Conflict: Understanding Suspense

crying boy.jpgSuspense has been a problem for me since I was a kid.  I was the little boy who picked up a book, read two chapters, and flipped to the back page.  “Wait to find out what happens?  Hah!  That’s for people who don’t have a whole world to conquer,” said a smaller more naive Corey.  I didn’t ruin it for other people, but I needed to know.

My mom would wrap presents for Christmas or my birthday and tell me to stay out of the house.  “Don’t you let me catching you looking through those windows Corey!  You’ll spoil the surprise.”  Surprise?  I didn’t want to be surprised!  I wanted to know right there and then.

My parents would take it a step further.  They would toss little snippets out there and have conversations loud enough for me to hear (sneaky parents).  “That present was so hard to wrap because it’s so strangely shaped,” or “Boy that box is unbelievably heavy.”

shark.jpgEach observation and statement was another drop of blood in the water, and I was the shark getting hungrier by the second.  It took everything I had to not rip the wrapping paper into an explosion of confetti and find out what was inside prior to the appointed hour.  “To hell with the consequences!”  At least that’s what I said in my head.

Regardless, when present opening time came, it was a whirlwind of torn wrapping paper underscored by shouts from my mother to not destroy the bows so we can reuse them (mom had collected enough bows to create a bow-chain from our house to the moon, and back).  The suspense worked.  Each statement and action was a crescendo of suspense building and building and building.  Then the finale would come and blow my socks off (a Tasco children’s microscope!) or leave me jaded (underwear).

[Side note, the microscope I linked is the exact one I got as a kid.  Took me forever to find the one I was thinking of!]

Types of Conflict

That is the power, and danger, of suspense.  It is a tool we use to heighten the conflict we create.  (We talked about the basic types of conflict here.)  Think of our readers as sharks and we need to chum the waters to keep them circling.  Sure, we could chuck a harpoon at them…but it’s fun watching them circle, jump out of the water, gnash their teeth, and beg for more.

Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing, explains, “…if your goal is publication, whatever the nature of your story please pay close attention to what follows because suspense is the most essential ingredient of plotting” (p. 97).  This snippet is funny to me because it has a little bit of suspense built into it.  I read this and was like, “I need to find out what the following is!  By god, you’ve hooked me Stein!”

Now there are more than a few amazing tools and methods we can use to build suspense in our books.  We can build suspense through the clever application of dialogue, setting, action, syntax, foreshadowing, and cliff-hangers.  This post is setting up those future posts. First let’s talk about what suspense is and build a solid foundation to move from.  We’ll turn to the professionals to do this and leave my goofy metaphors behind.

Here are some descriptions and explanations of suspense.

A Refined List“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” (Alfred Hitchcock)

“Suspense arises out of conflict.  It is a subset of the dramatic question, Will the character involved in the conflict exercise his will in such a way as to overcome?” (Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell, p. 6)

“I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I’m able to conceal the information I’m trying to conceal. And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.” (Dan Brown)

“The audience wants to know that everything’s going to work out, that it’s going to be all right.  They want answers.  Comfort. Solace. Don’t give it to them. Not until late (if ever).  The longer you can hold out on ’em, the deeper the tensions digs into the meat and marrow.” (The Kick-Ass Writer, Chuck Wendig, p. 155)

“Suspense is the element of both fiction and some nonfiction that makes the reader uncertain about the outcome. Suspense can be created through almost any element of a story, including the title, characters, plot, time restrictions and word choice” (Writer’s Digest, What is Suspense?).

All of these snippets, and my previous two cents, should establish a decent basis for understanding what suspense is and what it can do.  In the future we will tackle some specific methods of harnessing suspense and cement our understanding with killer examples.

question markDo you have a suspense quote/example you love?  Do you utilize suspense actively in your work?  If so, do you have certain methods you enjoy employing?  Is there a specific author who you feel absolutely harpoons the crap out of readers with suspense?  I’d love to hear about it!  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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30 responses

  1. I’m sometimes a skip-to-the-end type person. (Then I go back and read the whole book.) There’s something to be said for that–especially if you’re an author and trying to figure out what makes suspense or mystery work.

