A few weeks ago, I attended the Chanticleer Authors Conference in Bellingham, Washington. My latest mystery, Run Dog Run, had made the "Mystery and Mayhem" short list. I attended hoping my book would win, but knowing the competition was fierce. I didn't come home with the grand prize, but I gained some helpful writing tools as a consolation.
On the last day of the conference, I attended Jessica Page Morrell's all-day class, "Writing Craft Sessions that Will Take Your Work to the Next Level." It was the best six hours of the entire three days and it was just what I needed. The morning session focused on the details of plotting, and the afternoon dealt with the necessity of learning from great writers. The information was so useful, I bought Morrell's book, Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. Her third chapter, "Cliffhangers and Thrusters," caused me to take a closer look at my work-in-progress, a hardboiled detective novel set in the 1940s.
Morrell describes thrusters as structural devices, usually placed at the beginning of a chapter or scene, that push the story ahead and keep readers turning the pages. Cliffhangers, of which I'm sure you are familiar, are actually thrusters that occur at the end of a chapter or scene, or even a book if you're writing a series. This technique was not new to me, but it was something I needed to revisit.
After reading this chapter, I noted that my cliffhangers weren't too bad. Here are three examples:
"The only thing he accomplished since taking this case was screwing his client's wife."
"The next time Kendrick laid eyes on Roman, he promised himself he'd slit the guy's throat."
"The snarl on her lip had disappeared, but the look of disdain had hardened."
My thrusters needed work, however. Here are three examples:
"Kendrick took a taxi back to the hotel."
"It was just past nine when Kendrick called Damien Carver at his office."
"New York City was a great place to live." (This one made me cringe.)
Now, take a look at three cliffhangers and three thrusters from New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben's The Stranger:
"Did you fake your pregnancy?"
"It was two in the morning when Adam remember something-or, to be more precise, someone."
"She attached the image to the e-mail and typed two words before hitting send: HE KNOWS."
"The stranger didn't shatter Adam's world all at once." (This is the opening line of the book!)
"The stranger hated to do this one."
"It was amazing how many things could happen in a single moment."
The take-home message: no matter how much you absorb, no matter how much you write, no matter how many books you've gotten published, the learning process never stops.
That terrible thruster, "New York City was a great place to live," now reads: "It was ten in the morning. Kendrick didn't care. He ordered an ice-cold draft and toasted the Big Apple."