Matthew Hughes: the Archonate

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Every novel has a point where the hero(ine) embarks upon the main conflict at the heart of the story.  It’s when Dumbo wakes up in a tree;  it’s when a Louis L’Amour cowboy dives for cover as a shot rings out.

That’s the place to begin your manuscript.  Why not first establish the character and setting?  Because you may have only a few lines to hook that most crucial of readers — an agent.

Major New York agent Don Maass tells this story:  one Friday afternoon each month, he and his associates gather around a table that holds a stack of sample chapters they have asked to see, after winnowing through several hundred query letters.  Now they decide which chapters to read over the weekend.

Each manuscript is passed around.  Agents read the first page.  If the ms grabs someone’s attention, it goes in a briefcase.  If it doesn’t grab anybody, it’s gone.

If that was the opening of a novel you spent years writing, that Friday peek was your only shot.  Your story catches fire on page three?  Too bad;  page one didn’t hook anybody.

So put your main plot point in the first para of page one.  Get your story started, and then layer in the back story as you keep going.  Your chances of landing an agent will take a quantum leap, and that is the first step into the big leagues.

Besides, once you’ve sold the book, you and your editor can always rewrite the opening.

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Four necessities:


Reader must be caught up in the story.  Not because of bells and whistles or situation or plot twists.  People read about characters, and you have to make them care about characters.


Reader must feel that something is going to happen, something that comes out of the character and situation.


The reader doesn’t know what is going to happen.  Will the hero survive?  Will the killer be caught?  Will the bomb go off?


The primary emotion is fear.  That which is about to happen must be awful.  Also pity — again, it’s about caring about the characters.


Building suspense:
  • First draw the reader into the character
  • Give hero a goal beyond solving the plot problem.
  • Tight plotting.  Easy on self-indulgence and hobby horses.  What happens in the story has to come out of the characters’ needs.
  • Create a sense of immediacy — by writing scenes that show, not tell.
  • Make the stakes high — death is on the line;  a child is in peril;  terrorists may blow up the stadium full of people.
  • Then raise the stakes.  Make life hell for the hero.  Make the victims suffer.  Don’t be dry and matter of fact.  Even hardboiled fiction is sentimental.
  • The threat never stops.  When you solve one tactical problem, another, worse one looms behind.
  • The hero is increasingly isolated.  Ultimately, the helpers cannot help and he is on his own.  His own survival may be the final stake.
  • Deadlines:  do not make the action open-ended.  The bomb is ticking down to zero.  The pilotless airliner is running out of fuel.
  • Violence.  Don’t be afraid of it, but don’t be gratuitous.  The violence comes out of the characters’ needs and situations.  Fear and pity are the tools you use to wring a response from the reader.
  • Accelerate.  The closer you get to a (or the) climax, the tighter and shorter the scenes.  Grab the readers by the nose and pull them right into it.
  • Connect your scenes.  Try to end each scene with a hook that leads into the next one.  Hero escapes from sinking ship, swims to dock;  as he pulls himself out of the water he sees the muzzle of a gun right by his head and a voice says, “Glad you could make it.”
  • Crucial choice is PoV.  First person or third person limited are best.  You need to make the reader experience the story from within, so write through the hero’s sensorium/feelings, lots of showing not telling, and work the hero’s interior monologue to catch the reader’s sympathies.
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If there’s one stumbling block that trips up people who are trying to write genre fiction, it’s the challenge of “show, don’t tell.”  Some people don’t seem to be able to grasp the difference, and so they keep churning out narrative-based stories (“telling”) that editors reject because what they (and the readers) are looking for is scene-based writing (“showing”).

I think part of the problem is that narrative is the natural way we tell each other stories off the page.  We say, for example, “My grandfather was in the merchant marine in World War II and on his first convoy crossing, his ship was torpedoed off Newfoundland.”  We don’t verbally construct a scene, saying, “It was cold on the open bridge of the SS Minerva, two days out of Halifax. The old freighter’s constant dip and climb through the deep-troughed waves of the North Atlantic threw up a heavy spray, most of which froze on the chilled steel of the bulkhead — but the rest seemed to be aimed directly at the beardless face of young Pete Hammond, making his first voyage into the longest, most murderous battle of the Second World War.  He thrust his fists deeper into the pockets of his sailor’s pea jacket, tucked his wind-numbed chin behind his closed collar button, and counted the minutes until the ship rang four bells, when old Albert would come up and relieve him.”

