Saturday, November 26, 2011

Suspense Part Two

In my last post, I talked about “quick” and “slow” suspense. Quick suspense is fast off the page by calling the reader’s attention immediately to a threat, like a ticking bomb. However, quick suspense depends more on universal threats than character specific ones, and will always be weaker than “slow” suspense, which develops when characters the reader cares about are threatened. Below are some ways that, I think, writers can create the slower and superior type of suspense. These are techniques I used in my thriller, Cold in the Light.

1. THE EXPLOITING OF CHARACTERS’ WEAKNESSES:
Characters need to be vulnerable for slow suspense to develop, and they need to be sympathetic. This is why many thriller and horror writers use children as characters, and why women are often victims in such stories. These types of characters are at least perceived as being more vulnerable, and therefore evoke sympathy in the reader. A threat against a character the reader cares about is far more effective than one against a character the reader doesn’t.

2. SACRIFICING CHARACTERS:
Most thrillers and horror novels have some characters whose sole purpose is to get killed to show how dangerous the villain is. While the loss of such characters does help establish the villain persona, they do little to increase slow suspense. What does increase slow suspense is the loss of a character who the reader already cares about. If one such character is lost, the ante is raised for all the characters, and the reader perceives the threats as more serious for everyone. The more genuine the risks appear to the reader, the more slow suspense increases.

3. THE DARK AND STORMY NIGHT EFFECT:
The environment in which characters move is, in many cases, at least as important as the characters and action. In Cold in the Light, for example, much of the action takes place at night and in the woods. The villains are at home in both. The heroes are not. Harsh environments put another strain on the character; they make his or her life harder, and if the reader cares about them, this ups the ante for the reader.

4. CLIFFHANGERS AND GOALS:
Since the days of matinee serials, and before, writers have known the value of a cliffhanger for creating tension and suspense. Page turners are page turners because the page the reader just finished generates a “need to know” feeling for what happens next--on the following page. But cliffhangers work best if they come out of goal directed behavior for the characters.
For heroes, cliffhangers occur when they meet an obstacle on their way to a goal. It seems like they are about to reach safety and, “boom,” something gets in the way. The reader is left wondering what the characters are going to do to get around this new problem.

In contrast, cliffhangers happen with villains when obstacles are removed from their path. Since the reader’s hopes lie with the heroes, when the villain acquires a new weapon, or some knowledge, or some advantage, this rackets up the reader’s suspense. The reader wonders: “What is he/she/it going to do with their new information or new weapon?”

5. THE TELLING DETAIL:
When seen from the point of view of a character, the details they focus on can do much to increase suspense. Imagine a mall. Not unusual at all. But this mall has no people in it. It’s empty, totally empty. Silent. You pass the food court and see food sitting on the tables. Coffee still steams. Food looks half eaten. But no one is around. Then comes a sound, a boom boom, boom boom. You try to place it. It seems familiar. And you realize, it sounds like a giant beating heart. Choosing the right details guides the reader’s perceptions, and their mood. It sets them up to wonder, “what comes next?” And that is the “heart” of suspense.

22 comments:

oceangirl said...

I like the stormy and dark night effect. What comes next is always the thrilling question that I enjoy in a book, at the cinema and wish for in real life.

the walking man said...

That other comment was a tension filled comment. Not having a clue on the right way to write a novel I just kill everyone.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oceangirl, me too. I love good atmosphere in a book or story.

Mark, I know an author who took that approach. Maybe one day I'll talk about it.

BernardL said...

Very well done, Charles. I think my least favorite is the sacrificing characters one. It works, but I admit to cringing when I suspect it's coming. I can usually spot the sacrificial lamb early and distance myself from them - 'Dead to me'. Stephen King is a master at sacrificing characters. If I'm reading one of his novels I confess to staying aloof from all characters he incorporates into his main cast.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I definitely used the first two although it was difficult to let go of a character I really liked.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, I admire writers who can sacrifice characters because it's very very hard to do.

Alex, Definitely. I hate to do it but I like when authors can do it.

laughingwolf said...

characters be damned, STORY is all! ;) lol

of course it should be character DRIVEN to hold me riveted, but it's not the be-all-end-all...

yeah, ambient atmosphere helps, a lot... but give me the unknown factors to keep me guessing/turning pages/glued to my seat [in a video]... when i think i know the outcome, do give me a suitable twist - one not telegraphed - one i did not see coming...

[btw - you've kept us waiting long enough, get on with the merlin tale you promised to complete!] ;)

Angie said...

Agreement about sacrificing characters. You can off a dozen redshirts and the reader will just yawn. To be really effective, a character death has to be someone the reader was invested in.

