Uh-huh, and I’m sure you’ve heard well-meaning instructors say things like, The secret to writing a thriller (or any genre) is suspense. You’ve got to have suspense on every page.
And you’re agreeing, nodding your head and thinking, Totally makes sense. I’m going to do that. And then you sit down at your laptop, and you think, Wait, huh, but what does that mean in practice?
Seriously, could anything in the world of fiction be more vague than the term “suspense”? When we open our toolboxes filled with the implements of our craft, what do we pull out to actually implement suspense in our stories?
Two words: Dramatic questions.
That’s the basics right there. The more questions readers have about what’s going to happen and how and why and when and where, the more they’ll turn the pages. There are the big story questions — will the good guy win? will the heroine get her man? — but also other dramatic questions that bubble up as the story progresses. You want open-ended questions, questions that tease your readers on many levels.
I’m so enthusiastic about this topic that I even drew a visual aid. <tapping your screen with my virtual pencil> As you can see, open-ended questions overlap so that you always have something to compel the reader forward. And the more the better. Multi-layered stories are good.
Some of the questions are small, maybe only pertinent to a scene (will the good guy introduce himself to the pretty woman at the party?), some are larger, remaining unresolved over many scenes. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the question of whether Dorothy and her pals will arrive at the Emerald City intact is a major thrust of the tale, but eventually they do arrive and that question closes.
You may be thinking, this is all very nice, but how do you achieve all these dramatic questions? That, my friends, is the art within the craft. They naturally arise when you:
- Develop complex characters with flaws and agendas, characters we care about it.
- Include interesting subplots that have beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, in “The Wizard of Oz” the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man are subplot characters with their own arcs. Will the Scarecrow get a brain? Will the Cowardly Lion get courage? Will the Tin Man get a heart?
- Keep the conflicts and obstacles coming. They don’t have to be loud and action-packed either. For example, our awkward good guy could spill coffee on his suit right before he’s supposed to meet his new boss, who just happens to be the women he pined for at the party. How’s he going to handle it? What’s the boss going to think? Will this mean that he won’t get the raise so that he can pay for his mother’s medical bills?
What I’m talking about doesn’t only pertain to commercial fiction. Case in point, a few hours ago a friend called. Her debut novel is coming out soon**. It’s a literary novel. One of those novels you savor. It’s not fast paced. It lingers in lovely descriptions. My friend was excited because a bookstore owner had said that she couldn’t put the book down.
Why might this be? Suspense, granted a quiet kind of suspense, but suspense nonetheless. The story layers in all kinds of questions. Will Jack get guts? Will his wife catch a clue? What happened to Patty? Will they save the farm? Will the daughter make a new friend? Why is the wife such a snag anyhow? How did Jack get them into such a financial predicament? What will he find in Montreal?
Eventually, of course, you must resolve all the questions to the reader’s satisfaction, just don’t do it too fast. Resolve too many questions too early, and your story will stall out.
When it comes to an aspect of writing craft or anything for that matter, have you ever experienced the “wow” moment of comprehension, almost like a revelation?
** In fact, she’ll be guest posting here on March 1st! Her novel is WHEN PATTY WENT AWAY, and she’s Jeannie Burt.