    I did not do that with a book I just read, however, called The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr. It’s a historical mystery/thriller set in 16th century Spain with a heavy dose of religious and political conflict.

    That setting hooked me immediately. The plot helped; it was complex enough to make me want to see how all the threads pulled together but not quite unwieldy. (Your mileage might vary on that.) And that kept me reading without skipping–I had to see all the plot pieces first hand or I knew I wouldn’t understand the end.

    Finally, there was a character I fell in love with: Luis de Ventura, the scapegrace cousin of the main character. If I had skipped to the end, it would have been to make sure he made it out of this mess alive! (He’s a secondary character, so no guarantees.) But his share of the adventures hooked me enough to grit my teeth and see them through, so I would find out by reading through instead of by skipping.

    I don’t think I’ve ever skipped to the end on a C.J. Sansom Matthew Shardlake mystery either. No surprise–these are set in Tudor England with lots of religious and political conflict. And Shardlake has a sidekick I adore: Jack Barak. So, basically, anyone who likes the Matthew Shardlake series will probably be into The Devils of Cardona and vice-versa.

    So the suspense that really works for me, I guess, is rooted in religious/political conflict, a plot I have to pay attention to in order to not get lost, and a compelling secondary character whom the author might just kill off. 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love how most of your loves are secondary characters. It goes to show you how powerful secondary characters can be and how much time and effort the author should devote to them. I think, in some ways, it’s easier to become attached to secondary characters because that not knowing you were talking about is always present. Especially if we are talking in a series. Only the renegade maverick writers go ahead and grease the main character early on in a series so there is an expectation of safety surrounding those characters. I think I care less about them because of this (sometimes).

      Regardless, thanks for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to read, as always. I do enjoy some mystery so I will go ahead and snag Devils of Cardona tonight. I’m on a two week writing break (novel writing) and wanted to catch up on some fun books.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “There is no terror in the bang! Only in the anticipation of it.” Alfred Hitchcock

    When I saw you use this quote, I thought to myself, this guy just used my favorite quote in regards to suspense. It is so true! You don’t fear the actual event when it happens, you fear the when is it going to happen? The how is it is going to happen? The is it even going to happen? The how it’s going to end?

    The lead up to that is literally KILLER! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stressed out about for example a job interview and I found most of the stress and worry was the lead up to it. When I got into it, while not perfect, I was much more relaxed than prior to (with the exception of one time). Most of the stuff I stress about is worse because of my mind (way crazy overactive imagination) and the anticipation of something.

    A more extreme example would be the break in 5 months ago. We had signs something like this could happen (even the neighborhood in general) and me being paranoid, I always worried it would happen.

    I wanted you to know that quote by HitchCock easily sums up suspense perfectly in my humble opinion. Regardless of your stress or your triggers, it is ultimately the anticipation of it that will get to you, not the event itself.

    Great article Corey and have an amazing day! ^_^

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Most of the stuff I stress about is worse because of my mind (way crazy overactive imagination) and the anticipation of something.”

      I’m with you on this one. I think between being in the military for eight years then being a cop in the same city I live in now I’m super paranoid all the time. It’s a constant stress. It’s bolstered by the idea that I rarely got to just sit in my cop car and do nothing. Crime, fights, and nonsense was happening non-stop. So now I put my head down to sleep, get back up check the doors, walk around the house, turn on the exterior lights, then go back to bed.

      Speaking of, sorry to hear about your house getting burglarized. Unbelievable how many times I saw that happen. The worse part is television makes it seem like you can take a shard of glass from a broken window, throw it into a magic machine, and it will spit out the name, address, and current satellite location of the person who touched the glass last. It’s unbelievably hard to catch burglars unless they are idiots (i.e. they pawn the stuff or get caught doing something else stupid and have a car/house full of stolen goods).

      Thanks for reading today and leaving your thoughts – as always.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I apologize. I should have elaborated but I get sick of talking about it and keeping a victim mindset, so I’m trying to get better about it. We weren’t burglarized. We were just broken into which was kind of worse because I’d have been better I think if the person would have burglarized the place and left.

