I’m going to be speaking locally on Monday, January 23rd at 7:00 at the Katonah, NY, library. If anyone would like to come, the event is free, and I would love to meet you in person! The audience will mostly be adults, so I’ll be pitching my talk that way. Teens will certainly be fine.
The library is putting out a press release to promote the event, and the press release includes this quote from Ella Enchanted, which made me laugh:
I wished I could spend the rest of my life as a child, being slightly crushed by someone who loved me.
Do you remember my recent inveighing against adjectives and adverbs that weaken, like slightly. So I’m delighted that I’ve learned a thing or two in the twenty-plus years since I wrote the book. Today, instead of slightly crushed, I’d substitute squeezed, or I’d just delete slightly–if I noticed. I’m still capable of making this sort of mistake.
Onto the post!
On August 9, 2016, #writingstruggles wrote, I struggle to write suspense. I just can’t seem to make my readers feel scared, like my characters, or build up the tension.
In response, Christie V Powell wrote, If you’re up to it, you could try reading a thriller or watch a scary movie to get ideas. I’ve only watched one true horror movie in my life, and I was amazed how my emotions were reacting like crazy even though in my head I didn’t care for the plot.
One thing is to make sure to pace it so that you have both constriction and release leading up to the moment. In some books, especially the last of a series, they try to keep the pressure on all the time, but after awhile it just gets old. “Okay, the world is in danger. The world is still in danger. The world’s in even more danger. I get it already.” If you break it up with some light moments, it makes it much more intense.
You can also do a lot with description. The setting, and how you describe it, can have a big impact on mood. So do details, if you draw in and focus on just a few small things. Here’s examples from my climax:
The jagged teeth of Whiterocks Pass pierced the overcast sky.
The girls stood at the edge of a valley surrounded by sharp cliffs. Ruins of old buildings and deep, open pits spattered the entire valley floor, and every single space in between was taken up by statues.
Her foot snagged on a rock, and to keep from stumbling she instinctively grabbed a hand offered in front of her.
The hand was smooth and cold and definitely not alive. Keita looked up, and screamed.
A statue of a young girl stood beside her. Her arm was held out, in supplication or perhaps to deflect a blow. Her face was wrinkled in an ugly silent scream. Keita scrambled backward and bumped into Sienna. The girl stood just outside the tunnel, still as if she’d been turned into a statue herself.
I love the hand surprise, which is nicely creepy.
So that’s one strategy, to set reader’s expectations up and then have them play out unexpectedly in a bad way: warm, living hand expected–cold, lifeless, and useless one received.
When I was little, I liked to go to horror movies, which didn’t scare me much–until Creature With the Atom Brain. I had nightmares for months.
I don’t remember much of the movie, just that a girl character about my age at the time, which may have been eight or nine, adores a family friend, who plays with her and her dolls–until his brain is replaced with the atomic one. I still remember a frame of the movie in which this formerly nice man holds the doll by one foot, and you can tell it and the child no longer have any significance for him. Aaa!
What got me was the loss of affection. I don’t remember if he killed the girl. He may have, but I was lost to horror the instant the doll thing happened.
Then I saw the movie a second time and induced nightmares all over again. (What were our parents thinking? Both times I saw it at our neighborhood movie theater with friends–and no adults.)
So this movie gives us something else to use to create suspense. If we care about the MC, we’ll want others to be decent to her. Threatening that will create suspense.
Along the same lines, I’m not fond of violence in movies or on tv, but I can bear it and even like the movie or tv show if the violence isn’t nonstop. However, I’m not capable of watching or even reading about harm done to an animal. It’s the animal’s innocence that does me in. Character innocence can create tension, too. The reader sees the threat, but the character doesn’t. She’s having a perfectly fine time. Maybe she’s telling the villain things she absolutely shouldn’t because he’s charmed her. The ax is about to fall. The reader has chewed her nails right up to her elbows.
And that’s another strategy: make the MC clueless–sometimes, of course. She can’t always be out to lunch or the reader will lose patience.
Underlying all suspense is one principle: the reader has to care about the character who’s in jeopardy. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, although that makes the task easier. The reader just has to want bad things not to happen to her.
In the end-of-the-world/end-of-the-series scenario Christie V Powell writes about above, we may be able to keep the suspense going through reader caring. I haven’t written this kind of thing, but I’ve seen examples. I used to love Star Trek (I watched only the original series). I desperately wanted the entire wonderful crew to be okay. I assume that in a series of books, there are at least a few characters the reader cares about. We can keep the suspense going by making each aspect of the coming apocalypse endanger a different character. Then once that danger has been dealt with, on to the next danger and character.
Thus the one the reader worries about doesn’t always have to be our MC. Doesn’t even have to be a person or even alive. The reader can be made to care about a work of art, a building, a city. Anything.
In the case of Star Trek, the tension was undermined a bit by my certainty as the series progressed that the writers would never bump off a major, beloved character. We can learn from that too. If we allow dreadful things to happen to our MC, the reader will realize that this book takes no prisoners. The worst really can come about. Eek!
Here are three prompts:
∙ Make the reader care about a plastic cup. Threaten it. Create tension over the cup.
∙ Write from the perspective of the evil queen in “Snow White.” Make us care about her, whether or not you keep her evil. Make us see her tragic ending coming.
∙ Time pressure is a great tension builder. Your MC is on a journey. Her mission, whatever it is, has to be accomplished before the destination is reached. Use the time pressure to make us worry.
Have fun, and save what you write!