Thursday, August 30, 2007

Some Happenings, and a Question

1. Lana's home! Yeah! She got in late Wednesday night and it's very good to have her back.

2. From what I hear, Night to Dawn #12 was released today, with a story by me in it called "When the White Mist." And for some synchronicity, that piece was originally written for Lana.

Now for the question. I was working on an advice piece today on writing and I came up with the following as a possible suggestion. I'm just not sure it's a worthwhile one, or if I've thought it through carefully enough. Any feedback would be appreciated.

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In real life, people get flat tires. They run out of gas. They get sick. They bump into people they know. They have a thousand other experiences. If used correctly, such everyday “surprises” can significantly increase suspense, and can produce excellent cliffhangers.

Consider, an undercover police officer is working a drug buy when he realizes that one of the men approaching him is someone he knows, someone who will recognize him. End the scene now and you’ve upped the tension. Or, our hero has been secretly tailing a terrorist who knows where a bomb is planted. They’ve traveled so far, she’s worried. She glances at her instrument panel and sees the gas gage on “E.” Drop the scene here and you’ll leave the reader wondering what the hero is going to do.

Anything that tosses an obstacle into the hero’s path can ratchet up the suspense. This works especially well if it comes as a surprise in a critical moment.

15 comments:

Lisa said...

I think this is completely worthwhile! Everyday things can always ratchet up tension (something I have a lot of trouble with) -- getting stuck in traffic, suddenly coming down with the flu, getting calls from bill collectors, having someone pretend not to see you at a social event -- It's something people can relate to and I love the idea of ending scenes with these.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks, Lisa.

Angie said...

Congrats on the release! :)

And I think that's a very good idea about more "everyday" cliffhangers. It's easy to get into the mindset that all of our protag's problems have to be these major, exotic threats, but you're right that everyday problems can cut your throat too if they come at exactly the wrong time or in the wrong situation.

Angie

nolasteve said...

The seemingly mundane occurrences are wonderful ways to add to the “one damn thing after another” complications or even cause twist in stories. I have seen the empty gas tank problem used by Lawrence Block. Another problem in a book that changed the whole story line was finding something to write one of these “Help Me!” notes.

I like these better than the bizarre coincidences that happen to up the tension. In a recent read, a terrorist was being held in a remote high security facility when a jet engine falls off a plane and hits the building, killing most of the guards and freeing the prisoner. This sort of thing makes me wonder how much gullibility I am supposed to have. I read an article by Nelson DeMille about the ending to Night Fall. SPOILER – In the book, he has all of the characters coming together for a showdown meeting – at Windows On The World in the World Trade Center on 9/11. I felt cheated. As the book was coming to a close, I was running all sorts of scenarios through my mind. None included terrorist flying a plane into the building.

Steve Malley said...

Complications for suspense:

Dean Koontz loves them and often uses them well. Although the Dynamo and I once sat down and read something like ten or fifteen of his thrillers back-to-back, and flat-tire syndrome really showed through. (OMG, it's raining, what if I get a flat tire and wreck the car).

Janet Evanovitch does a great job with pointless complication, but then, it grows out of Stephanie's wacky, hare-brained character.

I think complication is like cayenne pepper: a little goes a long way. Even the *hottest* chili is still mostly meat, beans and 'maters.

I noticed both your examples brought the complication (old friend, empty gas gauge) back to the main conflict. The narc might be made, the bad guys might get away.

Perhaps the key is a bit of foreshadowing. The meet is in some former haunt of the undercover. Our heroine knows she ought to get gas but events keep unfolding. Otherwise, it might seem a bit Monty Python (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition).

Oh, and most hopelessly overused complication: the cell phone. Is it charged, do I have reception, etc. This isn't the 90's. Nowadays, that one just *feels* like the author is churning the plot pointlessly.

Sorry. You asked for two cents and I gave you a dollar. In weird, hexagonal pennies...

cs harris said...

They say you can get away with coincidences as long as they work against, rather than for, your protagonist.

I'm reading a thriller in which a crane operator accidently drops something the badguys need. Very lame.

Shauna Roberts said...

I agree with the others that this is a worthwhile point to make. And since everyone else has focused on everyday events, I wanted to hit on the other half of your question, the suspense part. Many beginning writers wrap up their scenes and chapters at what seems to be the natural stopping point: when the crisis has been resolved, rather than when the hero recognizes the bad guy or the heroine runs out of gas.

Erik Donald France said...

Well, all good points. Sometimes real life coincidences seem corndog and can't be used in fiction -- ex. a student who had a the best night of her night in New Orleans, slept overnight with her friend in the Ninth Ward -- the night before the flooding began (she escaped by bus); a woman whose daughter was supposed to tour the Twin Tours in NYC at the same time as the first plane hit on 9/11: but she was too hungover to make it on time. These really happened -- maybe for Lifetime TV?

the walking man said...

Yes to what you said. I think you need those everyday realities in fiction to make it communicate with your audience. To show your hero goes through what everyone does in reality, even Superman needed to use the phone booth occasionally.

Just so you know I made a new blog specifically for ON TH ROAD TO...dumb ass me finally figured it out that it was just too hard to read the way it was.

Glad your woman had a fun and safe trip and is back home ...now will she get you a beer from the fridge while you sit in your underwear on the couch watching sports on TPeace

mark

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks everyone. This feedback has already helped me start the revisions to the piece, which I'm probably going to expand into an article for The Illuminata. Much appreciated.

Greg Schwartz said...

I agree with most of what's been said, especially with what Lisa said about people being able to relate to everyday events. I may not be an undercover cop, but I sure know what it feels like to run into someone I know at a really bad time and pray they don't see me, so I could certainly relate to what your character is feeling.

Bernita said...

Yes...used sparingly and reasonably.
Otherwise, the reader may get the idea the protag is a thoughtless klutz.

Sidney said...

It's a total aside I guess, but it may be a useful tidbit for someone - I once talked to an undercover cop. He was on a drug case and got shot. He said his first thought when he felt something hit him was that his wife was going to make him quit his job. That worried him as much as getting hit with part of a shotgun blast.

William Jones said...

I think it is a good approach, adding complications -- to most everything. When writing, I try to follow the path that nothing works out as intended in the story. Hopefully in the end it does, but between start to finish, what the protagonist attempts is always complicated by something else.

Rachel said...

I've heard about that. Friend of mine when to a writer's conference where one of the writers on a panel actually said to be mean to the protagonist. Whatever obstacle you can throw in the way, do it. The light turns red when they want to cross. Their ex shows up just as they're going to try make a move on someone. Whatever.