Saturday, 21 May 2011

Need to Know: the basis of all story


Any story requires the reader to want to know what happens next. This need to know is called suspense. Usually people think of the big, terrifying, heart pumping moments when they think of the term, but wondering if you need to buy milk is also suspense.


If you can build and maintain suspense in a story, at whatever level, it will be more interesting to read for the reader. See the box above? What’s inside? Not knowing makes you curious, huh?

What if I then say, I’ll tell you tomorrow, and take the box away?

If I had said I've got a surprise for you tomorrow and then gave you the box the next day, you probably wouldn't even remember what I'd said. Only by showing you the box first and then taking it away can I generate that genuine need to know.

BUILD and MAINTAIN are the two important words here.

Often, aspiring writers use feigned-suspense because it is easier to create. This is where a character is acting like something’s up, but the reader doesn’t know what it is. You often see this in movies where someone is sneaking up to a dark attic to investigate some mysterious noise.

I call this feigned-suspense because it is trying to force the idea of suspense onto the audience. The actor looks scared. The music is menacing. The lighting is spooky. But it could be the boogeyman waiting with a sickle, or it could be the cat. It relies on the viewers temperament, not the writing and basically it’s a fake out. It may be a good fake out that gets you involved, but you can’t maintain it for very long.

Suspense isn't created by withholding information, it's created by giving it. There's a bomb on the bus, there's a killer in the house, somebody's going to be fired. It's a common mistake to think the reader not knowing something will make them want to know. Usually it comes across as coy and frustrating. It creates mystery and the reveal leads to surprise, but not suspense. And often not only does it feel like you’re being strung along, you actually are and there’s no pay off, just that cat jumping out of the dark.

What it comes down to is if I have confidence that what I tell you is so interesting you will want to know more, then I have no need to hide it from you. Even if you know exactly what’s going on it won’t diminish the suspense, it will heighten it. There’s a bomb on the bus, it will go off if the speed drops below 50mph, there are cameras watching you... the more info, the more tension. 

But don’t be sucked in by the explosive nature of my example, resist the temptation to say, ‘My story isn’t that genre, it’s literary fiction, it’s about normal people, it’s character driven.’ All story requires this structure to get from one end of a scene to the other. It may be more subtle, it may be about mundane, everyday details, but it has to be more than: something's up and if you keep reading eventually you will find out what it is.

There’s a girl I like, she’s a vegetarian. I told her I was too, but I lied. She comes over unexpected. I’m frying up some chicken. I have bbq recipe books on my shelf. My fridge is full of meat. It's knowing the problem that makes people want to know the solution. It’s only when you already know what’s in the fridge she’s about to open that it becomes a suspenseful moment.

Not knowing what the specifics are can still (eventually) lead to tense situations, but it can also lead nowhere. Real suspense has you interested from the start and gives you the ability to BUILD and MAINTAIN that tension.

You can still have mystery and surprises. But the completely unknown thing, the big reveal — these should be used sparingly, for the climax, for heightened moments, not the little things along the way. Without a suspense structure you will not be able to maintain tension which will lead to stretches of flatness in the narrative.

You don't have to give everything away,  but there’s no point coming up with a brilliant answer if no one knows what the question is.


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Next post new Chapter One Analysis: Fight Club


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37 comments:

Jenna Cooper said...

Great post on suspense! It makes complete sense, when you know something's on the line, it's way more suspenseful.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My stories have space battles and such, but the building tension between the characters is more important. Great tips!

Holly Ruggiero said...

This is off topic but your post got me thinking about how in the future ebooks book might have soundtracks.

mooderino said...

Cheers for the comments.

@Holly-you turn to the next page as spooky stuff starts happening, and spooky music starts playing? I think you should copyright the idea immediately.

Miss Good on Paper said...

Suspense is an important element in novels--regardless of the genre. It is what keeps the reader turning pages. When I teach suspense it is usually when I'm also teaching plot, which is also related to teaching structure and sequencing of a story. It's all connected in the end. =)

Thanks for this! -Miss GOP

Kimberly said...

Awesome post about suspense. I love suspense!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great post. I think a film that does suspense well is "Jaws". The scariest moments in the film are the ones where we never see the shark. But we now its there and we've see the consequences of what it can do.

Clarissa Draper said...

This post is brilliant!

My favourite line: "Suspense isn't created by withholding information, it's created by giving it."

I love your example of the vegetarian--I wish I had read this post earlier in my writing career.

Michael Di Gesu said...

I totally degree with Clarissa ....

You brought out some amazing points...

Jen said...

What a great idea, Holly! Sell it to Amazon, quickly!

Another great post, Mood.
I have an award for you on my blog next time you're over there.

mooderino said...

More great comments, cheers.

@Donna-good example. Both the book and film of Jaws start with a girl being chewed up. When we see the fin later, we know what it can do.

Margo Kelly said...

Great post! Thanks.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Great post and I like Donna's example of Jaws, that is suspenseful! (still love the old cat jumping out of a closet - oh phew it's just a cat, wait, what's that behind me? Argggggh!!!!) (I may have taken too much medication for my flu again).

Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

McKenzie McCann said...

I'm terrible when I try to make something suspenseful. It turns into that feigned-suspense you were talking about. I think I pull of the mundane kind much better when it's not something big.

Gail M Baugniet said...

You've offered an important lesson in this short comment: Suspense isn't created by withholding information, it's created by giving it.

Building suspense into my stories is an ongoing process for me. Much of what you share here is insightful and worthwhile information for me.
I also use Donald Maass's The Fire In Fiction Chpt 8, Tension All the Time, as a guide.

