Showing posts with label lee goldberg. Show all posts
Showing posts with label lee goldberg. Show all posts

Friday, June 6

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Part 2 of 2

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story, Part 2 of 2


This is the second part of my two part series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story. Yesterday I covered points one through seven, let's move on to number eight.

8. Make the stakes clear.


This goes for any story, not just horror stories: make it clear what your character has to gain. Make it equally clear what they have to lose. 

Why is this so important? If the reader doesn't know the stakes she can't fear loss. That's a problem because emotion—fear and anxiety—is exactly what we're trying to produce/create/invoke.

As Chuck Wendig writes: "Fear is built off of understanding consequences. We can be afraid of the unknown of the dark, but horror works best when we know that the dark is worth fearing."[1]

(Tip 11, below, makes a related point. It's important to give the audience an example of how bad your villain is. This not only helps establish the stakes for your hero, but it establishes the villain as someone to be feared.)

9. Create a horrific atmosphere, one that will prime a reader's fears.


One of the key elements in scaring readers—which is what a great horror story must do—is creating a scary atmosphere. Your goal here is to communicate raw emotion.

For me, there's something scary about being in a stairwell, the kind modern office buildings have, the kind that lock you in. You can't get to any other floor from the stairwell, you're trapped inside until you get to the bottom. Combine that with lights going out and strange noises drifting up and, for myself at least, that's one creepy setting.

10. Your character must have hope.


The negative stakes must be clear—the reader/viewer/listener must know how bad it can get—but it is equally important to give the character hope, hope that everything will turn out fine in the end, hope that they'll achieve their hearts desire. CW writes:

"[...] for horror to be horrific, it must also have hope. Unceasing and unflinching horror ceases to actually be horrific until we have its opposite present: that doesn’t mean that hope needs to win out. Horror always asks that question of which will win the day: the eyes of hope or the jaws of hell?"[1]

Usually it's the jaws, but the question needs to seem real and pressing.

11. Show the badness of the Big Bad.


CW writes that dread and revulsion are the beating heart that animates horror, they are the engine that drives (drags) a reader through a horror story.

Dread is about anticipation. Specifically, anticipation of all the nasty things that could happen to your character if they get caught by the monsters. This is why, often, there is a scene early on—a revolting one—that shows how bad the Big Bad can be.

For instance, the villain often does something heinously grotesque to a minor character. This is often played as a gross out scene but it serves a necessary function: it calibrates 'bad'. 

That way, when your hero is put in jeopardy, your reader/audience has something nice, specific, and oh-so-gory to imagine.

(Of course, when the time comes, it won't just be bad—the audience is expecting that—it will be bad multiplied by 100.)

12. The gross out.


People like being grossed out. 

I don't know why. It's something primal. Visceral.

This is true—I accept it as true—even though it isn't true for me. Though I must admit there is a certain oh-it's-an-accident-let's-see-what-happened quality to gross out scenes that's difficult to ignore. (Here's an example of what I mean, it's a scene from Final Destination 5. It's squicky; you've been warned.)

CW mentions, though, and I agree, that ...

"The Squick Factor is not actually a prerequisite for good horror. Some of the best and most insidious horror is devoid of any grossness at all: a great ghost story, for instance, is often without any blood-and-guts."[1]

Take, for example, the movie Paranormal Activity. That movie was shot on a shoestring budget of—wait for it—15,000 dollars. (To help put that in perspective, Sharknado was made for a million and that was considered shoestring.) They couldn't afford special effects and so there weren't any. All the truly hideous things happened offscreen, which worked wonderfully given that the movie was shot with stationary cameras.

This goes back to the earlier point about fear of the unknown. Our imaginations are the best special effect department in the world.

13. The longer the story, the less squicky it should be.


In a short story you can be vivid and in-your-face with the gore but it's impossible to sustain that pace, that intensity of revulsion, for an entire novel. CW writes:

"Horror all but demands you don’t pull your punches, but that kind of unceasing assault on one’s own senses and sanity cannot be easily sustained for a novel-length or film-length project. Hence: short fiction and short films do well to deliver the sharp shock that horror may require."[1]

14. Make them laugh, make them cry.


Weaving comedy into a horror may seem like a wacky idea at first, but think of Scream. Yes, the movie wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but one of the reasons for its success was its somewhat twisted sense of humor, as well as the self-mocking, self-referential, dialogue. CW writes:

"Horror and humor both work to stimulate that same place in our gutty-works, a place that defies explanation. Sometimes you don’t know why you think this thing is funny or that thing is scary. They just are. It’s why it’s hard to explain a horror story or a joke: you can’t explain it, you can only tell it. And both are told similarly: both have a setup, ask a question, and respond with a punch line or a twist."

Humor goes well with any kind of story. For example, Vince Gilligan, creator, writer and producer of the hit TV series Breaking Bad thought of the show as a comedy. A black comedy, sure, but a comedy nevertheless. In one of the Breaking Bad insider podcasts he mentioned that the writers tried to include something humorous in each scene.

15. Sex and death.


CW points out that another duo we often find in horror movies is sex and death. And, under the theory that opposites attract, it makes sense. Sex is ephemeral, transcendent, pleasurable while death is eternal, nullifying and getting there is often painful.

But sex also, in very real ways, contains death within it. As soon as we're born we're condemned to die. As CW writes: 

"We all fear death and so sex—procreative and seductive—feels like an antidote to that, but then you also have the baggage where OMG SEX KILLS, whether it’s via a venereal disease or as part of the unwritten rules contained within a slasher film." 

