Tag Archives: creating suspense

How to Create Suspense in Any Story

21 Mar
John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense.

The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, as you might expect, about a blind astronomer’s daughter. Pretty much every word of that title is complicated, though, since she’s not exactly his daughter, he’s not exactly blind, and not exactly an astronomer since astronomy in Ireland two hundred years ago wasn’t the academic science we know today. So, there’s plenty of intrigue in the book. But much of the page-to-page suspense comes from the sort of mechanical strategies we’re familiar with in genre fiction. For example, early in the book, there’s a scene in which the daughter, Caroline, has finally convinced her father, Arthur, to take her to his rooftop observatory. The scene begins like this:

He insists that she tie herself to him.

The short length of thick-braided hemp is already knotted at his waist when he holds the fretted end toward her in the cramped attic. She words her refusal in terms he will appreciate.

“While there is comfort in having you anchor my steps, if you were to falter, the fall would carry us both.” She considers adding that a larger object will ever hold a small in its sway, but decides that this would overstate the point.

He warns her that even now, in the light of midday, there are still shadows ready to deceive, and that she must heed the sharp angle of the roof and hold fast to the railing with her strong hand.

“And there will be wind,” he says.

Caroline has imagine this moment often—her first visit to the observatory—but it seems odd that her father has chosen to bring her here during the day when there is nothing to be seen but blue sky and white clouds. As usual he wears the patch over his left eye, and when she asks him if it is a hindrance in getting to the roof, he explains that he has grown accustomed to climbing the stairs half-blind, that he has learned to translate two dimensions into three, that preserving the eye for the telescope is worth incurring some unsteadiness in his step.

In this short passage, Pipkin has made something as basic as going onto the roof of a house into a riveting question of “What will happen?” First, he starts with a statement that demands explanation (“He insists that she tie herself to him.”) We don’t yet know what’s happening in the scene, and so we naturally think, “Huh?” Then, she refuses to do it. As a rule, refusal is good for tension (unless acceptance means going along with something we understand to be dangerous). Pipkin introduces several elements of danger: shadows, the sharp angle of the roof, and wind. He also writes the scene into a moment we don’t expect it. Astronomer’s work at night, but this is the middle of the day. Finally, Pipkin gives Arthur an eyepatch (as a rule, eyepatches=awesome) and uses the patch to further throw everything a bit off-kilter. It’s one thing to navigate a dangerous place, but it’s quite another to do it without the full faculty of your senses. It’s a trick that every magician understands: they’ll escape an underwater box or stand in front of knives, but first they’ll tie this blindfold over their eyes.

Each one of these is a strategy used every day by genre writers. The only difference is that Pipkin is using them on a rooftop observatory rather than, say, an intergalactic war.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create suspense, using The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin as a model:

  1. Choose the scene you want to write. It doesn’t really matter what scene you choose. It can be one with obvious plot elements or one without. It should contain a kind of set piece: a particular thing happening in a particular place.
  2. Introduce the scene with an unexpected detail. Don’t “set the scene.” Don’t lay out the basic parameters of place and stakes. Instead, focus on one element that, stripped of its context, strikes the reader as unusual. Pipkin ties his characters together with a rope. You want to avoid cheap thrills, of course, and false innuendos. And you can’t do this in every scene. But it’s a great strategy now and then: state something about the characters or place or situation without context, a statement that demands explanation.
  3. Let a character refuse or or accept the premise of the situation. Refusal works because it leads to disagreement, which leads to tension. Acceptance works if the thing being accepted ought to be refused (jumping off that cliff your parents talked about, walking into Mordor). Again, this will require explanation.
  4. Use the explanation as an opportunity to introduce danger. Every scene should contain elements of danger. If there are none, what’s the point of the scene? In this case, the danger is falling off the roof. But the danger might also be saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing, doing the right thing but getting the wrong reaction, etc. In your scene, what poses a risk to the characters. Let one of the characters enumerate those risks.
  5. Give the scene an element of the unexpected. Pipkin knows we’ll expect the scene to take place at night, so he sets it during the day. There are other ways to play with the basic elements of the scene: something expected that is subtracted or something unexpected that is added. Or, some element is changed: day for night, bedroom for kitchen, outside for inside, work for church, etc.
  6. Impair or heighten one of your characters’ senses. Pipkin makes Arthur wear an eyepatch. He’s used to it, but it’s clear that is increases the risk in the scene. Superhero and comic book movies do this all the time (special powers). War movies and action movies do this in the negative: the hero is always fighting without his weapon or with some grievous wound. How can you impair or heighten your own character’s senses or abilities?

