Creating Suspense

If you’ve read Perfecting Plot, or for that matter, any of the other books in the Red Sneaker Writers series, you understand the importance of creating suspense, or its junior partner, tension. Bottom line, it’s a matter of maintaining interest, keeping the reader riveted to the page in a world rife with distractions. Suspense is not just for so-called suspense novels–it’s an important element in any book you want the reader to finish. And in my opinion, it’s just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. When the book is full of suspense, the reader finishes and runs to work the next day (or posts on Amazon) enthusiastically talking about this great book everyone need to read. That’s when they call it “a good read” or say they stayed up till three in the morning because they couldn’t put it down. And that is the best publicity a writer can get.

Simply stated, suspense is apprehension–the reader wondering and even worrying about what will happen on the next page. This requires at least two elements. First, there must be a perilous situation fraught with risk. This doesn’t have to involve guns, cliffs, or end-of-the-word scenarios. Sometimes emotional stakes can be just as important. The second essential element is a protagonist readers care about. This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect (and probably shouldn’t be). It just means the reader has to care what happens to them. This won’t happen automatically. You have to give them a reason to care (see Creating Character).

Tension is nascent suspense, a sense that all is not right with the world, even if you don’t know quite what the problem is. There should be tension on every page, from the first page until the climax is completed. You heard me right. Every page.  Tension is that nagging feeling that there’s a ticking time bomb somewhere that’s going to explode if someone doesn’t do something. It’s the unsettling intimation that the characters are all talking but not actually talking about what is uppermost in their minds. Even in the early pages of the book, when you might not have fully developed the suspense elements, there should be tension.

I’ve been reading a lot of manuscripts lately, editing for friends and patrons, and I’ve noticed that suspense, or attempts to create suspense, tend to fall into one of two different categories. The best kind of suspense is what I described before, a genuine concern about what might befall characters you care about. “Oh no–what will happen next?” This is conflict that arises naturally and authentically from the narrative you’ve created.

Too often, what I see is “false suspense.” (If someone has a cooler name for this, please share it.) This is the literary equivalent of the “jump scare” in a horror film–when something unexpectedly leaps out from off-screen, usually accompanied by a jarring noise. Sure, you jump, but that scare wasn’t really earned. Similarly, writers sometimes create unearned suspense by withholding vital information. Like, in the worst possible (and most common) example, the fact that this exciting interlude is only a dream. Almost as bad is when a first-person narrator withholds critical information. Though some have done this with success (Agatha Christie, Harlan Coben), it always leaves me feeling cheated. I mean, seriously–I’ve been inside this character’s head for 400 pages, but he never once thought about this critical detail that was not reveled until the last page? To me, that’s a cheat.

I understand the desire to have one final surprise on the final page, and that may be the easiest way to do it. But for me, I’d rather see a “big reveal” in the climax, and let those few pages following the climax wrap up character business, or complete the narrative with a touching, evocative, or thematic grace note. Even in thrillers, there’s more to a good novel than eternal surprises. And I think there should a constitutional amendment banning all dream sequences, drug trips, daydreams, parallel universes, and any other devices that allow writers to suggest something exciting is happening when it isn’t. This is suspense without consequences, and I think it leaves most readers feeling ripped off.

The best approach? Dynamic, sympathetic characters working against major opposition to achieve meaningful goals. Anytime you feel the suspense may be lagging–raise the stakes. Put more at risk. Put someone else in jeopardy. Make your book impossible to put down.

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Show, Don’t Tell–What Does That Mean, Anyway?

I was sitting onstage taking questions one year at our annual fall writing conference, and a woman I knew asked me to explain the opt-quoted concept of Show, Don’t Tell. “That sounds great,” she said, “but this is a novel and sometimes you just have to tell people what’s going on. Don’t you?” I didn’t have a ready answer, but that’s always good, because when I actually have to think about something hard enough to explain it, I usually end up understanding it much better than I did before.

I eventually suggested that my questioner distinguish character from plot. Yes, to move the story forward, you will eventually have to tell the reader what’s going on, perhaps fill in a little background, and not all of it can always be shown. When writers talk about Show, Don’t Tell, though, they are usually referring to revealing what’s going on inside the viewpoint character’s head, what they’re thinking, or even more importantly, what they’re feeling. The idea is that, instead of saying, “Sally was mad,” you say, “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, flung herself down on the bed, and pounded the pillow.”

Not a subtle example, but you get the idea, right? There are legitimate reasons for writing this way. For one thing, words expressing emotional states tend to be flat and to have little impact on the reader. If you portray the emotion, however, it will come to life and have far more impact on the reader. This is closely related to the all-important concept of viewpoint. You want to keep the reader inside your characters’ heads, experiencing the story through their eyes and ears. Few readers get wrapped up in a story that is narrated to them, but if they feel as if they’re inside the story, as if it’s happening right before their (inner) eyes, they are much more likely to be engaged. When you just tell the reader about a character’s emotional state, it feels as if the story is being narrated. After all, no one really stands around thinking, “Grr. I’m mad.” On the other hand, if you show their emotional state by describing their actions, you’ve kept the reader inside the character’s head.

This so-called rule is usually attributed to the playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” He was writing about description rather than emotional states, but the core idea is just the same.

Hemingway is renowned for what he left out, not just adverbs and adjectives but anything he thought the reader could figure out for themselves (the theory of omission). One of his most famous stories is “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is simply a few pages of two characters not talking about what is uppermost in their minds. The clues are sufficient to allow an attentive reader to figure out what it is, though, and it strikes with much more impact because the reader is led there rather then being hit over the head with it. For the same reason, Chuck Palahniuk has recommended a ban on what he calls “thought verbs,” such as “thinks,” “knows,” “understands,” “realizes,” “wants,” etc.

By the way, there’s still room in some of my summer writing retreats. More than two dozen of my students have been published, and three of them are up for awards this coming weekend. Is this the year you should join us? For more info: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offensehttps://smile.amazon.com/Capitol-Offense-Novel-Kincaid-Book-ebook/dp/B002PXFYJC/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479663628&sr=8-1