This is a bit off topic, but I thought the unwritten rules contained in a slasher film were marvelously parodied by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in their movie, The Cabin in the Woods. As you'll remember, the promiscuous blond had to be the first victim.

16. And now these three remain: why, who and what. But the greatest of these is what.


Today I was reading about something Lee Goldberg said at a recent writers' conference:

"Lee said, 'No one remembers the mystery plot of a Monk episode.' We shared a shocked look, sure that wasn’t true. Lee must be wrong. However, he went on to explain that mostly when fans of the series talk about a storyline, they say 'the one where the trash collection workers were on strike' or 'the one where Monk had a look-alike who was a crime boss.'

"His point was that as writers we often think that the backdrop of the story is secondary, but really it's vitally important to the story as a whole. If plot is 'what' the book is about, the backdrop or sub-plot is tightly hooked into 'who' the book is about. And together the what and who make the why, and that’s the trifecta that creates the richness in a series. It's what makes us remember a book and come back to a character."

That quotation was from Much Ado About Something by Sparkle Abbey over at The Stiletto Gang. CW echoes this sentiment:

"You write horror, you’re trying to shine a light in dark corners. Key word there is “trying”—the flashlight needs to be broken. A light too bright will burn the fear away—the beam must waver, the batteries half-dead, the bulb on the verge of popping like a glass blister. It’s like, what the light finds is so unpleasant, you can’t look at it for too long. Look too long it’ll burn out your sanity sensors. In this way, horror isn’t always concerned with the why or the how—but it is most certainly concerned with the what."[1]

17. Write about what scares you.


Let me leave you with CW's closing words:

"Horror needs to work on you, the author. You need to be troubled, a little unsettled, by your own material. Write about what scares you. Doesn’t matter what it is or how absurd—hell, some people think that being terrified of clowns is ridiculous, until you realize how many people find clowns spooky [...]. Dig deep into your own dark places. Tear off the manhole cover and stare down into the unanswered abyss. Speak to your own experiences, your own fears and frights. Shake up your anxieties and let them tumble onto the page. Because horror works best when horror is honest. The audience will feel that. The truth you bring to the genre will resonate, an eerie and unsettling echo that turns the mind upon itself."

If it doesn't scare you, if you're not just a little freaked out about how dark it is in the next room and ... wait. What was that noise? 

(One moment, let me shut my door, I thought I heard something moving around the next room, but that's not possible. I'm the only one home and, besides, nothing human sounds like that. No matter, I'm sure it was only my imagination.)

Links/References


1. (NSFW) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, by Chuck Wendig over at Terribleminds.com.

2.  The thread, What makes a good horror movie, over at AbsoluteWrite.com.



- I didn't use this article when I wrote the above, but I did come across it while I was doing my research: The 5 C’s of Writing a Great Thriller Novel, by James Scott Bell over at WritersDigest.com. Good stuff.

Thursday, June 5

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story

17 Ways To Write A Terrifyingly Good Horror Story

I've reached a point in my WIP where I have to kill off one of my antagonist's minions in a grizzly way and was curious what tips other writers had for creating a gross out scene. Then I thought: Hey! I should blog about this.

That's how this post began, but it's turned into more of an article on how to write a horror story that will terrify readers—at least, that's the hope!

1. The beating undead heart of horror is the knowledge that bad things happen to good people.


Chuck Wendig in his horrifically awesome post, (NSFW -->) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Horror, writes that "Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things." He continues:

"It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats. You feel horror when John McClane sees he’s got to cross over a floor of broken glass in his bare feet. We feel the fear of Harry and Sally, a fear that they’re going to ruin what they have by getting too close or by not getting too close [...]"

Once readers identify with a character that character becomes a bit like their child. Readers want the best for the character while realizing that the best rarely happens. 

It's this tension between what we want for a character and what could happen to that character that fuels the engine of your story and drags your readers through the gory bits toward the end.

2. Your protagonist must make mistakes. Big ones. Mistakes that put their life, as well as their sanity, in jeopardy.


CW writes that "[...] tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps."

Characters need to make bad decisions. I'm not talking about refusing to eat the goodness that is brussel sprouts, I'm talking about (as in the first Scream movie) running outside to escape the psycho terror inside only to be strung up and gutted by the psycho terror outside. Like Lennard in The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation, your character shouldn't be able to catch a break.

CW puts it this way: have characters your reader loves make choices they hate. He writes:

"We recoil at mistakes made by loved ones, and this is doubly true when these mistakes put their lives, souls and sanities in danger."[1]

I pondered CW's words of wisdom and, thinking about the scene I have to write, came up with the following:

Step one: Make the reader care about, identify with, your character.

Step two: Put your character in danger BUT don't have this danger thrust on them. Have the danger descend on your protagonist because of a choice they made.

Step three: Have the decision that puts your character in danger be either selfless or smart (or at least not blindingly stupid).  

We've all seen this: An attractive blond teenager hears an ominous noise outside the house. Moments later the lights stop working. Does our heroine run into the bathroom and lock the door? No. She calls out "Is anyone out there?" and in so doing alerts potential bad guys and gals to her location. But that's not all. She leaves the relative safety of the house to, all alone, go and see what made the mysterious noise. And (of course) she gets slaughtered.

I don't know anyone who would act like this. I wouldn't! If I heard mysterious sounds outside the house and then the power went out, I'd call 911, grab a baseball bat, and lock myself in the bathroom.

