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…

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