Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Suspense Elements in Story--Part 4

I'm closing out this topic today with points 4 and 5--R for Reaction and K for Knowledge. I remind you again that these workshop notes are rather cryptic. Neither are they meant to cover every possible point, and every possible exception to all those points. This was only an hour-long workshop. (That enough disclaimers, you think?) So take from this when you will.

4. REACTION: This has to do with the constant building of suspense through your character’s reactions. SOMEBODY’S got to be proactive in his/her reactions, whether it’s your protagonist or antagonist.

Example: your character is out walking the dog at night and witnesses a murder. She runs away, planning to tell no one so she won’t be involved. But the murderer sees HER and vows to silence her. He’s the proactive one. In this kind of cause-and-effect reaction, the protagonist keeps trying to back off from the situation while the antagonist keeps the situation tightening.

Or, your character can react proactively from the start. She can feel she doesn’t want to be involved, but her conscience drives her to report the crime. Her thought is: this is all I’ll have to do, then I’ll be done with it. She reports the crime and solves the problem of her conscience.

Now you’ve got the proactive cause-and-effect. Next thing your character knows is – she’s drawn in a little deeper. She thinks, I’ll just have to do “B”, then I’ll be done with it. She does “B.” And before you know it, “C” arises.

Little by little, reaction by reaction, she is pulled deeper and deeper into the suspense, even while thinking that with just one more step, she’ll get out of it. In other words – the solving of one problem simply leads to another, worse one.

You can blend these two types of reactions. Your character may be proactive at first, then get so tired of the situation, she tries simply to run. But at that point, you’ll have to make other characters the proactive ones so that for her, there’s no escape.

The main thing, keep that screw tightening. Keep it tightening.

5. KNOWLEDGE. This refers to two types of knowledge: (A) the knowledge you allow the reader to have, and (B) the knowledge you withhold by planting questions in the reader’s mind. One leads naturally to another.

A. Knowledge you allow the reader to have. This aspect goes hand in hand with Pace. Because pace must be swift, you cannot allow the story to stop for long in order to introduce backstory. Especially in the beginning of your novel – keep backstory to a bare minimum. Start with action.

B. Planting questions in the reader’s mind. This requires a deliberate releasing of tiny bits of information – starting in your very first scene. Questions increase suspense. They are what keep your reader turning pages.

Points A and B both need to be used at the same time for ultimate suspense. Excess backstory can deaden any kind of novel, and should be avoided. Backstory should be spread out over time, told to the reader only on an as-need-to-know basis. HOWEVER, in suspense, rather than eliminating backstory completely in a scene, you add just a taste of it.

Example of Point A used alone (no backstory): A novel begins with a man going into a bar in a strange town. He sits down, orders a drink. A group of huge, mean-looking guys immediately surround him, spoiling for a fight. He doesn’t want to fight, but he has to. The scene is pure action, not stopped by any backstory regarding who this guy is. The level of suspense = will he win the fight? Obviously, that question is answered at the end of the scene.

Example of Points A and B used (tiny bits of backstory added to raise questions in the reader’s mind): Same scene. This time, as the bad guys surround the protagonist, this narrative is added: Not here, not now, he thought. How could they possibly know who he was? Through how many towns, how many states would he have to run?” Then the bad guys strike, and it’s back into action as he fights.

These three sentences are not enough to slow pace. In fact adding them heightens the level of suspense. Now, the reader’s questions are far more than who will win the fight. The reader will wonder: Why is this guy running? Who is he? What kind of reputation is this that causes strangers to fight him? How many towns and states has he already run to? When will he be able to stop? Etc. These questions are NOT answered at the end of the scene. They will keep the reader turning pages to find out the answer.

Bottom line, suspense is all about keeping those pages turning.

Speaking of which, I'm having a heck of a time writing my current one. I've hit that snag place, you know? I know I'll work through it, but...ugh.


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Thanks for the lesson! It came at just the right time, I'm working on an outline for my NaNoWriMo project for November!

I'll pray that you sail past the snag...but then again, God is good!...You always do...and each book gets better than the last!

Janet Rubin said...

More useful info. Just like Bonnie said, it's relevant to what I'm working on right now! Thanks for sharing all of this Brandilyn. Yup, you'll get past the snag. Some brilliant idea will come when you least expect it.

C.J. Darlington said...

Oh, I've totally been in the snag place. Guess the only cure is to write through it. There's always the second draft ...

:-)Ronie said...

This is exactly what I'm trying to create in my ending--the tightening, so to speak. It's so tough--I think I have it throughout my book. I think. LOL We'll see, huh?

Air Force Family said...

Excellent information! The more I read your notes, the more I think I should give writing a try. lol Have a wonderful, Brandilyn.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Loved this series, Brandilyn. Great stuff. I can relate to the snag. Hit one this weekend and had to rethink a bit. So hard to be even a little objective! Sigh...

Jenny said...

Love you, Brandilyn but I'm praying for your cabinets. :-)
Abundant blessings,
Jenny Cary