That said, yes, your victim should decide to go out and face the danger, but give them a credible reason. For instance, perhaps the protagonist let her dog out into the backyard and she's worried it's hurt. That's a valid—and altruistic—reason to face potential danger. It's something most people can relate to.

(Sorry if I belaboured that point, it's a personal peeve.)

3. Horror: the oldest story.


Horror stories have been around as long as humans. For instance, take a look at 10 Creepy Urban Legends From Around The World over at Listverse.com.

The first storytellers sat around a campfire at night making shadow puppets, telling tales of strong, daring, hunters and the creatures that killed them. (The special effects department was the guy who flicked grape juice at the cave wall as the shadow hunter is skewered by the shadow beast.)

CW writes:

"You want to see the simplest heart of horror, you could do worse than by dissecting ghost stories and urban legends: two types of tale we tell even as young deviants and miscreants. They contain many of the elements that make horror what it is: subversion, admonition, fear of the unknown."

4. Write about what terrifies you.


When researching this article I came across a wonderful thread over at AbsoluteWrite.com about what makes a good horror movie. Here are some of the highlights:

Ways to create a situation that will terrify an audience:

Restrict the character's movement.


For example, trap the character in a cellar, a church, an abandoned hospital, an underground parking garage, an island, and so on. 

Ask yourself, What kind of a confined space scares you? Were you trapped somewhere as a child, unable to free yourself, forced to wait and hope someone would come and rescue you?

The character restricts their own movement.


Think werewolves. Perhaps the character senses they're changing and they don't want the thing they are becoming to harm anyone, so they lock themselves up. In the TV show The Vampire Diaries, Tyler was chained up in a vault underground.

Play on primal fears.


  • The unknown, the dark. A dark staircase or stairwell. 
  • A character is trying to flee then becomes stuck. Perhaps their leg is caught in a trap.
  • The forest at night.
  • Twist the normal. Not everyone can be menaced by a tiki god in Hawaii but everyone has heard a strange, ominous, groan in the middle of the night and felt the hair at the back of their neck stand on end.
  • Horror often plays off of the taboo and off of suppressed emotions.[3]

Don't confuse the audience.


People can either be confused or scared. Not both.

Cheap, but effective, tricks.


In Pet Sematary Stephen King used a cat spitting and jumping into the camera to scare the pants off everyone in the audience. I know, I was there. Some think this is a cheap trick, and perhaps it is, but it was also very fun. My friends rib me about my reaction to that scene till this day.

5. What are your fears?


CW writes:

"The more we know the less frightening it becomes. Lovecraft is like a really advanced version of this. Our sanity is the firelight, and beyond it lurks not sabretooth tigers but a whole giant squirming seething pantheon of madness whose very existence is too much for mortal man’s mind to parse."[1]

Beautiful! And true.

6. What makes you anxious?


Fear is what we hope to provoke in our readers when we sit down to write a horror story, but often we have to make them anxious first. Here are a few things folks are anxious of:

  • Closed spaces. (A sealed stairwell, a locked-down parking garage, etc.)
  • Crowded rooms. (Or stadiums, banks, crosswalks, fairgrounds, etc.)
  • Getting sick, alone. No one finding you.
  • Being assaulted, robbed, etc. Dark parking lots, alleys, etc.

7. What revolts you?


Same as for anxiety. Revulsion is often the precursor of fear. Here are a few things folks sometimes find revolting:

- Snakes
- Insects
- Infectious environments
- Disarticulated body parts.

For a list of squick go here but be warned: once these images are in your mind you can't get them out! I know.

That's it for today. I'll finish my list of 17 ways to write a terrifyingly good horror story tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to the second part of this two part series on how to write a terrifyingly good horror story.



Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association
"In On Writing Horror, Second Edition, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, David Morrell, Jack Ketchum, and many others tell you everything you need to know to successfully write and publish horror novels and short stories."

Writers Workshop of Horror
Winner of the 2009 Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction.
Winner of the 2009 Black Quill Award for Best Dark Genre Book of Non-Fiction - Editors' Choice.
"Writers Workshop of Horror focuses solely on honing the craft of writing. It includes solid advice, from professionals of every publishing level, on how to improve one's writing skills. The volume, edited by Michael Knost, includes contributions by a dream-team of nationally known authors and storytellers, many Bram Stoker Award® winners."

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development
"By applying the foundation of the Three-Act Story Structure and then delving even deeper into the psychology of realistic and dynamic human change, Weiland offers a beat-by-beat checklist of character arc guidelines that flexes to fit any type of story."








Links/References


1. (NSFW) 25 Things Your Should Know About Writing Horror, by Chuck Wendig over at Terribleminds.com.

2.  The thread, What makes a good horror movie, over at AbsoluteWrite.com.


- I didn't use this article when I wrote the above, but I did come across it while I was doing my research: The 5 C’s of Writing a Great Thriller Novel, by James Scott Bell over at WritersDigest.com. 

Tuesday, May 27

5 Steps To Reading Critically

5 Steps To Reading Critically


The web is replete with admonitions for writers to read. They range from Stephen King's terse 

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." 

to W.P. Kinsella's kindly:

"Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write."

I agree! But quotations like these leave an important question unanswered: How? How should we take others' prose apart so we may be enlightened? Are there techniques? Hints? Pointers?

The other day I found an article by Lee Goldberg on how to read critically. Mr Goldberg didn't set out to write about how to read critically (at least, I don't think he did), he was talking about adapting Nero Wolfe's books to the small screen. But, in so doing, he read Wolfe's stories critically and described his process. 

