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.

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