Tag Archives: Suspense

Warning! Danger ahead!

I just finished reading Dan Wells’ new novel, “Extreme Makeover”, which I knew going in was an apocalyptic thriller. But even had I not known, I would have almost immediately. Each chapter heading includes a countdown of how many days to the end of the world, starting at 276 days and working its way downward.

I can think of several reasons for this approach.

First, he may have wanted to make it very clear to anyone who might not have figured it out from the cover (which is pink) that this is apocalyptic fiction. His original title, which was eventually trimmed down, was “Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition”. Certainly that would have made it more clear what type of story this would be, but the chapter headers do that job as well.

Second, it teases the reader. The novel starts with a scientist in a cosmetics company revealing a new skin care product. Not very scary stuff. Some readers may even be turned off. But by introducing that teaser countdown the reader knows this skin care story is about to get serious, so stick around.

Third, the countdown is a common thriller element to build suspense. Ticking time bombs, ultimatums from powerful people, deadlines; all these add suspense when we know that the characters only have a limited time to do whatever it is they need to do. It’s potentially even more suspenseful when the reader knows the countdown is ticking but the characters do not. Hence we can spend most of the novel figuratively tearing our hair out because the characters don’t seem to realize they’re doomed!

Fourth, possibly, is the reader’s desire to call his bluff. Is he really serious? 198 Days to the end of the world? Or will the characters find a way to stop it before it’s too late. I mean, he wouldn’t really give it all away like that, right? I suspect most readers know deep down it’s for real, but there’s a part of them that will wonder if somehow the inevitable can’t be avoided.

True, countdowns are a trope, even a cliché. But they are also very effective and hard not to incorporate in some manner. Whether they are explicit, in the form of an actual time bomb under the table, or implicit, such as surviving until the sun comes up, knowing that there is a time limit that either helps or hurts the characters will ratchet up the tension.

It doesn’t even have to be the main element of the story. In Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” focuses primarily on main character Jack Ryan and the politics in which he finds himself embroiled, but all throughout the novel we are given glimpses of a terrorist group creating a nuclear bomb to use against the United States. That sub-plot, we know, is literally a ticking time bomb that could become the main plot at any time. It helps add a feeling of impending danger to keep the reader engaged, even when the main plotline may be less suspenseful.

Adding a sense of impending danger is an important element of storytelling. Like any tool, learning to use it well  can yield big pay-offs for the writer and the reader. Used poorly, it can feel every bit like the clichéd trope it is. But when used well, you’ll grab your reader’s attention and hold it until they finally reach the end at 3 am, even though they have to get up for work in just a few hours.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Upping the stakes

We all know that as writers our job is to get our readers emotionally involved. We should be continually looking for ways to “ratchet up the tension” or “up the stakes” for our characters. But what does that mean? Does every story we tell have to involve the potential destruction of the Universe, or of everything good and decent in the world?

What constitutes “tension” differs from story to story, from genre to genre. In Romance, for example, the tension usually comes from answering”Will Julia find love?” In Mystery it comes from finding “Who killed Arthur Burberry IV?” In Literary Fiction it’s often “How will Gertrude be affected by these events?”

None of those involved the destruction of all life as we know it, and yet the readers of those genres expect tension, even within that limited scope.

Let the throw an idea at you, and see what you think. Tension requires a minimum of two elements to exist: a character we care about, and a threat to that character.  That’s also the order or priority. We need to care about the character before we can care what happens to them. It’s not tension otherwise.

Now, that idea can be turned on its head, of course. We can create a character so horrible that the tension comes from the chance that they won’t get what’s coming to them. While there are elements to Scarlett O’Hara with which we can sympathize, clearly the emotional pay-off we’ve been waiting for is having Rhett Butler finally lay down some karma.

Last night I read the blurb on a book my wife is reading. It’s about a young woman who got married only to have her husband divorce her weeks later. Wow! Who doesn’t sympathize with that? We’ve got a character, and we care about her already just because she’s had something inconceivably bad happen to her. But that’s not the tension. That comes from the fact that she lives in a society where divorce is stigmatized and all the eligible singles are accustomed to looking for someone without that kind of baggage.

As you can likely guess, this is a Romance, and the tension is “Will she overcome her pain and find true love?” But let’s face it, as old and as cliché as that summary may be, it works. After reading that, even I wanted to read that book, even though I already know how it’s going to end. Of course she’s going to find love! Of course she’ll find someone so wonderful they’ll make her forget all about her pain! You can take it to the bank.

And that’s why the writer has to then “up the stakes.” Let’s face it, we expect the main character to succeed in their primary pursuit. We expect the main character in “The Martian” to get home safely. We expect Frodo to find a way to destroy the Ring of Sauron. We expect Hercule Poirot to solve the case. We’d be disappointed if they don’t! (There are exceptions of course, but we won’t talk about it here.)

