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!

  1. Jenalyn Barton says:

    Suspense doesn’t always have to come from the threat of danger. Sometimes it can come from the withholding of promised information, either from the readers or from the characters (like in dramatic irony). Mysteries are a great example of this. They frequently include both types of suspense. Usually most of the story is from withheld information being revealed a little at a time, just enough to keep us wondering what’s going to happen next. Then, once the mystery is solved, the author uses the threat of danger to keep us interested until the end.

    Dramas are really good at creating suspense through the withholding and revelation of information. For example, consider the situation where two characters who are beginning to develop feelings for each other suddenly discover that they’re actually half siblings. Suspense without danger is created because the reader/audience wants to know “What are they going to do now?” “How will they react?” “How did they never know each other before?” And so on. The best dramas keep you reading by creating new questions for every question they answer. Sometimes danger is involved, and sometimes it isn’t, but suspense is still there.

  2. I’ve been watching the Netflix adaptation of The Series of Unfortunate Events. I read all thirteen books in the series ten years ago, so I already know what unfortunate events are in store, but I still feel suspense because I want the characters’ fate to turn out differently this time. It’s about a trio of clever orphans surviving a string of increasingly incompetent foster parents. I find the TV show scarier than the books because they can cut to the adults’ POV and show you just how incompetent or abusive they actually are. Also, some characters who die in the books are currently alive in the show, so I have to worry/hope for them to make it out alive this time too.

  3. Hi helpful people! So I have a question about this sci-fi story I’ve always wanted to write. The MC is a typical high school girl. One day some secret agents kidnap her, take her to a lab, and change her brain so she’s partly a robot programmed to be an assassin for the government. She has no memory of her life, and she thinks she’s someone else. When they’re done, she literally thinks she was just born at 17 years old. So they have to re-teach her all the stuff about the world.
    After all that, they give her a picture of a man and send her out into the world to kill him. Well, she has like NO idea how to act like a person! She doesn’t know how to use money or really converse with people and normal stuff. So the first few scenes are just awful to write. It’s so awkward! Do you have any idea how to write a story about characters who have no idea what’s going on? Thanks!

    • Use your imagination to put yourself into the situation. How would you react if you were thrown into a strange situation? What would stand out to you? Her character might give you other clues. It would tell you not only how she would react, but what things would stand out to her the most.

      This is a religious poem I wrote about a blind man receiving sight. I wanted to play with the idea of how someone might experience sight for the first time:

      • Thank you! She pretty much actually doesn’t have a personality because she doesn’t remember ANYTHING about the world. It takes a while for her to develop her personality. I guess she seems to react like “oh my gosh what is all this stuff?”

      • Thanks! The story is still very far from complete but I’m having fun coming up with all the stuff. As she keeps getting sent on assassination jobs, she grows more human and starts to doubt if what she’s doing is right. One of the people she’s supposed to kill actually ends up becoming her friend. It’s a fun story to write!

    • She’d probably become a careful mimic, which would both help and hurt her. The first thing that came to my mind when I read this is a scene from the movie Meet Dave, where an alien walks into Old Navy and is greeted with “Welcome to Old Navy.” He thinks it’s a standard human greeting and shouts it at everyone in the store. There’s good potential for comedy here.
      Since she’s an assassin, she’d probably avoid talking to people in the beginning and speak in gruff, clipped sentences. But after realizing just how clueless she is, she’d learn how to smile, lie, and attach herself to people who can help her. She’d also perceive things as threats when they aren’t. Since she has the experience of a newborn, I can see her being fascinated by ordinary things, like motion sensor activated doors.

        • Here’s the closest example I’ve got, if this helps. (Malak was raised as, basically, a giant lizard who ate nothing but raw meat, once a week or so, and this scene he’s more-or-less become a vegetarian winged human. It’s complicated. Oh, and he’s never worn clothes before either, except for a bathrobe. 🙂 )

          “This is ridiculous.” (Malak) flung back the covers. “How do bird-men get anything done if they have to eat all the time?” He bathed and headed for the kitchen, barely remembering to put pants on first.
          There were bird-men in the kitchen already, pouring things into bowls, stirring pots. Somewhere, someone was frying eggs, but Malak couldn’t locate them.
          “I’m hungry,” he announced.
          The kitchen staff looked up, dropped their pans, and fled. Malak shrugged and began rummaging through the cupboards. He couldn’t read well enough to tell what was in the various tins and jars, but some glass bottles obviously held liquids, and he was thirsty. He uncorked one, took a swig, and choked.
          “Salty! Gehenna, that’s a terrible drink!”
          “That’s because it’s soy sauce. You’re not supposed to drink it.”
          Malak turned around, and Amal, clearly trying to suppress his amusement, handed him a glass of water. Malak gulped it down and said “Well, what am I supposed to drink and eat? I’m hungry. Again!”
          “You’re supposed to wait and have breakfast with the rest of us. So go put on a shirt, and let us finish cooking it.”
          “A shirt too? But I’m wearing pants!”
          “A shirt, vest, underwear, socks…”
          “Amal, this isn’t funny!”
          “Am I laughing?”
          “Not with your voice, but your whole body says “Look at the stupid half-demon who looks like a bird-man but can’t find his own breakfast.”

