Writing Lessons from Sidney Sheldon

At Kill Zone Blog, this: Writing Lessons From Sidney Sheldon

First, biographical details. Wow, some unhappy things happened in Sheldon’s life. Professional success probably wasn’t enough to compensate, but still:

Sidney Sheldon is the only writer ever to have won a Tony, an Oscar, and an Edgar Award. Let’s see if anybody ever does that again!

In The Writer’s Handbook 1989, Sheldon talked about his method. Here’s some of what he said.

Sheldon was asked, What are some of the devices you have found most successful in getting your readers to ask breathlessly, “What’s next?”

His response: The secret is simple: Take a group of interesting characters and put them in harrowing situations. I try to end each chapter with a cliffhanger, so that the reader must turn just one more page to find out what happens next. Another thing I do is to cut out everything that is extraneous to the story I am telling.

Yes, that’s something to think about. I’ve never tried to end EVERY chapter with a cliffhanger. That can cause readers to turn pages — it sure can — recall that I just said in yesterday’s post that you’re not going to want to stop at the end of chapter 42 or 43 in Tasmakat — but it can also be a little much. Or it seems that way to me. I’m not sure; maybe I should try to actually do that and see what happens.

Like Hemingway, Sheldon would end his day’s work after beginning a new scene. Sometimes he’d quit mid-sentence. “In the morning, when you are ready to go to work, you have already begun the new scene.” Also, he would begin his writing sessions by lightly going over the previous day’s work.

Yes, I find both of those techniques useful. I don’t always start a new scene before quitting for the evening, but I do that if I can because it does help pick up the thread the next morning. It helps with motivation if that’s a problem.

And I virtually always begin each day by going over the previous scene or scenes. I do a lot of minor revision and tightening right then. Sometimes that’s fast, but sometimes I’ll go back over an emotionally difficult scene three or four or six times before I go on, shifting bits of dialogue around and tightening things up. Those of you who have read multiple drafts of one work have seen that happen, as scenes like that change a little bit at a time, over and over. I’m thinking of scenes like, oh, the part in Tuyo when Ryo fled and then was trying to work out whether he should go back; or the part in Tarashana when Ryo was emotionally stuck and Hokino was trying to break him out of it. Or for that matter in Shines Now, when Kuomat is stuck in a different way. That is exactly the kind of scene I was working on this past Sunday and again Monday. I’ll be working on that scene again as part of the revision process too.

From Sheldon again, also this:

You get your readers emotionally involved in your characters by being emotionally involved yourself. Your characters must come alive for you. When you are writing about them, you have to feel all the emotions they are going through—hunger, pain, joy, despair. If you suffer along with them and care what happens to them, so will the reader.

I think that’s true. I imagine some authors might be able to write emotionally engaging characters without being emotionally involved with their characters themselves, but that seems as though it would be difficult.

Lots more at the link. Click through and read the whole thing if you have a moment.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from Sidney Sheldon”

  1. One thing I enjoy about your writing is that chapters very often provide a satisfying local ending, rather than “stopping” at a cliffhanger. This is especially noticeable in the Floating Islands books. Although I don’t need to read them to children, I imagine those chapter endings would make those books work particularly well as bedtime reading-aloud stories. So don’t feel you have to drag people along with cliffhangers. It’s nice to be able to stop and reflect for a bit about what has just happened, what it shows about characters, and whether there are loose ends that are going to get pulled on in the next chapter or two, rather than being constantly pushed forward.

  2. The only book I can recall that consistently ended each chapter with cliffhangers was Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, and I think “keeps you turning pages” is about the only compliment I can give that book. YOUR books consistently give me more reasons to read the next chapter than just wanting to know how a cliffhanger is resolved!

  3. That’s how I’m going to think of quiet chapter endings from now on, Mary Beth! They’re fine because there are OTHER REASONS to turn the page.

  4. I agree with both Dame Eleanor and Mary Beth.
    I very much appreciate not constantly being dragged on under stress, without a moment to catch my breath and reflect on what I’ve read and look forward to what is coming.
    A few chapters of rushing along tensely is fine, especially when nearing a climax, but then I really need that lull to recover.
    Continuous cliffhangers irritate me, and can really put me off if a writer does that at the end of their books, to make you buy the next one.

  5. I hate cliffhangers at the end of books … unless the second book is sitting right there and the cliffhanger was intrinsic to the plot.

    I’m glad to have people saying they like some chapters ending calmly.

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