Brevity has power

Brevity has power

A Lesson by Kathleen Rowland

If you do use a dream as a vehicle to show hidden emotions or fear, it can work if it is brief.


          Mystery author Jan Burke has a series about an investigative reporter character named Irene Kelly.  One dream scene takes place in her book, GOOD NIGHT, IRENE, after brutal murders take place.  In the dream paragraph below, Cody is her cat.  Note the good mood pace and then wham, the bad dream:

            As I crawled into bed later that night, I thought about how I’d made it through two days in a row in a fairly peaceful fashion.  Cody jumped in with me, and I snuggled close to him.  I felt good all over.  I don’t know how I could go from feeling so good to a nightmare, but that night I dreamed someone was trying to cut off my hands and feet. 

            If you use a dream, know what purpose you want the dream to serve.  If its purpose is to foreshadow an upcoming event, be sure your protagonist feels anxious, suspicious, or fearful before having a nightmare. There might be a clue revealed in a dream—the protagonist already knows but doesn’t know she knows. Trauma of a horrible event may have blocked a character’s conscious memory of someone’s identity.  In the course of several dreams, a face may become more distinct.  Again, keep them brief.

Handling Time Effectively

            Consider a typical day in your lead character.  In a mystery he or she might be running around from one end of a city to another, but a day has twenty-four hours not sixty.  Don’t lose track of normal time.  Show passage of time—morning sky, afternoon weather, having to turn on headlights, or street lights coming on.  The writer should suggest the month or season, preparing us for an early sunset.  As a writer, control the passage of time.  It’s Friday, a few minutes later, that afternoon, or Monday evening after the funeral.  State how much time remains until an anticipated threat will happen.  Use a tension building countdown, the ticking clock in romantic suspense.             

            I am going to stack a few disjointed sentences as examples to show time passage--  It was dark when Debbie walked over.  He was whistling as he parked the van alongside a U-shaped apartment building Saturday morning.  After court on Friday, Vick went to the Barrister, a pub not far from the precinct.  It was after nine o’clock Thursday night when Martina parked at a beach in Evanston near the Northwestern University campus.  The sound of the mower had stopped, and sunlight turned to stubbled grass to gold.  A chilly finger touched her foot, and she looked up to see that the shadows of surrounding pines were creeping upon her.  Twilight had fallen by the time she got home, and as she lugged books along the shadow-enshrouded path, she found herself moving a little faster than she intended.  Dusk was not as pleasant a time of day as she had once thought.  Fumbling for the light switch in the dark house, she. . .  Anyway, you get the idea.

            We don’t want our characters stuck in a time warp.  We want to echo real world rhythms.  Drop brief clues about changes in the environment.  Perhaps your protagonist looks for her sunglasses or adjusts the angle of her car’s sun visor. 

            Add sounds and smells to make the season vivid.  Children squeal under a sprinkler.  He likes the smell of newly mown grass. Remember to keep descriptions and references subordinate to the action and therefore, brief.  One or two brushstrokes are better than a detailed landscape in commercial fiction.  Literary fiction is different, but our readers focus on what the characters are up to.

            Your novel has a calendar of events.  Many writers use an actual calendar.

People using the facilities

            Characters eat and use the bathroom:  Sue was given directions to the office of the Director of Nursing Services.  She passed a ladies’ restroom and made a brief detour before continuing on her quest.  Yes, brief.  “I missed dinner.  I could eat my arm.”

Illogical Sequences

            As a fledgling writer, I messed up on this because I believed it was important to vary my sentences.  I didn’t realize for quite a long time I was writing choppy because of unnatural sequencing.  Here’s an example:

            “Let’s go, Hank.”  The two of them turned and left the room.  Peg reached behind him to switch off the lights on her way out.

            Oh my, Peg had to come back into the room to switch off the lights because they left the room.  Here’s another one:

            Jane decided to leave the stupid party and go home.  She could feel Ronnie’s warm embrace enveloping her tired body, kissing away distractions.  After an hour of small talk and large drinks, she slipped away and began the long drive home.

            We buy into Jane’s desire to leave.  We feel Ronnie’s warm embrace.  Whoops, rewind.  For the next hour she’s still at the stupid party.  Here how the scene is fixed:

            Jane couldn’t tolerate the stupid party for more than an hour of small talk and large drinks. All the while she ached for Ronnie’s warm embrace to envelope her tired body.  As soon as possible she left for the long drive home.

            A different kind of bad sequencing is delaying a character’s reaction to her environment.  Say someone arrives to a home.  That person will see the host walking toward her before she notices the Queen Anne chair and the gold framed paintings.  Readers don’t want a HOUSE BEAUTIFUL description.  Of course it’s possible that your character weaves through a room, and you describe various objects, and then shock the reader when she sees a corpse.   

Previous Lesson


Subscribe Subscribe


18 Subscribers
Added on July 20, 2012
Last Updated on July 20, 2012
My Rating

Login to rate this


Kathleen Rowland
Kathleen Rowland


Kathleen Rowland writes gritty romantic suspense set on crime-infested waterfronts that are sure to keep you up reading late, turning pages well past dark. On a larger-than-life scale, her heroes and..