        Instead we had to deal with some drunk (drugged up and completely unstable) soul who acted like we knew someone or someone who lived there, who we didn’t know and who certainly didn’t live there. One second the woman (yes it was a chick who kicked our door in) was raging about that, then barely able to stand, then raging again, then thanking us for not killing her upon entry, then paranoid, then angry and sure the chick was there, then thankful, then crying and suddenly laughing on our kitchen floor, then just crying, then doing it all over again with the laughing and the crying…

        I think you get the point. We were able to take advantage of her less than apt at the time mind and convince her to use our bathroom while we walked out the door she came through. Still, it is an extremely traumatizing experience to wake up to at 2:20 in the morning. Anyways, it is over but this place is a huge source of stress. We are surrounded by gang member/gang associated neighbors (who seem to think no one knows this despite their talks and actions), and I’m constantly doing a lot of what you do at odd hours of the night, and barely sleeping (I’m already a really bad insomniac to begin with). Where I work is the worst part of town and to make it even better, I have to walk directly through that part of town just to get to work…end rant…basically it was a whirlwind of a time and I’m constantly stressed/paranoid. I have PTSD from everything and see everyone as a potential threat…1/2

        Liked by 1 person

      • 2/2 On a brighter note, I have been working to get better and (God willing, in a month and like 2 days) we will be moving to a much better neighborhood where I can at least feel safer (safe as I ever will anyways) and maybe get a tiny bit more sleep.

        The police got the chick (she was still in our apartment when they arrived) but thanks to lovely law she was given a slap on the wrist and immediately released next morning because apparently as long as you are drunk it is okay to kick people’s doors in and terrify people’s family.

        I have no issue with the police, they acted fast (when we were finally able to call) but I have serious issues with the law itself. Anywho, our door is reinforced now (though as far as I’m concerned it amounts to paper in my mind even if I know better) and we are on the out hopefully.

        Dealing with some other stuff but almost through it all.

        Anyways, thanks so much and appreciate the thoughts and as you can tell, suspense really is a KILLER! 😉 I will never lose my morbid sense of humor but still, it is stressful. I’m getting better though in retraining my brain and I’m planning on picking up on Martial Arts soon (after some research) to hopefully better discipline my mind & body, and become better at self defense (if God forbid another situation like this or one on the way to/while at work should arise.) Mostly I’m trying to gain balance in all areas. I don’t want it to sound like everything is terrible. It’s not…(I’ve lied it turns out this is 2/3)

        Liked by 1 person

      • 3/3 (I swear this time)…I consider myself blessed to have an amazing family and I believe with time (and this move) knowing my family is safe first and foremost will help me improve in leaps and bounds in everything else.

        As far as your article goes I want you to know I always love to read your articles and insights. I learn much and it helps me with my own writing as well as relaxing a bit. I very much empathize with you on the nightly ritual, being up at odd hours, checking to make sure the family and everything else is in order and okay. It makes sense to me now why I often find you up at midnight and on here or posting even.

        Thank you so much for the well wishes and for your wonderful knowledge. I truly am excited for the day I can read your book. I look forward to it!

        Have an amazing night and thank you! 🙂

        P.S.- That was super therapeutic. I’m done talking about the event in detail from this moment forwards, past helping others who have been through the same or similar situations.

        Thank you for listening to my extremely long semi rant/therapy situation. I should probably ask if you want cash or credit? 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll hold off on payment until after the apocalypse. Then I’ll send a pigeon to give you my terms.

        Seriously though, what an ordeal. One awful thing (there were plenty other sucky things) about being a cop was taking some moron to jail, having them bond out the next morning, then getting a called back to the victims house because they saw the person who should be in jail walking around the neighborhood. Seedy little bail bond companies front folks money so they can pay a fine, get out of jail, and the person signature is their “guarantee” they will show up for court. If there was a victim involved (a victim who called the police) where do you think the criminal that bonds out is going?