The goal is use these basic strategies for increasing tension in any scene, no matter if the story is literary or genre.

Good luck.

How to Create a Narrative Arc

14 Mar

Susan Muaddi Darrel’s story, “The Journey Home,” is part of her Grace Paley Award-winning collection A Curious Land.

In my MFA program, I learned the term narrative arc and the idea of the narrative triangle, which says that a character must get from point A to point B through a third point. This makes perfect sense. I didn’t understand it at all. My stories suffered as a result. If you can’t create that third point, then you can’t create suspense, which is, at its most basic, the art of making readers anticipate point B and delaying their arrival there. Without a point B, there’s nothing standing in the way of a quick rush to point B and the end of the story.

This way of thinking about narrative arc applies not just to stories but to scenes as well. A great example of this can be found in Susan Muaddi Darraj’s story “The Journey Home,” which is included in her Grace Paley Prize-winning collection A Curious Land. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in Lebanon in 1916, during World War I’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign and follows a group of families as they walk from village to village, looking for food and trying to stay ahead of the armies and the war. It’s also a love story, but for now, we’ll focus on a section of the story that centers on a village where the group decides to set up camp. The village is seemingly abandoned:

“Nothing moved—no sound emerged, as if a jinn had cast a spell and turned the people into stones. They’d come across places like this before, but here she felt frightened, as though someone may jump out from behind a door or a tree and snatch her away.”

Clearly, the stage is set for something bad to happen or for us and the characters to discover something awful. That’s point B. We know where we’re going. Darraj does a really great job of building our anticipation for that destination:

“As she filled the jar with water, she glanced up suspiciously at one house, the one directly opposite the well. Who had lived there? Its small windows looked like seashells, built by alternating dark and pale stones. The door was slightly ajar, and she knew it could swing open easily if she wanted to go inside. That made her feel worse—had the people walked out alive from their own front door, she reasoned, they would surely have bolted it behind them. People who had solid walls, who owned doors, would lock them. Their well was full, the water cold and crisp. She cupped her hand into her jar and sipped it, then used the last few drops to freshen her face.”

Now, we have a much clearer sense of point B: eventually we’re going to walk into one of the houses, through one of those doors left slightly ajar. But what will delay our entry?

The easy answer would be some obstacle or impediment, something that makes entering the houses difficult or undesired. But Darraj smartly does something else. An obstacle could feel contrived. So instead she introduces a diversion, something new to attract our attention away from those doors:

“Only when she looked up, using her scarf to wipe her eyes, only then did she finally see it, where it lay on the other side fo the well. It looked like a sack, and at first her hunger made her imagine that it was a hastily abandoned sack of rice or grain. But then, there is was—a dirty foot jutting out from under one side, and she recoiled, screaming for help.”

The main character, a young woman, thinks the body is dead, but then her father says, “No, he’s breathing.”

Darraj has introduced something concrete to attract our attention. It doesn’t feel like a diversion because it’s a legitimate thing to deal with (as dead or almost-dead bodies always are) and because the characters have such intense reactions to it. The story will eventually take us into one of those doors (and it will be unexpectedly awful), but the horror of it will be compounded by the fact that we’ve been paying attention to something else and have, for a moment, forgotten about the doors.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a narrative arc, using “The Journey Home” by Susan Muaddi Darraj as a model:

  1. Give your characters an inevitability to face. This works on a story or novel level as well as the level of a scene or chapter. Inevitably, Darraj’s characters will figure out where everyone in the village has gone. The word inevitable is key. Don’t try to surprise the readers yet. Let them know where the story is going. You can’t have a narrative arc if no one knows what’s going on or what to expect. In any given scene, ask yourself, “What will my readers anticipate is going to happen? Where do they think this is going?” Set up the scene so that it plays to those expectations.
  2. Make the inevitability specific. Darraj shows us the slightly ajar doors and writes that beautiful passage about what it means that the doors have been left that way. As readers, we know exactly where this part of the story is going: through one of those doors. How can you make your story or scene’s inevitability specific and concrete? How can you show the readers, “This is the place where the inevitable thing will happen?”
  3. Introduce the new thing. Children intuitively understand how this works. In their stories, ninjas storm a school and then they’re attacked by a dragon in a chicken suit. The problem with these stories, as anyone who’s ever taught creative writing to little kids, is that the new things are almost always random. The body in Darraj’s story is not random. We haven’t seen it yet, but we’ve understood that its presence was a distinct possibility. The characters are walking around in a war zone. They’ve entered an empty village. A body is part of the framework created by the setting and situation. What’s surprising is that the body isn’t actually dead. Now we’re paying attention. So, how can you introduce something that is an expected part of the framework of your setting and situation—and then tweak it so that it’s not quite what is expected?

