Another Key to Creating Suspense

June 25, 2009

I’m going to talk about a suspense tool for fleshing out a plot. I first read about it years ago in Jerome Stern’s outstanding book Making Shapely Fiction. He called it “Zigzagging,” and while I see it used in novels and movies constantly, I don’t see discussed much as a technique.

Making Shapely Fiction

Here’s how it works. Say you’ve got most of a story worked out, but there are vague spots in your plot where your narrator starts at A and somehow triumphantly winds up at B. How do you fill in that space between?

Example 1: In The Princess Bride, Inigo duels the Man in Black. Somehow… the Man in Black wins.

Example 2: In The Empire Strikes Back, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids on the Millenium Falcon escape Hoth. Somehow… they arrive at Bespin’s Cloud City (did I mention that Lawrence Kasdan is my favorite screenwriter?)

The Falcon eluding Star Destroyers

Example 3: In a romantic example from Jerome Stern, Vilmar is about to kiss his sweetheart for the first time.

How would you write it? You know you have to give your character a hard time, you have to keep that character at the end of his rope. You’ve learned that much.

But does that mean that from point A, things get worse, and worse… and worse, the mountain he’s climbing getting steeper and steeper, until suddenly just before reaching the summit at point B, your character finds sudden success?

No way. You zigzag it.

And that means adding countless successes, and failures, and successes, along the way. The tiny victories are as important as the failures. They drive the reader’s emotions up, then down, then higher, then lower, each success and failure of growing intensity until, at last… point B.

Let’s take Example 3 first. Stern writes:

Vilmar is going to kiss his sweetheart. But he’s too shy to kiss her. No, he leans his face toward hers, but she turns her head away. She looks at him now, but he’s afraid to try again. He’s steeling himself to do it, but someone is coming. No, it’s just the wind in the leaves. Now she is nervous, but Vilmar feels bold. The church bell rings forbiddingly. They both look up. Suddenly their lips meet.

Tension is created by this rhythm.

The romance example is important. Don’t think that zigzagging is for action or thrillers only. Like Mystery Boxes, zigzagging feeds the suspense of any genre, making any story more readable.

In Example 2, the Falcon is hotly pursued by Star Destroyers. Bad! But Han pilots between them and they crash into each other. Good! But the Falcon’s hyperdrive doesn’t work. Bad! But maybe Han can fix it. Good! But there’s a field of asteroids that will smash them to bits. Bad! But wait, the asteroids squish two tie fighters. Good! But the Falcon will soon be “pulverized.” Bad. So the Falcon hides inside a big asteroid. Phew! We’ve got time for some romantic subplot between Han and Leia. But now there are mynocks outside. Eek!

This goes on and on, including a giant space worm and the Falcon posing as space garbage, before Kasdan gets the characters to point B.

(The space worm haunts me. That is a zig that I would never have come up with in a million years. Darn you, Kasdan!)

Space Slug

In the first example, zigzagging results in my favorite cinematic sword fight. The two master duelists continue to one-up each other, reversal after reversal — hilariously — with Inigo switching his sword to his strong right hand, and the Man in Black (who we know as our hero Wesley) topping that by revealing, likewise, “I’m not left-handed, either.”

Here is that scene.

So if you’re stuck on a plot hole, try switching gears by giving your character a success. Let the reader cheer your character on. Then, pull the rug out. And keep that up.

Zigzagging + Mystery Boxes = Mega-suspense.

A Farewell to Arms

For a classic example of zigzagging that’s… a classic, read the last chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.