Mark Terry

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writing 201: Tension/Suspense (Conversation)

December 17, 2009

The Divine Ms. O and I continue our Writing 201 conversation with Suspense/Tension.

Mark: I think tension/suspense, and it's possible these are 2 different things, has a lot of different levels to it. On one level, it's all about conflict. It's about whatever obstacles your characters face, whether it's trying to stop the end of the world or trying to keep your job while taking care of a sick kid. But conflict goes further. A friend of mine gave me a manuscript a couple years ago and he was a beautiful writer, but everyone got along too well, they were, no pun intended, all on the same page. Yeah, the main character was a nice guy, easy-going, and he was writing for the Christian market, but to me if people just came into a room together and each one had different things they wanted, the story would have improved significantly. There's also tension in using tense words, tense word order, not giving too much information up front and always creating a certain amount of mystery about what's going to happen next.

Erica: In my current wip, the tension and suspense come from outside forces pressing against my hero and heroine and their lives. But I think that a lot of the tension comes from that "oh, God, now this has gone wrong" element. In each chapter, as this virus spreads, they lose more essential services. So now, the power will only run from eight in the morning until eight at night. Food becomes limited. The people around them are dying. There's a sense of "what next"? And of course, the "what next" will LOGICALLY be the worst possible scenario. And I think that's where novels have to go. Even if you are writing COMEDY . . . let's say two characters are getting married. If there is ONE person the bride PRAYS will not turn up on her doorstep--of COURSE that is who must. Hilarity ensues. But prior to that "worst case"--funny or dark--the book should build the tension by the steps along the way.

Mark: Ah! I'd file this under plotting, and I've written about it on my blog before. I call it the Power of the Thwart. The classic example is The Lord of the Rings. And "thwart" refers to every plan and/or effort gets thwarted. It's really, really important for creating tension and for good plotting. TLOR, for example: The hobbits head out to meet Gandalf, but are chased by the Nazgul Riders. Then they get to the Prancing Pony and Gandalf isn't there. Then they're picked up by Aragorn. But the Nazgul Riders have tracked them down. They flee again. Then they're caught by the Nazgul Riders again and Frodo is wounded. Then they flee again to Rivendell, thinking they have sanctuary there, but no, they have to leave again. They plan to go through the mountains, but turn back (thwarted) by the blizzards and Saruman's efforts, so they go to the Mines of Moria, but they can't get in. Once they do get in, everyone's dead. Then they get lost. Then they get attacked. Then Gandalf dies. Then... I think TLOR is a classic example of great plotting when viewed that way, and it can simply be said, Your Character Needs To Fail His/Her Way To Success. If you create an obstacle, they need to get over it, through it or around it, but NOT in the way you'd expect. And it's good for a story and creates suspense if a lot of the time they fail on their first attempt and have to figure out some other way to do things, or take a detour. Then the reader wonders, Uh-oh, what's next? Again, don't make it too easy on your characters. Let's face it, authors are the Old Testament God that made Job's life miserable, not the forgiving God of the New Testament.

Erica: Being in a writers' group, I was delighted two weeks ago when one member "guessed" at something she thought was going to happen. I paused at the scene and thought . . . hmm, you COULD think this is a hint. But it's not in the slightest. In fact, her guess is 100% the opposite. But I think that turning expectation around creates in its own way suspense and tension. The author toys with you in a way . . . that unexpected.

Mark: Well, in terms of that, I think the trick is "unexpectedly expected." That is to say, it's a surprise to the reader, but 2 seconds after they read it they should say, "Oh, man, I should have seen that coming." That goes back to freshness, I think. Hard to do. Harlan Coben is a master at the twist, but at least one of the books recently a reviewer said something like, "A fantastic 399 page book. Unfortunately, it was 400 pages long." He did this massive twist on the last page. It was a great line for a review, and I have to say I basically agreed with the reviewer. It was a great twist, but it was the sort of thing you thought about later and went, "Huh?" rather than, "Got me."

I think a lot of newbie writers just miss out on tension by their lack of good verbs, but that's a mechanical issue. Your character shouldn't just "go across the street" they should at least "cross" or "run" or "saunter" and it's useful to keep in mind that if you're creating a certain mood, your word choices can be important. Can a silence be jagged? Was the silence broken by a scream or shattered by a scream or ripped by a scream or whatever. You're not just describing things, but you're manipulating the reader's emotions, and your word choices can create a mood and develop tension as well.

Erica: I think another tension element goes back to character. My mom watches NCIS, a show I see sporadically in reruns, and she wants to know whether I think Rocky Carroll's character, Leon Vance, is a good guy or a bad guy. They have managed, for my mom, to keep the show fresh (oh, another one of our Writing 201 topics) by being ambiguous. That adds to the tension, that "is he good or bad" or "will she leave him or work it out"--again, it points to not thinking of tension as solely the territory of the thriller, for example.

Mark: I agree. EVERY genre requires tension of some sort and some writers—and I think it’s true—say that no matter what you’re writing, it’s a mystery because the reader has to be kept guessing about how it’s going to end.

The floor is open!


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

A former CIA agent has 96 hours to travel to Paris and find his kidnapped daughter before she is irretrievably sold into the sex trade.

That's a logline I whipped up for a movie I watched the other night called Taken. All the elements for tension and suspense are there, I think: character, task, obstacles, stakes, and a ticking clock. Of course, it takes a lot of skill to put all those things together into a compelling story, but those are the basic elements.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

What's compelling, too . . . you say sold into the sex trade--not murdered. I.e., as we age, I think some of us know there are fates worse than death . . . and that is likely one of them, so the scenario has that "next" level of horror about it.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Great movie, by the way. I found his character particularly compelling (it helps that Liam Neeson's such a good actor), particularly in the fact that here he was, this expert at all these things, which is why he was estranged from his wife and daughter, and he very specifically warns his daughter about the dangers of what where she's going, then all hell breaks out and it's all these skills he had that they need. (And my wife and I and our karate instructor discussed the martial arts in the movie, which are nice and practical and brutal, nothing fancy at all).

8:15 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

That movie rocks.

(I don't know what you're going to do with this intelligent and thoughtful contribution to the discussion.)

12:16 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I love that--the skillset is what causes him to lose his family--and save his family.

I know when I crafted The Roofer, the loyalty thing binds them, but it destroys them.


3:15 AM  

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