But if you want to write sf, fantasy, mysteries, romance, westerns – any of the genres – you have to overcome your default storytelling instincts and acquire a set of tools that let you create the illusion of immediacy of action (i.e., of “being there”) in the reader’s mind.  Those tools are:

· sequentiality – the action happens, step by step, before the reader’s eyes;
· detail – rather than generic, generalized descriptions, you draw the reader’s eye (and ear and nose and sense of touch) to specific, precise details from which the reader will confabulate the whole;
· point of view – genre fiction is told from the point of view (pov) of the characters, rather than from the god’s-eye view of an omniscient narrator;  the preferred pov is called third-person-limited, i.e., each scene is anchored in one (and only one – that’s why it’s called “limited”) character’s view and appreciation of what’s going on in that scene, and that character is referred to as he, or she, or it, as the case may be.  First-person pov, where the point of view is that of the protagonist or another character who refers to him/her/itself as “I,” is less common in genre fiction, but is acceptable.  Second-person pov – as in a story that begins “You open the door and ease yourself into the room” – is usually not an easy sell;
· character sensorium – you deepen the illusion of immediacy by showing the action in the scene through the pov character’s senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and the other lesser senses (balance, hair-raising response, etc.) to vicariously stimulate the reader’s own sensorium;  using the technique effectively requires picking the right sensory details that will best cause the reader to confabulate and identify with the character’s situation;
· conflict – every scene is built around a conflict, whether major or minor, whether physical, verbal, spiritual, psychological, and the scene begins when that conflict begins and ends when it ends.

Now here is an example of the same action being told in narrative and shown in scene writing.


Armored and with sword and shield slung across his back, the brave warrior Arctor scaled the windy heights of Bran Covin.  The way was steep.  At times, on the bracken-covered lower slopes, he stooped to all fours, and at the end he must scale a sheer cliff, clinging by toe holds and fingertips.  All day he climbed until, high up where the air grew thin, he came at last to a wide ledge backed by a dark-mouthed cave.  From within its shadows came the troll Blodmir, roaring and wielding a great club of lighting-blasted oakwood set with stone points.  They fought until Arctor’s shield was battered to a shapeless mass and Blodmir bled from a dozen cuts, yet still either might have won the day.  But, though weakened from the battle and the scant air, the hero delivered a cunning stroke that lamed the troll, then thrust him bodily out into the empty air beyond the ledge, to fall to the sharp rocks far below.  Then Arctor entered the noisome cave to claim the treasure he had won.


The sun was just clearing the eastern horizon as Arctor set a booted foot on the lowest slope of Bran Covin.  The massif reared high above him, its upper heights bare rock wreathed in mist, its steep lower slopes clad in dense heather and clumps of thistle that tugged at his coarse leggings with each step.  The morning air was chill against his face but soon he felt trickles of sweat coursing down his ribs beneath the padded linen hauberk and the tight-ringed mail that covered his torso.

By mid morning, he had reached ground so steep that he stopped to sling his shield across his back, cinching its carrying strap tight across his chest.  He yanked on the baldric that supported his scabbarded broadsword until it too hung from one shoulder.  Then, bent-kneed and with hands grasping at the bracken, he pushed and pulled himself up the precipitous slope until he came to a field of stones that had broken off and fallen from the heights above.  Beyond the jumble of sharp-edged debris a gray wall of weather-cracked rock rose sheer before him.

It was noon now and he sat on a boulder, drinking from his water bottle and chewing a lump of field bread as his keen eyes sought for a succession of crevices and outcrops that would be his route up the cliff.  An hour later he was high above where he had sat, and higher still above the slope where he had fought the bracken.  Now his face was pressed against the sun-warmed stone, fingertips blindly seeking above him for the next crack while the inner edge of his boots rested precariously on another small imperfection in the vertical rock.

At mid-afternoon, he found his way blocked by a outcrop that bulged out of the cliff face.  Sweat stinging his eyes, his fingers torn and nearly numb, his shoulder muscles afire from the strain of the sustained climb, he worked his way sideways and found the base of a crevice that went straight up.  It was a perfect width for him to climb by pressing his palms and boots against the rock and he made good progress.