David Weber does this really well [wince] in his Honor Harrington books. They're military fiction, and the climax is always some kind of military action, usually ship-to-ship combat, and people die. Even people we've known and loved for the last several books can die, and while I hate it as a reader who was invested, I love it for how intensely it makes me feel. When I'm rereading, I still tear up at one particular death; I was so sure he wasn't really dead, that he'd show up at the rendezvous, but no. :( Stuff like that grabs your gut and twists, and it's incredibly effective.

Angie

Ty Johnston said...

Ha! Charles, I had a good chuckle over you thoughts about characters being killed, and specifically about characters who exist mainly to be killed.

I don't see it quite as much nowadays, but back in the 80s when horror was hot, I noticed something I called the "first chapter sacrifice." The author would introduce a character in the first chapter, go into all kinds of details about them just to pull the reader in, then WHAMO, the big villain steps in and wastes the character before the chapter ends. Sometimes this death kicked off the action in the rest of the novel, but other times it was used just to reveal the villain or to show how bad he/she/it was.

I remember Koontz doing this several times, and I admit I've done something similar on occasion.

David J. West said...

If the sacrifice is done right I think it can be one of the best ways to up the suspense-and done right to me equals you don't see it coming. And like you I love the right kind of atmosphere.

jodi said...

Charles, I always find your tips interesting. I will never write anything other than my blog, probably, but the tips give me insight as to what style I prefer.

Chris said...

There was a kid in the lobby of the gym just after halloween in a Star Trek costume -- it was pretty awesome too. Except it was a red-shirted crew member costume. I guess his parents didn't love him very much or something. Even I am knowing enough in Star Trek lore to know those dudes are always doomed. I hauled ass, because I knew something bad was about to happen.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great point about sacrificing characters. If a character's purpose is to show what the villain is like, while it does let the reader know what lengths the villain will go to, it doesn't really affect the central characters that much--and therefore the reader.

Erik Donald France said...

You have very accurately gone into what makes a lot of plots work across genres. It also applies to a good football game, when invested in one team (the "good" team) vs. a hated rival (the "team of villains"), or any other sport, for that matter. And politics, too. . .

Carole said...

Wow, good information and concisely put. Your tips are always packed with practical ways to achieve a certain outcome.

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, I think that “Merlin” tale was the piece I did for David Cranmer for his Rip Through Time serial. If so, that is in fact being released very very soon. But only as an ebook.

Angie, exactly so. And your comment makes me want to read Weber more. I’ve got a book by him I need to try. It’s the way things happen in real life and for full growth I think characters need to deal with that kind of loss themselves.

Ty Johnston, I remember that “first chapter sacrifice” well myself. It was so routine as to become cliché, although at times it was very well done. To make it work it really has to be well done.


David J. West, I loved the atmosphere in your story in Monsters and Mormons. I’ve only finished your story so far. Very well done.

jodi, I kind of like hearing these things even as a reader, because it does tell me or help me see why I enjoy some things and not others.

Chris, eek, a red-shirted child! That is begging for trouble, man. Well that you fled quickly.

Golden eagle, exactly. We can’t love all characters equally. We only invest in some.

Erik, true. I hadn’t really considered that. Maybe that’s part of our problem in politics.

Carole, thanks, glad you enjoyed.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Hmmm ... I think it would be rather easy to exploit the weaknesses of a convict-teacher through guilt by association; wait a minute, I think that actually happened. Sounds vaguely familar anyway.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Fiction is about relationships, and I was once going to write a story about a man living with a PMS-harried woman who was very near to committing homicide on poor old Dagwood Bumstead.

Durn. It was really autobiographical and it seemed for a while that I was the homin she had decided to cide.

I am positive there is a "short-short" short story here somewhere, but it might be a dangerous thing to write. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, sounds like a story to tell.

Ivan, the more dangerous the writing, the better.

laughingwolf said...

ok... after i get a new bed, an e-reader will be next!

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Interesting take on Suspense, Charles. Be it film or book, I enjoy suspense that is slow initially and builds up into a crescendo as the story/plot unwinds, resulting in a thunderous boom in the end. If it's a thriller/horror film or book, I want it to knock me off my feet. Quick suspense takes the fun away even before it has begun.

Among the techniques you mentioned I don't like "sacrificing characters" because it hurts to watch, or read about, the lead character's brother or best friend getting killed; however simplistic this may seem as a point of view.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, well I can see how a bed could be important. :)

Prashant, I should do a poll on who likes or doesn't like the character sacrifice. I'm a big fan of it, myself