As I watched more than one match from the US Open, the absolute dedication and training of the players struck me more than once as a sight to behold. It was an exciting two weeks, and I only witnessed the matches from the comfort of my home. What a thrill it must be to actually step onto Ashe Stadium or any of the courts as a player. No matter whether the player lost in the first round or progressed further, each has an accomplishment to be proud of, their hard work paying off with entry into one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world. As a tennis fan, I loved listening to the commentators and watching the matches. And what matches I enjoyed, among them possibly the biggest upset in tennis history, an improbable but entertaining women’s final, and a truly astounding men’s final. And more than once, I heard so many great life lessons, most of which can be applied to the craft of writing.
Vary your shot selection. One of the joys of watching the men’s final was watching the great skill and mastery of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Djokovic’s backhand is one of the best ever. Whether he spins it in, slices it, or nails it down the line, there is always a glimmer of his intelligence and foresight into the how he is trying to manipulate the point. Federer has incorporated new shots into his game, including what was termed the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger). Even though he has won seventeen Grand Slam matches, he’s still trying something new.
Throughout the tournaments, there were forehands or backhands, volleys or lobs, some with spin, some without. Players vary their serve, some going down the line, others going out wide. They vary their shots and their shot selection. They know when to settle into an exchange and when to press and hit a winner.
In the same way, an author varies his sentence structure. It would be very boring to read a bunch of simple sentences that all have the same pattern. So, too, an author should have variety in his arsenal. Sometimes a stretch of dialogue is needed for banter. Sometimes short, terse sentences are needed to convey tension. Sometimes long, meandering sentences are needed for a break from continuous action. Authors know when to vary their shot selection.
Authors can also learn from the sneak attack play. Whether an author is a plotter or a pantser, an author can take a page from Federer’s playbook and throw in something when the reader least expects it. I recently read Mary Connealy’s Swept Away. (Spoiler alert for an event 60% into the book.) One very likeable character was Big John, a Texas Ranger whose job was to deliver a wanted criminal to the proper authorities. Did I see him getting attacked by the prisoner and being left for dead? Not a bit. Ms. Connealy snuck up on me and placed one of her characters in mortal danger when I least expected it. Whether an author follows the three-act play format or breaks down the book into quarters, throwing in something completely unexpected, but still within the boundaries of the book, can help to vary the shot selection and keep the reader turning pages.
For example, to keep advancing the hypothetical romance from my last blog (quick reminder: romantic suspense, hero detective in France falling for sister of art thief who happens to work at the museum where the painting was stolen), as an author, I want to keep moving the plot forward and vary the shot selection. In the tense scenes, I’d use short, compact sentences with sharp, pointed verbs. Then say, a quarter of the way, I would make sure there is a surprise to add to the conflict. Say the hero discovers the heroine is the sister of the thief. Then halfway through, I might choose to kill off the detective hero’s partner who got too close to capturing the villain. This also would amp up the conflict between the heroine and hero.
Surprises and sentence variety can go a long way to hooking the reader.
What are some of the favorite surprises in your favorite books? Let me know.