We ratchet up the tension in three main ways:

  1. We change the nature of the problem (often, but not necessarily, increasing the scope).
  2. We increase the obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
  3. We increase the personal cost to the protagonist.

Take the example of Brandon Mull’s series “Five Kingdoms”. Our main character, Cole, is kidnapped along with his friends and taken to another world as slaves. That’s bad enough right there. Cole wants to get home. Will he?

But Mull builds in some increased tension immediately in the form of his friends. Cole could make it home by himself, but at great personal cost. He can’t abandon his friends. And so as he willingly chooses to stay to try and free his friends, we’re drawn in that much more. But as we follow Cole’s adventures we find all three methods employed against him to raise the stakes.

Before long he finds that the Five Kingdoms in which he finds himself are ruled over by an evil king who stole the powers of his four daughters in order to make himself more powerful. One of those daughters turns out to be Cole’s new friend, and she could overthrow her father and restore freedom and peace–and even find a way to get Cole home. Suddenly the objective is not just “get home”, but “help overthrow a kingdom so your friends can get you home.” (Increased nature of the problem)

However, helping his new friend means suspending his search for his old friends. It bugs Cole continually that he’s continually having to postpone finding some of his friends. (Increased personal cost)

Of course to help his new friend Mira he has to help her escape the waves of cronies her father is sending out to find her. And he has to help her fight a horrible creature that may be key to helping her regain her power (added obstacles). All of this decreases Cole’s chances of surviving long enough to get home, and it also puts his friends, old and new, in additional risk (increased personal cost).

That’s just the first book. Even though some of those layers of tension are removed each book (each must stand alone in building tension and releasing it), new ones are added on with each subsequent novel–usually faster than old ones are resolved–that the tension gets generally higher with each book as well.

Things work in a similar fashion for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. We learn that he has a Ring of Power (increased problem). He needs to get it safely to Rivendell, though at risk to himself and to his friends (increased personal cost). There are black riders searching for him (added obstacles).

When he gets to Rivendell he finds that his troubles have just begun. Someone must take the Ring right into the heart of the enemy’s camp and attempt to destroy it (increased problem) (added obstacles), and it seems it has to be him (increased personal cost). Along the way the Ring starts twisting his friends (increased personal cost), and some are killed (increased personal cost, added obstacles). He decides he has to go it alone (increased personal cost, added obstacles).

On his own (with Sam) he finds the former possessor of the Ring who seems willing to help, but can’t entirely be trusted (added obstacle). He also realizes the Ring is exerting increasing power over him as well (increased personal cost). Also, the Dark Lord is sending out his armies to begin his conquest of the world, and his friends are out there in it (increased problem, increased personal cost).

You get the idea. This model might be a little simplistic, but it seems to apply fairly well. A good writer learns to layer added tension into the novel, resolving some, adding some others, but always building toward the grand climax in which the problem is resolved, the costs are paid, and the obstacles overcome. The more of these layers that get removed, the more exciting and satisfying the pay-off.

Any or all three of these methods can be useful in adding tension to your story and pulling your reader deeper in. But as useful as these techniques may be, we should not forget the foundation that must be laid first: character and threat. If that foundation is solid, it can support any amount of added tension on top of that, and the readers will love you for it–or at least your character.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Avoiding click-bait writing

Juraj Patekar
Juraj Patekar

We’ve all seen it: headlines for web articles that run something like, “She let a stranger into her house. What happened next will shock you!” I don’t know about you, but I find such headlines so annoying I usually refuse to click on them, no matter which website they point to. Sometimes they actually do link to an article worth reading, but most of the time the article itself is anti-climactic compared to the headline. It’s a classic over-sell; get you interested in what the surprise might be in order to get you to click through, but it seldom measures up to the billing.

This sort of writing, however, got its start in prose. We’re all familiar with the cliff-hanger, where the writer leaves the protagonist in a dire situation at the end of chapter or a book in order to keep the reader wanting more. Entire genres rely on this technique. But with any tool in a writer’s toolbox, you have to know how to use it. If not careful, the reader may end up feeling manipulated and used, and they’ll do what I do with web articles–stop reading. Here are a few thoughts on how to employ cliff-hangers appropriately.

Make the pay-off worth the wait.  Even if “the wait” is only the time needed to turn the page, there needs to be some sort of reward to the reader for turning that page that fits the mood of the story. If, for example, you end a chapter with “Bill watched the last thug fall and stepped back to survey the room for further threats. There was a loud bang”, if the start of the next chapter is “Bill whirled to see a little kid holding the fragments of a helium balloon and wearing a startled expression”, this had better be a humorous work. If this is a thriller your readers are going to be disappointed–if not angry with you. The pay-off not only doesn’t feel worth it, but it feels like a cheap way to get them to turn the page.