The goal is to build anticipation (what will happen when the inevitable happens) and then introduce an expected element with an unexpected twist, drawing the readers’ attention away from what is inevitable to what is immediately curious and interesting.

Good luck.

How to Add Interiority in the Midst of Suspense

7 Mar

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

The death note for any work of fiction is just that—a single note. When a novel or story is doing just one thing at a time, readers will get bored and walk away. Good fiction, then, juggles multiple elements at once. There are large-scale ways of doing this (multiple points of view, multiple timeframes), but it’s also possible to juggle elements on a sentence and paragraph level. Even when writers are moving between the big building blocks of POV and time, they’re also doing the same thing in small ways because those small shifts are what keep a reader engaged. After all, readers read pages and chapters one sentence at a time, and so writers must hold their attention on that level.

A good example of juggling elements on this small-scale be found in Alexandra Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is a thriller with a slow-burning fuse, driven as much by mood and eeriness as some of the flashier mystery writing tools. The prologue makes this clear. Instead of, say, a murder, it shows us actions that we seem urgent and weird but that we don’t entirely understand: an unexplained and hurried trip, an encounter with the police that ends in a robbery (and not the other way around), a robbery that doesn’t quite make sense, and identities that are tossed aside and replaced with ease. All of this happens in four pages. But the multiple elements aren’t the things that happen. They’re laid out in chronological order, one thing after the other. Instead, the multiple elements are what is happening and what the main character is thinking: exterior action and interior thought.

Here is an example of how Burt shifts between the two. All we know is that a girl and her mom are driving across the country. Here’s the girl:

She opened a bag of Red Vines, sucked on them and then gently rubbed them over her lips until they turned crimson.

Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia—the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion; a box-shaped bellows-driven musical instrument, colloquially referred to as a squeezebox—she concentrated on the sound of the pages rustling like old parchment as she flipped through the tattered book.

Her mother called her Pet. The girl didn’t like the name, especially when her mother introduced her. This is pet, she’d say with a smile. She’s very shy. Then her mother moved on quickly, as if she had told too much already.

Pet, the encyclopedia said, a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship. Treated with care and affection.

The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page. She remembered when it was new, how the pages and the spine had not yielded as readily, and she wondered if the pages would eventually shed. She attempted to focus on a word but the movement of the car made her nauseous. Eventually she just left the book cracked open in her lap.

“My feet are cold. Can I get a pair of socks from the trunk?” she asked somewhere after the New Mexico/Texas border.

The passage begins with action (“She opened a bag of red vines”) and continues with more action (“Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia”) but then shifts into the character’s head and what she notices about the encyclopedia (“the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion” and “the sound of the pages rustling”).

Then, it moves into background information (“Her mother called her Pet”) that turns into the character’s feelings about the name (“The girl didn’t like the name”) and a memory of her mother saying it.

Next, the passage returns to the encyclopedia’s definition of Pet.

The next paragraph starts with more action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”) and moves again into memory (“She remembered when it was new”).

Finally she puts the book down and speaks—back to action.

Of course, one might argue that there isn’t much action in this passage, and it’s true. The action consists of reading a book. But it’s just a small passage situated in a prologue about a mysterious cross-country drive and some inexplicable things that happen along the way. Without this moment of interiority, the novel might have a couple of problems. First, the drive would happen too fast, in two pages instead of four. Second, readers might not care what happens because the characters would be simply pieces moved around by the author. Third, readers might not have a sense of the world and how it feels. Sense (or mood) is often, though not always, built with interiority.

