Sunday, May 22, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 2 of 7

Last week, I excerpted a portion of a talk I gave at the TMCC Writers' Conference on Creating Suspense. I left off making the point that the protagonist - the hero - in a suspenseful story almost always appears inferior to the antagonist - the bad guy. The protagonist is always the underdog.

To continue:

When the mythologist Joseph Campbell detailed these aspects of heroes and villains and story format, some people used his concepts in great detail. Back in the 1970s, there was a young man studying cinematography at USC. As he later explained, he took Joseph Campbell’s iconic character and story analyses and wrote a script that utilized them point by point. He then filmed a movie that conformed to every detail of Campbell’s story vision. The student’s name was George Lucas, and his little movie was called Star Wars. Movies have never been the same since.

In 1993, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a divorced mother on welfare began writing a different kind of story, but a story that nevertheless used those same concepts that Campbell and other academics had described. Her protagonist was a kid named Harry Potter. Books have never been the same since.

When you construct the bones of your story according to these basic story principles that have been handed down through the ages, you will have major suspense already built in.

Let’s look at those principles of successful stories.

In nearly all gripping stories, the good guy, our sympathetic protagonist, runs into terrible trouble in the form of an antagonist or an agent of the antagonist. Immediately, we the readers begin to stress. The reason is that the antagonist, the Bad Guy, is usually smarter, stronger, and better prepared than our hero. The Bad Guy always has more powerful weapons than our hero, whether those weapons be physical or psychological. The antagonist also has more knowledge of the territory. This combination gives the antagonist overwhelming advantages, and the poor protagonist is hopelessly out-gunned. This applies across all genres. Even in a romance, the antagonist, whether male or female, is often more charming, richer, better connected, and even better looking than our hero.

These attributes feed our story hunger. As we dive into an entertainment novel, we want to get short of breath and be astonished by the dangerous extent of the hero’s trouble and the depth of depravity that rules the Bad Guy. We never seem to tire of an antagonist whose evil traits seem unlimited. The Bad Guy can be someone as wicked as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or Jack Torrance in The Shining. The Bad Guy can be as fantastical as Captain Hook or Moby Dick, as evil as Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth. All rivet our attention.

When we are amazed and struck by fear and hatred of the Antagonist, that generates our emotions of empathy and worry for the Protagonist.

Leave it to the psychologists to explain why we crave these feelings. Suffice to say that they drive us to read. A really evil, powerful villain makes us hunger for a story in which the underdog hero, battling against enormous odds, eventually wins through tireless grit and innovative thinking.

Next week: A closer look at how Trouble, with a capital T, is the key to suspense.

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