Sunday, May 29, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 3 of 7

This is part 3 of my TMCC Writers' Conference talk about suspense.

Let’s go back to our protagonist who’s in major trouble. It is always tempting for a writer to delay bringing on the trouble. As writers, we like to set a careful stage. But resist this desire. Now you may be thinking that you’ve read many books that take their time getting the danger up to full speed. But they were almost certainly books by writers you already knew about. It was the writer’s reputation for developing a good story that kept you reading through a slow beginning. But a new writer doesn’t have that luxury. When a reader tries a book by a writer they’ve never heard of, the only reliable thing that will get them to turn the pages is trouble. And not just any trouble, either. For the trouble to grab the reader, it needs to be life-or-death trouble. This can be literal life or death or, less commonly, metaphorical life or death. If metaphorical, it’s critical that the protagonist is in danger of losing the very thing that he or she cares about most.

While your protagonist should be sympathetic, this doesn’t mean he needs to be sweet and good or even likable - think Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita or Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But the protagonist is often kind and beneficent. Nice or not, the protagonist is made sympathetic with specific, descriptive details. Not just any details, but telling details that reveal deeper aspects of his character.

For example, if you tell me that the protagonist of your story is a sweet little girl who dearly loves all creatures, I might immediately begin to get sleepy. But if you begin your story by showing a seven-year-old girl named Violet running out between racing cars and trucks on the highway and scooping up a baby bunny rabbit that had wandered across the asphalt during a lull in traffic, I’ll begin to know and care about this character and wonder why no one is supervising her actions. If the following action reveals that Violet was recently orphaned and her guardian uncle didn’t notice her running onto the highway because he is smoking a joint with a friend in nearby pickup, the cargo bed of which is filled with a stolen shipment of flat-screen TVs, my empathy for Violet will be at full attention. When Violet runs with the bunny back through traffic, I will be on hyper alert for all the dangers in Violet’s life even if she turns out to not be a very nice person.

When Violet’s uncle finally takes her home to the motel where they are living, you continue to slip telling details into the action. The more specific those details, the more believable the story will be. This applies not just to characters but to all aspects of the story. If, as John D. MacDonald said in his essay on writing, you tell me that the motel room where Violet and her uncle are living is worn and seedy, I may not care. But if I read through Violet’s point of view that the carpet nap near the door was worn down to oily rubber and the leaky air conditioner had dripped water down the wallpaper and formed a brown stain in the shape of Texas, I will not only believe that the room exists, I will smell the mildew.

Specific details bring a story to life.

Next week: How Terrible can the Trouble be?

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