So, to create mood, pacing, character, and a sense of the world, Burt must move back and forth between intriguing action and interiority.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s move back and forth between exterior action and interiority, using The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt as a model:

  1. Know what is happening—generallyThink in terms of the larger unit (prologue, chapter, section). What is the overall arc? If someone asked your reader, what happened in that part, what would they say? In Burt’s case, the characters seem to be on the run from something. They’re driving. That’s the general happening of the prologue. What is the general happening in the part of your story/book that you’re focusing on?
  2. Zoom in on a smaller piece of action. Within the larger arc, what is happening on the smaller scale. Try phrasing it this way: While they were ____, So-and-so _____. What action fills the second blank? In Burt’s case, it’s the character eating Red Vines and reading the encyclopedia. Notice that she gives her character two things to do. The first action serves as a kind of transition to the second action, taking some of the weight off of it so readers don’t initially read too much into it.
  3. Give the character something to notice while doing this small action. Burt’s character notices something about the page of the book? What does your character notice?
  4. Add information. At a certain point, Burt needs to tell us the character’s name. It’s one of those pieces of information that must be included early in a story/book. Burt chooses one that seems particularly important to the story and drops it in, seemingly out of the blue, but then lets the character react to the information, remember something about the information, and then act based on that information (she looks up Pet in the encyclopedia). So, don’t just add the information. Let it lead back into interiority and then back out again into action.
  5. Zoom back out. Burt moves us out of the character’s head and into less specific action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”). Finally she sets the book aside and speaks, and then we’re back into the general action of the drive again.

The goal is adjust narrative pace by creating layers of action and the opportunity to portray a character’s interior state (and also to drop in some basic, unavoidable information).

Good luck.

How to Set Up and Break a Routine

24 Jan
In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib's first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib’s first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim, written in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

If you have writer’s block and can’t break out, there’s one trick that is almost guaranteed to help. You probably know what it is: set up a routine for a character and then break it. Story will inevitably follow. Watch: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… Or Every day he ate dinner alone at the corner restaurant where no one else ever ate, but then one day it was closed, so he… As writers, first we must learn the basics of how the strategy works: the set up and the twist. Once we’ve developed that piece of our craft, then we can begin to play with it, adding variations. It’s partly true, as one of my high school English teachers used to say, that writers have been telling the same stories over and over since Shakespeare. There are only so many types of stories. The art is in how we make them our own.

Rajia Hassib does exactly that with the strategy for establishing and breaking routines in her novel In the Language of Miracles. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim couple who immigrates to the United States from Egypt, establishes a medical practice and home and family, and then watches it all fall apart after their son murders the girl next door. After a prologue, the novel begins by establishing a new routine following the murder:

For almost a year, the Bradstreets and the Al-Menshawys practiced elaborate avoidance tactics, living next door to each other yet hardly crossing paths. Khaled noticed his parents’ change of habits right away: Samir, after years of leaving for work at 8:00 a.m., started heading out a full half-hour earlier just so he would not run into Jim Bradstreet. Coming home, Samir no longer parked his car in the driveway and walked through the front door but squeezed his Avalon into the cluttered garage then slid through the barely open door and walked into the kitchen. Nagla abandoned her wicker armchair on the deck, moving her ashtray to a bench where she sat with her back to the living room wall, looking away from the Bradstreets’ backyard and hidden from their view. Even Cynthia Bradstreet forsook her gardening and the backyard she had practically lived in for years. From his window, Khaled watched as her irises wilted and drooped and her herb garden succumbed to negligence, the tan spikes of dry dill and cilantro eventually covered by snow, which, once it melted, revealed a rectangular bed of lifeless mud where the blooming garden once stood.

The routine in this passage is clear. Both families do everything they can to avoid encountering each other. We see this avoidance three times: through Samir, Nagla, and Cynthia. Each character’s avoidance is tethered to a specific detail, which is where their routines come from. The reason that the families don’t want to talk or see each other isn’t stated, but we know why.

Then, the routine changes:

Then, just short of a year after the deaths, Khaled answered the door one evening and saw Cynthia Bradstreet standing on his parents’ doorstep. One hand still holding the doorknob, Khaled stared at her, forgetting to step aside to let her in.

The change is so simple. They avoid each other, and now one of them is seeking out the others, a change so unexpected that Khaled is shocked and doesn’t know what to do. As readers, we have to keep reading to find out what will happen. The story has kicked into gear, which is the beauty of setting up and breaking a routine.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and break a routine, using In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib as a model:

