Tag Archives: Storytelling

How to Be a Pantster – Ask Alice Saturday

Flying Woman imageQuestion: Are you a Planner or a Pantster?

 Answer: Back when I was first a book editor then a literary agent and still a publishing author I was a Planner big time. I even wrote an article called “The Painless Synopsis” for Writers Digest Magazine. I was devoted to planning my stories in detail up-front. I had to do that because my writing life was regularly interrupted by my day job.

My workday mind had to be deep into agent tasks. I needed a synopsis to keep track of my story as I dragged my head back and forth between my agent brain and my writer brain. My guess is that most people juggling a full-time job with a writing regimen need to do the same.

Now that I’m a full-time writer I can indulge myself with the joy of making it up as I go along. Because I write Romantic Suspense I start out with three characters – a murder victim, a heroine and a hero. I also know the conflict that motivated the killing and at least a little about how the heroine and hero fall onto opposite sides of that conflict.

I also try to have an idea how the story ends – who committed the murder. But I’ve written two books this way so far and by the end of both of them the identity of the killer had changed and the stories were better for it. I now understand that I shouldn’t cast the ending in stone up-front. It’s better to leave room for my imagination to find its way.

Kurt Vonnegut compares this approach to driving at night. You can see as far as the headlight beams allow you to see. A former client of mine Jo Beverley calls it “Flying into the Mist.” I call it fun.

I’m playing with my story and my story is playing with me. I can afford the luxury of this playfulness because my head is pretty much always in the story. I no longer have to interrupt the flow to bury my gray cells in my day job.

In my case at least the choice between Planner and Pantster couldn’t always be about preference. It had to be about my circumstances. Like so many of us – I did what I had to do. I feel blessed that what I have to do now is have a storytelling good time.


My current novel is A WRONG WAY HOME – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #1 – available at amazon.com/author/aliceorr. A YEAR OF SUMMER SHADOWS – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #2 – launches with summer on June 22nd. These are my 12th and 13th novels and both were Pantster born and brought to life. Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com.


Nobody Wants a Sagging Middle – Ask Alice Saturday

Question. How do I keep the middle of my story moving at a fast pace?

Answer. The struggle in your story is the drama of your story. That struggle must begin at Casablanca - middleyour dramatic opening and continue forward without letup. The course of the struggle is the course of your plot. The more intense the struggle – the more intense the plot.

That’s all there is to writing a page turner story. Escalate the power – intensity – drama of your main character’s struggle and you’re in the winner’s circle. Until you get to the middle where you might find a muddle. Because the middle is where the story line is likely to sag.

When your story loses momentum in the middle you must make a crucial assumption. You need to know more about your characters. You need to ask three crucial questions.

  • What hidden relationships could there be between your characters?
  • What further conflict lies beneath the surface of their relationships?
  • What further secrets do they have and why have they kept them from you?

In “Well Begun is Well Done” my blog post about the Dramatic Opening I used the classic film Casablanca as a story example. Let’s continue with that.

At the dramatic opening we found Rick – played by Humphrey Bogart – bitter and disillusioned. But we’re well into the story before we learn the source of his bitterness. Near the opening there were hints at the problems in Rick’s history but we still don’t understand what’s up with him. Then beautiful Ilsa arrives – played by Ingrid Bergman – and Rick reacts.

We would say he overreacts because we still don’t know what’s really going on inside him. Ilsa is with her husband Victor so we don’t get an explanation until she returns later to the closed café where Rick is alone. Now we find out about Paris and the love affair between Rick and Elsa that sent him soaring then smashed him back to earth.

We are hooked as the suspense plot becomes a love story too. We’re hooked in the heart even more deeply than our adrenaline was pumped by the danger. We’re also at the middle of the story and there’s no sagging anywhere. Because we’ve learned more about the characters. Hidden relationships – deep conflicts – secrets that had been kept from us.

Want even more momentum? Make another crucial assumption. The hot water you’ve put your characters in needs to get much hotter. Now you must ask three more crucial questions.

  • What additional misfortunes can happen to your characters?
  • What potent dangers surround your characters?
  • What can happen that will jolt your main character?

Casablanca has the mother lode of misfortune and danger – World War II and Nazis. And a potent villain in German Major Strasser. Nothing accelerates story tension better than a truly evil bad guy. There are high stakes too. Ilsa’s husband Victor must be smuggled to neutral territory or be captured and tortured and his heroic anti-Nazi work will end.

The jolt to main character Rick comes via the Letters of Transit. They are what Alfred Hitchcock called the Macguffin. The thing everybody in the story wants for good or evil reasons depending on who they are. Rick has these letters. They will decide Victor’s fate. They will also decide the fate of Rick and Ilsa’s rekindled passion. Da Da Da Dum!