Going hand-in-hand with your advice is giving release to tension. Recently, I read a novel where the author kept piling on suspenseful scenerios without offering answers, to the point I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be looking forward to anymore and I lost interest.

Thanks for visiting my site May 8. That's the day I left for my trip and I'm just now getting back into the swing of things.

Pk Hrezo said...

This is an awesome post! I just tweeted it. Really really great stuff!

mooderino said...

@Pk - thanks! I've only just joined twitter, so still working out what I'm supposed to do.

Anyone who cares to follow me I'm @mooderino

cheers all.

Halli Gomez said...

Thanks for the lesson on how to look at suspense. Always enlightening!
I love to come here because I always learn a lot.

The Stray said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm working on a Dark Fantasy book (horror in a fantasy setting), and suspense is vital to making horror actually work. I'm wondering if I'm reating actual suspense of just feigned-suspense at some points, especially at the point I'm at. The villain of this section of the work is holding the main character in a gilded cage, alternating between carrots and sticks to convince the character to do some sort of task. The nature of this task hasn't been revealed to the character yet. Perhaps I should go back and change this...knowing exactly what the villain wants and why he's going to all the trouble he is to keep the MC in his power might make the tension build much higher than the current hidden motives.

Kendal said...

Great post! My favorite kind of suspenseful moment is when the reader knows something that a character doesn't. The reader is in on it, and they are dying for the character to figure it out. It's a win/win.

N. R. Williams said...

Oh...great post. I do want to know what's in the box and how mean to take it away. But that is what we do at the end of each chapter. A page turner for sure.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

Hart Johnson said...

So interesting. I hadn't really thought about it like this, but you're right--it is the hints and set up that makes you want to know. I like 'not knowing' for tension, but not as a READER tease, but because I prefer close first person, so if my MC doesn't know, no one reading, should.

Twisted said...

Do you ever say something I already knew? Another great post.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I love this! Sometimes it's not even about a dead body suspense but just in trying to figure out what makes a character tick or waiting for the dominoes to fall if the character chooses a particular action.

Stephen Tremp said...

Great blog. I hate investing time in a story that just tells events in chronological order without suspense. I want to guess what might happen nect, then get thrown for a loop by a creative writer.

Linda Leszczuk said...

This is one of those posts that I read and decided it needs another, more careful read to properly digest what's offered here. So I just bookmarked it for later.

Thanks,

Jeigh said...

Excellent post! This really resonates with me and makes a lot of sense, especially, like everyone else is mentioning, that it's not about withholding information but giving it. That's a mistake I made in my first draft. Thanks!

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great post and very true. Giving a hint of something yet to come is going to make people want to know more. You can't truly want to know more if there is no allusion to the mystery ahead.

Donea Lee said...

Build and maintain - for suspense, absolutely essential. I like your approach to suspense in writing. I'll need to comb back through my wip and make sure I have more boxes and less scary-music moments. Thanks!

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the great comments, I really appreciate them.
cheers,
mood

Ellie Garratt said...

Build and maintain - I like it. I've stuck that on a post-it note above my laptop.

Thank you for another awesome post!

Ellie Garratt

Suze said...

'Suspense isn't created by withholding information, it's created by giving it. There's a bomb on the bus, there's a killer in the house, somebody's going to be fired. It's a common mistake to think the reader not knowing something will make them want to know. Usually it comes across as coy and frustrating. It creates mystery and the reveal leads to surprise, but not suspense. And often not only does it feel like you’re being strung along, you actually are and there’s no pay off, just that cat jumping out of the dark.'

Vonnegut's no. 8.

mooderino said...

@Suze-except that everything here is still geared towards suspense, and Vonnegut says the hell with suspense. That's the part that throws me.

Suze said...

If I have any sense of the way your mind works at all, I would say this is not going to help much but, here goes:

I think it's possible that what Vonnegut was communicating when he penned 'to heck with suspense' is to heck with contriving to keep the reader 'hooked' with an unanswered question which serves only in that capacity (and typically not very well.) In other words, the question(s) is not a well-considered cable in the story's braid, it's more a flimsy, perhaps gimmicky, crutch.

I spent a year reading and reviewing a very long, gruesome historical novel by one of the authors in my critique group and though both the other author and I constantly told her that she was leaving too much to be revealed at the very end of a somewhat tedious journey with an opaque, unsympathetic narrator who was a challenge to engage, she consistently insisted that we should trust that all of our questions would be answered in the end. Though as you've put it, before, you have to get a reader to the end first.

I don't think Vonnegut was really saying, 'to heck with suspense.' I think, possibly, he was trying to dispel the common misconception among writers that their ending is so brilliant they are justified in keeping a reader in the dark for most of the journey.

Which is especially frustrating for a longsuffering reader if the end is just a cat jumping out of the dark.

mooderino said...

Possibly. He was aiming these rules at students he was teaching so it may have been to course-correct the direction they had a tendency to go in. Still, suspense is such a major part of story that it is quite a sweeping statement to make without clarification.

Suze said...

I'm a bit reluctant to tell you this but I think it bears saying. I think you might be hung up on semantics. What if he had said, 'to heck with intrigue' or 'to heck with the cloak-and-dagger routine?'

I think your brain's latched on to a word that carries greater meaning for you but perhaps did not for him in this particular instance.

mooderino said...

Very possible, but he's dead and there's no way to tell. If you read other interviews he gave you can see he liked to be obtuse when it amused him, and he tended to choose his words carefully. Whenever he was picked up on some strange thing he said he always had a very unexpected reason for saying it, so I wouldn't be surprised if he had a particular reason for saying it the way he said it. I just don't know what that reason was. It could very well be what you said.

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