  1. Give your characters a compelling reason to behave a certain way. It’s easy to set up any old routine. At the beginning of this post, I wrote this one: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… This is fine and serviceable. It will get the job done. But a better routine is driven by necessity and desire. Hassib’s characters really don’t want to run into their neighbors, for good reason. So they behave accordingly. In your story, what is foremost on your characters’ minds at any given point of the day. Try out different times of day. Find a moment when something seems so large that they feel compelled to behave in a certain way. If it’s a recurring moment, the behavior will probably get repeated, turning it into a routine.
  2. Attach the routine to specific objects. Hassib does this with three different characters. Samir parks his car, Nagla moves her ashtray, and Cynthia abandons her garden. It will be tempting to use certain objects (newspaper, coffee cup, alarm clock), but try to think beyond these items. What else is essential to your character’s day? What objects are present in the moment you wrote about in the first step? Pick one and focus on it. Put it at the center of the routine. Describe the object with specific details, as Hassib does with the cluttered garage, wicker armchair, and dill and cilantro.
  3. Break the routine. Who will do it? Which character will behave contrary to expectation? What single act will signal the break in the routine? Hassib uses Nancy: Instead of avoiding the Al-Menshawys, she knocks on their door.
  4. Figure out why that character has broken the routine. In this case, Nancy wants to tell her neighbors about a memorial that will be held in a few days. In other words, an event has broken the routine (as events tend to do). You can also cause characters to change their behaviors by adding external elements: someone new shows up, or something unexpected is discovered (fortune, disease). The bigger the reason for the routine in the first place, the bigger the reason for break it probably needs to be.   

The goal is to creating story and narrative momentum by establishing and breaking routine. You might not do it in the order listed above. Often, writers know what characters will do but not why. Sometimes they know what drives characters to act but not what they’ll do. Either one is a good place to begin.

Good luck.

How to Create Suspense in Any Story

13 Dec
John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense.

The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, as you might expect, about a blind astronomer’s daughter. Pretty much every word of that title is complicated, though, since she’s not exactly his daughter, he’s not exactly blind, and not exactly an astronomer since astronomy in Ireland two hundred years ago wasn’t the academic science we know today. So, there’s plenty of intrigue in the book. But much of the page-to-page suspense comes from the sort of mechanical strategies we’re familiar with in genre fiction. For example, early in the book, there’s a scene in which the daughter, Caroline, has finally convinced her father, Arthur, to take her to his rooftop observatory. The scene begins like this:

He insists that she tie herself to him.

The short length of thick-braided hemp is already knotted at his waist when he holds the fretted end toward her in the cramped attic. She words her refusal in terms he will appreciate.

“While there is comfort in having you anchor my steps, if you were to falter, the fall would carry us both.” She considers adding that a larger object will ever hold a small in its sway, but decides that this would overstate the point.

He warns her that even now, in the light of midday, there are still shadows ready to deceive, and that she must heed the sharp angle of the roof and hold fast to the railing with her strong hand.

“And there will be wind,” he says.

Caroline has imagine this moment often—her first visit to the observatory—but it seems odd that her father has chosen to bring her here during the day when there is nothing to be seen but blue sky and white clouds. As usual he wears the patch over his left eye, and when she asks him if it is a hindrance in getting to the roof, he explains that he has grown accustomed to climbing the stairs half-blind, that he has learned to translate two dimensions into three, that preserving the eye for the telescope is worth incurring some unsteadiness in his step.

In this short passage, Pipkin has made something as basic as going onto the roof of a house into a riveting question of “What will happen?” First, he starts with a statement that demands explanation (“He insists that she tie herself to him.”) We don’t yet know what’s happening in the scene, and so we naturally think, “Huh?” Then, she refuses to do it. As a rule, refusal is good for tension (unless acceptance means going along with something we understand to be dangerous). Pipkin introduces several elements of danger: shadows, the sharp angle of the roof, and wind. He also writes the scene into a moment we don’t expect it. Astronomer’s work at night, but this is the middle of the day. Finally, Pipkin gives Arthur an eyepatch (as a rule, eyepatches=awesome) and uses the patch to further throw everything a bit off-kilter. It’s one thing to navigate a dangerous place, but it’s quite another to do it without the full faculty of your senses. It’s a trick that every magician understands: they’ll escape an underwater box or stand in front of knives, but first they’ll tie this blindfold over their eyes.