Near sundown, he levered himself up onto a ledge three times as broad as Arctor was tall, backed by a wide-mouthed cave.  Up here the air was so thin that the hero must take deep breaths to keep his head from spinning and his sight from blurring.  The inhalations brought him the rank odor that emanated from the cave, a mingling of long-unwashed flesh and the sweet stench of rotting meat.  He kept his eyes on the darkness as he loosened the cinch of his shield so he could swing it forward and slip his left arm through the padded brace, while his sword hand went over his shoulder to grasp the sword’s hilt.  The long blade slipped from its scabbard’s oiled embrace with a sound like a serpent’s hiss.

From within the cave he heard the faint rasp of a claw upon stone, then from the darkness rushed the red-eyed troll Blodmir, half again Arctor’s height despite his bent-kneed gait, his lipless mouth sending a roar of red rage past dagger-sharp teeth.  With one clawed hand he raised a length of lightning-blasted oakwood, black and iron-hard, as long as Arctor’s leg, its thick end studded with points and blades of razor-edged flint.

Arctor took the club’s first blow on his upraised shield, felt the shock race up his arm to his shoulder even as the clash of wood on iron rang in his ears.  He swung his sword in a lateral slash at Blodmir’s ribs, the weapon’s edge laying open the pebbly skin but bouncing off the stony ribs beneath.  The troll roared again, pain mingled with rage, and brought the club down once more.  The upper rim of Arctor’s shield buckled inward, and the force of the impact numbed the hero’s shield hand.

He stepped back, feinted to draw his opponent off balance, then tried a straight thrust at the troll’s naked belly.  But Blodmir swept the sword away with the back of one great hand, ignoring the wounds the honed edge opened on his fingers, and again he hammered with the length of blasted wood on the shield rim, driving Arctor almost to his knees.

The shield was no use, the man saw.  As the troll came on again, he flung it, edge-on, at Blodmir’s red eyes and followed with another thrust that pierced the opponent’s hip.  The troll seemed to feel no pain but swept the club in a sideways blow that would have crushed Arctor’s ribs had he not leaped back.  Still, it was a near thing — a flint set into the head of the cudgel scratched across the rings of Arctor’s mail, striking sparks.

And now it was cut and duck, slash and spring back, his aim to bleed the troll into weakness while avoiding the long-armed sweeps of the crude weapon.  The ledge grew slippery with Blodmir’s blood and Arctor’s deepest breaths of the thin air were barely enough to keep the dizziness from slowing him.  His vision grew red at the edges and he labored to draw air into his lungs, the sword growing ever heavier in his hand.

But Blodmir was slowing too, the rage in his eyes giving way first to a look of puzzlement, then doubt.  Limping from a wound in one calf, he blundered forward again, swung his club at Arctor’s ankles.  But the man leaped over the cudgel, then tucked and rolled between the troll’s bandy legs, springing to his feet behind Blodmir.  The effort caused his head to spin and the red in his vision darkened to black.  But he saw the tendons where they stood out in the back of the monster’s knee and thrust his sword’s point at them.

The cords parted in a rush of blood.  Blodmir’s roar was more of a bleat as the torn leg collapsed beneath him.  He tried to turn, meaning to strike at Arctor but the man went forward, the sword held level before him like a quarter staff, and shoved against the troll’s hip.  Off-balance, teetering on one leg, Blodmir staggered back a step and Arctor came at him again, shoving with the flat of the sword.

The monster moaned, tried to raise the club for one more strike, but Arctor stepped beneath the uplifted arm and, panting, his head aswim, he used the last of his failing strength to push the troll back another step.

It was a step that brought Blodmir’s splayed foot to the edge of the precipice.  The friable rock split and cracked, and in a moment the troll toppled over and out into the empty air.  Arctor saw him fall, the club swinging at nothing, the lipless mouth open in a roar the man could not hear.  Then the body struck the jagged rocks below and burst like a bladder of blood.

Arctor stepped back, set the point of his sword against the stone beneath him and leaned on it for a long moment until his lungs could get enough from the air to keep him from swooning.  When his vision cleared, he looked to the cave.  In the darkness something glowed with a light of its own.

On still trembling legs, the hero stepped into the foul-smelling lair to collect the treasure he had won.

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“A ship out on the ocean.”

When I was teaching genre writing, I would say this line to the class, wait a couple of seconds, then say it again, just in case anyone had missed it.

Then I would ask if everyone had a mental image of a ship out on the ocean.  And, yes, everyone did.

I would then do a “hands up” session:  “hands up, everyone who saw a sailing ship.”  A few hands would go up.

“Hands up everyone who saw a warship.”  Another few, usually all male.

“A tanker or freighter?”

