Suspense is a Bridge

December 15, 2009

Here is a boring piece of fiction.

In a minute, I’m going to ask you to make it more suspenseful… and you’re going to do it wrong.

Jane Hemingway marched with purpose down Wilshire, past a flower shop, on the way to the post office. After a week-long tech conference in Hawaii, she was almost back in the swing of her life. Just a few errands to run — pick up a week’s worth of mail, for instance — and her normal rhythm would be restored.

Rhythm was what she liked. Steady, repetitive, secure, safe, like a metronome beating out her days. Writing code took all of her mental energy. Irregularities of schedule and unforeseen events distracted her, stressed her out, burning ergs of brain-fuel better used on her programming. She worked hard to eliminate those irregularities. She had a very low tolerance for stress.

Years of the steady removal of distraction had made her who she was. She kept her dark hair cut short, so it required no care. She wore no makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of six flower-print dresses of various colors, chosen so she could dress herself each morning without thinking. She owned a single pair of shoes.

She stopped a few steps past the flower shop. Her mother loved tulips. It would be a nice way to say hello, and after all, she never called her mother as often as she should. Jane backtracked and entered the shop, ringing the bell on the door.

You think you’re a writer? Okay, go ahead — make those four paragraphs more suspenseful. Increase the tension!

How would you do it? More active verbs? Strike some adjectives and prepositional phrases? Or would you (this is my favorite) cut the whole walking-down-the-street scene? Do we need this stinking thing?

Let’s say we do. For our story, the reader needs to know this character and this exposition (she’s an eccentric programmer, close to her mom, physical appearance, etc), because it will all be important later.

Enough, already. Here’s where you went wrong.

You fiddled with verbs and adjectives, or tightened sentences, or tried it in present tense, or maybe first person.

You got distracted by language, and forgot about storytelling.

There are lots of great storytellers who aren’t very good with language. Vince Flynn and Dan Brown come to mind.

(There are great storytellers who are good with language, of course… and plenty of poets who suck at storytelling. And, rarely, successful writers who can do neither.)

So let’s use our skill as storytellers, rather than “writers,” to fix these tedious but necessary paragraphs.

How?

By not changing the paragraphs at all.

Here, check this out.

From his vantage point on the roof, Sven had a clear view of Wilshire Boulevard. Through the cross-hairs of his high-resolution sniper scope, he spotted his target.

Short dark hair, flower print dress. That was her, all right. She was still walking toward the post office, and there was no sign of the package. Good. He hadn’t been fast enough to stop that Chinese intelligence agent from dropping the package in the mail to a random conference attendee, but at least he’d tracked that attendee down. And he was pretty sure she knew nothing about it.

Too bad for her. Sven disengaged the safety — that familiar “click” always started his palms sweating with excitement.

#

Jane Hemingway marched with purpose down Wilshire, past a flower shop, on the way to the post office. After a week-long tech conference in Hawaii, she was almost back in the swing of her life. Just a few errands to run — pick up a week’s worth of mail, for instance — and her normal rhythm would be restored.

Rhythm was what she liked. Steady, repetitive, secure, safe, like a metronome beating out her days. Writing code took all of her mental energy. Irregularities of schedule and unforeseen events distracted her, stressed her out, burning ergs of brain-fuel better used on her programming. She worked hard to eliminate those irregularities. She had a very low tolerance for stress.

Years of the steady removal of distraction had made her who she was. She kept her dark hair cut short, so it required no care. She wore no makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of six flower-print dresses of various colors, chosen so she could dress herself each morning without thinking. She owned a single pair of shoes.

She stopped a few steps past the flower shop. Her mother loved tulips. It would be a nice way to say hello, and after all, she never called her mother as often as she should. Jane backtracked and entered the shop, ringing the bell on the door.

#

Sven’s eyes narrowed coldly. He had hesitated, and now she was out of sight. She couldn’t be allowed to reach that package alive.

Sure, Steve, you’re thinking. When in doubt, throw in an assassin. Lame.

