Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tension and Suspense -- writing tip

The first in a popular new romance series, and a good example of tension and suspense.

Question:  Back when you were my teacher, you sent me a handout on tension and suspense.  I have moved three times since then. Can you let me have it again???

Answer:  Sure thing!

Tension and Suspense

One way to write page-turner fiction is to build in tension and suspense into every scene.

Without those two elements, there is no real story. Someone has to want
something – usually, it’s the main character – and wondering whether
they will get it or not is the definition of reader suspense.  For tension to be
present, the reader has to care about that character, to be rooting for him to get what he or she wants.

One way to make the reader care is to use motivation  (why the character wants the something) to increase the tension.

Just like real people, all characters act for reasons of their own. Good characters have a good reason for acting as they do. Bad characters have a bad reason, but ALL characters MUST have a reason. That reason is called "motivation."

The term "tension," in fiction writing, has to do with the amount of stake the reader has in your characters.  The more the reader cares what happens to your protagonist, the more tension there is. Good motivation increases tension. Tension can be increased by inserting action that magnifies the danger to the main character, or that makes it look less likely the character will get what he or she wants. Any scene that makes it look like the main character is in danger of losing what he or she wants in the story will  increase tension.  Tension equals the "can't put it down" factor.

But you also need suspense.

To a fiction writer "suspense" isn’t just for mystery writers. Suspense means keeping readers guessing what will happen next and that is a necessary element for every story. 

The term suspense, denotes how involved the reader is in your plot.  If he or she already knows what is going to happen next, or doesn't care what will happen, there isn't any suspense (critics call it "predictable"), and little reason to continue reading. 

Readers begin to feel “tired” when you tell them something they already know. Hooks help increase suspense. To avoid trite plots, make a list of 10 things that might happen next and pick the least likely. Or brainstorm with friends to come up with suggestions for unusual and exciting plot twists. Remember, keep the readers guessing.

Don’t tell them everything at once. Feed them little bits of information in dribs and drabs, to keep them guessing what will happen next. You have to know everything, of course, but you don’t have to tell your reader everything at once. 

A good place to put that information is in your "end of scene hooks," where you would ordinarily plant a question in the reader’s mind about what will happen next or what secrets from the past the character is concealing.

Having defined both terms let me give you an exaggerated example:

Your detective, Sam Shovel, a hard-drinking, insensitive, bigoted lout, is being held at gunpoint by an equally nefarious antagonist. Whether he gets shot or not is suspense – a plot turning point. 

Whatever happens, SOMEthing will be different afterwards. 

Whether the reader cares if Sam gets shot? That's tension.... 

Since Sam is such a louse, we may NOT care at all. Now suppose Sam is working for Tess Trueheart, and (for an exorbitant fee – which is Sam’s motivation) is trying to find evidence that will prove her innocent of killing the man who sold her an unsafe used car, raped her sister, and kicked her dog. Tess is a teacher in a school for the blind, takes care of her invalid mother, and helps little old ladies across the street. 

If Sam is shot, Tess will be found guilty for we care now whether Sam gets killed?  Do you see how motivation affects tension? Tess (a good character) is in danger of losing her freedom, perhaps even her life. The reader will care about Tess, even if Sam is a louse. 

Now the example is exaggerated. No “real” character will be as big a louse as Sam. 

No real woman will be as pure as Tess. 

This holds true, whether you write genre fiction or deathless Literature with a capital L. Even “realistic” characters must have a reason for what they do.