Each one of these is a strategy used every day by genre writers. The only difference is that Pipkin is using them on a rooftop observatory rather than, say, an intergalactic war.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create suspense, using The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin as a model:

  1. Choose the scene you want to write. It doesn’t really matter what scene you choose. It can be one with obvious plot elements or one without. It should contain a kind of set piece: a particular thing happening in a particular place.
  2. Introduce the scene with an unexpected detail. Don’t “set the scene.” Don’t lay out the basic parameters of place and stakes. Instead, focus on one element that, stripped of its context, strikes the reader as unusual. Pipkin ties his characters together with a rope. You want to avoid cheap thrills, of course, and false innuendos. And you can’t do this in every scene. But it’s a great strategy now and then: state something about the characters or place or situation without context, a statement that demands explanation.
  3. Let a character refuse or or accept the premise of the situation. Refusal works because it leads to disagreement, which leads to tension. Acceptance works if the thing being accepted ought to be refused (jumping off that cliff your parents talked about, walking into Mordor). Again, this will require explanation.
  4. Use the explanation as an opportunity to introduce danger. Every scene should contain elements of danger. If there are none, what’s the point of the scene? In this case, the danger is falling off the roof. But the danger might also be saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing, doing the right thing but getting the wrong reaction, etc. In your scene, what poses a risk to the characters. Let one of the characters enumerate those risks.
  5. Give the scene an element of the unexpected. Pipkin knows we’ll expect the scene to take place at night, so he sets it during the day. There are other ways to play with the basic elements of the scene: something expected that is subtracted or something unexpected that is added. Or, some element is changed: day for night, bedroom for kitchen, outside for inside, work for church, etc.
  6. Impair or heighten one of your characters’ senses. Pipkin makes Arthur wear an eyepatch. He’s used to it, but it’s clear that is increases the risk in the scene. Superhero and comic book movies do this all the time (special powers). War movies and action movies do this in the negative: the hero is always fighting without his weapon or with some grievous wound. How can you impair or heighten your own character’s senses or abilities?

The goal is use these basic strategies for increasing tension in any scene, no matter if the story is literary or genre.

Good luck.

How to Use Readers’ Desire to Create Suspense

25 Oct
A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “Her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Anton Chekhov said that if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, then it needs to go off in the third act. This is good advice, of course, but it’s also pretty bare-bones. So much remains unaccounted for: Who gets shot? Who does the shooting, and why? Is the shooting on purpose or accident? Is it done out of rage, necessity, pity? Does the reader root for the shooting or against it? That final question can be one of the most powerful to answer. Writers sometimes talk about giving readers what they want, but it can be just as effective to give readers something they absolutely do not want.

This is what Natashia Deón does in her novel Grace. You can read an excerpt from the novel at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Novel Works

The novel tells the story of an escaped slave, Naomi, who finds refuge in a brothel in Georgia, taken under the protective wing of its madam, Cynthia. At least that’s part of the novel. There’s more, but the scene I want to focus on takes place in the brothel. It’s not a nice place, of course, but Cynthia is a strong, complex character who realizes that Naomi is still a virgin. That virginity becomes a kind of amulet in Cynthia’s eyes, freighted with meaning and importance and luck, which is good news for Naomi since it frees her from the obligations of the other women in the brothel.

Into this scene walks Jeremy, a likable gambler who flirts with Naomi (despite the fact that he’s white and she’s black) and whom she falls in love with. Are we more savvy than Naomi? Do we see where this affair is headed? Of course, we do. But Jeremy is also sweet and sincere, and so, if we can’t hope for the best, we’re lulled into dropping our guard, the same as Naomi. And then…

In this scene, Jeremy has lost every penny to his name and is begging Naomi to offer herself to the house dealer in exchange for money—which he will use to win back his losses. She reluctantly agrees to do it:

I stand on the wrong side of this door with my belly quivering, waiting for Mr. Shepard to greet me. He’s counting his money, slipping bills through his pinchers. He folds a wad of dollars and slides it through a silver clasp and into his pocket.

I shift in the doorway, hope he see me move.

He don’t.

He lops a deck of cards in his bag, his dice, then fastens it closed. I clear my throat. “Uh-hum,” I say softly. Louder, “Uh-hum?”

“Didn’t know y’all served breakfast,” he say, and stacks his chips in piles on his table, then sits down. “You here for my order?

No one wants this moment to take place. Naomi doesn’t want to have sex with the dealer, and he recognizes the situation for what it is. As readers, we definitely don’t want the scene to happen, yet the characters begin to go through with it anyway. First, Mr. Shepard says, “Twenty years and I’ve seen hundreds of gals like you.” When she doesn’t leave, he becomes more aggressive:

He puts his hand gently behind my head. I shiver as he kisses my cheek softly. Only Jeremy’s kissed me there. That way.

He slaps it. Grabs my face around my cheeks, squeezing too hard.

It gets worse before he finally calls out the situation for what it is: “Your boyfriend want a chance that bad?” he asks and then:

He clutches my ass, presses his face on the side of mine. I flatten to the door as he breathes in my ear, telling me things I don’t want to hear. Telling me about me. About Jeremy. Nasty things I won’t tell nobody.

