Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tension and Suspense -- writing tip

by Kathryn Flatt

Artist Stefanie Durant never expected trouble on her return to Windsong Lake after her Uncle Hank was killed by lightning, making his house in the small town hers. As soon as she arrives, clues indicate that Hank had feared for his life and he had developed an interest in weather and mysticism. She also learns two of her old friends have adopted a pagan religion and dabble in magic. The connection is impossible to ignore, especially in light of the Ken, the psychic ability Stefanie had suppressed for more than twenty years and kept secret from everyone. It tells her something very wrong surrounds Hank’s death when she begins doing “sleep pictures,” crude sketches she never remembers drawing that foretell of danger. Although she would rather keep her secret, the Ken becomes increasingly difficult to control as danger arises out of Stefanie’s search for answers about her uncle. Who killed Uncle Hank and why? Was it the friend who has embraced dark magic, or was it the builder of the mysterious altar-like structure in the woods behind Hank’s property? And will releasing the Ken help solve the mystery or will it drive Stefanie to the brink of madness?

Building Tension and Suspense

Question from the e-mail:  You have, or used to have, a handout on how to build in tension and suspense. I've moved three times since then, but would really like to see that again.  Can you help?

Answer:  Sure do.  See below:

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 succeed.

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

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.

To a fiction writer suspense isn’t just for mystery writers. Suspense means keeping readers guessing what will happen next. The term suspense, denotes how involved the reader is in your plot.  If he or she already knows (or can guess) what is going to 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 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 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 sure...do we care now whether Sam gets killed? 

Now I DID say it was an exaggerated example, but do you see how motivation affects tension? Tess (a good character) is in danger of losing her freedom, perhaps even her life, if she is convicted of murder. The reader will care about Tess, even if Sam is a louse. Now no “real” character will be as big a louse as Sam. No real woman will be as pure-hearted as Tess. But even “real” characters must have a reason for what they do. And if your reader is going to root for your  Pro-tagonist it must be a good reason.

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