Hatrack River
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
E-mail this page
Hatrack River Writers Workshop Post New Topic  Post A Reply
my profile login | register | search | faq | forum home

  next oldest topic   next newest topic
» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Creating Suspense

   
Author Topic: Creating Suspense
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
An article by New York Times columnist Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, "including One Shot, the basis for the 2012 movie Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise." Child spells out more than a simple way to create suspense in this essay: keep readers hungry for answers to dramatic questions posed. Child is a regular N.Y. Times columnist blogging under the column Draft sharing writing insights.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/a-simple-way-to-create-suspense

Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Interesting and all good advice, but I'm not sure what he's talking about is what I'd call "suspense". I think he's talking about is managing reader awareness of facts in order to maintain interest. That's different from suspense.

Still, it's an important topic. I often see authors struggle with the question of how informed to keep readers, especially in opening chapters. They either dangle the unknown in front of our noses, or stuff us full of background data. The known and the (apologies to Mr. Rumsfeld) known unknowns should work to support each other. Normally a reader should feel he understands what's going on, while at the same time encountering new questions that propel him further into the story. It's a delicate operation. Too much unknown and the reader feels he's not making any progress. To little unknown and he has no reason to read on. Not enough known and he can't follow the action. Too much known and he's overloaded with detail.

Suspense is a related but different topic; it's an emotion related to fear in the way horror is related to revulsion. Horror is revulsion we can't tear our attention away from. Suspense is fear we can't run away from.

One way to create suspense is to take a character who readers identify with and put him in a situation whose dangers the readers can see more clearly than he does. Maybe the readers know the Lone Ranger is heading into an ambush the crooked cattle baron has set up for him. Or maybe sweet Mary Sue is taking the governess job at the manor house of the squire we think may be a serial murderer. The reader has to follow the hero in. Putting the book down won't get him out of the pickle he's heading for.

Posts: 1301 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Grumpy old guy
Member
Member # 9922

 - posted      Profile for Grumpy old guy   Email Grumpy old guy         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
To my mind, the only way to create real suspense is to create characters that are 'loveable' and put them in harms way. They don't know it, the reader learns of it -- suspense. Or, the characters know the likely result of their decisions, but try and escape what seems inevitable; will they, won't they -- suspense.

I'm certain you can think of other combinations. But, the key is -- the reader MUST care for the character, even if only vicariously.

Phil.

Posts: 598 | Registered: Sep 2012  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Child's essay focuses on one narrowly construed method of inciting curiosity by subtly raising dramatic questions. I don't know of any writer writing about writing who encompasses an entire theory of writing. Few fully analyze one topic. Child focuses on one. The hundreds of essays and rhetoric books on writing I've read tend to boil down to one concept focus per each, a pragmatic principle for writing anyway. One treatise; one central topic, subject, or theme; in order to avoid confusing readers and getting lost in intricate and complex overlaps with other writing principles.

Suspense, inciting curiosity, for me is a part of tension. The other part of tension is inciting empathy or sympathy, caring about a character. Readers caring and curious about what will happen to a central character add up, along with causation (cause and effect) and antagonism (want and problem in opposition), to move a plot. (Child's essay touches on the other plot influences besides suspense, but doesn't go into the depth of detail he does regarding suspense.) Leave any one or a part out and a plot has holes wanting filling in. Realizing something is missing and adjusting accordingly is a hallmark of a winning writer able to appeal to audiences.

Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
To my mind, the only way to create real suspense is to create characters that are 'loveable' and put them in harms way.

I'm not sure about that; it's asking a lot of readers to require them to love a character you've written before they feel for them. In fact I think that may be backwards, that we only really love characters until after we've felt for them.

I think most humans are hardwired to empathize with people. If you saw a strange toddler wandering out toward traffic, you wouldn't have to know that toddler to feel intense concern, much less need to love him. If you got to know him afterward I suspect you would be more likely to feel affection for the child, particularly if you felt involved with the rescue.

Sudden romantic attraction distorts our understanding of what love means. It is more common that we come to love others by practicing acts of love.

Personally, I have never, ever done anything to make a character lovable. I've tried to make characters *understandable* and then let readers' human nature takes it from there.

Imagine I wanted you to fall in love with my plain-looking sister. I can tell you all about her wonderful qualities, even arrange demos of the same, but it's not going to work. What would work is to arrange to have you do a lot of things together, particularly ones that require a growing understanding and ability to work together. That maximizes the chance of the pair of you striking a spark. Even if that spark doesn't strike, you're *still* going to care about her, unless she's a total pill. Even if she were a total pill there's a good chance you'd learn to overlook that.

