“I was in bed exhausted at 3:00 A.M., eyes burning with tears rolling out, but I could not put this book down! It kept me at the edge of my seat...there were so many unexpected & exciting twists & turns.” This was an Amazon review for my novel, Emergence, but echoes what fans say about my paranormal romance Voodoo Butterfly Series as a whole. When a fan tells me those magical words, “I didn’t go to sleep until way past my bedtime,” then I feel the slightest twinge of guilt, followed by the rock star satisfaction of a job well done.
Obviously, I don’t want anyone to lose sleep—or their job—because of my work, but I do want to keep readers turning the page. I accomplish this in my genre fiction by building a dynamic plot with engaging characters in the drafting process. Then during revision, I sprinkle in the details that make my story pop on the page. Checking for these three important elements (plot, characters, and details) over the course of my writing process ensures that I keep readers’ attention. Let’s start with step one: plotting.
1) Plotting that Keeps Readers Turning the Page
I remember reading The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper back in grad school. Even though I can appreciate it as a classic piece of American literature, that whopper is over two hundred thousand words long and at least half of it is description. Those pages and pages of flowery, poetic, not-getting-to-the-point narration drove me a little nuts.
You know what massive amounts of verbose language makes me want to do as a reader? Skim. Or close the book forever. Blame our short attention spans, the overabundance of entertainment at our fingertips, or Twitter’s initial 140-character limit, but most readers in the twenty-first century need instant gratification.
As a writer, there is a way to keep readers engaged. Your job will be to maximize action and dialogue in your plot and minimize description—making sure to include only the strongest description to establish your story world. If you develop scenes like this in your genre fiction (especially thriller, paranormal, mystery, horror), you will keep readers up way past their bedtimes.
Here’s an example of a scene from my novel, Voodoo Butterfly, where my protagonist, Sophie Nouveau, experiences a recurring drowning nightmare.
“Help me!” I tried to scream, but the water filled my mouth and drowned out the words. I splashed desperately, in utter darkness, knowing that no one could hear me.
“I can’t swim!” I shouted, flailing my arms.
The water enveloped me.
Claws pulled me down.
Farther and farther.
The demon voices growled, “You caused your mother to drink! She wished you’d never been born! She’d have been happier if you didn’t exist!”
They giggled and tormented me until I wanted to die.
But as I prepared to inhale the water and end my life . . .
Action and dialogue will immerse readers in your story. In this short scene, you can see how I used dialogue when Sophie calls for help and the demons tell her she should have never been born. And you can see the unfolding action in sentences like, “I splashed desperately,” “Claws pulled me down,” and “I prepared to inhale the water and end my life.”
In the above example, I could have described the coldness and darkness of the water. I could have described the riverbank with tree branches skimming the surface of the waves. I could have described the demons’ faces as they dragged Sophie down to a watery grave. However, taking the time to describe all of those things may have caused my reader to skim and potentially, taken my reader out of the story completely. Part of the fun for readers is plugging in those extra details using their own imaginations.
Description is an important tool, but it is a finishing tool rather than one that’s going to build the structure of your story. We will get to that a bit later, but first try this...
Practice Activity: Plot Using Action and Dialogue
Take a chapter from your work in progress. Highlight the dialogue, excluding the dialogue tags. When you look back through the chapter, twenty-five to fifty percent of each page should be highlighted. Think about it like this: if your book were a movie and the actors went for long spans without talking, most audience members would get up and walk out of the theater.
In the sections where there is no highlighting, go back and see where you are telling the reader information, instead of showing them. Try rewriting that info into dialogue between two characters. By rewriting these portions of the page into dialogue, you may improve your chapter by showing rather than telling, and you could even whip up some extra conflict.
Finally, in those sections which lack highlighting and cannot be revised into dialogue, underline any phrases or sentences which are basically description. As a general rule, avoid using only description for more than a paragraph or two. If you find yourself going on and on for one to two pages of flowery exposition, remember that you are writing for a twenty-first century audience with a lot going on. Truth be told, James Fenimore Cooper would most likely have to rewrite The Deerslayer in light of today’s busy, distracting world.
“Part of the fun for readers is plugging in those extra details using their own imaginations.”
In addition to a dynamic plot, fiction authors must develop characters that readers care about. To me, plot and character development are equally important and are accomplished in my first draft, but I’ll label this as “step two” if you love checklists as much as I do.
Before I start drafting a novel, though, I will journal about the fears of my heroes and villains. This helps me build conflict, develop scenes that show wins and setbacks, and ultimately uncover how my characters overcome the monsters (internal and external).
2) Characters that Face Down Their Demons
In real life, we cannot always overcome our adversities and fears. Fiction allows us, as readers, to not only escape our own realities, but also root for imaginary people who can come out triumphant, despite struggles and setbacks.
Sophie, the protagonist in The Voodoo Butterfly Series, unexpectedly inherits a New Orleans voodoo shop. While creating a character sketch for Sophie, I decided she would have a fear of the dark. Manipulating her fear allows me to develop my story in a number of ways.
First, it provides conflict, so I can write scenes with increased tension, suspense, and pacing. For example, the night after Grandma Seraphina’s funeral, Sophie gets a ghostly visit from the woman who bequeathed her the family business. Later in the book we find out that Grandma Seraphina just wanted to connect with the granddaughter she never knew in life. However, Sophie’s fears of darkness and lack of experience with the voodoo life allowed me to write a haunting scene that kept readers from turning off their own nightlights.
Secondly, Sophie’s fear of the dark helped me establish a rule during worldbuilding. Along with the voodoo shop, Sophie inherits a secret power. She comes from a long line of Mind Changers, specialized priestesses who have the magical ability to change evil people good. The caveat is that the spell is powered by her inner state of being. If she fills herself with light and love, she can successfully do a mind change. If she feels negative emotions, like fear, her magic misfires. This rule has been a great setup for showing the ebb and flow of her power, as she experiences personal wins and losses.