I admit my example is cheesy. But my point is this:

I don’t need to change those four paragraphs. Now, the reader is no longer bored by the Jane exposition, because the reader is busy realizing that Jane is Sven’s target and sweating about his aim, not to mention wondering what the hell the package is. I have given the reader more to think about, so he or she is at a higher cognitive level while reading the exposition.

I have made the Jane exposition interesting, not by changing it, but by changing the reader’s mental state. As a writer, I am a conductor, and the reader’s mind and emotions are my orchestra. Get it?

Tension is not achieved by style. It is achieved by strategy. The aim of that strategy is to give the reader more to think about, more to wonder about, and more to suspect.

You can do this by asking questions (“What’s in the package?”) and setting the stakes high at the beginning. Then, the reader will gladly burn through any exposition you need to get across to make your story work.


Suspense is a bridge you can build. It can carry your readers over writing like the italicized paragraphs above.

The bridge metaphor helps me remember how to write — much better than the word “tension,” which merely describes the emotion that the reader feels when the writing works well.

“Tension” only makes me think of a piece of rope.

You, the writer, ask questions continuously, on page 1, and again on page 10, and again on page 110. And you answer them too — perhaps on page 8, and page 18, and page 88, so that you have a telescoping pattern of small-scale (zigzagging) and large-scale (thematic) suspense.

In other words, if you want to increase the tension in Chapter Five, try rewriting Chapter Three. If Act II is dragging, rethink Act I.

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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.


The Mystery Box

April 29, 2009

This is about one of my favorite keys for building suspense. It’s simple and applicable to any fiction — not just thrillers or mysteries — so go ahead and spice up your romance novel with it (I use it constantly in the science fiction novel I’m writing now).

I learned it, originally, from reading Dan Brown (don’t pooh-pooh Dan Brown just because he’s popular. His structure is brilliant). Go ahead and read any Dan Brown prologue. They’re all the same.

1. Somebody (usually the point-of-view character) bites the dust.
2. The reader is presented with a dazzling lack of information.

For example, in the opening paragraph of the prologue of Deception Point (my favorite Brown) we read:

deception-point

“… and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.”

Okay, that’s like smacking the reader with an axe handle, and it takes a stinking dump on point-of-view, but notice what we know and what we don’t know. We know the character, arctic geologist Charles Brophy, is about to die. But we don’t know how. That word unnatural is troubling and suggestive. So we turn the page.

And that’s all we need to do.

On the next page, soldiers emerge from a landing helicopter and force Brophy at gunpoint to transmit an emergency message on his radio.

The first man handed him a note card with a few lines typed on it. “Transmit this message. Now.”
Brophy looked at the card. “I don’t understand. This information is incorrect. I didn’t–”
The man pressed his rifle hard against the geologist’s temple.
Brophy’s voice was shaking as he transmitted the bizarre message.

A few lines later, the soldiers take Brophy 4000 feet up in the helicopter and toss him out, “tumbling toward the chasms below.”

Prologue over. 500 words, tops. What don’t we know?

We don’t know who the soldiers were.
We don’t know what the message was.
We don’t know who the message was for.
We don’t know why Brophy was killed.

And it’s the lack of knowledge, the questions, that draw us to start Chapter One. Brown keeps it up, answering some questions… and always asking more, until — holy crap — we’ve read 140,000 words.

Let’s shift gears:

Ever watch Lost? If you haven’t, the first season is worth renting on DVD, just to see Brown’s technique done cinematically. The producer, J.J. Abrams, made sure to withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. It worked. Fans would watch episode after episode just hoping to find out what the monster is, or who the Others are, or what those darn numbers mean.

This works independently of character development. If you can also have characters your reader cares about, you amplify the obsession your readers will feel for your book exponentially.

I was feeding all this into the writing hopper in my skull when I stumbled across a TED talk by J.J. Abrams that laid out his thinking on the tactics of suspense (along with the evolution of special effects and other topics). He uses a metaphor — the Mystery Box — to make his point.

This is that TED talk.

— Steve