense, I don’t necessarily mean something scary, I just mean something that gives us a powerful urge to turn the page. Speaking metaphorically, and sometimes literally, most readers, much of the time, want a novel that grabs us by the throat, drags us out into the rainy, sleet-stricken night, plunges us into the icy black swamp water, there to be held under and shook as if by the Godzilla of all that terrifies us.

In other words, we want a novel that makes us worry and stress and sweat. We want to be afraid. We want to cry even as we laugh at a romantic comedy.

You’ve heard the cliche “Show, don’t tell.” The three parts of prose are action, dialogue, and exposition. Exposition is the stuff where authors explain the things they think their readers need to know about. Get rid of it! Readers are smart. They don’t need to have things explained. As much as possible, show your story with action and dialogue. Those are the things that lead to a gripping, suspenseful story.

Let’s start with the hero, otherwise known as the protagonist.

There are of course a thousand ways to paint a great hero or heroine, and the hero, who’s usually a good person but sometimes isn’t, usually has sympathetic traits. As we get to know the protagonist’s desires and dreams and hopes and fears and worries, we identify with them, and we want their world to turn out well.

In the most common story structure, one that makes us rush to turn the pages and be unable to go to sleep at night, we quickly meet a sympathetic character who is our protagonist. That character gets into big trouble early on in the story. This trouble comes from the antagonist, otherwise known as the bad guy. In fact, the greater the depth of the well of trouble and the faster the hero falls into it, the more we worry and dread what is to come. As the protagonist tries to cope with the terrible trouble, the trouble gets worse. So the protagonist tries a new approach, but the trouble gets worse still. Then worse again. This is what’s called the Rising Plot Curve. And it is the foundation of building suspense.

Novels can of course begin slowly, carefully setting the stage with all of the components that will later be revealed as important in ways we don’t at first anticipate. This foreshadowing can be powerful, and the astute reader learns to pay attention to every detail, wondering which details will become the shotgun over the fireplace mantel, which must, according to Chekhov’s Law, be fired at the story’s climax.

However, increasingly in modern fiction, readers, who perhaps suffer shortened attention spans from the profusion of inputs vying for their attention, demand that the protagonist’s trouble comes on fast and heavy. Books with slow, deliberate beginnings are often put down in favor of books that start off fast and furious.

The famous movie impresario Samual Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer said, “I want a story that begins with an earthquake and then builds to a climax.” There is no finer description of a tale that grabs our attention and holds it from beginning until end, a story that starts with the icy hand grabbing us around our throat, followed by increasing tension that builds to a shattering climax.

These stories that barely give us breathing space are the ones that get us talking about them to our friends, emailing and calling and texting our recommendation to everyone we know. If you want emperical evidence of this, you need only glance at any bestseller list. The stories that sell most are usually the ones that have life-or-death trouble on the first page or first paragraph or even the first sentence and then build from there to a climactic battle between the Bad Guy and our poor protagonist, a battle that more often than not takes place on the Bad Guy’s turf.

This basic structure of stories has existed for thousands of years. Philosophers and psychologists who have studied the nature of stories believe that humans are hard-wired to be receptive to stories with the pattern of a sympathetic protagonist in conflict with an antagonist who appears superior to the hero in every way. In other words, heros are always underdogs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of How To Create Suspense, to be posted next week.