He unlocks it, pushes me out the door, tells me to go.

The scene ends the way we hope: she doesn’t have sex with him. But it’s hardly a moment that makes us feel good. Instead, we feel like Naomi: “Withered away” and “nasty.” The novel has met our hopes as readers: Naomi has been spared. But it also brought us to face-to-face with the thing we hoped wouldn’t happen, so close that the very nearness of it affects us. This is an important strategy to remember for creating suspense (will the horrible thing happen?), but it’s also a good example of using Chekhov’s gun. This is a novel where a lot of guns, literally and figuratively, go off. If they always go off, they become less effective as narrative devices. If the worst thing always happens, we become immune to it. We reflexively deaden ourselves to it. But if we’re given evidence that perhaps the worst thing can be avoided, then the impact of the fired bullet is that much greater, even if we knew it was coming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put a gun on the wall and make readers dread its use, using Grace by Natashia Deón as a model:

  1. Choose your weapon. In Grace, the weapon is prostitution. Naomi lives in a brothel, and so the risk of being forced to have sex for money is ever-present. The fact that it’s sex and not a gun is a good reminder that Chekhov’s gun can be anything. It could be peanuts—if a character has a peanut allergy. Anything is dangerous if placed in the right circumstances. So, what are the circumstances of your story? What is dangerous or feared?
  2. Pave a path past the weapon. Deón does this twice. First, she creates Cynthia, the madam with the heart of gold (sort of, not exactly), who tries to protect Naomi from participating in her trade. (Incidentally, for a similar character who does the complete opposite, read Alexander Chee’s excellent novel The Queen of the Night.) Second, she creates Jeremy, the suitor who will take her away from the place where the weapon hangs on the wall. Note that Deón offers two characters to guide Naomi down the safe path. Who are those characters in your story? You don’t necessarily need two, but you probably need one.
  3. Make readers buy into the path to safety. This can be a fine line to tread. If you show the path but readers don’t think it’s a plausible direction for the story, they’ll feel like the writer is trying to trick them. But convince readers to go down the path with the characters, and you’ll devastate them when they find themselves facing the gun again. So, take your time. Develop the characters you created in the previous step. Make them likable. (Hint: great characters mix likability with failure, for various reasons, to do the right thing at the right time.)
  4. Stick the character and the readers into a situation they hope to avoid.  Find a place or situation where the weapon you chose is impossible to avoid. To return to Chekhov’s gun metaphor, take your character to the shooting range. This could mean a place where the weapon naturally resides or where it’s use is provoked by a character (as Naomi tries to provoke Mr. Shepard into having sex with her). The trick, of course, is to find the entry to such a place and situation. Deón does this by having one character push the protagonist into doing something she doesn’t want (a version of the age-old “If you really loved me”). So, find a character who, for nefarious or practical reasons, pushes the main character into the dangerous situation.
  5. Sell the readers on the danger. Just as readers feel cheated by safe paths that don’t feel plausible, they also get angry at dangers that don’t feel real. In a successful scene of this type, the reader needs to feel that the gun might really go off, that, in fact, there is a better-than-50-percent-chance that it will.

The goal is to create tension and suspense by thinking beyond the gun on the wall to what the viewer hopes will happen (or not) with the gun.

Good luck.

An Interview with Natalia Sylvester

21 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage -in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester was born in Lima, Peru, and came to the U.S. at age four. As a child, she spent time in south Florida, central Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas before her family set roots once again in Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. Her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Carries Their Own Water, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.

In this interview, Sylvester discusses restarting a novel after setting it aside for six years, the things that pull a marriage apart, and what happens when you pitch to American editors a novel set in Peru with an all-Peruvian cast of characters.

To read an exercise on moving the plot forward in a novel and an excerpt from Chasing the Sun, click here.

Michael Noll

I know the novel is based in part on the kidnapping of your grandfather in Lima in the 1990s. I’m sure that’s a story that you’ve been thinking about for a long time, not just what happened to your grandfather but the larger political situation in Peru at the time. What finally allowed you to turn that story into a novel? Was it a question of finding the right backstory for the kidnapping?

Natalia Sylvester

I think more than anything, it was time that allowed me to tell this story. I started writing it as part of my undergrad Creative Writing thesis back in 2005/2006, and back then (like I’d been most of my life) I was hesitant to talk to my family about my grandfather’s kidnapping. It’s something I’d known about and wondered about, but since we rarely spoke about it in much depth, I didn’t ask. I let all my questions pile up and even when I wrote the first drafts of Chasing the Sun, I wrote it quietly, keeping all my questions between me and the page.