Thirdly, Sophie’s fear of the dark let me develop a central theme of good versus evil throughout the entire series. Sophie not only faces her fear of physical darkness, but also metaphorical darkness. She has her own inner demons to fight along with the evil entities that exist out in the world of New Orleans voodoo.
In order to explore your hero’s deepest, darkest fears, try this...
Practice Activity: Uncover Your Character’s Fears
Open your writing journal or start a new computer document.
Spend five to ten minutes answering these questions:
- What are you afraid of? Why?
- How did you overcome your fear? If you have not done so, how would you?
- Using the information from the above questions, what fits with your storyline or can create a surprise in your plot? What can be used to deepen your character’s inner and outer conflicts?
To make your characters more unique and multidimensional, you don’t have to make them look exactly like you; but you can draw from your own truth and reality to make them come alive on the page.
I used my own fear of the dark to develop Sophie. Part of my personal fear stems from the strange experiences I had growing up in a haunted house. After all, night is when things stir.
“Description is an important tool, but it is a finishing tool rather than one that’s going to build the structure of your story.”
Warning: this final portion of the article should not be implemented until you have gone through steps one and two in your drafting process. To explain why, I will use the metaphor of building a house.
The plotting and characterization are the finished structure of your novel-house (foundation, framing, roof, electrical, plumbing, drywall, and trim). Everything’s there. You can live in it. But the walls aren’t painted, and nothing’s decorated yet.
Will it be rustic farmhouse? Shabby chic? Minimalistic contemporary? The structure will remain the same. But you can do a heck of a lot with paint, furniture, and fixtures. This third step is where you put your signature style on your manuscript.
3) Details that Infuse Magic into Your World
Back in grade school we learned about our five senses. As humans, we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in order to understand the world around us. You want your fiction to include all of these sensory inputs, so readers feel like they are there, experiencing your world along with the cast of your novel.
Authors also incorporate the visceral reactions of their characters (i.e., cold chills, heart palpitations, or an adrenaline rush) that let us understand how someone is feeling emotionally and physically. We also hope to evoke those same responses inside of our readers, too, during intense plot points! The following section shows a descriptive scene from my novel, Voodoo Butterfly, where Sophie is trying to get her bearings in this strange world of New Orleans voodoo.
On the street, police officers directed vehicles and pedestrians in a traffic symphony, their whistles tweeting and their arms waving in time with the funeral dirges. The butterflies, as subdued as bees by smoke, glided out of the cathedral and floated above the crowd, forming their own second line to the cemetery.
“What’s with all the butterflies?” a guy behind me asked with a thick Cajun accent.
“No idea, man,” another Cajun replied. “You never know what kind of crazy shit’s gonna happen in New Orleans!”
Their laughter faded as I walked forward with the crowd.
Seraphina’s coffin bobbed at the very front of the procession while the urban jungle came alive with yowls and whoops that could raise the dead. People shouted Seraphina’s name with lifted hands. At times the cries, so guttural and primal, formed a pit in my stomach.
Reporters and cameramen swarmed now, and I caught tidbits of their reports: “. . . one of New Orleans’ most prominent voodoo queens in history . . . beautiful bugs plague the French Quarter . . . who will replace Papillon in the voodoo community?”
A guy dressed as a boogeyman jumped in front of me with wiggling fingers, and I screamed, slapping the white skeleton face and knocking the cigar from his mouth.
“Sorry!” I said. “Reflexes.”
He grabbed the cigar from the pavement, brushed the sleeves of his black jacket, and tilted his top hat to the side before sauntering away.
“Reflexes!” I called after him, raising my hand. The sootiness of the cigar smoke lingered in the air.
As mentioned earlier in the article, I do not recommend going on for pages of description, so just sprinkle details in during your final editing stages, such as I did above with the New Orleans funeral crowd, so you can flesh out your speculative world and make your book stand out from the rest. Check your expository tidbits by doing this...
Practice Activity: Highlight Those Sensory Details
Print out a chapter from your manuscript.
At the top of your first page, write: see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Highlight each of those words with a different color.
Now read through your chapter and highlight where you see the different senses being used. As for the visceral reactions, mark those with the same color as touch, because those are felt inside the body.
Sight tends to be used most. However, if you only use visuals, rewrite the scene to include some of the other senses. You do not have to represent each sense equally, just use this exercise to see if one is overused or if some are missing.
Finally, take note of how often you use descriptive language. You don’t want description to overshadow the main structure of your work, which is plotting and characterization. That would be like having a house with loud wallpaper in every room. A cheetah print in the dining room with wavy lines in the kitchen and a psychedelic flower pattern in the bathroom would make you feel like fleeing a carnival fun house. Remember that your details should be implemented with a light touch to set the tone and help readers enter your world.
The above tips will help you write paranormal romance—or any genre fiction—with dynamic plots, engaging characters, and a sprinkling of details that keep readers begging for your next book.
Camille Faye has an M.A. in English with specializations in composition and creative writing. She has traditionally published short stories, poetry, essays, and her award-winning Voodoo Butterfly Series. The Northwest Houston Romance Writers of America named Voodoo Butterfly a 2013 finalist in their nationwide Lone Star Contest, which resulted in a publishing contract for the book. Currently, Camille is working on the fourth installment of the series.
Camille Faye lives in Missouri, loves on her family, and writes while her kiddos are in school. Her stories are inspired by her experiences growing up in a haunted house and her travels to twenty-eight countries and counting! She loves to interact with her readers and fellow writers, so you can find her online at:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Camille-Faye/e/B00OU01J74
Book Bub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/camille-faye