Sunday, June 26, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 7 of 7

Here's the last part of my writers' conference talk on creating suspense.

Here is a list of some of the main things that lead to suspense.

1 Start by plunging your protagonist into life-or-death trouble on the first page of your story. Work all other information into the action. You don’t need to spend any time setting the stage. Readers are smart. They’ll figure it out. This is especially important in your first several books before you’ve developed a reputation for good storytelling.

2 Illuminate your protagonist with telling details that reveal important aspects of the person’s personality and emotions. What the protagonist looks like is not important. How the protagonist feels and reacts to life-or-death trouble is very important, and that is what generates our empathy and worry.

3 Give your evil antagonist a background so terrible that we suspend our disbelief and buy into the evil. And make the bad guy much more powerful than the hero.

4 Allow us to witness the antagonist’s evil or have another character testify to that evil.

5 As your protagonist tries to cope with the terrible trouble, make certain it gets worse, and then worse still.

6 Build to a climactic battle on the antagonist’s turf. Give the bad guy all of the advantages so that it appears obvious that the protagonist doesn’t have a chance.

7 Have the protagonist appear to be losing the climactic battle in every way. Remember that your hero can’t benefit from luck or coincidence. When your protagonist finally wins at the end, he or she does so through grit and perseverance and innovative thinking.

8 Make your wrap up, what writers call the denouement, as short as possible. Leave your readers wanting more.

All of these these techniques will create so much suspense that your reader will stay up late to finish your novel and then will order every other book you have written.

Writers who create dramatic suspense are the most successful of all writers.

Thank You

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 6 of 7

More from my writers' conference talk on how to create suspense.

Aside from suspenseful story bones, there are other storytelling techniques that create suspense. One of them I already mentioned is foreshadowing.

We need to give readers an advance warning of anything remarkable that happens in the story. We use foreshadowing to eliminate a sense of coincidence, which readers won’t abide.

For example, if your protagonist is going to use kickboxing skills in a critical fight scene, then we need to see her going to her kickboxing class early in the story. You can’t spring such a remarkable skill on the reader, or the reader will feel cheated. Maybe a critical scene requires your protagonist to know how to play chess or speak French or be able to ski. All of these skills must be shown early in the story before they become critical at the end.

Your characters can’t benefit from coincidence. That’s not playing fair with your reader. Readers demand to see your protagonist survive by wits, not luck.

The flip side of foreshadowing is what’s called Chekhov’s Law. Chekhov said that if, in an early scene, a shotgun is prominently featured above the fireplace mantle, it must be fired at the story’s climax. In other words, if you make a big deal out of something unusual, it has to come into play later in your novel. This adds considerable suspense to your entire story. You will recognize your own susceptibility to this in books you read and movies you watch. For example, if you learn in a story that a bad guy who gets in knife fights has stolen a 15th century golden Aztec knife with reputed magic powers, you instinctively anticipate a coming scene when he will use it. And you will feel suspense about that throughout the book. That golden knife must be used later in the story.

Yet another way to create a constant level of suspense with foreshadowing is to add into your scenes a vulnerability so that the reader can see the constant potential for disaster.

The horseback trail ride camping trip includes a horse with a bad hoof, and the trail goes along multiple cliffs.

A young couple has planned a big wedding, and 250 guests are about to arrive. But the bride is in love with another man.

A college biology student gets a job on a research ship and is required to make daily trips on a little dinghy into Norwegian fjords to study whales. But the college student can’t swim.

One of the hero’s friends is really a spy working for the bad guy, so you will continuously wonder which one of the characters is the traitor.

You might ask, what if it turns out that nothing dangerous happens on the camping trip, or no spy is revealed, or the shotgun isn’t fired? The story will be nearly ruined.

Remember that everything unusual or really remarkable that happens late in your story has to be foreshadowed. And everything remarkable that is foreshadowed has to be used later in your story. Chekhov’s shotgun must be fired.

There are endless ways that foreshadowing can build suspense. We’ve already mentioned having other characters report on the evil that someone does. This often takes the form of a warning, sometimes from characters we call shapeshifters, characters who may or may not exist and whose forms may change. Perhaps a person with reported psychic abilities has a “vision” of something bad related to a certain character. Even if the reader and all the other characters in the story don’t believe in psychic abilities, the warning serves its purpose and puts the reader on edge, worrying that even if the warning is hocus pocus, the psychic may still know something we don’t know.

And of course in my field of writing mysteries, the identity of the antagonist is not known until the very end. On top of these suspenseful story bones, a whodunnit story puzzle creates a constant suspense separate from all of these other techniques, which is one of the reasons for the popularity of mysteries.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 5 of 7

In the previous post, I talked about how to use expert witness and anecdote to describe a background that make believable motivation for a really bad guy. So to continue...

When you set this evil antagonist on a collision course with an innocent protagonist, every aspect of your novel will be imbued with suspense. As you tell of Violet’s nightmares of a bad man watching her through her bedroom window while her stoned guardian uncle is largely absent, the reader will continuously imagine the child killer trying to assuage the torment of his own past by stalking the girl. The suspense is built in to this plot and these characters.

