I have yet to see anyone get More Writing Cowbell going on than Margie Lawson. I’ve seen other amazing teachers and writers – I quote them here all the time. But I’ve become convinced this week that Margie reigns supreme as the Writing Cowbell Queen.
Since becoming a Margie-Fan-atic this week, I’ve been poring over her website at www.MargieLawson.com. Though there are many, many points of interest, my favorite (so far) is Margie’s Deep Editing Analyses.
In her list of 25+ analyses, she’s dissected the writing of several New York Times bestselling novelists, from Harlan Coben to Lisa Gardener, from Sue Monk Kidd to James Scott Bell. Below is my leading favorite of all her Deep Editing Analysis articles – Lisa Unger’s, BLACK OUT.
In the following analysis, Margie provides specific examples of powerful dialogue, then explains WHY it’s amazing. What could be better?? Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I invite you to sit back and enjoy the magic of Margie…
p.s. Be sure to comment when you’re done – Margie is giving away a lecture packet to one of the commenters on today’s post!
Lisa Unger’s, BLACK OUT
Analysis by Margie Lawson
New York Times and international bestselling author, Lisa Unger, writes adrenaline-driven literary thrillers. Reviewers describe her writing as masterful, riveting, evocative. All three of Lisa Unger’s thrillers—BEAUTIFUL LIES (2006), A SLIVER OF TRUTH (2007), and BLACK OUT (2008)—garnered starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly.
Entertainment Weekly described BLACK OUT– “[A] hurricane of a thriller…impossible to extract yourself until the last page.”
Let’s dig into some examples from BLACK OUT that make Lisa Unger’s writing as powerful as a hurricane. (Dialogue is italicized below.)
EXAMPLE, Page 118:
My mother liked to drink. It was a mad dog she kept on a chain. When it got loose, it chewed through our lives.
Analysis: Lisa Unger played off the cliché: acted like a mad dog. She empowered that cliché with twists, amplification, turning it into a stimulus and showing the response, and backloading. Twenty-four words. None wasted. Every word drives the reader toward the next word. Every word drives the reader deeper into the scene terror.
EXAMPLE, Page 213:
I see a flash of something on her face that I’ve never seen before. It happens when our eyes connect through the thick glass of her front door. It’s just the ghost of an expression, and in another state of mind I might not even have noticed it. It’s fear. Vivian is the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and when I see the look on her face, my heart goes cold.
Analysis: If you’ve taken my Empowering Characters’ Emotions course (or reviewed the Lecture Packets), you know FLICKER-FACE EMOTION. Because this flash of fear on Vivian’s face is critical, Lisa Unger wanted the reader to pay attention to this news of a difference.
How did Lisa Unger get the reader’s attention? She did not use a stronger descriptive word. She did not have the POV character react outwardly with a typical line, “What’s wrong?” She did not just label the look, fear, and move on.
She empowered that look by giving it more words, by amplifying it, by indicating it was so brief (the ghost of an expression) that she almost missed it, by labeling it fear, by telling the reader that Vivian is strong (implying rarely fearful), by using cadence, by backloading, by using the look as a stimulus and showing (not telling) the POV character’s reaction, by writing a VISCERAL RESPONSE.
Margie-grads know visceral responses set the emotional hook for the reader and contribute to making the book a page turner.
EXAMPLE, P. 236:
“Watch yourself.” His voice was tight with menace. There was a trail of brutally murdered women behind us, his tone said to me, and I could easily be next.
Analysis: Lisa Unger used a one-two punch. The dialogue cues in the first sentence inform the reader how the dialogue was delivered. The dialogue cue in the second sentence provides the reader with an interpretation of the subtext. It ups the stakes, ups the tension, and ups the fear factor.
Without the second dialogue cue, it’s just a tight, menacing voice.
With the second dialogue cue, the reader gets the conscious impact of the subtext and the subconscious impact of power words: brutally and murdered.
EXAMPLE, P. 293
I notice how still he is. There was so much anxiety and adrenaline living inside me that I couldn’t keep myself from fidgeting, shifting my weight from foot to foot, padding a few steps away, then back toward him. But he is fixed and solid. He keeps his hands in his pockets, his eyes locked on some spot off in the distance. All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.
Analysis: Lisa Unger spotlights the contrast between how the POV character displays her tension—and how the non-POV character keeps his cool. Note the use of specificity. Note the number of Emotional Hits. Note the power of cadence.
Specificity: shifting weight, padding/steps away and back, hands in pockets, eyes/spot in distance, raspy voice
Emotional Hits: TELLING and SHOWING = 11 Emotional Hits
Telling: anxiety, adrenaline, fidgeting, fixed, solid
Showing: shifting weight, padding/steps away, back, hands in pockets, eyes/spot in distance, raspy voice
Cadence: Read the passage from page 293 out loud. You’ll notice variability in sentence length, agreeable phraseology, and a last sentence that is pleasing to your Cadence Ear.
All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.
What if Lisa Unger had written the last sentence like this?
All there is to him is his raspy voice and his story.
AACK! Hear it? The cadence is off.
Read her line again:
All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.
Ah – My Cadence Ear is happy. ;-))
Lisa Unger’s writing is as elegant and enticing as it is electrifying. The Associated Press described BLACK OUT as, “A largely gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose… Unger…create[s] the perfect razor’s edge of tension.”
If you want to make your writing grip the reader with your muscular prose, read Lisa Unger’s literary thrillers and analyze her writing. Her stories and her writing craft will thrill you.
THANK YOU to Margie for breaking down Lisa’s brilliance in a way that allows the rest of us to try these methods in our own work!
So, what do you think? Do you want to be Margie when you grow up too?? Have you read Lisa Unger’s books before? (I hadn’t and just uploaded “Black Out” to my Kindle.) I’d love to hear any techniques you use for amping up your dialogue.
Please don’t be shy – we want Margie to feel the love from More Cowbell all the way up to the top of her mountain in Colorado! She’ll be popping in throughout the afternoon and evening to respond to your comments. One lucky commenter will be chosen to receive a Lecture Packet from one of Margie’s on-line courses.
- Empowering Characters’ Emotions
- Deep Editing: The EDITS System, Rhetorical Devices, and More
- Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist
- Powering Up Body Language in Real Life:
Projecting a Professional Persona When Pitching and Presenting
- Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors
When you’re done with this blog, I recommend you run immediately over HERE to attend the Academy’s Open House.
If you are a Margie-grad, there are Forums ready and waiting for you. If you have not had one of Margie’s classes yet, be sure to visit the Open House page and take a tour of the cyber classroom. Log in as a Guest for another chance to win one of Margie’s lecture packets!
Margie Lawson —psychotherapist, writer, and international presenter—developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques for used by writers, from newbies to NYT Bestsellers. She teaches writers how to edit for psychological power, how to hook the reader viscerally, how to create a page-turner.
Thousands of writers have learned Margie’s psychologically-based deep editing material. In the last six years, she presented over sixty full day Master Classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
For more information on Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, on-line courses, master classes, and the Immersion Master Class sessions offered in her Colorado mountain-top home, visit: www.MargieLawson.com.