Monday, July 11, 2011

Author Robert Swartwood: Catching the Reader Off-Guard

Please join me in welcoming author Robert Swartwood as the special0395 Robert Swartwood ecover The Serial Killer's Wife_2 guest blogger today as he tours blogdom with his current release, THE SERIAL KILLER’S WIFE.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the thriller: Five years ago Elizabeth Piccioni's husband was arrested for being a serial killer. Her life suddenly turned upside down, she did what she thought was best for her newborn baby: she took her son and ran away to start a new life.

Now, living in a quiet part of the Midwest with a new identity, Elizabeth is ready to start over. But one day she receives a phone call from a person calling himself Cain. Cain somehow knows about her past life. He has abducted her son, and if Elizabeth wants to save him she must retrieve her husband's trophies -- the fingers he cut off each of his victims.

With a deadline of 100 hours, Elizabeth has no choice but to return to the life she once fled, where she will soon realize that everything she thought she knew is a lie, and what's more shocking than Cain's identity is the truth about her husband.

Robert stopped in today to talk about ‘Catching the Reader Off-Guard.’

As a writer, I like catching the reader off-guard whenever possible. This isn’t very easy to do, as today’s reader has probably seen it all. Especially thriller and crime readers—they’ve grown accustomed to the same old tricks. Sure, you might get a few twists in there the reader didn’t see coming, but most readers go into these books nowadays expecting those tricks, and in the back of their minds they’re trying to stay a few steps ahead at all times … 

But I’m not talking about twists. I’m talking about catching the reader off-guard, which are two different things.
One of the times I remember being caught off-guard as a reader was while reading the short story “Out of the Snow” by Andre Dubus in his collection Dancing After Hours (this Andre is not to be confused with his son, Andre Dubus III, who authored the Oprah Book Club pick House of Sand and Fog). Even now I don’t remember much about the story except for a particular scene; in fact, here’s the paragraph in question: 

A Manhattan: she imagined the stemmed glass, the brown drink, the first good sip. No, not with pretty auburn-haired Marsha, not today. She would take a drag of Marsha’s cigarette, to taste and feel that with the whiskey; then she would smoke one. Marsha would protest but would give it to her anyway; then she would smoke another. No, at lunch she would drink water. She put her purse on the dining room table and thought of pushing the barbell up from her chest, exhaling as blood rushed to her muscles. She went into the kitchen, to go outside for more bags of groceries, and two men stepped out of the mudroom, through the open door: the one in the red hooded sweatshirt from the parking lot was in front; behind him was the other man, in a sky blue parka. Her mouth opened, and her body seemed to jump up and back, though her feet did not leave the floor. They had followed her all this way, half an hour from the market; they were doom walking out of the snow. 

The paragraph continues, but you get the idea. When I initially read the story, I remember being a bit startled at the sudden appearance of the two men. Everything in the story leading up hadn’t even suggested that they would make another appearance—at least that I can remember—but it was the way Dumas presented them, the way he let them step into the story so seamlessly that not even a beat was lost, that I found most effective. 

Most writers, I think, when writing such a scene, would have cut that paragraph in half, started a new paragraph with the two men entering. That, however, would be too abrupt. The reader would be expecting a change because the paragraph ended. But not here. Here, Dumas keeps the narrative going, letting the reader fall into the rhythm of the sentence. He lulls them, and then pounces. He gives no warning. 

And that, my friends, is the sign of a great writer. 

Twists and clever plots are always fun, but it’s when you catch the reader off-guard that is the most fun—both for the reader and the writer. 

Robert, thanks so much for guest blogging. This is indeed a great way to catch the reader off-guard. Wishing you much success with THE SERIAL KILLER’S WIFE

As a special treat, Robert will be doing a live reading at his website on Monday, August 1st, at 7 pm (EST). Be sure to stop and for a listen.

Share your thoughts on catching the reader off-guard. Thanks for stopping by.



  1. Thanks for the great post. I'm going to read it again more slowly.
    "The Serial Killer's Wife" the title alone would insist I read this book.

  2. Great advice! I like the idea of catching the reader off guard - great example too :)

  3. oooh this book sounds very intense. And thanks for the great advice.

  4. I don't believe I've placed too many surprises in the middle of a paragraph like that.

  5. I have only read one story by André Dubus, but I agree that he is a brilliant role model for a thriller writer.

    And I like the synopsis of The Serial Killer´s Wife, but I am not too keen on the 100-hour deadline.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.