Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading Suspense and a Writing Tip

by Nancy Madison

In the wee hours of her wedding day, whispering wakes New York heiress Layne Hamilton. Investigating, Layne finds herself in the darkened hall outside her guest room. Through a closed door, she hears her fiance and maid-of-honor planning her death.

Realizing they are in bed together, Layne uses that as her excuse to cancel the wedding and flees south to Virginia. Freddy pursues his runaway bride, but when she rejects his attempts at reconciliation, Freddy loses his self-control and Max Carter, the county sheriff, comes to her rescue.

Max hopes Freddy will give up and go back to New York, but Freddy, desperate due to gambling debts, needs Layne's fortune too much.

Question from the E-Mail:  How do I build suspense into my story?

Answer: By making sure the reader cares and that your hooks are set. Here's a more detailed answer from one of my workshop handouts.

       Building 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.

One way to make the reader care is to use motivation  (why the character wants the something) to increase the tension. Tension is created when the reader Cares What Happens to the character.

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 is bound to 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 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 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 changed forever 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? 

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 that example is exaggerated. No “real” character will be as big a louse as Sam. No real woman will be as pure as Tess. But even “real” characters must have an understandable reason for what they do.

No matter how bizarre their behavior, the reader must feel that with enough provocation he or she might have acted in a similar way.

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