Posts: 1301 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I love unloveable characters. I especially like unloveable characters who strive to appear respectable and decent and reveal their humanity and frailties and flaws nonetheless.
Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Grumpy old guy
Member
Member # 9922

 - posted      Profile for Grumpy old guy   Email Grumpy old guy         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Loveable was, perhaps, a misleading descriptor. Let me change it to an 'understandable' character the reader can identify and empathise with. The little toddler, wandering unsteadily on disjointed footsteps can be invoked and 'milked' for all the emotional qualities you can think of. The point is, you feel for the characters situation. If it was Joe Blogs, psychopathic narcissist, loosing his favourite pencil? No empathy, no recognition, no sympathy and no feeling: an no suspense.

Phil.

Posts: 598 | Registered: Sep 2012  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Robert Nowall
Member
Member # 2764

 - posted      Profile for Robert Nowall   Email Robert Nowall         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
How 'bout putting a likeable character into a deteriorating situation?
Posts: 8231 | Registered: Aug 2005  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
Loveable was, perhaps, a misleading descriptor. Let me change it to an 'understandable' character the reader can identify and empathise with. The little toddler, wandering unsteadily on disjointed footsteps can be invoked and 'milked' for all the emotional qualities you can think of. The point is, you feel for the characters situation. If it was Joe Blogs, psychopathic narcissist, loosing his favourite pencil? No empathy, no recognition, no sympathy and no feeling: an no suspense.

Phil.

Nailhead, meet hammer. I'd only add that the bar for "relatable" is remarkably low if you make the character understandable. If a reader feels he really understands what makes Joe Blogs the psychopath tick, that reader might surprise you with his capacity for empathy.

The number one reason attempts at suspense have failed in manuscripts I've critiqued is that the scene is too difficult to understand. There's too much detail, too many characters, too many unfamiliar words, too much action that doesn't lead to any discernable result. When I encounter such a scene as a critic, I make it my business to get to the bottom of it, but the mental effort expended on the scene precludes any *visceral* reaction to it.

The number two reason I think is that the character's goals and stake in the outcome aren't clear -- provided that the outcomes are clear in the first place.

The frustration of clutter and confusion trumps any other kind of emotional reaction you're hoping to obtain. This is particularly a problem in spec fiction manuscripts, where the potential for incomprehension is so much higher. I think if you can get over these two humps (scene clarity and character clarity) you're well on your way to having a scene that affects readers in the gut.

There's a third reason, which I'll call for want of a better word, "genre awareness". The hard-boiled private detective getting roughed up is pretty much routine, it's a tall order to make the reader sit up and pay attention. Likewise an attentive reader isn't going to believe you'll kill your protagonist off one third of the way into the book.

This brings up a technical point: the effect of narrative POV on generating suspense. In first person narration it's harder to generate suspense because the reader is limited to knowing what the POV character knows. If the narrator tells you ("I didn't realize it, but they'd set a trap for me." ) it just emphasizes an implicitly obvious fact that the narrator lived to tell the tale. There are a number of artful ways of dealing with that.

The first way to generate suspense even in first person narration is to put things at stake other than the narrator's survival. Reputation is an emotionally powerful stake -- what will they think of me if they find out? I think that in a story loss of reputation and esteem are even more powerful than loss of life, because it's easier to believe your protagonist will lose those things than to believe the protagonist is going to be killed early in the story. In Downton Abbey (set in the 1920s), young Lady Mary has a one night stand with a handsome diplomat, but he dies in her bed (OK, not very believable). She spends the next two seasons worrying that her father or her love interest will find out she's no longer a virgin.

Another method of generating suspense is to put characters the POV character cares about at risk. This is meat-and-potatoes for the detective story writer, who may put the hero at risk on a regular basis but can't dine out on that alone.

The third method is to have a narrator who's so spellbinding the readers forget to use their genre awareness.

[ December 11, 2012, 10:19 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

Posts: 1301 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
mfreivald
Member
Member # 3413

 - posted      Profile for mfreivald   Email mfreivald         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I think semantics are confusing the issue a little. I agree that what Childs is showing is mostly story tension, but that is a particular species of suspense--and probably the most important kind for all story types. The addition of danger, timeclocks, and urgency creates a much higher tension (that may actually cause the reader a physiological experience of tension, though that's not the same thing) that we generally call "suspense." But I think they are two facets of the same diamond.
Posts: 377 | Registered: May 2006  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
How 'bout putting a likeable character into a deteriorating situation?

