Sunday, May 15, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 1 of 7

I was asked to give a talk on Creating Suspense at the 26th Annual Truckee Meadows Community College Writers' Conference.

The response was so positive, I decided to serialize it here on my blog. I've divided it into seven parts.

I hope you writers find it useful!

Today I want to talk about how to create suspense in your novel. First, I will give you some general concepts that automatically create suspense. Then I’ll go over specific techniques that set readers on edge. After that, we’ll have some time for Q and A, so please make a note of any questions.

Let’s start by distilling out the common components of stories. Once we have a clear picture of the structure of most stories, the bones as it were, then we can easily see where and how to construct them in a way that naturally grips our readers. More than anything else, suspense is created by a type of story structure.

All stories, and thus all novels, both literary and entertainment novels, are built around conflict. As readers, we get engaged in that conflict, and we want to see how it will turn out. At the most basic level, it is this conflict and its resolution that form the seeds of suspense.

In literary novels, which are written first as art and second as an engaging story, the suspense is often of a lower amplitude. We care of course about how the story will resolve itself, but we are often more focused on the complex, tormented characters, the lovely sentences, the rich metaphors, the deep, moody atmosphere, the thoughtful and heart-wrenching moral dilemmas.

In entertainment novels, which by contrast are written first and foremost and forever focused on an engaging story, the suspense is up front. We still may find a measure of art. We still want well-constructed characters and good prosody and scintillating sentences. But more than anything, we want suspense. I should point out that when I refer to suspense, I don’t necessarily mean something scary, I just mean something that gives us a powerful urge to turn the page. Speaking metaphorically, and sometimes literally, most readers, much of the time, want a novel that grabs us by the throat, drags us out into the rainy, sleet-stricken night, plunges us into the icy black swamp water, there to be held under and shook as if by the Godzilla of all that terrifies us.

In other words, we want a novel that makes us worry and stress and sweat. We want to be afraid. We want to cry even as we laugh at a romantic comedy.

You’ve heard the cliche “Show, don’t tell.” The three parts of prose are action, dialogue, and exposition. Exposition is the stuff where authors explain the things they think their readers need to know about. Get rid of it! Readers are smart. They don’t need to have things explained. As much as possible, show your story with action and dialogue. Those are the things that lead to a gripping, suspenseful story.

Let’s start with the hero, otherwise known as the protagonist.

There are of course a thousand ways to paint a great hero or heroine, and the hero, who’s usually a good person but sometimes isn’t, usually has sympathetic traits. As we get to know the protagonist’s desires and dreams and hopes and fears and worries, we identify with them, and we want their world to turn out well.

In the most common story structure, one that makes us rush to turn the pages and be unable to go to sleep at night, we quickly meet a sympathetic character who is our protagonist. That character gets into big trouble early on in the story. This trouble comes from the antagonist, otherwise known as the bad guy. In fact, the greater the depth of the well of trouble and the faster the hero falls into it, the more we worry and dread what is to come. As the protagonist tries to cope with the terrible trouble, the trouble gets worse. So the protagonist tries a new approach, but the trouble gets worse still. Then worse again. This is what’s called the Rising Plot Curve. And it is the foundation of building suspense.

Novels can of course begin slowly, carefully setting the stage with all of the components that will later be revealed as important in ways we don’t at first anticipate. This foreshadowing can be powerful, and the astute reader learns to pay attention to every detail, wondering which details will become the shotgun over the fireplace mantel, which must, according to Chekhov’s Law, be fired at the story’s climax.

However, increasingly in modern fiction, readers, who perhaps suffer shortened attention spans from the profusion of inputs vying for their attention, demand that the protagonist’s trouble comes on fast and heavy. Books with slow, deliberate beginnings are often put down in favor of books that start off fast and furious.

The famous movie impresario Samual Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer said, “I want a story that begins with an earthquake and then builds to a climax.” There is no finer description of a tale that grabs our attention and holds it from beginning until end, a story that starts with the icy hand grabbing us around our throat, followed by increasing tension that builds to a shattering climax.

These stories that barely give us breathing space are the ones that get us talking about them to our friends, emailing and calling and texting our recommendation to everyone we know. If you want emperical evidence of this, you need only glance at any bestseller list. The stories that sell most are usually the ones that have life-or-death trouble on the first page or first paragraph or even the first sentence and then build from there to a climactic battle between the Bad Guy and our poor protagonist, a battle that more often than not takes place on the Bad Guy’s turf.

This basic structure of stories has existed for thousands of years. Philosophers and psychologists who have studied the nature of stories believe that humans are hard-wired to be receptive to stories with the pattern of a sympathetic protagonist in conflict with an antagonist who appears superior to the hero in every way. In other words, heros are always underdogs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of How To Create Suspense, to be posted next week.

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