Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing Advice: Building Suspense

So far I'm doing great on my New Year's Resolution to blog less. (NOTE: That was not really my New Year's Resolution, I just like to feel a sense of accomplishment.  This blog is half-full.)

Today I'm going to dispense a bit of writing advice. I'm helping a writer-friend with a manuscript critique.  It's one of the best ways to hone your craft, and if you are a writer and don't actively seek out works to critique, you should...you will gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn't, which will make your own writing stronger.  It's also a kind, helpful thing to do for a fellow writer, and at some point you will have several people critique your own work (NOTE: If you are a writer, this is not optional) so you need to get in the game.

One aspect of storytelling that many writers strive for is suspense.  It's a key element to a good page-turner...Regardless of genre, some degree of suspense drives the reader's desire to see what happens next.

But sometimes writers think they are being suspenseful when in reality they are being unclear.  My protagonist doesn't know what's going on, so I'm going to make this scene very vague so the reader can feel that confusion, too!  The readers will feel like they are a part of the story!  This will all make sense in the end!  There is a problem with this.  A confused character can be a good thing.  A confused reader is not.  The issue is that if a story doesn't make sense early on, the reader may never get to the end.

You don't need to telegraph every twist and turn of the plot and give away spoilers in chapter one.  Suspense doesn't work like that.  You do need to keep the reader fully informed about two things:

- What just happened
- What is happening now

Your reader may not need to know why something happened, but the reader should not have to question what just happened.  Without that basic level of clarity, the suspense dissipates and the reader utters "WTF?" faster than an agent form-rejecting the manuscript you spent the last twelve years polishing.

Sometimes a writer will withhold information in effort to be suspenseful, but suspense doesn't come from a lack of information.  It's the exact opposite, really: Suspense is a treat served as a bit of extra information.  Little nuggets that build on each other, like Lego pieces snapping together.  We are clear on the information we received...we understand the shape, size, and color of the Lego piece, even though we may not know what is being built.  When we get the next piece, we know how it snaps into place.  Really good suspense will make us turn the pages faster so we can see the what the completed structure will look like.

That's all for now.  Next up: Cooking Advice.



Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You used the key word - why. Reader doesn't have to know why, but they do need to know what is going on.

Rick Daley said...

Alex- I'm in the middle of the Harry Potter series now. Rowling does a great job at building suspense, and doling out little bits of information that keep you curious as to what's coming next, both in e single book and for the series as a whole. But one thing's certain...I always know what's happening in a particular scene, I never feel lost or confused, even though I don't know where it's all going.

Laurel said...

Dean Koontz does this well, too. You know what is happening in the moment, but the motive and method get revealed slowly.

And it is hard to do well! At least for me it is. It takes quite a lot of practice to get a feel for the right amount of information. Not enough is just frustrating, too much kills your tension. The tough part about writing it is that you DO have all the information. You have to step back from what you know and read it like you are getting it for the first time.

Rick Daley said...

Laurel- That's one of the things I totally ignore in early drafts and totally focus on in late-stage revisions. Adding those little teasers in is almost like reverse-engineering a plot thread, building the story backwards.

Sharon said...

Yeah! So glad you are blogging again! Love reading your blogs & others comments.

Anne Gallagher said...

Just got my crits back on my latest WiP and my fab CP said almost the exact same thing. I'm "trying" build suspense, but I either tell my reader too much, or not enough and by the end I've pretty much twisted it.

It's a tough thing to do and do well. I have to find that right balance. great post.

Rick Daley said...

Anne- Good luck with your revisions. Are you familiar with the old Alfred Hitchcock comparison of surprise vs. suspense?

If not, it goes something like this:

If a bomb goes off under a table, you have 15 seconds of surprise. But if you know there's a bomb under the table set to explode in 15 minutes, and people are sitting at the table and talking unaware, you have 15 minutes of suspense.

That little extra bit of information...the knowledge of the bomb...is what does it.

D.G. Hudson said...

Enjoyed this post, Rick. I have to edit out all my attempts to insert 'why'. It's a problem with detailed oriented people. . .

A more relaxed blogging schedule is a good idea. More and more people are realizing that.

Sorry I'm late checking in to the discussion. And thanks for the reminder.

Rick Daley said...

Thanks D.G., glad you made it around. I keep telling myself I'll post more frequently, but I hate to post just for the sake of posting. I'm glad you found some value in this one.

WORD VERIFICATION: pralo. The initial request for a halo.