        What also is ridiculous about people bonding out is guess how many people don’t show up for court…a bunch. Then they have warrant issued for failure to appear. Now the next time you stop someone driving around at 2am with no headlights like a weirdo, or get called to Wal-Mart because someone is stealing stuff, they could have a warrant. And guess what, now they know they are screwed if they get caught, and now they will do anything to not get caught. Now you are in a fight, and it sucks and it is very dangerous. It adds an entirely different hazard to the job outside of the “normal” calls – like drunken/drugged maniacs kicking in peoples doors, breaking into cars, and beating each other up (very common…unfortunately).

        The system is a giant mill and sometimes I feel like jails, detention centers, and courts are just there to generate revenue for the city/town. They aren’t really there to rehabilitate anyone. The process certainly doesn’t take into account the danger to the officer on the back end.

        Regardless, there is nothing worse than reassuring someone everything is going to be all right and that we’re just a call away, only to have them call right back because the solution you provided didn’t work. The example I’ve seen far too many times is in regards to domestic violence, which is a very complicated (legal) situation that doesn’t usually have immediate resolution.

        Anyways, I’m not going to get into it. Hah! Pretty much every aspect (with a few exceptions) of being a cop sucked. Especially in the way of dealing with the legal system and shady lawyers (cops in S.C. do all of the paperwork, court documents, and prosecute all of their own legal cases until you get into the felonies).

        I’m really glad you are moving into a better area though. Being in a nice area can make all the difference. Sometimes a fresh start is just what you need.

        Well now that we’ve both had a good therapeutic rant…forget about the pigeon. We’re even. Another reminder of how lucky I am to not be a cop anymore. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m always happy to listen and thank you for hearing me out. I bet that was no fun at all. I always empathize with law enforcement because of how dangerous their jobs are, how under appreciated (especially today) they are and how screwy it must be to deal with the law itself.

        Add to that, when something doesn’t go a someone’s way (and it’s a law issue the cop has to explain) suddenly the person is angry at the cops who are merely enforcing said law and are the messengers, when it’s the law and not law enforcements fault.

        It seems you are in a much better place now though and I thank you for the wishing my family and I well. It’s super stressful at the moment but I know it will be worth it in the end. I look forward to reading your next post soon. It could already be up, but regardless, I will get to it as soon as I can.

        Have an amazing day!

        Cheers! ^_^

        Like

      • My understanding is part of the reason robbers don’t get caught was because it wasn’t a priority so the cops didn’t bother investigating? Here in Tidewater, VA they don’t even send the CSI types to get those finger prints. Granted, they might just sit in the system until the robber gets caught on something else or tries for a security clearance, but you miss every shot you never take. I know, it is all about resource allocation and priorities…. Meh

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      • So here’s the deal with that. I live in a city of approximately 35,000 people. During my 12-hour shift there would be three to five of us on the road at a time. Every road officer at our department deals with traffic, collisions, and all the other crime out there too (this is important because some towns/cities separate who does what).

        Back at the station we have two (as in 2) “CSI” people. Ones awake while the other one sleeps. They don’t get called unless a major crime has occurred.

        So if there is a break in (with no injury to occupants) the responding officer is going to DNA swab surfaces the criminal could have touched and gather fingerprints. So it takes me an hours to process the scene. I get a bunch of fingerprints, DNA swab stuff (in all the DNA swabs I’ve taken, and we’re talking 100’s, I’ve never had one come back to a person who was in the system), see if the residents have serial numbers or descriptions of the items, and do the thing.

        While all of this is happening the remaining 2-4 people on the road are taking it in the teeth. They are getting all the calls I would be getting sent on. God forbid a fight, collision with injuries, or something major happens.

        So some cops get impatient. They don’t want to screw over their guys/gals on the road. They know the DNA swabs are garbage. They know those fingerprints will return 1 out of 50 times. So they don’t do it. I always did, but I bought extra tools with my own money to speed the process. I believe in community policing and an aspect of that is being able to show the community you care and you are there for them. Even if swabbing a surface will give me nothing, it could give someone who just went through a traumatic experience hope. Regardless, I could process the scene in about 15/20 minutes.

        People see shows like CSI and assume this is average police work. Maybe in a major city with major crimes will people like that show up. But as major as someone breaking your window and ransacking your house feels, it’s nothing compared to the woman getting stabbed to death by her maniac husband on the other side of town (seen it).

