ESCALATE! ESCALAAAAAATE! (Author's Notes)
HEY! It's time for words! Let's talk a bit about escalation, shall we?
Escalation is an important factor in making compelling fiction, and in detective fiction, it may well be the most important. If you tip your hand too soon, you kill the rest of the story, but if you tip it too late, you kill the tonal build. Then, perhaps worst of all, if you don't tip it at all, you kill the audience's enjoyment. No one wants that. I certainly don't! So, in order to keep my pacing on the right track for maximum impact, what I like to do (once I have a firm idea of all my main beats) is to build what I call an escalation board.
The escalation board is different than a standard plot board because it focuses solely on the build and release of tension in each chapter and each act, and won't necessarily cover every single story beat (though, sometimes it does, as is the case in my example below). More often than not, I'll build these before I begin earnest writing on a book, so they'll usually change over time as I refine the greater details of a story.
Maybe a certain point of escalation will serve the story better if it comes earlier or later, or maybe certain points would be better flipped around, or maybe some points end up not working at all and need to be removed completely. It all depends, of course, on what best serves the story. Whatever you can do to make a story stronger, you owe it to yourself, your work, and to your audience to try.
So, before I dismantle it completely and begin building the next one, here is a look at my final escalation board for "Among The Dirt and Bones" and, in turn, a look into my process for building these books. Now, I only do these for the main series books, because they're tailored for tension in a (sometimes wildly) different, more refined way than the smaller, side books, and I want to provide myself with any safety net I can.
I think in terms of music and film more often than anything, and with my 'HARPER' series in particular, each book is themed with a certain musical act in mind (as are any direct offshoots). This is because I feel like music handles the build and release of tension in a more succinct manner than any other medium, thus making it the perfect foundation to set detective stories on.
With these books, first off, the title will be a reference to a song or album, then I'll pick song titles I think fit my plot (most specifically the escalation within) and use them as chapter titles, then, finally I'll assign an album to each act. "Among The Dirt and Bones", "Teenage Female", and one other book coming sometime later are all themed to Matthew Sweet (where as last year's "Bully For You" and "God Bless The Girl" are themed to David Bowie).
The albums assigned to each act will usually either directly reference an escalation point that occurs in the assigned act, work as a nod toward a tonal shift in the act, or both. These act titles are never shown in the books and are really only ever seen on my many different ploting boards, but I use them in all of my series work to provide myself more mental cohesion.
Normally, my color coding will go from yellow, to orange, to red as a visual cue to the build and release of tension, but I ran out of orange and red sticky notes before building this board, so I went with blue and hot pink instead. I kind of like the aesthetic though, so I'll probably keep the theme for book three. The blue actually works really well with this particular book, because there is a lot of emotionally heavy stuff within (which is where the prime escalation comes from), and almost all of the saddest stuff ended up on the blue squares.
There's nothing Earth-shattering here, of course, and any seasoned writer will likely get nothing out of it, but I thought it might be interesting to someone out there, and that's reason enough for me to go on about it a bit. I know that these kinds of things that seem completely second nature to me these days, absolutely weren't when I first started out, so I like to put any little trick or nugget of knowledge I come across out into the world in hopes that my experience might help someone else along. Personally, I think if I'd've started doing boards like this in my college writing days, I would've had a lot more books out by now.
Anyway, I've got some cool stuff in the pipeline in the coming months, including my 'HARPER chronology'. I also one more book I'd like to have out by year's end. However, for now, rather than going back to work like usual, I'm going to slack off for the rest of the day and try to catch up on my sleep instead!