Before we get into that, what does all this talk of reading critically amount to? What are our goals?

What do we mean by reading critically?


"Reading critically" is a phrase that's used quite a bit, but what is it to read a story critically?

Here's how I think of it: reading critically is to read a story in such a way that one acquires an understanding of its underlying structure and how that structure gives meaning to the story as a whole.

As W.P. Kinsella wrote, it's all about taking stories apart to see what makes them wonderful and then using those techniques in one's own tales.

Lee Goldberg on reading critically


By the way, I'm not saying that Lee Goldberg would agree with any of the following five steps. I'm just saying this is what I took from what he wrote.

Step 1: Read the book from cover to cover. Read it for pleasure, read it for a sense of the story.


Step 2: Read the story again and, as you do, answer the following:


a) What are the key emotional points of the story?
b) What are the major plot points?
c) What are the essential clues?
d) What is the central conflict between the main characters?

Step 3: Highlight dialogue that is essential to communicating the important story points.


Step 4: Using the notes you've taken so far, create an outline of the story. What are the scenes? The sequels? The arcs/sequences?


Step 5: If you were going to write this story, what changes would you make? Is there a more effective way to communicate the main story points?


Right now I'm thoroughly enjoying Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins, a continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. On audiobook, I'm listening to Stephen King's Needful Things. 

What are you reading or listening to at the moment?

Links/References:


1. "Writing Nero Wolfe," by Lee Goldberg


Photo credit: "tunnel at place des vosges" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, May 23

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part 2 of 2


This discussion of how to write a murder mystery is a continuation of my last post (see: How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery). In that post I talked about:

- The qualities of a terrific detective
- The importance of personality, character, strengths and weaknesses, and relationships
- The setting/arena
- The inciting incident
- Clues, what kinds there are and how to use them
- Character solutions vs forensic solutions

Today I'm going to conclude by examining:

- Other characters such as the murderer and the victim
- Open versus closed mysteries
- The importance of fair play

What follows is from Lee Goldberg's wonderful article, How To Write A Murder Mystery.

Other Characters


Lee Goldberg writes:

"I always begin developing a book the same way – I come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters?"[3]

Putting this in point form:

- What makes these characters interesting?
- What are their goals?
- How does each character's goal (or goals) conflict with those of the other characters?
- How do these goals create obstacles for the hero/main character/detective?
- How do the other characters help the reader understand the setting/arena?

The Murderer


"Once I figure out whom to kill, and how, and of course why, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong, or what he overlooked, that will lead to his undoing."[1]

- Who does the murderer need to kill? 

I find that, often, the first victim is the person the murderer needed to kill. But there are notable exceptions. Agatha Christie often broke with convention and used her readers' expectation against them (for example, Murder in Three Acts, The A.B.C. Murders).

- How does the killer do it?

What is the murder method? An arcane poison? Or a normal poison that no one can figure out how it was administered? Locked room mysteries also fall into this category. Or perhaps (and this is truly diabolical) the victim is forced to kill him/herself (A Study in Pink, Se7en). 

- Why does the killer need to kill?

P.D. James once wrote that "All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love."[4] True. We could also say that:

- The murderer wants to prevent certain information from coming out about him, information that would radically transform his life in ways he would hate. 

- The murderer wants to take revenge on someone because they radically transformed her life in ways she hated.

- The murderer wants to radically transform his life into something (he thinks would be) infinitely better. And so on.

- What did the killer do wrong? What did he/she overlook?

It seems axiomatic--at least in fiction--that every killer, no matter how intelligent they are or how well planned the crime, will make at least one mistake. With Agatha Christie, often the killer's mistake was trying to be clever and trying to pull the wool over Poirot's eyes. But this was a trap. Poirot assumed the guise of a silly foreigner and so invited the proper English people of his day to underestimate him. His quirks, his foreignness, was, in a way, his disguise.

What the killer did wrong, what he/she overlooked, has to be something the detective could discover, as well as something that plays to his/her strength. There are countless examples of this, but what comes to mind immediately is the episode of Sherlock entitled The Great Game

Sherlock Holmes is wonderful at noticing minutiae and bringing together diverse threads, strands, of information and, from them, creating a synthesis that yields the answer (usually the 'ah-ha' clue triggers this epiphany). The graphical way the show's writers/producers/director have used to illustrate the information Sherlock notices (words suspended in air) works brilliantly and adds another dimension to the storytelling. (Sorry. Sherlock is one of my favorite shows and I tend to rhapsodize. Moving on.)

The Victim


Lee Goldberg writes:

"And then I ask myself the big questions—who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? Is it an 'open' or 'closed' mystery?"

Putting this in point form: 

a. Who gets murdered?
b. How are they killed?
c. Why are they killed?
d. Is it an "open" or "closed" mystery.

Let's take these one at a time:

a. Who gets murdered?

Lee Goldberg doesn't have a lot to say about the victim, so let me draw on a point I made--I borrowed it from W.H. Auden--in Writing a Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of The Murder Victim.

W.H. Auden, self-confessed addict of English-style whodunits, believed the following about the victim:

i) All your characters should have a reason to want to kill them.

ii) All your characters should have some sort of change in feeling for the victim after they learn of their death. 

For example, a character who loathed the victim might feel guilty for wanting her dead; or perhaps just worried that her (widely known) sentiments about the victim will make her the detective's primary suspect.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is simply that the victim's death must be a catalyst for that most important aspect of storytelling: change.

b. How are they killed?

