Saturday, July 28, 2007

Suspense Work

I plan to center my talk at the Tuesday signing around the importance of suspense in all literature and how to develop it. One thing I plan to talk about is the difference between what I’m calling “Quick” and “Slow” suspense. Quick is what thrillers often open with: a bomb’s about to go off in a school, a plane’s engine sputters and fails, a fire breaks out in a hospital and starts to spread. Such events quickly put you into a dramatic situation. An obvious emergency has happened, is happening, and people who are helpless or unaware, or both, are in danger.

There’s nothing wrong with Quick suspense. Horror, thriller, and mystery novels certainly need it. In very short stories it may even be the only thing you have to work with. But Quick suspense cannot carry an entire novel, of any kind. You must have Slow suspense too, which is the kind that develops as we begin to care about characters. In the opening of a book, unless it’s part of a series that we’ve been reading, we have no idea who the characters are. We can only care about them in an abstract manner, which is why thriller openings often place into threat those who we generally view as “innocent.” Schoolchildren and hospital patients work well for such Quick suspense, but would you honestly care as much if you knew the bomb was going to go off in a maximum security prison where the inmates are all murderers and rapists?

Once people have started to develop an attachment to the characters, though, the possibilities of suspense are endless. Even problems that are small in the scheme of things can generate suspense when we care about characters. We don’t have to have bombs going off and fires raging out of control. We just have to have one character that we like trying to do something, achieve something, and being met with obstacles and struggle rather than easy success.

I like books that start with Quick suspense. But I’m hard pressed to make it all the way through the work unless the characters come to life and the suspense turns “Slow.”


Lucas Pederson said...

When I first started writing short stories, I always tossed my charecters into an extemely suspenseful situation, the beast breathed just around the corner, the knife slashed outward like a snake, the room began to fill with water...and there was no way out.
BUt all my readers at the time wanted a slower build. So that's what I did. After that I started getting personal responses from editors. So, I really have no idea what I'm talking about...
Great advice, great post!
Later buddy! Hope that signing goes well! Here's to you!

Erik Donald France said...

Makes perfect sense, Charles. A great topic for discussion at the signing. Good luck and cheers!

Michelle's Spell said...

That's a great way of thinking about it. I'm going to use that in my classes if that's okay with you! I'm always looking for ways to clarify writing strategies I know, but haven't really articulated. Thanks for the tip! Good luck with the talk!

Sidney said...

I think you're right, the bang can work as an opening but the concern over the characters has to happen or it's not engaging.

Action without substance can make for boring reading.

the walking man said...

I started one novel with a totally unrelated gruesome murder, as a way of introducing the bad guy, maybe 1500 words. Then flipped to the main character who was at that time living a drunks life and spent the next 5k words or so explaining how he got to the current situation. from there it just flowed when I needed to pick up the pace throw another serial murder in there. but the story really was about the wrong man convicted.

The thing was the ending everyone who read it did not expect it and made me write the sequel, which took me three years before i could do it because I was afraid that possibly the serial killer might be a part of me I had been keeping hidden. But at the end of 170,000 words and two fair reads i simply had to kill everyone who counted off so i wouldn't have to write anymore in the series.

Suspense, I think is the hardest part to understand in writing because you are writing for people you don't know and giving a graphic description of jumping out of an airplane might mean nothing to them that do it but just might make me clean out my drawers.

Good subject for thought though thank you.



Steve Malley said...

Well said, Charles. Well said...

Charles Gramlich said...

Lucas, I've seen published books that focus too much on the "Dramatic" or Quick suspense and never get to the slow development.

Eric, thanks.

Michelle, sure, use it if it helps.

Sid, yeah, quick suspense might carry a short story but not a novel.

Mark, glad you liked it. Good point about the differences in people's response to "dramatic" situations.

Steve, thanks.

Danny Tagalog said...

Good luck on Tuesday Charles. Will you thrive in such situations? Are you looking forward to it?

Bernita said...

Introducing facts that beg for a "why" is one way of slow suspense.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, good point.

Danny, thanks. I am looking forward to it. But I'm a bit nervous.