Friday, February 11, 2005

Keepin' the Tension, part 2

Yesterday I talked about injecting tension into the drawing sequence in Brink of Death. Gotta do something to keep the story moving when you’re getting technical. The second book in the Hidden Faces series, Stain of Guilt, was harder for me.

The beginning part of Annie’s (the forensic artist’s) challenge is more of a psychological one. She’s faced with drawing a 20-year fugitive update of a man wanted for double homicide. First she has to conduct interviews to figure out what makes this guy tick. Why would a quiet accountant end up killing two people? She has to find out how he thinks, what he eats. Would he have a tendency to gain weight? Were there certain facial expressions he used that would have caused more wrinkling? All of these things could effect how he had aged in twenty years. After the fact-gathering comes the sequence when she’s doing the drawing.

Okay, so I’m planning this book. And all the above looks interesting to me, but it’s not exactly the Brandilyn Collins rollercoaster experience I promise my readers. How to make it that way?

This is when I start to sweat.

One of my fundamental rules is never, never give away the story. So I’m gonna talk in generalities here. First, I give Annie some angst coming into the story. After all, she’s been through a harrowing experience in Brink of Death. This ups the ante within her psyche right away. Then I’ll throw in the first big, bad twist. Next I’ll ratchet things up to such an extent that Annie has to complete the interviews and drawing—now, or else. Meanwhile every now and then I switch to the third person “bad guy” POV. Through these short chapters we see what Bad Guy is planning, and it isn’t pretty.

A quick aside. No doubt in the future I’ll discuss switching POVs. For now let me just say that this second POV in what otherwise is a first-person story allows me to add the second kind of tension in these books. Tension #1—character and reader don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is, it promises to be baaaaad. Tension #2—character doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but reader does know at least part of it, and it’s definitely baaaad. This can make for some real suspense as reader watches character careen toward big, bad scene.

Back to Stain of Guilt. The drawing scene doth approach. But now it’s royally set up. It happens at night, with Annie already spooked. She doesn’t know what Bad Guy is doing, but she’s scared to death over the possibilities. Meanwhile reader does know what Bad Guy is doing, and is all tensed as a result. One major crash of these two people is a comin’. With this set-up, I can weave in the thread of Annie’s quiet work in a room by herself along with the thread of her frightened thoughts, plus the action every now and then of Bad Guy. Suddenly, a “quiet” scene of drawing alone in a room ain’t so quiet.

Bottom line, the trick is to add those other threads, or layers, or whatever metaphor you want to use. Meanwhile readers are getting an interesting look into a field (in this case, forensics) they know little about, without feeling like they’re being lectured. They can come away from the story thinking it was well grounded in appropriate research—and still wanting that night light.

That’s my hope, anyway. If I’ve pulled that off, I done good.

Comment button is below. Your feedback is always welcome.

1 comment:

Camy Tang said...

Hi Brandilyn, Thanks for the mini-lessons on tension. It's great timing for me since I'm writing my romantic suspense and trying to figure out how to keep the tension high in those non-action scenes. Your tips about weaving in Annie's fear are really helpful. --Camy