And so it would go.  I’d ask if the ship was coming toward them or sailing away or going left-to-right or right-to-left.

Was the sea calm, choppy, stormy?  Was it day or night?

Each person had a well realized image of a certain kind of ship on a certain kind of sea, doing this or that, under sun or moon or cloud.

But none of that extra information was included in “a ship out on the ocean.”  So where did it come from?

From the writer’s invaluable friend:  confabulation.

Confabulation is a deeply human quality, although we surely had it even before we became human.  It’s the inherent power of the mind to take a small piece of information and fit it into its more complete context.

It was the power that let us glimpse a sliver of yellow or orange through a screen of leaves and know that the full image was of a piece of fruit that we could eat.  Or to see a tawny patch between the stalks of the long grass and know that it was a lion that could eat us.

It’s also the power that, in a famous psychology experiment, convinced several students in a classroom that the person who had just burst in, threatened the professor, then run out again had been brandishing a gun.  In fact, it had been the professor’s grad student assistant wielding a banana.  But, because the situation seemed to call for a gun, the beguiled undergrads’ minds had conjured one up.

Interesting stuff, confabulation, and part of the reason why the courts are now understanding that they can’t rely on eye-witness identification as iron-clad evidence.

But, to come back to writing, the reason why confabulation is our friend is because it means we don’t have to create long, tedious descriptions of our characters and settings.  Instead, we need only concentrate on the few details that will become the dots our readers connect for themselves.

An old king on an even older throne, with hands that knew how to grasp and ears tuned against flattery.  For most readers, that’s all that’s needed.  Now show the king in action, doing what he does that makes him who he is — and especially what part he plays in the story — and you can get on with telling the tale.

All the rest of it — the lines on his face, the crown on his snowy hair, the brocaded robe, the carvings on the throne, the throne room itself — will be confabulated-in by each reader.  They will, like the ships and the ocean, be different as to detail.  But that doesn’t matter, does it?

It doesn’t matter, because this is no real-world king that needs to be described accurately.  It is only a character that exists in the reader’s mind while reading the story, and perhaps in moments of reflection when the book is closed and put on the shelf.

So choose your details carefully, get them down, and keep the story moving.  Let confabulation do the heavy lifting for you.

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Here are the basics and a few useful tips on writing scenes in genre fiction . . .

Scenes are the fundamental building blocks of genre.  They are the venues in which the stories are shown, not told.  Scenes may be connected by narrative writing — “telling” — and a given scene may contain some necessary narrative description to establish the setting and convey any details that are essential to the action, but they will be mostly about characters in conflict with each other, with their environment, or with their inner selves.

A scene in a genre story or novel is there for a specific purpose:  it either advances the plot or it develops the character, and ideally it does both.  If the author happens to be a literary genius, a scene may instead evoke mood or make a symbolic statement, but those of us who are not in the genius business are safer if we stick to the plot/character standard.

Now, an aside to establish a definition, because the word “scene” means different things in different media:  a scene in a genre novel or story is not the same thing as a scene in a play or a movie.  In a play, a scene is the action that takes place in a specific location.  In between scenes, the curtain closes (or at least the stage goes dark) and we wait while the set is changed for the next location.  In a movie, a scene is bounded by much the same considerations, although one follows fast upon another, because editing takes out all the lag time between showing us what happens on the bridge of the Titanic then cutting to what’s going on in steerage.

In genre fiction, a scene is bounded by its content.  Just as every novel or story asks and answers a dramaturgical question — will Hamlet finally make up his mind?  will Dumbo come to have faith in his ability to fly? — so each scene poses and answers a smaller question that’s part of the big one that frames the story.

So, in a detective story, we may have a scene in which the sleuth, tipped off, goes to a warehouse at midnight to look for the evidence that will solve the case.  The scene’s dramaturgical question is:  will he find the evidence?  The answer, as in most scenes, is liable to be either yes, nor, or not yet.

Say that when he gets to where the evidence is supposed to be, he’s jumped by the bad guy’s henchmen, beaten up, and hauled off to meet the boss.  At that point, we’ve answered the question and the scene is over.  Probably, we go on to the next scene where the confrontation between the bad guy and the sleuth poses a new question:  say, will the confrontation yield new information that moves the plot along?  And again, the question will be answered —  yes, no, not yet — by the action in the scene.

Because it’s about asking and answering a question, every scene, long or short or inbetween, has a beginning, a middle and an end.  The beginning is where the conflict inherent in the action begins, the middle is where the conflict develops, and the end is when the conflict resolves into the answer.