However, while I will want to know what happens, the story sounds pretty cliched and with little depth. At its core, the basics of suspense can be easy to create, and it does the job of getting the reader to turn the page.

But cheap suspense cheapens your novel. Readers are sophisticated, and they will only come back for more of your stories if you give them something more nuanced, something more complicated, something more redeeming.

So you complicate the story in a way that makes it more interesting and adds even more suspense.

Let’s say that back when the killer escaped, perhaps one of the people in the courtroom was a disgraced ex-cop named Kyle who once moonlighted as an off-duty guard ten years before. He’d been hired to be the bodyguard of a teenaged girl, the daughter of a wealthy mob-connected businessman who had been threatened. One day, the teenager wanted Kyle, her bodyguard, to take her to a fashion show. While Kyle was distracted by the pretty models, the teenager was kidnapped by the businessman’s enemies and never found again.

The result of the teenager disappearing was tragic beyond description. Kyle was sued for millions by the businessman, fired by the police department, and vilified by the community. He began drinking to excess. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. His wife divorced him.

Kyle struggled with life, seeking some small redemption ever since the tragedy. He began going to murder trials, studying defendants, trying to find something to suggest that he wasn’t as bad a person as the killers on trial.

When the defendant stabbed the bailiff and escaped, Kyle decided to make it his personal mission to track down the killer. He believes that if he can catch the killer, he can begin to rebuild his shattered life.

Now you’ve got me totally involved with Violet and the escaped killer and the ex-cop who’s looking for redemption. I’m eager to find out what happens with all three characters.

This story also allows you to go in two directions because you have two potential protagonists. You can have Violet be your hero and show the story of a child reacting to rising danger. In the climactic battle, you can have Violet demonstrate a wily brilliance in using her small size and a child’s instinct to evade and even help the cops bring down a killer.

Or you can have the ex-cop be the protagonist, up against a younger, stronger, smarter, more vicious killer. The cop is fighting not just to save the little girl’s life but his own life and reputation as well. The story of redemption can be almost as powerful as the story of saving a child from a killer. Redemption can be a background that informs every aspect of the more immediate battles.

These story components create ongoing suspense.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Creating Suspense Part 4 of 7

This is part 4 of my TMCC Writers' Conference talk on suspense.

Last week, we were imagining a story about a young girl named Violet who's just run into rush hour traffic to save a bunny rabbit.

Let’s revisit the trouble that drives your story. This trouble, the terrible trouble, comes from the antagonist, the bad guy.

The antagonist need not actually be a person and can instead be an addiction or a plague or a monster. But the antagonist usually takes human form be it a scary-looking street punk or a pleasant looking middle-class, father-in-law.

The most important component of the Bad Guy is that he or she has to have a believable motivation for his badness. We simply won’t suspend our disbelief if a normal person from a nice family who never experienced torment is suddenly revealed to be a serial killer who dismembers his victims. The Bad Guy has to have a history so horrible that we buy into the notion that he’s a serial killer.

Many times when you read a story that seems lame, or watch a movie that just isn’t gripping, it’s because the bad guy does bad stuff for no reason. These antagonists without motivation, that just come out of the woodwork for no reason, are always unsatisfying.

We make the bad guy credible by giving him a background that is bad enough to motivate his actions. This is the most important motivation of all the characters in your story. Why? Because it’s easy to believe it when your good guy protagonist responds in reasonable ways to severe trouble because you, the reader, would respond that way too. Because of this, we’re inclined to believe what good characters do. But the writer needs to go to great lengths to give the antagonist a compelling reason to do the terrible things he or she does.

In addition to giving your bad guy a powerful motivation to be bad, the reader also has to witness him being bad, or else we need the antagonist to have a proxy show how bad he is.

There are a couple of ways the reader can discover how bad the antagonist is. One is having an early scene showing a character coming up against the Antagonist’s evil. After the reader witnesses this evil and views the carnage, then the story moves from that first character, who may even be dead, to the protagonist. We naturally worry that the protagonist might succumb to the same fate.

An alternative way to demonstrate the Antagonist’s evil is with anecdotal telling by a third party. For example, maybe your story begins with an FBI psychologist on the witness stand at a trial of a man accused of killing children. The profiler tells the court that she’s studied the defendant’s background, especially the defendant’s father who kept the boy chained up in a dark basement cellar. The FBI’s expert says that people with such childhood backgrounds of deprivation often develop a type of psychopathy that is as wicked as people can get. This expert testimony gets me, the reader, believing that the Bad Guy is really evil because of his childhood background. Because of the anecdotal telling about the bad guy, I suspend my natural disbelief and buy into your story.

If, after the expert’s testimony, the defendant suddenly reveals that he has a sharpened toothbrush handle hidden in his cheek, and he gets it between his teeth as he jerks his head forward toward the bailiff, stabbing the bailiff in the neck, and then he escapes, I’ll give up any further doubt that anyone could be so wicked. I’ll now believe that there is no evil the killer isn’t capable of. The suspense ratchets up with every thought of this killer who is now on the run.

Now imagine that your story shows this escaped killer hiding under a freeway bridge. He’s feeling very angry about children and what he had to go through as a child. And he’s watching a little girl run into traffic to save a bunny rabbit…