          Neri smiled reassuringly at him from across the table while he pondered his silverware. He had no idea what to do with any of it, and he couldn’t imagine why anyone would need two forks and three spoons. Everyone else was scooping food onto their plates and adding sauces and garnishes. Malak shrugged, grabbed an orange from the fruit bowl and bit into it.
          He spat out the bitter mouthful, exclaiming “I thought these were supposed to be sweet!”
          Neri looked up in surprise, which turned to amusement. “They are if you peel them first.”
          Malak groaned. “Do bird-men have to make everything complicated?”

          Hope this helps!

    • Does she also have to relearn all the basics, like walking and talking? What’s her “waking up” like? It would probably be more realistic if she wakes up slow and gradual with a lot of sleeping between, like someone recovering from a serious injury would. That would also give her a chance to start a knowledge base without an overload of stimulation.

      Consider how much the kidnappers have educated her about the world. It would be wise for them to take her out into the world an teach her about various situations before just turning her out. It also would make their job easier if they feed her a worldview they want her to have – such as, “This person is evil and must be gotten rid of. Nobody else can be trusted besides US.” It would also make it harder for her to see the truth in things, if she has learned everything about the world through the filter of the kidnappers.

      There’s a book I would recommend – I am David. It’s about a boy who has grown up entirely in a Nazi concentration camp, and the book begins when a guard gives him a chance to escape. He is totally clueless about many things that we take for granted.

      • Hey, those are some good questions! I wondered whether I should let her know how to walk and talk, and I was thinking yes, because it would be weird to write if she had to re-learn all that. I was thinking they could program her to know how to walk and talk (and kill…*shudder*).

        As far as education about the world, they take her down to a lab, strap her to a computer, and show her pictures of places she needs to be at and the people she needs to kill. They pretty much tell her that she can’t trust anyone but them, like you said. And she doesn’t really see the world correctly because of it.

        I will check out that book! It sounds very interesting!

  4. You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it! And good luck with your talk tomorrow.

    BTW, back when we were talking about unlikeable characters and I said I’ve struggled with a character who some test-readers love but agents uniformly dislike, that was Malak. The first book’s about how he goes from being a savage lizard-demon to a civilized person, so he’s not very nice at first.

    This bit’s from an unfinished sequel.

  5. Ok, another question! My character was a feisty, independent Greek girl and so I called her Xenia. Then I made her an American (long story) and now the name doesn’t fit. I’m trying to find a good English name for her, but I’m having trouble. I was thinking maybe something starting with a K (Kendra??? Keira???) instead of an X but I don’t know. Do you know of any names that would work? Thanks!

    • Especially in America, almost any name goes – if there’s a reason for it, like heritage. But if it seems you should change it, consider names beginning with Z if you want to keep a similar sound. Or google “names similar to Xenia” and see what comes up. I did that once with a name, and came up with some similar sounding names, and some that just fit into the same category.

      Also, Xenia sounds to me like Zinnia, the flower, which could be a person’s name too. 🙂

      Are you going for modern sounding, common for America names? Kelsey, Kinsley, Kaylee, Kaylyn

  6. I’ve got a question about my “unlikable” hero, Malak, from my post above. I know lots of people don’t like prologues, but there’s a flashback later in the finished book to when Malak was a baby. He’s still a bloodthirsty monster, but he’s a cute, brave little monster who stands up to a much bigger bully in defense of his mom.

    So I’m thinking: Maybe I should make this flashback into a prologue. He’d still be “uncivilized,” but readers might be more willing to overlook Baby Malak’s savagery (After all, babies do throw tantrums and bite people sometimes), and they’d know the seeds of better qualities are in there, even though we don’t see them right away in Adult Malak.

    What do you think?

    • That would be really cool. I could see how that would help us like Adult Malak more, since, honestly, I didn’t really feel like I could relate to him in the short clip you gave us.
      But then again, in the Trials of Apollo, by Rick Riordan, the book is made funnier because we think that Apollo is an arrogant toe rag. We don’t like him, so what happens to him doesn’t matter to us, but we sympathize with the other main character, Meg, for being stuck with him.

    • I really enjoy seeing the characters when they were younger. Disney’s been doing that with most of its recent films, which is a good sign (little Elsa&Anna, baby Rapunzel, baby Moana and Merida and Tiana…). You could just call your prologue a first chapter like Harry Potter did, if you want to avoid the stigma.

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