Friday, October 13, 2006
Suspense Elements in Story--Part 2
Before we get into Pace for today--The “P” in SPARK--here’s a comment from Becky, posted yesterday:
I have a question about your definition of suspense. [That definition was: “a story with a high level of tension, founded on fear for the character’s welfare.”] Is that one of those aimed-at-writers-of-suspense things you alluded to? I mean, the fear aspect makes it seem a bit narrow. I've said more than once, as have other BG's, that you are a master of suspense, even here on your blog. I might have also mentioned my belief that you could have me scrambling to read the next page of the phone book because you make readers want to know what'll happen next. Isn't that suspense? Which in that context seems divorced from any fear. I guess I think of suspense more along the lines of a marriage of tension and curiosity.
Yeah, okay, Becky. I’ll buy your definition. I don’t think we’re that far apart, though. “Fear for a character’s welfare” simply means “a tense concern.” As I mentioned yesterday, this can be anything from concern because of physical conflicts (Agh, she’s going to be locked up in a room full of poisonous spiders!) to concern because of psychological or emotional conflicts (from the “Never Ending Saga” of my journey toward publication in this blog’s archives: “Are those pages spitting out of Brandilyn’s fax machine the contract she’s waited 10 interminable years for—or merely some sales solicitation?”)
How’s about it, Becky, will you buy that? (My explanation, not the fax.)
On to today's notes:
2. PACE. In general, pace is faster in suspense. (Keep in mind I’m talking pure suspense here. Glean from this what you will and adapt it to your own story’s needs.) The story’s got to click right along. We’ll look at two aspects of pace – (A) conflict and (B) sentence structure.
A. Conflict. Conflicts should be introduced at a fast, sometimes even furious, pace. The overall feel of the story is action, action, action.
Important note: “Action” doesn’t necessarily mean “activity.” Action can be of a mechanical nature, i.e., your character must get away from someone who is chasing her. Or it can be psychological, i.e., your character must decide between two very different choices, both of which beckon her.
Sheer, constant “activity” in excess can become boring. Plus, it’s not realistic for a character to be embroiled in constant activity. So there are times in suspense when “quiet” scenes are needed. However, “quiet” refers to circumstances surrounding and OUTSIDE of the character.
But to sustain the level of suspense, even in outwardly “quiet” scenes, there should be plenty of “action” going on within the character. Maybe she’s faced with a decision. Maybe she’s reeling from the aftermath of activity. Maybe she’s grieving. Or fearing what’s to come. Or planning and plotting.
This concept is absolutely key. You cannot “let down” the pace in a “quiet” scene too far. Think of pace in suspense as a tautly-pulled rubber band. Constant, high-level tension.
Example: In Cast A Road Before Me the subplot of a potentially violent labor strike that introduced suspense into the story is resolved shortly before the end of the novel. Obviously, this subplot has much ACTIVITY.
The end of the novel itself has little to no activity. In fact, outwardly she’s merely driving a car. (I wouldn’t do this in a pure suspense, but remember, this was a women’s fiction novel with suspense elements.) The suspense at the end of this novel all comes from INNER ACTION on the part of Jessie. In order to be a satisfying ending after all that activity, this final scene had to carry a LOT of psychological suspense. Everything about Jessie – her future, who she IS at her very core – is placed at stake.
B. Sentence structure. Your writing has to be absolutely tight, or lean, as some call it. No extraneous words. Particularly in scenes of high activity. This is a whole subject in itself, but I’ll highlight a particular issue here.
Some of you have heard me talk about “sentence rhythm” (discussed in my book Getting Into Character). In a nutshell, this means that the rhythm of your sentences should match the “beat” of action in a scene.
Whether you realize it or not, sentences do have rhythm, just as music does. Long, complex sentences tend to have a lulling effect – an easy-going beat. Short, punchy sentences, even incomplete sentences, carry the rhythm of action.
This is not something your reader will understand consciously. But unconsciously, if you try to depict high activity with long sentences, the lulling beat of those sentences will compete in your reader’s mind with the heart-pounding beat you are trying to create.
In scenes or sequences of high activity: (1) shorten your sentences. (2) Use regular past tense verbs, not past participles (verbs ending in “ing”).
Shorten your sentences. The most important word in sentences depicting high activity is the verb. Long, complex sentences often make the reader wade through numerous words before getting to the verb. Example: Spinning around to face his attacker head on, Eric smashed his fist into Dexter’s eye.
In this example, we read most of the sentence before we get to the word “smashed.” Plus, there are simply too many words that drag at the sentence. Better to write the sentence with dual verbs, something like: Eric spun and smashed his fist into Dexter’s eye.
Use regular past tense verbs. Past participles carry the connotation of action over a space of time. “Was spinning” sounds like it took longer than “spun.” In times of high activity, events happen slam, bam. Regular past tense verbs portray the “beat” of this fast action better.
Consider these examples of a fight on a stairway. First, without employing sentence rhythm:
Throwing out her fist, she punched him in the eye. Growling in pain, he threw himself on top of her. She was screaming as he pinned her arms and legs. She strained to free herself, lunging up to bite him. He started jerking backwards, and his movements made them slide down a stair...
These “beat” of these long sentences do not enhance the “beat” of this high activity. In fact, the sentences fight the “beat” you are trying to convey. Here’s the same scene, using sentence rhythm, as it appears in Eyes of Elisha:
Her right fist caught him in the eye. He growled in pain, then threw himself on top of her. She screamed. He pinned her arms, her legs. She strained to free herself, lunged up to bite him. He jerked backwards. They slid down one stair...