Susan Spann advises us to kill our characters with style: 

"In real life, people get run over with cars, shot with pistols, and decapitated with ancient swords. (THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!) In fiction, anything is fair game if you can explain it. Take down your victim with all the creativity you can muster. Pufferfish poison? Absolutely. Shuriken to the face? You’ll see it in one of my novels."[5]

Here are the results of my google-foo:

- Death by Egyptian curse
- Death by puffer fish poison
- Death by ricin
- Death by caffeine
- Death by puppets
- Death by robot
- Death by milk (In honor of Mr. Monk)

c. Why are they killed?

I've already talked, in general terms, about motives. Here we're interested in specifics. We want to know why, within the context of the story, this character was done away with. 


Let's say that there are two broad reasons why people murder: 

i) People murder to radically transform their life in ways that they think they would like.

ii) People murder to keep their life from being radically transformed in ways they don't think they would like.

In other words, folks murder because they want good things or because they want to avoid bad things. But that's general. To put meat on those bones (or tofu, if that's your preference) we need to know what the murderer wants, what he desires. And to know that we need to know what his strengths and weaknesses are. 

I talked about this last time in regards to the hero, but it applies to the murderer as well.

d. Open vs Closed

Lee Goldberg explains the terms "open mystery" and "closed mystery" as pertaining to the readers/viewers knowledge. If the reader/viewer knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning then the mystery is open. On the other hand, if the reader/viewer finds out about the identity of the murderer at approximately the same time the detective unveils his/her identity, then it's closed.

Goldberg adds that whether a mystery is open or closed is determined by the series concept. For example, in a Columbo episode the viewer usually[2] knew the identity of the murderer from the beginning. Cracker, Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders and scads of other TV shows are examples of closed murder mysteries. Diagnosis Murder--one of the shows Lee Goldberg both wrote for and produced--had both open and closed murders.

Trying to decide which kind of structure will work best for your tale? Lee Goldberg writes that:

"An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime and finding the flaws you didn’t see.

"A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it."[1]

The Importance Of Fair Play


"In a true whodunit, the reader enjoys the game as long as you play fair. That means that all of the clues, including the 'Ah, ha!,' have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the hero finds them."[1]

Never withhold clues from your readers. They need to find out about all clues at the same time as your detective.

The detective can't receive crucial information 'off-screen,' the reader needs to see the detective finding everything. Now, that doesn't mean that the detective has to explain the significance of the clue to the reader. Generally that's kept back for the final reveal.

It can be tempting to hide clues from the reader because then it's easier to keep the reader in the dark, it's easier to keep them from guessing the identity of the murderer before you want them to. It is also a sure-fire way to make your readers mad as aggrieved hornets and you don't want that! 

How To Play Fair


What's the trick? How do we give readers all the facts and keep them from guessing the identity of the killer? Lee Goldberg writes:

"Obviously, you want to distract, trick, and manipulate the readers and make it as hard as possible for them to solve the crime, but you can do that without keeping important information from them. You just have to be artful about turning their attention away from it, to get them to focus on the wrong things.

"As the author, you have a real advantage. You are the control voice in The Outer Limits. You control point-of-view, in essence the camera through which the reader is seeing and interpreting the world. For instance, if in your story the detectives are focusing on what’s in the room where a murder took place, talking about each item in detail, tracing the history of each piece, that’s what the reader will be thinking about, too, and not the real clue that you are distracting them from: what’s not in the room."

An example of distraction.


I watched an episode of Diagnosis Murder the other day. In this episode, Murder with Mirrors, the killer was a magician and the victim was killed by their own trick. 

The victim was handcuffed and dropped into a tank of water. He was supposed to use a lockpick, given to him by his accomplice onstage, to pick the handcuffs and free himself. The problem: the key didn't fit the cuffs. 

Most of the show was spent trying to figure out who had access to the key and who had a motive to swap the real key with a fake one. The problem: no one who had a motive had the opportunity to switch keys. 

The solution: The killer hadn't swapped the key, he'd swapped the handcuffs! The viewer was so busy wondering who had access to the key that they didn't realize someone could have, instead, swapped the handcuffs. At least, that was the hope. As soon as the detective, Mark Sloan (played by Dick Van Dyke), realized this, the case was solved.

In summary. I apologize for quoting so much of Lee Goldberg's article, but it is a terrific article that anyone who wants to write a murder mystery should read. Again, that's How To Write A Murder Mystery by Lee Goldberg.

Further Reading


- Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.
- Writing Nero Wolfe, by Lee Goldberg

In this article Tod Goldberg, Lee Goldberg's brother, talks about why he decided to do the novelization for Burn Notice and what the experience was like:
- Burn Notice: The Novel (Tod Goldberg), by Tod Goldberg, Special to The Times 

Notes/References



2. I say "usually" because in at least one episode the viewer was tricked into thinking they knew the murderer's identity when they didn't. For example, Double Shock and Last Salute to the Commodore.


4. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

5. 25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, By Susan Spann, over at Chuck Wendig's blog TerribleMinds.com. (I wrote a post about Susan Spann's post, How To Write A Murder Mystery.)

Photo credit: "241" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, May 21

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery

How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery


Ever wanted to write a murder mystery? I have! I love murder mysteries. I love reading them, I love watching them, I love thinking about them.

And so I was terrifically, fabulously, excited when I discovered that Lee Goldberg--screenwriter, executive producer, award winning mystery author, and New York Times bestselling author--had written an article about how to write a murder mystery. If anyone knows about writing a murder mystery, it's Goldberg. In addition to writing 15 Mr. Monk books (all of which I have read and enjoyed), Goldberg wrote 26 episodes of Diagnosis Murder and was an executive producer for the show. What follows is drawn from Lee Goldberg's article.