        It’s ex-cop/angry veteran Corey Rant Tuesday apparently! HAhaha! As with any job, it’s hard to understand what goes on behind the veil until you do a jig behind it as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe it is just different there but here if we get robbed the police don’t come unless the intruder is still there. Otherwise, we go to the station and fill the paperwork there. The rest, well I think bail has its role… not everyone in jail pre-trial is guilty after all. And yes, cop shows have skewed what people expect from the PD, for good or bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Anthony Trollope is that once in a while he would break through the fourth wall and let his readers know what was going to happen in the end. He was very clever about it; he understood that fretting about whether Eleanor would marry Bertie or Mr. Slope would distract from the subtlety of the plot. Yet his relieving suspense in one direction only increased it in another. In my opinion, he was a master at it.

    I was shocked by the death of one of his characters because of the way Trollope set it up. When it happened I realized that I had been anticipating it all along without knowing what it was I was anticipating. Brilliant!

    I do not have a suspense quote to share but I will share one of my favorite Trollope quotes.

    “A huge, living daily increasing grievance that does one no palpable harm, is the happiest possession that a man can have.”

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting and informative article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s still a lovely quote. I think my wife was reading one of his books at some point. Barchester (spelling?) Towers maybe? It was one of those Classics reprints and I thought maybe she was reading Moby Dick or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (my Classics reprints).

      I really enjoy how you were anticipating something, but not even really aware of what. There’s something about being able to build emotions like that into work with a smack of subtlety.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and an example. Maybe I’ll tear into the bookshelves and see if I can find that book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Detachment by Family problems | From guestwriters

  5. Making suspense work is part of the “big picture” side of editing, so I’m not as comfortable talking about it as I am talking about, say, the various uses of italics. I know HOW to use suspense, and I can give feedback on when a story is… revealing too much, too soon (the expression I’d have used is not appropriate for a usually-safe-for-work blog such as this one), or when the author needs to drop some hints earlier in the story, but I can’t EXPLAIN it in a way that makes a lot of sense to someone who doesn’t have the same internal metaphors I have.

    I had big fun, once upon a time, deliberately giving my readers plenty of time to get the wrong impression (to paraphrase a line from the first Men in Black movie). I had the audience convinced that one character (in the original version of “that novel”) was some horrible alien creature, a threat to everyone else in the story… And I did it without lying to the readers, too. (Sure, a few accused me of lying because a CHARACTER assumed something that turned out to be wrong, but real people do that, don’t they?)

    For creating suspense in a work of fiction, I LOVE dramatic irony, wherein the audience is aware of things that characters in the story don’t know. (The classic example is from Romeo and Juliet: the audience knows that Juliet isn’t really dead, but Romeo doesn’t.) There was a television series not long ago (alas, only one season, because sometimes the people who decide whether or not to renew a show are STUPID) that made excellent use of dramatic irony throughout. The main character had a secret, and the audience knew this secret from, like, the first scene of the first episode, but there was a lot of suspense concerning other characters finding out… (In real life, I’m not so fond of dramatic irony, at least not when I’m on the receiving side of it. I sort of explored this in one of my short stories; the main character, like me, can’t stand not knowing everything about a situation. A few people complained that they solved the mystery in “Finder’s Fee” before the end, but the mystery wasn’t the point of the story. It’s fewer than 3,500 words, though, so I couldn’t play with dramatic irony as much as I would in a novel — all I had room for was dropping some hints and hoping some readers would pick them up.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t know if my big picture game is as strong as your grammar game, but it’s definitely what I’m better at. I’m always trying to improve (hence the boatload of reading I’m always doing).

      Dramatic irony is delicious! One of these days I’ll get around to covering it more in depth. I wanted to introduce the basic concept so I could link back to it as I expand.

      I’m curious about what tv show you were referring to. My mind always goes to Firefly when someone complains (rightfully) about a show getting canned after one season. Who makes these decisions?!

      I attempted to locate Finder’s Fee so I could read it when I found time but failed. Is it on your page and I missed it? If not, can you point me in the right direction?

