Thursday, June 5, 2014

Creating Suspense in Your Fiction

Dear Fellow Writer,

Greetings and felicitations on this fine Friday.

Did you know that a third of all traditional book sales are now ebooks? That means 'real' publishers are no longer the alternative to digital publishing because we're all playing the same game.

And did you know there are, for the first time in history, more self-published millionaires than there are traditionally published millionaires?

The times they are a-changing'. It's no longer a case of whether being a bookstore author or an independent digital writer is better or worse than one or the other.

It's now a case of: What's right for your career? How best can you reach your readers?

Today we look at creating suspense in your fiction manuscript.

Creating Suspense in Fiction
Creating Suspense

Basically, any degree of suspense is created by the delaying of an assumed outcome.

In real life this is a haphazard affair, brought about by fate and/or circumstance.

However, in fiction, suspense is most often conjured deliberately by the meticulous author via the holding back of pertinent information, or the conscious postponement of anticipated plot events.

The better the author, the more able he or she is at interweaving suspense into the fabric of a story.

In simple terms, it’s not so much what you put in to a tale that is important as what you leave out.

New writers have a tendency to want to put everything into the story, every little detail, character thought and foible, and plot nuance.

This practice has the unwanted result of making the story dull to read.

You need at least one element of mystery running through the text to keep a reader hooked.

You actually need the reader to be asking questions on almost every page.

Too much information will thwart this requirement.

As the writer, it is up to you to make your reader expect that something – a good or bad event, an unexpected development etc., – is going to happen in your story, perhaps soon, perhaps later.

Then, it’s up to you how long you take to get to this plot point or story-beat.

It is also your responsibility to let the reader know, fairly early on, that you can be relied upon to provide these little surprises and twists and that the practice is part of your modus operandi.

The trick with increasing suspense is to have either an impending outcome looming ever larger, or the threat to the protagonist’s agenda becoming more and more pronounced over time.

The most obvious example is that of the character moving down a corridor not knowing that the boogie man is waiting for him.

But just as suspenseful is a character waiting for a telephone call or a businessman awaiting the outcome of a deal.

Your job is to create a sense of anticipation in the reader for events they assume are going to happen – which, of course, may not.

In crime fiction for instance, many novels are built on the premise that the murderer will eventually be revealed.

In many of these books, the writing is not particularly suspenseful except to the reader, who wants to know the truth.

This is an important distinction. The suspense is happening inside the reader's head, because an unanswered question, or series of questions, is bugging him or her while reading.

To give you a quick example.

If I told you that at the end of this article, there was going to be some revelatory information that would change your life, ask yourself, How would that effect the way I felt about this article? 

Your sense of anticipation would most likely be heightened – and yet I would continue to write normally, with no real change in my tone of voice.

I could drop little clues along the way, casually leaving breadcrumbs in your path as you read.

These may heighten your suspense too.

But I would not actually be writing in an appreciably different way.

The emotions you feel, your perception of the suspense I’m creating, would be personal to you, and of your own doing.

Sometimes the best books happen inside the reader’s mind.

You may become aware of this phenomenon yourself if you go back and read a book after you know the ending.

The second time through, the text may seem dry and slow, or haphazard and erratic.

In certain genres, the writing doesn’t have to be all that good if the readers themselves are supplying their own experience of suspense, excitement and entertainment.

Agatha Christie’s books are a case in point. The writing is often patchy, almost crude, and yet the simple trick of holding back the identity of the killer till the last page ensured millions of sales for her books and a place in history for her timeless characters.

If you look closely, too, at the novels of Dan Brown, JK Rowling and Stephen King, you’ll see this phenomenon in action.

The writing is okay, sometimes not all that great, but it’s the reader’s anticipation of the unfolding tale that elevates the writing to genius in the average reader’s mind.

Deliberately weaving anticipation and suspense into your stories is therefore a great tactic to employ.

When you’re going over your own manuscripts, see if there aren’t places where suspense can be heightened by the withholding of assumed events and/or the confident deletion of certain information.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell

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