The Qualities of a Terrific Detective


Lee Goldberg writes:

"The idea for the mystery will arise from the personality of the hero, and what aspects of his character I want to explore, what arena (a place, industry, sport, culture, etc.) I want to put him in, and finally what kind of conflict I think will best bring all of those aspects together and give me a narrative engine for my story."[1]

The above paragraph, like most of Goldberg's wonderful article, is densely packed with information. Let's write out the points he brought up so we can see it at a glance:

- The detective should have an interesting personality.
- The detective should have a well-developed character.
- The setting (or arena) for the mystery should be pregnant with potential conflict.

The complex interplay of these three things (personality, character and setting) forms the narrative engine for the story.

An example: Adrian Monk


Lee Goldberg writes:

"If the character is, say, Adrian Monk, I start by asking myself what new aspect of his personality, his obsessive/compulsive disorder, and his relationships with others, can I explore this time? What situation can I put him in that he hasn’t been in before?"[1]

Let's unpack this.

1a. Personality


What is personality? For our purposes, I'm going to go with Wikipedia and say that:

"Personality has to do with individual differences among people in behavior patterns, cognition and emotion." (Personality, Wikipedia) 

When we talk about a person's--or a character's--personality we're talking about what is unique to them. What makes them who they are. It is the specific combination of general elements that comes together to make each person unique.

1b. Character


While personality has to do with what makes each individual unique--as well as how that can go wrong--character has more to do with the type of person one is. It has to do with archetypes, tropes. I'm not sure if that's how Goldberg uses the term, but it's how I'll use it in this article. 

1c. Strengths and weaknesses.


Like us, our characters have weaknesses. Mr. Monk had a prodigious memory as well as the ability to make connections between apparently unrelated things. He also suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder and was scared of just about everything. Sherlock Holmes (in Sherlock) is inhumanly smart but socially clueless. Hercule Poirot was brilliant but vain. All characters have strengths and weaknesses. 

1d. Relationships


Our characters strengths and weaknesses define them, but so do their relationships with others. 

Every character has a goal and these goals conflict with each other. Also, these goals should get in the way of the main character--the detective--achieving their goal: solving the murder.

Additionally, characters and their interrelationships provide an excellent way to 'hook' characters into the story's setting/arena.

1e. Setting/Arena


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Those questions inevitably lead me to the arena, the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. A murder in a police precinct. A road-trip in a motorhome. But an arena is not necessarily a place. It can also be a situation, like the rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of the same man. Or how people cope with unexpected, and devastating financial hardship. Or how having a child changes relationships. The arena can also be a sport. The world of horse racing. The world of stamp collecting.

"You get the idea.

"The arena can be anything. It’s the setting, the backdrop, the context that allows you to reveal your hero to the reader in entertaining and compelling ways."[1]

The Inciting Incident


In a murder mystery the Inciting Incident is often the murder itself. Sometimes--I believe CSI does it this way, or at least used to when I watched CSI Vegas--the murder is shown first and then the hero, the detective (or detectives), comes on scene after the body is discovered. Sometimes the murder isn't shown and we just see the Call to Adventure and the detective is asked to discover the identity of the murderer.

Lee Goldberg writes that the main purpose of what I'm calling the Inciting Incident is to "create conflict and reveal character." Lester Dent wrote about having a clever device for the murder; something interesting, something puzzling. And I think that's important, but whatever one uses, whatever one's Inciting Incident is, it must serve those two functions; one about plot, the other character. It must:

(a) create conflict, and
(b) reveal character.

The Clues


Lee Goldberg writes:

"Now I can get into the nuts and bolts of figuring out the clues, and how the hero will discover them. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, either, because the clues will also be organic to the story, and because of that, they won’t just lead us to the killer, they will also stoke the conflict, illuminate the theme, and open up our arena. The clues will reveal themselves to you. Trust me on this."

The clues must:

- Lead to the killer
- Stoke the conflict
- Illuminate the theme
- Open up the arena

Using the clues.


"I need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and some that point right to the murderer."[1]

The finish clue.


"The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as I call it, the “Ah, ha!” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime—but still leaves the reader in the dark.

"The finish clue is the hardest part of writing any mystery for me because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when the hero nails the murderer with it."[1]

Character solutions vs forensic solutions.


Character solutions are, all things being equal, better than forensic solutions. Lee Goldberg writes:

"In my experience, the best “Ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics. For instance, a character solution is having the hero discover that Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew. That’s so much more satisfying than a forensic solution, like finding Aunt Mildred’s finger print, or catching her on a security camera, or anything else that doesn’t require the detective to be clever and make some surprising deductions."[1]

That's it for today. On Friday I'll finish up looking at Lee Goldberg's article: How To Write A Murder Mystery. We'll look at the murderer, the victim, open versus closed mysteries as well as the importance of fair play. Stay tuned!

Update: Here's a link to How To Write A Terrific Murder Mystery, Part Two of Two.

Here are other articles I've written about how to write a murder mystery.

Notes/References



Tuesday, April 29

Parts Of Story: How To Create Suspense



What is suspense and how is it created?

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." Either way, the reader asks: What's going to happen next?

In what follows I look at what suspense is and then, in the next chapter, turn to examine the preconditions for suspense. Namely:

a) A real danger to the hero. 
b) The possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time, sometimes called a ticking clock.