Not surprisingly, the story didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. (Also, I was 21, newly engaged, and trying to write a story about a troubled marriage. I don’t really buy into the “write what you know” belief, but when I write I do need to find an access point into a story, and for me it can be almost anything, as long as it feels true.)

I set the book aside for nearly six years. I had no plans to ever revisit it, but my husband had read parts of it and would constantly insist, based on one scene he loved, that there was something there. This time I approached it with a heavy emphasis on research—not just on Peru and its political situation and the years of terrorism it experienced, but also the main thing I’d been avoiding all along, which was talking to my family about the kidnapping. Though none of the characters are based on my family, having their insights (and now I realize, their support) was so necessary because I wanted to restart this story from a place of truth and honesty.

Michael Noll

Speaking of the backstory, I loved the relationship between Andres and Marabela—it’s so complex. Even after Marabela is kidnapped, I found myself wondering not whether she’d survive but what would happen after she returned. This seems like a real accomplishment—to create a story that can rival kidnapping for suspense. How did you come up with it?

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, tells the story of a kidnapping and its effects on a marriage. A USA Today review called the book “a page turner.”

Thank you, I’m really touched by that. Their relationship took me by surprise from the very first draft. I’d originally written my thesis as a set of linked short stories, all told from different POVs, about Marabela’s kidnapping. I started with Cynthia’s POV, then Consuelo, then Ignacio, and then finally, Andres. When I got to his story, it was like they’d been keeping their troubled marriage secret from me all this time. And I thought that was pretty fascinating, because life never happens in a vacuum, even (or maybe especially) the kinds of things we most fear. I wondered if Andres would be able to compartmentalize, and not let his feelings about his failing marriage affect the decisions he makes as he tries to save Marabela. Their relationship became almost like an additional character I wanted to explore and dissect and understand.

Also, in the six years that I’d set the story aside, I’d gotten (happily!) married but seen a lot of marriages around me fall apart. So I became kind of obsessed with how that happens. How does something as huge as two lives, lived side by side for decades, fall apart to practically nothing? I thought it’d have to be something equally big and traumatizing, like a kidnapping, when really it’s the little things, the everyday, mundane gestures and regrets that can build up and pull us apart.

Michael Noll

I love the way the beginning of the novel sets up Andres’ value system (hard work pays, be assertive in business, honor your promises) and also the holes in that system (he doesn’t really pay attention or express concern for his family’s domestic employees). How important was it to establish those values early in the novel?

Natalia Sylvester

It’s interesting that you mention it because a huge chunk of that early scene, I didn’t end up writing until after the book had sold and I was working on my first round of revisions for my editor. Looking back, I feel very lucky the book sold like that, because I think it’s crucial to establish who a character is, what they stand for, and what world they’re living in, before you disrupt it all with something as earth-shattering as a kidnapping. What good is the “after” picture without the “before”? In fiction we’re often told, “Start with the inciting incident” but the false sense of security in the calm before the storm is equally rich in possibility.

Michael Noll

It’s not unusual to set novels in “exotic” locations, but it’s less common for American novels set in one of those places (in this case, Peru) to follow a cast of characters that doesn’t feature any Americans. I wonder if you encountered any resistance to the fact that it’s truly a Peruvian novel, about Peruvian characters. Did anyone, a reader or agent or editor, ever say, “Gee, couldn’t you make Andres an American?”

Natalia Sylvester

Not in exactly those words, but yes, several publishers that rejected the story expressed concern that it wasn’t tied at all to the U.S. Some wished there could be an American character, or maybe at some point, they go to the U.S. And you know, if there’s one thing I wish I could unlearn about publishing, or that I could make other aspiring authors unlearn, it’s this. Because I was blissfully unaware as I wrote Chasing the Sun that it being so Peruvian was unusual. I just thought, I’m writing a story, and of course I’m going to set it here, and these are the people who live in that world. It never occurred to me that they’d be seen as “difficult to relate to” because I’ve always believed we’re more alike than we are different, and that universal stories are just that—they can belong to any of us.

I’m very lucky that my publisher understood this; they actually loved that the book was so Peruvian. But my heart breaks when I realize what a struggle it was, and what a struggle it still is, for us to get our stories heard because they’re not perceived as part of the mainstream world.

First published in July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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