Drama – high stakes – an uncertain outcome. The middle of Casablanca provides all of this and more. Make your story middle do the same by digging beneath the surface of your characters as you see them now. Excavate your own mother lode. When you find it all sign of sag will disappear and never return. Plus – you’ll always have Paris.


 My latest story is A WRONG WAY HOME – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series – Book #1 – Matt & Kara’s Story. Available at amazon.com/author/aliceorr. This is my 12th novel and the middle doesn’t sag. The same is true of A Year of Summer Shadow launching May 15th.

 Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com


Well Begun is Well Done – Ask Alice Saturday

Question: How do I make my opening sell my story?

Casablanca - RickThe opening of any story is crucial. A potential reader may be standing in a store aisle scanning the first few pages or reading the free sample offered on an electronic device. The situation is the same. A storyteller gets one chance to make a first impression and mustn’t squander that chance.

So – begin with a Dramatic Opening. That doesn’t mean you have to start out with a murder scene the way I like to do in my romantic suspense novels. Your opening can be more subtle than that. But it must be dramatic. Let me use an example from a favorite film of mine – Casablanca. Which is in my opinion one of the great romantic suspense stories of all time.

By the way – I’ll often use movies as storytelling examples. Maybe more often than I use books. I do this because I find that more of us have seen the same movies than have read the same books. And I want all of us to be able to relate to the examples I use. You also have easy reference to these examples because you can stream most of them on your computer.

Casablanca came out in 1942. Already the world was immersed in the most dramatic of times. The opening taps directly into that with a map of Europe and then Africa and Northern Africa beneath the credits. Maps meant something very significant in WWII. They ran in newspapers almost daily alongside stories of heart-stopping events. Battles – even troop movements if they could be made known. Maps were a life and death visual to a 1942 audience.

There’s also music. Exotic at first as the map moves toward North Africa. We’re headed for a world distant and different from our own. A complicated and possibly incomprehensible world. We need to be on guard and maybe even afraid. On an abrupt beat the music changes. Loud and rousing – La Marseillaise makes our hearts beat to a different tune. Even more dramatic and affecting than what we’ve already heard. And we’re not even past the credits yet.

We aren’t even at Rick’s Café Americain with Rick himself at the bar. Brow furrowed – cigarette stub smoldering – weight of a heavy wound beneath the square shoulders of his white dinner jacket. Want to see what a romantic hero – or any kind of hero – looks like? Screen this scene ASAP. Plus in the next two minutes you’ll see his inner character nailed as well.

A story’s dramatic opening has a lot of work to do. A lot of weight to carry beneath its square shoulders. This film does that in spades as clear and unmistakable as the ones on the cards the croupier turns in Rick’s gambling den. Does your story opening carry that weight as well? Why don’t you ask it if it does? Here are the 10 Crucial Questions to use in that interrogation.

1.   At this moment my protagonist must be plunged into a situation where she feels as if her world is being yanked out from under her. Is that happening and how does it happen?

2.   From this point on his life will never be the same again. How, specifically, will his life be changed?

3.   From this moment on, my protagonist will be engaged in struggle. How specifically does that struggle begin in this opening scene?

4.   This scene must begin in the middle of something dramatic already in progress. How specifically is that the case in my story?

5.   I need to describe what my main character looks like. I must describe her or him via a couple of significant details rather than by interrupting the dramatic action of the scene. What specifically are those significant details?

6.   This scene must at least suggest that something important is at stake for my character in this story and preferably for others too. What specifically are the dire circumstances that will result if my character fails to succeed in this story?

7.   Obstacles to that success must already be evident in this scene. What specific obstacles to that success are already evident or at least hinted at in this scene?

8.   My main character must make a conscious decision to act in response to the situation in this scene and that decision sets the story in motion. What specifically is that decision and how does it set the story in motion?

9.   My character must be a person with whom the reader will wish to identify – motivated to act by something the reader can relate to and find sympathetic. How specifically does my character fulfill these expectations?

10.   The action of the story must begin immediately in this scene. How specifically does that happen in my story?

Re-read these 10 Crucial Questions. Think about them in terms of your story. Be hardnosed with yourself and with your story as you answer each one. If your responses aren’t solid and dramatic – your story opening isn’t solid and dramatic. Make it so.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed – stream the opening of Casablanca. Take notes on how simply all of this is managed there. And be specific yet again.

While you’re doing that. “Here’s looking at you kid.”


 My latest story is A WRONG WAY HOME – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #1 – Matt & Kara’s Story. Available at amazon.com/author/aliceorr. This is my 12th novel and it has a dramatic opening.

Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com