Dramatic Irony


Dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

There are many kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational. Here, though, I'm only going to discuss dramatic irony.

Dramatic Irony And Suspense: An Example


Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony


a. Surface meaning vs underlying meaning


Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. 

Meanings don't exist in a vacuum. It's people who understand utterances, it's people who understand meaning, whom things matter to. 

Dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will understand the deeper meaning.

Let's look at the possibilities.

a.i. The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.


For instance, tension, suspense, can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, it's eery illumination playing over his face. For a moment he seems lost in whatever he sees. Stunned. Overwhelmed. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield do. Vega is looking right at it and, damn him, he's not telling! 

a.ii. The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.


I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character or the audience, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the scifi/horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters--Brett--searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose too, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline.

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery, and spots the recalcitrant feline. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind the man. Jones hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind Brett. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you gripped the cushion you had a strangle hold on and screamed: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett does but it's too late. He's monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony "the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play." In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

b. Unwise behavior.


When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," ... not so much.


Summary: Irony occurs when there is an incongruity, or contrast, between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story.)

Wednesday, March 19

A Four Act Structure

The Four Act Structure


When I write a story I use a three act structure--Act One (Ordinary World), Act Two (The Special World of the adventure), Act Three (The Return Home)--or I used to. I'm thinking of dividing my next story into four acts.

Today I'm going to talk about what the four act structure is. In a later post, after I've used the structure for a while, I hope to go over the pros and cons of using it.

I've written about the three act structure here (Story Structure) but here's a (brief!) summary:

Three Act Structure


Act One (Ordinary World) -- first 25% of the story

- Flesh out the setting and introduce the characters.
- Hero accepts his call to adventure.
- Stakes increase and the hero is locked into the adventure just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (The Special World of the adventure) -- middle 50% of the story

- Explore the new world, it's differences, it's rules.
- B-story begins: Subplot that exposes the hero's inner strengths and weaknesses.
- Make friends and enemies.
- First pinch point: get a peek at the Big Bad.
- Prepare for confrontation. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Midpoint. Hero confronts the antagonistic force. The hero learns more about the special world of his adventure; he now has a different perspective. He has confronted death and (probably) survived.
- Hero either celebrates and has bonding time with friends or licks his wounds and rallies from his defeat. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Second pinch point. Another reminder of who the Big Bad is and why the hero has to win.
- At the end of Act Two the hero will (usually) be at his lowest point. It seemed that everything was going the hero's way, then BAM! Everything fell apart. The worst doesn't happen, the worst raised to the fourth power happens!

Act Three (Return Home) -- last 25% of the story

- Third act twist. The hero figures out how to get himself out of the fix he's in, or at least he comes up with a plan that just might work, but probably won't. Chances are very much against it but he has no choice. He has to make it work. Sometimes the hero figures out the 'good trick' by resolving the B-story.
- The climax. The hero confronts the villain or, if the opposing force isn't a person, the antagonistic force.
- The aftermath. Cash out the stakes. If the hero wins, what happens? If the hero loses, what happens? The hero goes back to the Ordinary World. Show how his actions have changed the hero and what this means for him in the Ordinary World.

Please keep in mind that this is how I see the three act structure. I don't think anyone thinks of it in exactly the same way. 

The essential points are:


- There are three acts; the third act is as long as the first and third acts combined.
- In Act One the ordinary world and the characters are introduced and the hero takes up his quest. 
- In Act Two the hero enters the world of the adventure (which often isn't a separate world; it could simply be a different social environment). The hero will confront the villain and attempt to overcome obstacles.
- In Act Three the hero has his final confrontation with the villain and either wins or loses.

The Four Act Structure


The four act structure is a lot like the three act structure with the exception that each act is the same length. Basically, this is the three act structure cut down the middle. 

Here's a fun fact: Christopher Vogler uses a four act structure and so does Lee Goldberg. In fact, Lee Goldberg was the inspiration for this post. As I listened to the Google Chat he did with Libby Hellmann and Paul Levine (you can listen to it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense) he rattled this off the top of his head. Great stuff!  

Lee Goldberg's description of a story in four acts:


"For me, the four act structure goes something like this:

"There's the tease, there's the hook, there's ... the Star Ship Enterprise flies through outer space. There's a giant octopus! You stick around to see how the Enterprise deals with this giant octopus.

"Act One sets up who all the characters are, what the stakes are, if they succeed or fail. It basically sets up everything they are trying to achieve and all the obstacles to them achieving it. And then something really bad happens that ups the stakes at the end of Act One.

"Act Two, whether it's a mystery, a doctor show, a science fiction show, Act Two is the hero's ... come up with a plan, an approach to solve their problem, to save the world, to rescue the people, to discover the murderer, and they put that plan into action, and its going great, and then everything goes to crap. At the end of Act Two everything they thought they knew was wrong, the guy they thought was the killer isn't, the thing they thought would cure the patient doesn't cure the patient. There's no way they can win, everything they thought they knew was wrong. They're screwed.

"Act three is essentially the hero's recovering from the calamitous events at the end of Act Two, trying to come up with a new approach, a new way of dealing with things but in the midst of this everything keeps getting worse. The stakes are raised, the pressures increase. By the end of Act Three there is no way in hell they'll win a conviction, they'll save the girl's life, they'll find the murderer, they'll stop the giant planet-eating octopus. They're screwed.

"Act Four. They put a new plan into action and solve the problem. They catch the murderer, they stop the giant planet eating octopus, they save the girl's life, and by the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and everything is back to, essentially, the way it was at the beginning of Act One and they're ready to face a new conflict.