I like them too, especially if the storyline is a fall from grace and if the fall from grace is through the likeable character's doings. The ending has to be a surprise though. A noble sacrifice reversal caused by a revelation will do so long as they don't copycat Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus too closely or without treading new ground.
Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by mfreivald:
I think semantics are confusing the issue a little. I agree that what Childs is showing is mostly story tension, but that is a particular species of suspense--and probably the most important kind for all story types. The addition of danger, timeclocks, and urgency creates a much higher tension (that may actually cause the reader a physiological experience of tension, though that's not the same thing) that we generally call "suspense." But I think they are two facets of the same diamond.

Rather than confusing, for me, I'm intrigued by the ways writers use writing terms. Herein above and through the thread, for example, suspense and tension hold differing but similar connotations for participants. Underlying the whole are several useful methods for creating suspense.

Webster's 11th Collegiate does some justice to broadly defining suspense for writing purposes: "the state of being suspended; mental uncertainty, pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome; the state or character of being undecided or doubtful." A narrower though comprehensive definition for writing purposes might be located in Gustav Freytag's Technique of the Drama. A central theme of the book-length essay is how to create and incite causation and tension and how they are interrelated, connected, distinguishable but indivisible. Freytag's scratching at the edges of an idea is what prompted me to include antagonism as a third plot dimension.

Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
Administrator
Member # 59

 - posted      Profile for Kathleen Dalton Woodbury   Email Kathleen Dalton Woodbury         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
One way to create suspense is to take a character who readers identify with and put him in a situation whose dangers the readers can see more clearly than he does. Maybe the readers know the Lone Ranger is heading into an ambush the crooked cattle baron has set up for him. Or maybe sweet Mary Sue is taking the governess job at the manor house of the squire we think may be a serial murderer. The reader has to follow the hero in. Putting the book down won't get him out of the pickle he's heading for.

But doesn't the reader knowing what the character doesn't know fit into those Knowns and Unknowns too?
Posts: 7999 | Registered: A Long Time Ago!  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
Administrator
Member # 59

 - posted      Profile for Kathleen Dalton Woodbury   Email Kathleen Dalton Woodbury         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
By the way, I started reading Meg Cabot's INSATIABLE, and even though there is a "pickle" developing in that story that the main characters don't know about, I am finding the book very hard to get back to.

Suspense doesn't always work the same way for all readers.

Posts: 7999 | Registered: A Long Time Ago!  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
ForlornShadow
Member
Member # 9758

 - posted      Profile for ForlornShadow   Email ForlornShadow         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I think I can see where Child's is coming from, somewhat. I agree that suspense isn't the right word but I don't think there really is a word to describe what he's talking about. When you open a book and read the first paragraph what are you looking for? A clincher right. But what makes a good clincher? Something that makes you want to read, makes you want to know what's going on. So aren't authors just posing a "question" at the beginning of their books which then leads to a cascade of questions that lead us right to the end?
Posts: 54 | Registered: Feb 2012  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Grumpy old guy
Member
Member # 9922

 - posted      Profile for Grumpy old guy   Email Grumpy old guy         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
ForlornShadow, again to quibble about semantics, I'm not looking for a 'clincher' when I read the first paragraph of a book. What I'm looking for, if anything, is something interesting.

It could be a turn of phrase, how a situation is summed up in a single sentence or it could simply be the writers style and use of the written word.

But in the end, for me, a good story is about characters I like and am interested enough to follow for a few tens of thousands of words. Not because I have any 'question' I need answered other than to know what happens to them and if they succeed in their struggle against whatever is stopping them from reaching their goals.

It all revolves around character, not questions IMHO.

Phil.

Posts: 598 | Registered: Sep 2012  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Reziac
Member
Member # 9345

 - posted      Profile for Reziac   Email Reziac         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
From TFA, about delaying stuff to create suspense:
"(Which is what I did here, and you’re still reading, right?)"

Er, well... I got bored in the middle and skipped to the cute graphic, and skimmed after that. So I'd say he overdid it, to the point of false suspense.

Posts: 633 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Within the field of narrative theory the term dramatic question comes up as a force for evoking curiosity. The notorious dramatic question for mysteries that became a polemic term for pulp mystery novels—Who Done It—is an example. Romance: Will they or won't they. Western: Will the rugged, lone lawperson get the outlaw. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream, commercial, literary fiction, the dramatic question isn't as clear cut. The generic dramatic question being what will happen to So-and-so. Or suspense question in other consensus vernaculars.

