Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Suspense Fiction

Dear Fellow Writer,

Funny old world, isn't it?
Just when you think you've got it sussed, or something important suddenly seems clear, life has a way of throwing you back into the dark.

Despite our best efforts, none of us can really second guess the future. Not marketers or stock analysts or even psychics can accurately predict what will happen next.

There's no such animal as a sure thing. Writers and publishers know this better than most - and we are as surprised as anyone else when a bestseller emerges - against all the odds and for seemingly no special reason.

But still we must persist, just in case our next work is the one.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell


Writing Suspense Fiction

Rob Parnell

There are three keys to writing suspense fiction - and a few practical considerations we will look at later in this article.

Key One: The writer knows more than the reader

In any kind of suspense fiction it's important that the writer has a clear idea of the twist and turns his / her story will take - and hide their inevitability from the reader. As soon as the reader can second guess the plot, the element of suspense is lost.

You have to understand that when readers are absorbed in your book, they are actually reading two stories: the one you put on the page and the one inside their heads. Your job is to make the reader believe the story in their head is the correct one, while introducing twists and turns they could not have predicted given the information you've presented.

There's fine line between credibility and innovation. An unbelievable twist won't work - you'll break the fictive dream. But turns that are too obvious will have the reader yawning and wondering why they're continuing to read.

Stephen King says he likes to write without knowing what's going to happen. The logic being that if he doesn't know what's coming, then the reader won't see it either.

James Patterson takes the opposite tack. He plans his stories minutely, building in shocks and twists right from the planning stage.

Either way, the element of suspense is an implicit key element in the storytelling.

New writers have a tendency to want to put everything in, to fill the pages with their genius - and hold nothing back.

More experienced writers know that often the less said the better. You need to let the reader do some of the work - because they like doing that. In the simplest terms this is why crime authors often don't explain what police acronyms mean anymore. Not to show off or to confuse - but to allow readers to become part of the fictional world.

Even more experienced writers know that it's a game - that by deliberately misdirecting the reader, you create in them a kind of awe at your writing prowess - because they can see it's not all about the words. The reader is impressed that it's the storytelling journey you've taken them on that's clearly more important to you, the writer.

I like to think I used a combination of Stephen King's and James Patterson's techniques when I wrote PSI Kids: Willow. From an early stage, before the writing, I had the plot down - filled with unexpected but credible plot turns - but I didn't know the exact ending. 

The big twist at the conclusion occurred to me as I was writing - about five chapters from the end.

It was an invigorating moment because I knew I had successfully hidden the end twist from view by simply not knowing it myself!

The ending has the advantage too of making sense of the entire story - giving PSI Kids: Willow a beautiful symmetry - the kind of thing I love when I read other great writers.

Key Two: The protagonist knows less than the reader

The easiest way to visualize this key in action is to imagine those scenes where the good guy is walking slowly down a corridor, gun primed, not knowing if there's anyone in the house BUT the reader knows the killer is already there - or at least thinks he probably is!

In more sophisticated fiction where action and adventure are important, you'll often see the protagonist heavily involved in hunting down clues, saving villagers and maidens and chasing bad guys, while at the same time, the writer is showing you the authorities making plans to help or thwart the hero without his knowledge.

This technique has two advantages.

One, the reader feels a sense of objective control - and can root for hero when the odds are against him. This is the equivalent of the armchair news reader who likes to keep up with daily intrigue. It's the same mentality involved, hence the success of writers like Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy.

Two, the protagonist always has the element of surprise up his sleeve. Robert Ludlum uses this technique all the time. A seemingly impossible scenario is solved by the sheer grit - and often physical prowess - of the hero. 

Of course, in these types of stories, the writer knew all along how the hero was going to react in any given situation. And even the more modern, vulnerable, workaday heroes like Logan McRae in Stuart MacBride's fabulous novels can end up using his tenacity in ways the reader finds unexpected - but totally credible.

Key Three: A combination of the above two keys

Since Dan Brown helped popularize the way we experience thrillers with The Da Vinci Code, modern suspense writers have understood the importance of plotting for shock value. And ending on a twist.

One of the major results of this way of writing is that the reader has to do more work.

Imagine you're in a new environment and you have nobody on hand to explain exactly what's going on. You see the action, you listen to people talking and you try to understand what's happening...

Viola. This is what you must do in your suspense fiction.

You don't need piles of exposition to explain who is who, what they're talking about or why anything is happening. You just need to show it all - and let the reader figure it out.

The reader will trust you if they sense you know what you're doing.

And the way to achieve that trust is to work hard on your plot and characters and story before you begin the writing. Know your story inside and out, upside and down before you begin.

And even if you're not sure of everything, don't labor over explanations or try to justify anything the reader might not get, at least at first.

I guess it's about not talking down to your readers.

Regard them as peers who understand what you mean without baby talking them through every scene.

We all implicitly understand character motivation these days. We see it all the time in movies and on TV. We don't need a translator on hand to explain: this is a human, he has needs, goals, he will be tested etc. We get all that. 

In your suspense writing, have the courage to leave information out. Either stuff that is implicit or obvious or things you want to shock the reader with later on.

Suspense is not just about what's on the page. It's about what you don't write too.

Oh, and remember to edit fiercely after the first draft. Especially when you need to remove the author, namely you, from your story.

There's nothing more irritating to a reader than to be constantly reminded the story was written by a 'writer'.

As Elmore Leonard famously advised: immediately strike out anything that smacks of 'good writing'!

Good suspense writing is that which appears effortless - and comes from the characters and never, these days, from the omniscient author.

Keep writing!

 rob at home


"The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude of mind."
William James

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