What makes us keep turning the pages? The same thing that makes us watch a train wreck. Award-winning author Vic DiGenti shares with us how he beats up his protagonists and how, if they didn’t have to appear in the next book, he would probably just go ahead and kill them.
Try some of Vic DiGenti’s techniques in your own writing and see if you can’t create some extra page-turning heat.
Until next week, Happy Writing!
Founder of Killer Nashville
Recently I’ve started looking at people differently. Perhaps it’s because I’ve watched one too many cable news programs spouting doom and gloom. Or maybe programs like Criminal Minds and CSI, with their growing body counts and close-ups of autopsies, have desensitized me. But as I look at people I imagine clever ways to send them on their way—permanently. That’s right, dead, gone, deceased, demised, passed on, expired, pushing up daisies, an ex-live body (with apologies to John Cleese in the hilarious “Dead Parrot” episode of The Monty Python Show).
Wait, before you rush to call the authorities, or send me your do-it-yourself home lobotomy kit, let me reassure you I haven’t gone postal. Life is still good down here on the farm, and I’m enjoying my retirement even more since I won the lottery, but now that I’m writing mysteries, I have to find ways to dispatch my victims in surprising ways to satisfy my readers’ blood lust. So you see I have an excuse for my new perspective on people.
My decision to write my award-winning Matanzas Bay came because I’ve always been a reader of mysteries and thrillers. My wife might tell you that it’s because I live in a fantasyland where I picture myself as the hero of my stories. There’s some truth to that, but it makes more sense now that my hero is a real human being rather than a cat (the hero in my Windrusher series). Unlike authors who tell you to write what you know, I believe in writing what you love to read. My bookshelves are crammed with the works of my favorite authors: Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and other masters of the craft.
These guys make being a hero a hard business. So how do you write these guys? One of the first bits of advice I heard was to chase your hero up a tree, then throw rocks at him. In other words, as writers we should make it supremely difficult for our protagonists to reach their goals by placing as many obstacles in their path as we can. Our job as writers, as sci-fi author Ben Bova once said, is to be a troublemaker. Since my Quint Mitchell Mystery series is more hard-boiled than soft, I had to fit my sleuth and the story into the conventions of that genre of mystery. For instance, many hard-boiled detective yarns are told in first person, putting us squarely into the head of the protagonist. We also know that bad things are going to happen, at least one murder and other crimes. The sleuth is going to make it his mission to find the villain, chasing down clues, banging into dead ends, and charging up blind alleys before justice prevails. And readers of hard-boiled mysteries not only expect to see the violence unfold on the page, they’d be disappointed if it didn’t. So, using this framework as the world, how do you make your protagonist sweat in it?
We can do this in a lot of ways, but I particularly like what Donald Maas wrote in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel.
Ask yourself who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose. Kill that character. What is your protagonist’s greatest physical asset? Take it away. What is the one article of faith that for your protagonist is sacred? Undermine it. How much time does your protagonist have to solve the main problem? Shorten it.
By squeezing your hero, the reader will stay hooked to see how the protagonist is able to navigate all the roadblocks you’ve erected.
Here are a few ways to make your protagonist uncomfortable. You see them in many mysteries, including Matanzas Bay and its sequel, Bring Down the Furies.
- Major discomfort. The more aches and pains your hero suffers, and the more obstacles he has to overcome, the more heroic he’ll seem if he is able to fight his way through it all and emerge victorious and semi-healthy. In Matanzas Bay, poor Quint suffers a nasty beating that sends him to the hospital with a concussion, and he’s nearly devoured by alligators. But he overcomes it because, well, because he’s the hero and he’s going to be in the next book and the alligators aren’t.
- Plague him with constant mishaps. His car breaks down. He loses his cell phone. His mother-in-law hates him. He’s fired from a big case. That’s a good start. Then loose the inner demons. Is he an alcoholic? Send him into bars to find a suspect. Hates snakes like Indiana Jones? Then toss him into a den of serpents. My protagonist has a trunk load of guilt, living with the knowledge he was responsible for his brother’s murder many years before. That guilt and its implications weigh on him throughout Matanzas Bay. Be sure your hero learns from each experience and grows stronger and more determined. And keep raising the stakes so he has less time to solve the case before the wrong man is convicted, or has to find a kidnapped loved one before they’re killed, or the villain threatens to blow up a bus filled with people if his demands aren’t met within 24 hours, just as examples.
That’s the academic overview, but writing is about making it personal. And that takes me back to my people watching. When it’s time to dispatch another victim, it helps if I can visualize someone I wouldn’t mind taking the place of a dead parrot, figuratively speaking, of course.
Perhaps an old boss?
A former spouse?
Hmm, come a little closer.
Let me have a good look at you.
Florida writer Vic DiGenti began his writing career as the author of the award-winning WINDRUSHER series, three adventure/fantasy novels featuring a feline protagonist. Writing as Parker Francis, Vic leaped into the hard-boiled mystery genre with his first Quint Mitchell Mystery, MATANZAS BAY, which was selected as a Book of the Year in the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Awards competition. His second book, BRING DOWN THE FURIES, took the Gold Medal in the Mystery/Thriller category in last year’s President’s Award competition (Florida Authors & Publishers Association). Vic is now working on the third Quint Mitchell Mystery, HURRICANE ISLAND. Visit him at www.parkerfrancis.com.
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