"And I find that's essentially the pattern of any great drama that is on the TV or even every great book that I've read, every crime novel, anyway."

Once again, that's from a Google Chat Lee Goldberg was part of. You can view it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense.

Let's put this in point form.

Four Acts In Point Form


Act One (first 25%)
- The inciting incident occurs (/the hook).
- Establish the (initial) stakes.
- The lock in: something happens to up the stakes just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (25% to 49%)
- The hero comes up with a plan, a way to solve the problem or a way to approach the problem. If this is a murder mystery, it is a way to find out who is the murderer.
- Put the plan into action.
- The plan fails. Everything the hero and his companions thought they knew was wrong. Back to square one.

Act Three (50% to 74%)
- The hero and his/her companions tries to recover from the calamitous events of Act Two. They try to come up with a new approach.
- Everything keeps getting worse for the hero and his companions. The opposing force increases.
- The stakes are raised.
- By the end of Act Three it seems as though the hero has lost. 

Act Four (75% on)
- New plan
- Solve the problem.
- Attain the goal.
- By the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and we're back to the Ordinary World of Act One, ready for another adventure.

The biggest difference between the three act structure and the four is that the third act has been split in two. Now we have one major crisis at the end of Act Two and the "all hope is lost" point comes at the end of Act Three. 

Food for thought!

Question: What sort of structure do you use, if any? Three acts? Four acts? Six acts? Another sort of structure completely? Please share! 

Photo credit: "Nokia Lumia 1020 - 02" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 18

Three Ways To Create Suspense

Three Ways To Create Suspense


What is suspense? That's the question I'll be looking at today. Specifically we'll cover the role of the following in creating suspense:

- Dramatic irony 
- Conflict
- Well-defined stakes 
- A ticking clock

What Is Suspense?


Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one. You (/the reader/audience) might know there's a giant monster at the end of the tunnel and our heroes are heading toward it. Or it's a ticking clock of what-the-hell's-going-to-happen and we don't know what's coming. Suspense is getting your readers to ask: What's going to happen next? [2]

So we need: 

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Further, dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

Dramatic Irony & Suspense


Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deathly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

The elements of dramatic irony:


In order for dramatic irony to exist there needs to be a difference in how much two characters, or a character and the audience, know. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

1. The audience knows more about the danger than the hero.

This is what was used to generate suspense in Scenario 1, above. You, the reader, know there's a monster lurking around the next bend but the hero doesn't. Perhaps the hero thinks the evil has been neutralized or he thinks it's somewhere else. But it isn't. It's lying in wait for him and as soon as he rounds the next bend it's going to attack.

Or perhaps the villain has set a trap for the hero that the hero is oblivious to. The hero is rushing headlong to help someone in need. We see the villain set a trap for the hero and watch as he runs toward the trap. We want to warn him, to shout out that it's a trap, to stop, to go another way, but the hero keeps running and we are helpless to prevent the outcome.

Or something like that.

2. The audience knows less about the danger than the hero.

There is a scene in the classic movie The Thing where one of the scientists (I believe it was Dr. Blair) looks through a microscope at a sample taken from a mutilated corpse. We don't immediately know what he sees or know what he knows ... but we want to. He has begun to understand the mystery and we want to as well.  

This short period of unknowing, between the audience seeing the character's reaction to the new knowledge and finding out what it is, creates tension. I wanted to take Dr. Blair by the shoulders, shake him, and say something suitably melodramatic like, "What is it?! Tell me!"

3. (No dramatic irony) The characters and the audience/reader have the same amount of information.

A scene can be tense even though it lacks dramatic irony. In this case the tension will be produced by other factors, factors like a ticking clock, a clear statement of the stakes, and conflict. Lets take a closer look at these.

Preconditions For Suspense


In order for a story/yarn/tale to be suspenseful, the following must be in place:

1. Conflict.


What is conflict? How is it generated/produced? 

It's simple.

Conflict = (a character's goal) + (opposition to that goal)

That is, conflict results from the clash of two things: 

(a) What the hero desires or needs. His/her goal.
(b) Something fearful that opposes the hero, something that can prevent him from getting what he wants/needs. [2]

2. Stakes.


In order to create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out well in advance. That is, before the hero is actually 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 they die.  

By the way, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's movie, The Cabin in the Woods, gives these stakes an ironic twist. It's a huge spoiler, so I'll talk about it in a footnote. Don't look if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. [3]

3. A ticking clock. 


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

You need to build up pressure/tension which means that, in some way or other, the characters must be racing against a clock. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, agonize and, finally, fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Lee Goldberg said:

"[To create suspense one needs] A ticking clock that escalates the conflict either within a person or between two characters, and that's an essential part of suspense, its the kindling that creates suspense, the conflict between two characters and the outside force or the outside pressure that makes that conflict even greater and then--boom!--you have the inevitable scary, frightening, exciting climactic verbal explosion."

An Aside: Another way to create suspense: 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/protagonist. We make it clear what the protagonist wants/needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he/she tries to attain their goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another 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 subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

And you know what? He's right!

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

Yes, sure, 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?

That's it! Here's a writing challenge (I'm challenging myself with this as well): Build some suspense in your writing today. 

References/Footnotes


1. Suspense, Wikipedia.
3. 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 by the evil then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way.

Links


Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:

Guest post on Lee Goldberg's website about suspense. Post is by Libby Hellmann:

Photo credit: "Bern - Switzerland" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.