Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ramp up the Suspense

What I'm reading: Finger Lickin' Fifteen, by Janet Evanovich

On Saturday, I attended my first Florida Mystery Writers of America meeting, partly because they had a different venue which made it a 2 hour instead of a 3 hour drive, and partly because the speaker, Martha Powers, was going to discuss Suspense.

Although I'm still an avid fan of mystery, making the reader worried about what might happen next is always a worthwhile tool.

I will say I was heartened to hear her opening remarks where she differentiated between mystery and suspense, something I've gone into here several time before. But she also echoed my feeling that the term 'thriller' is being bandied around too freely by publishers as a marketing ploy. A thriller is a suspense, but a suspense is not necessarily a thriller. A thriller should be a suspense on a much larger scale.

Martha Powers doesn't think she writes thrillers. She calls them page-turners.

Her guide to ramping up the suspense:

Keep Reading...


The elements that make for great suspense:

Something major to fear

A memorable character

A time limit (the ticking clock on the bomb – she did bring up the memorable point. Why do the bomb builders put the countdown clocks on the outside?

Methods you can use to crank up the suspense include:

Narrowing the time. If something has to be done soon, it creates more tension than giving the character an extended time period to work with. They'll execute a hostage every ten minutes. They'll release the deadly gas in two hours unless their demands are met.

Let the reader anticipate a crisis. The reader has to know what will happen if the character fails. (As opposed to mystery, where the protagonist is solving the puzzle, but the crisis has already happened.)

Forestall revelation

Appeal to universal fears

Scare, release, and scare. You have to give the reader a chance to breathe, to think things are okay, and then you hit them with another crisis.

Prepare the reader and do the unexpected. Johnny Carson said, "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit." So, you have to sell the premise early on. You can't stop to explain a skill set at the height of the action. You have to show the character using those skills (or fears) early on, in a 'normal' setting. Is your character going to have to survive in the wilderness? We need to know he was always going camping as a child. Even in non-suspense, this is an important point. When my hero was stuck with a couple of kids, and he braided their dolls' hair, it was established that he used to show his pony at the fair, and he learned to braid way back then.


As for fears – we know Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes at the very beginning of the movie. So we can fear along with him when he looks into that snake pit later. (And because of that opening scene, we know to expect something with snakes, which adds to the tension.)

Narrow the focus. Make it personal as well as global.

To break the tension (as above, scare, release, scare)

Take time for character development

Use descriptions

Reveal information slowly

Use humorous anecdotes

All of the above need to happen before the climactic ending of the book, where you shouldn't have time to back off. That's not the time to stop and smell the roses.

The end of your book will sell the next one. To that end, it must be:

The strongest scene in the book

Surprising but reasonable (again, the reader has to accept the character has the skill set needed to avert the crisis—Mel Gibson showed in a bar bet he could get out of a strait jacket. Thus, when the bad guys put him in a strait jacket and throw him in the water, we know he has the skills to escape. Otherwise, we're not going to buy how convenient it is for him to be able to do that just when he needs to.)

Over quickly

Worth the worry

Satisfy the reader (which, as with everything else, is subjective, of course)

thanks to Martha Powers for a most informative (and, of course, funny, presentation)

15 comments:

Morgan Mandel said...

I love it that you went to see Martha Powers. She's a member of our Chicago North Chapter of Romance Writers and a great author. We wished she'd stayed in our neck of the woods.

Morgan Mandel
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

Terry Odell said...

Morgan, Martha is one great lady. I've heard her speak a number of times, and she's always a hoot. She did a cover blurb for me for WHEN DANGER CALLS.

Jess said...

snakes. why did it have to be snakes?

Terry Odell said...

Because we'd already bought the premise, so it would HAVE to be snakes. :-)

Debra St. John said...

Martha always has great advice. We do miss here up here in Chicago! Thanks for posting, Terry!

RhondaL said...

Thank your for a great summary. I love the Carson quote - it's easy to remember and oh-so true. Thanks again for sharing.

Mary Ricksen said...

Great post, thanks!
Her advise is right on and it make you think. Have I done enough of that to make my book interesting?

Terry Odell said...

Debra, Rhonda, Mary -

Thanks. I didn't take notes (for some stupid reason, changed purses for the first time in 2 years and didn't transfer a pen), so I was relying on Martha's handout and my memory. Glad it made sense to you.

June Shaw said...

Great advice! Thanks for sharing.

Terry Odell said...

My pleasure, June. The thanks go to Martha for laying everything out.

Shelley Munro said...

Thanks for the great advice. I've taken my own notes. :)

Chester Campbell said...

I try to make my mysteries suspenseful, ratcheting up the tension. It's good advice for anyone in this genre.

Mystery Mania

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Good tips, Terry. Thanks for posting them.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Very helpful post, Terry. Having read suspense novels with long, drawn-out endings, I especially like the emphasis on the a solid climax with a quick wrap-up. Good advice.

Terry Odell said...

Pat, Since I'm a character-driven writer (and reader), I like books where they take at least a moment or two to show a little of the impact on the characters and the relationship (assuming there is one). I don't object to a 'get out quickly', but don't want to feel like I'm left hanging, either.

It's a delicate balance.