by Vicki Lane
Originally published Oct. 2, 2010
Every time I get back a line edit from my editor (the amazing Kate Miciak of Bantam Dell – a.k.a. Herself,) it's like attending a master class in writing fiction.
One of the things I've learned is how to 'milk it!'
I first saw this comment on the edit of “Signs in the Blood.” My protagonist, Elizabeth, was in a scary situation and needed to stop her car and get out. So that's what she did – in about two sentences.
In the margin, Herself penciled "Milk it!" – meaning that I should wring every last ounce of tension possible from the scene. So, in the rewrite there were sweaty palms and fumbling with seatbelt latch, yadda, yadda, till the escape was effected – maybe two pages later.
Here's a hypothetical example of a moment of high tension being prolonged. Suppose you have a character who is running away from someone, don't just write "She ran along the road and flagged down a passing car with friendly people who gave her a ride home."
That's way too brief to allow the tension to build - it's over before it's begun.
Instead, in this scene, the character should run, slip and fall, get up, run some more – always aware to the footsteps growing ever closer. She should try to flag down a car, only to have it zoom past her; she should keep running, slowing because of being out of breath or a stone in her shoe or something.
All the time, the pursuer is getting closer. Maybe she passes a house and sees someone in the front yard but when she calls to them, that person scurries inside and slams the door shut. And the pursuer is getting ever closer.
This could go on for quite a bit (I'm sure you could think of more stumbling blocks in her path) before the friendly car comes along. When it does, it could slow and she would think she was saved.
Then it could speed back up and go on. And she would despair. Then at last, she could see its brake lights go on and it would back up and the driver would ask if she wanted a ride.
That's milking it!
Vicki Lane is the author of “The Day of Small Things” and the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian mysteries.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Lane.