Like plot, of which a dramatic question is a feature of suspense, which is a feature of tension, which is a feature of plot along with causation and antagonism, a dramatic question is artfully posed and artfully delayed answering. A dramatic question can be posed in an opening line, an opening paragraph, opening section, opening chapter, or opening installment. A central, overarching dramatic question should be posed along with empathy features as soon as humanly possible. Further dramatic questions, situational and extended, may arise as circumstances demand.

Like all things creative writing, a dramatic question has both mechanical aspects and aesthetic aspects. And like all things narrative, a dramatic question, situational or extended, should be timely and judiciously posed and deployed in introductions, again, early on, in a sentence, paragraph, section, chapter, saga installment, and so on.

However, an opening or introduction may begin with artful language, a cimematic opening portraying visual and aural sensations, a theme or idea, a character sketch, or in medias res. In medias res is more than in the middle of the action—a mechanical feature. In medias res also, aesthically, begins in the middle of an unfolding dramatic complication and middle of an unfolding dramatic question.

Most, if not all, artful narrative openings accomplish a lot with an economy of real estate, incorporating introductory setting, plot, idea, character, event, and discourse development. The opening sentences of popularly and critically acclaimed narratives do it all in a few brush strokes. Yet they don't on first blush read that complex. Their writers make artful writing read as easily and comprehensibly as everyday conversation. Dissecting their writing reveals how artful they are.

Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
MattLeo
Member
Member # 9331

 - posted      Profile for MattLeo   Email MattLeo         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Within the field of narrative theory the term dramatic question comes up as a force for evoking curiosity. The notorious dramatic question for mysteries that became a polemic term for pulp mystery novels—Who Done It—is an example. Romance: Will they or won't they. Western: Will the rugged, lone lawperson get the outlaw. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream, commercial, literary fiction, the dramatic question isn't as clear cut.

What I think is interesting is how often it's not the obvious question that drives the story. For example in a western about a retired gunslinger, you'd have to be uncommonly genre-blind not to know from the opening title that in the final reel the hero will strap on the old six-shooters and do battle with the cattle baron's hired gun. The question isn't whether he'll do it, it's what'll make him do it.

Likewise the critical question in mysteries isn't always who done it. How the culprit will be exposed is a question of equal or sometimes far greater importance. In fact there's a style of mystery where the audience knows who done it. That's how the old Columbo TV movies used to work; they'd open with the perpetrator doing the crime and covering his tracks. This is particularly clever because a conscientious mystery writer works out the story from the culprit's point of view but normally doesn't get to show that work.

I'm not sure whether these oblique questions are what you are talking about, but I feel attention to them does a great deal to structure a story, setting up confrontations and developing the characters through those confrontations. The gunslinger doesn't rise to the bait in confrontation after confrontation, until the audience is well past the conclusion that the bad guy needs killing and ready to cheer when the hero straps the old gun belt on. His repeated refusals builds suspense, and the hero digging out his old gun is usually quite a cathartic scene in itself.

In the old Columbo TV movies, the audience follows the perpetrator matching wits with the frumpy super-sleuth in encounter after nerve-wracking encounter. It's very simple formula: create a hole in the perpetrator's story, have the perp wriggle out of it, and repeat until you think the audience has had enough. In a way it reminds me of the episodic nature of quest stories in which you throw roadblock after roadblock in front of the hero.

Columbo by the way is a great counter-example to the idea that suspense has to involve threats a likable character. The perpetrators are without exception nasty, arrogant characters, but we form a kind of bond with them simply by following the action from their point of view. When the perpetrator is finally exposed it's not only satisfying payback for his crime, it's a relief that they can finally stop evading their inevitable doom.

Posts: 1301 | Registered: Dec 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
extrinsic
Member
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
quote:
What MattLeo wrote:
. . .

True that. Misdirection is an artful feature of creative writing. Expository composition, not so much.
Posts: 3416 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
   

Quick Reply
Message:

HTML is not enabled.
UBB Code™ is enabled.
UBB Code™ Images not permitted.
Instant Graemlins
   


Post New Topic  Post A Reply Close Topic   Feature Topic   Move Topic   Delete Topic next oldest topic   next newest topic
 - Printer-friendly view of this topic
Hop To:


Contact Us | Hatrack River Home Page

Copyright © 2008 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.


Powered by Infopop Corporation
UBB.classic™ 6.7.2