The key word in the above para is conflict.  Every scene is built around a conflict of some kind, be it physical, verbal, emotional, spiritual, or any other form you can think of.  The protagonist of the scene struggles against some kind of opposition to fulfill some kind of agenda.  A scene without conflict is just travel writing or character sketching, both of which are fine in their own milieus, but not what the genre fiction reader is looking for — which is story, the basis of which is conflict.

Scenes also have a sense of time passing.  Things happen, one after the other, and the reader is carried along from moment to moment, action to action, with an illusion of immediacy.  Even though most genre fiction is written in the past tense, the reader is led by the “show, don’t tell” technique to experience it as if it’s happening right now.

To write a scene, you must first settle the issue of whose point of view the scene will be told from.  In narrative (or “literary”) fiction, the point of view may be that of an omniscient narrator who describes characters and editorializes on their strengths and foibles.  In genre fiction, the author is advised to choose either a first-person pov or what is called third-person-limited.

In first person, the warehouse scene would open something like this:  “I opened the door to the warehouse and slipped inside, my trusty Smith & Wesson sub-nosed .38 ready in my hand.”  In third-person-limited, it would go:  “Dick Tracy opened the door to the warehouse and slipped inside, his trusty Smith & Wesson snub-nosed .38 ready in his hand.”

The reason the latter is called “limited” is because it is restricted to the pov of only one character in the scene — in most scenes it’s usually the story’s protagonist, although scenes shown from the pov of a supporting character or even the antagonist (the “bad guy”) may be useful to the story-telling process.  So, even though other characters may come into the scene, like the henchmen waiting in the warehouse shadows, the reader will experience them only through Dick Tracy’s sensorium — seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears, feeling the pain of the blows he suffers.  If we want the reader to know anything about what another character is thinking or feeling, it will have to be funneled through Dick Tracy’s senses and perceptions.

Leaving a pov character’s frame of reference to dip into another character’s in the same scene is called “head-hopping.”  It’s acceptable in literary fiction, but not genre.  So we can’t write, “The one with the squashed nose, a genuine sadist, was enjoying hitting Tracy in the same part of his belly over and over again, doubling and redoubling the pain.”

Instead, it has to be something like this:

The one with the squashed nose threw a second punch that struck Tracy in the same spot as the first blow.  The pain flared up like a fire when gasoline is thrown on it, and the detective’s vision became a tunnel framed in red.  He looked into the thug’s eyes, saw the pleasure there, and knew that he was being beaten by a genuine sadist.  The man’s knowing smile as he slowly drew back his fist for a third strike showed that this was not just business.  The bastard was enjoying himself.

The more you use the pov character’s senses in describing what’s going on, the more you’ll draw the reader into the scene.  So try to avoid generic descriptions like “The air in the room was chilly,” and instead describe from within the character’s sensorium:  “The chill air raised goosebumps on Tracy’s bare arms and sent a shiver through his back muscles.”

Minimize description in scenes, because it slows down the action.  Choose a couple of apt details to put the reader in the picture and let the reader’s power of confabulation — that’s the human mind’s ability to create a complete picture from just a few clues — do the rest.  For example, the thug above with the squashed nose and knowing smile needs no more embellishment.

A tip for beginners.  Most us, when starting out, have a tendency to write a lot more than is necessary.  In writing scenes, that includes writing your way in and writing your way out.  Modern readers, especially, have been educated by the rapid-fire editing of contemporary movies and television shows.  They don’t need the written equivalent of the establishing shots that bygone generations of movie-goers were used to.

So in the warehouse scene, we wouldn’t bother with how Tracy got to the place.  We would start the scene with him opening the door and going in, because that’s where the conflict begins.  The reader will understand that he got there somehow.  And we would end it when the scene’s question has been answered.  The warehouse scene could end with the bad guys putting a black bag over the detective’s head and everything going dark.  There’s no need to describe his being shoved in a car, driven across town, dragged out, manhandled into another building and shoved into a chair.  The next scene can begin with the hood being pulled off his head so the confrontation with the bad guy can get underway.

When you’re going over your draft, look for those “ears” on the beginnings and ends of scenes, the places where you wrote your way in and out, and cut them.  You’ll get a faster-paced story.

Finally, every character in a scene has an agenda, something he or she (or it) is trying to achieve.  It’s the clash of those agendas that makes for conflict.  And conflict is the indispensable tool of the genre fiction writer.

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