Friday, November 30, 2012

Using Book Structure to Create Compelling Stories--Guest Post by Terry Ambrose

 by Terry Ambrose, @suspense_writer
Purchase here
The epiphany, the “aha” moment, the smack on the side of the head. No matter what we call it, that moment when the last piece of the puzzle snaps into place is an amazing moment. In this case, that moment had to do with writing a compelling story.

Let’s face it, some writers are just masters at creating a story that readers can’t put down. For me, that’s the ultimate compliment and the holy grail of writing mysteries and suspense. I’ve studied and practiced the craft of writing for many years and became a fan of Jack M. Bickham’s scene and sequel writing theory for some time back. In my opinion, most fiction writers would benefit just by learning Bickham’s theories about how to structure a novel.

Scenes and sequels

When I read Bickham’s “Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure,” I realized that my writing had subconsciously been moving in that direction for years. Bickham’s guidance was what I needed at precisely the right moment. It gave me questions to ask before I started laboring over any new scene. In short, it gave my writing structure.

         Everything that happens in a story is based on a stimulus and for every stimulus, there will be a character response.

         Scenes advance the story through establishing character goals, generating conflict, and taking characters one step forward, two steps back with major and minor disasters.

         Sequels provide the reader an opportunity to get closer to the characters by showing why they took an action and what emotions they felt. The sequel also sets up the next action in the story.

The “next” paragraph, from structure to compelling

My second “aha” moment was pure serendipity. I’d just attended a meeting where bestselling author Kelley Armstrong talked about plotting. She gave a number of tips to help writers move their plots forward more quickly. That, as the saying goes, “primed the pump.” The real smack on the side of the head came when my wife brought home an old Greg Isles book that she came across while working at the Friends of the Library bookstore.

“Black Cross” hooked me with the first sentence. So far, good job Mr. Isles, you made me want to finish the paragraph. At the end of the first paragraph, I had to read the second. Then the third. By the end of the second page, there was no question that this was what a compelling read was all about—the next paragraph. The epiphany—it’s all about playing dirty.

Playing dirty

Whether I’m writing a funny Hawaiian mystery like PHOTO FINISH or a suspense novel like my upcoming release, my goal is to get the reader to the next paragraph. If I write each paragraph with a mini-hook at the end, I’ll have done my part. Perhaps someday I’ll have another moment like “the next paragraph” moment. Will it be days? Months? Years? I have no idea. What I do know is that instead of using a hook at the end of each chapter, as I did before, I’m now taking that concept to the paragraph level and treating each paragraph as though it might be a chance for the reader to put down the book. Sorry, readers, but I’m determined to play dirty and not give you that chance.

About the author

Terry Ambrose started out skip tracing and collecting money from deadbeats and quickly learned that liars come from all walks of life. He never actually stole a car, but sometimes hired big guys with tow trucks and a penchant for working in the dark when “negotiations” failed.

In his debut novel PHOTO FINISH, a former skip tracer meets a beautiful con artist in Honolulu and finds trouble almost too hot to handle. Terry’s next novel, LICENSE TO LIE, will be released in mid December. It’s about a $5 million con gone bad and the harshest lesson of all—never trust a soul…even your own.

Learn more about Terry on his website at or on his Facebook author page at