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on some of posts today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Finder’s Fee” isn’t available at this time (my clone asked me to remove it from my blog), but if you do a search for “Alandra” on my blog, you’ll see spoilers and a character interview, plus a set of posts in which I dissect a “peer critique” on that story.

        I think ALL fiction writers must like dramatic irony to some extent, because we always knows things about our stories that the characters don’t. (This also means we’re ALL able to compartmentalize our minds so some extent — more than all humans do anyway, I mean — in order to keep the characters from finding out too soon.) A writer’s first audience is themself, right? What fiction writer doesn’t “mwa-ha-ha!” gleefully in anticipation of characters finally learning a secret known to the author all along, or of the lovely plot complications that arise from those characters not knowing the truth? (Okay, I’m sure there are writers who don’t feel that way, but they don’t have as much fun as the rest of us.)

        The television series I mentioned is Forever (starring Ioan Gruffudd). If you someday write a blog post about dramatic irony that discusses how it’s used in this series, I’ll be grateful — I keep trying to write one myself, but my posts always dissolve into incoherent fannish blathering…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m going to IMDB Forever and check it out. I’ve not heard of it and I’m obviously missing out. (Any excuse to watch television and call it research for the blog is a win in my eyes.) Plus I’m always looking for new content to talk about in these daily rantings!

        I downloaded a Kindle sample of The Remnant last night. I thought I would give it a go and then see about snagging the paperback. Never hurts to get a sneak peak first.

        I will search Alandra and check it out. It will ease me into the nightly writing grind 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and ask a question. I’ll do my best to answer it, but with all things writing and opinion related – take it for what it’s worth.

      I do think it’s a matter of opinion. I think of the movie Jaws. Spielberg makes you wait a long time to see that shark. He builds a boatload of suspense. By the time it’s revealed, it really delivers. With that being said, I’m sure we could go on IMDB or some other review site and find one star reviews saying how boring the wait was. However, a majority of the viewers (and movie critics) thought it worked. When it comes to selling a product I’m going to market to the majority. I know that may make me sound like a sell out, but professional writing is a business.

      I think the number one way of making a determination of whether or not your suspense is working (outside of getting kicked around when the reviews start coming in) is to really examine the feedback you get from your alpha and beta readers. If possible have them fill out chapter-by-chapter feedback forms and see if they even address suspense. It should shine through in their comments if it’s working. They may not say it outright, but you will likely be able to glean it.

      It’s also essential to ensure they are current readers of your select genre.

      This probably goes without saying, but someone who is well read in a genre may find suspense contrived, while someone who rarely reads may be awe struck by it. In my opinion, you want to appeal to those people who voraciously read in your genre. They are most likely to read your book as they purchase large amounts of books regularly.

      This is also something you probably know, but reading a vast amount of popular works in your genre should give you an indication of what is working. If I read an author and love a suspense mechanic they use I’ll mark it down and steal it. Well, I like to think of it as re-purposing. By that I mean I’m not stealing their work, but I’m examining how and why it was successful and figuring out how to emulate aspects of it.

      I don’t know if this answered your question, but I hope it at least shed a little light. Thanks for asking it and best of luck to you in your writing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • This was a lot of feedback on my question and I thank you for it. There were a few things I didn’t think about, such as looking at betareader feedback, and a few things I was aware of. Though, mostly, this allows me to reflect. Having just finished edits on my novel, it’s nice to look back at it and see how I ended a chapter, how I started a new scene, did I bring something back in later that I hinted at earlier?

        Frankly, it’s a lot like writing a mystery novel, I would assume (not that I’ve written one nor read many.) But you have to leave clues along the way and make sure not spill everything at the beginning. It’s… a very delicate process of testing the waters and finding what works. And I like how you agreed that it’s opinionated, but it should be geared toward the majority. (It’s not really selling out, it’s wanting people to read your book and if we didn’t care what people thought, we’d never publish. Simple as that.)

        Thank you for your thoughts! Much appreciated! I love discussing writing techniques (especially those I’m still becoming acquainted with.)

        Like

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