Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict


What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes


To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question


When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary



Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.

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