Pay off their wait in multiple ways. If the “loud bang” above turns out to be Bill’s arch nemesis busting open the door and storming in with the backup he’d threatened to get a couple chapters ago, you get to pay off both the immediate suspense and the longer-term suspense at the same time, potentially providing even more reader satisfaction.

It’s okay to relax the tension. Unless you’re writing a suspense-thriller (and perhaps even then) it’s okay to leave a chapter feeling something has been resolved. The readers need a chance to breathe, too, or get up and use the bathroom, get a snack, or whatever before they dive back into the action. If every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger they eventually get frustrated that the action and tension keep ratcheting upward. If you’re nearing the climax of the book, go ahead, but otherwise, it’s okay to stop and take a breath now and then.

Occasional deflation may be okay. Back to the example of the kid with the balloon. If this is a serious thriller that kid is going to seem out of place and the cliff-hanger will come across as a cheap ploy. There’s no reason for that kid to be there, other than to startle us into turning the page.

But what if instead that sudden bang was Bill’s partner arriving with backup after Bill has already defeated all the thugs? It’s more in keeping with the tone of the story, and yet introduces an element of humor when Joe arrives yet again too late to save the day? It will pay off the reader’s attention in a way that seems less like a gimmick and more like a chance to enjoy the characters. Bill, after all, didn’t know the bang was Joe, either, so the reader can relate to Bill’s sudden tension, followed by the let-down of the problem not being so serious.

Here’s just a few of my thoughts on when to use and not use cliff-hangers. Most importantly, just remember what it’s like to be a reader. Don’t manipulate your reader. They’ll resent it and you. Using suspense well, however, can help keep your reader engaged and your pacing snappy.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Why horror?

In honor of National Women in Horror Month and Mercedes M. Yeardley’s podcast on Monday, I thought I would discuss why I am adding some horror to my reading list.  While I doubt I’ll ever write it, and I’m not sure how much of it I can take,  I can see some advantage to at least familiarizing myself with the genre.

A scene from Disney's "The Watcher In the Woods," a good movie to watch next to someone you'd love to comfort.
A scene from Disney’s “The Watcher In the Woods,” a good movie to watch next to someone you’d love to comfort.
  1. I hope to learn to be meaner to my characters. I’m not. I tend to avoid conflict in real life, and that tends to make me want to avoid it in my writing. So perhaps if I “raise the bar” on what I could do it’ll make it easier for me to at least do something. I don’t want to call it “desensitizing myself,” but perhaps it’s more giving myself permission to be meaner after having seen someone else go far beyond what I would try. “At least I’m not as nasty as Dan Wells!”
  2. I love suspense and tension, and need to learn how to write it. I don’t necessarily need to see the resultant violence and gore, but the knowledge that something bad can and will happen is kinda trippy, at least in entertainment. One of the most deliciously suspenseful shows I remember growing up was a network TV sci-fi thriller about an escaped alien shapeshifter loose on earth and assuming the identities of people it killed. They would intersperse scenes with random shots of people, and it was creepy as all get out, because you knew that any one of them could be the creature. I want to learn how to capture that in my writing.
  3. Horror description packs a visceral punch. Again, I don’t necessarily want to write horror, but I may want to purposely use imagery that impacts on a more gut level to heighten the tension. There are times when being able to elicit horror-like responses in your reader will be a useful skill to have.
  4. Horror knows there are worse things than dying. Another way of building tension in a story is by raising the stakes for your characters. But the fear of death, or the world in peril have been done countless times. While the threat of death is still often present in horror, it’s not the worst that can happen. Learning new ways to threaten your characters and grip your readers can be a good thing.
  5. Horror knows what you can’t see is sometimes even scarier. The most frightening movies don’t show the monster, or at most reveal tantalizing hints. Just watch the previews for the latest Godzilla movie. But if we as writers need to show, not tell, think of what we can do if we can learn to not even show, but instead tap into our readers’ imaginations and inner fears. Elements of horror can be useful tools to have in our toolboxes.
  6. Horror makes you care. As Michaelbrent Collings will tell you, horror works because it gets up close and personal. It focuses close up on a character you can identify with and runs you through the wringer with them. A significant part of the horror is not just that something bad is happening to someone, but that something bad is happening to someone you care about. How do they get you to care? They might have some tricks to share.

So there’s the list of what I hope to gain from reading horror. If you’re going to do something similar I would recommend a little research first. I plan to start with something by Michaelbrent Collings because I’m familiar with his views on horror and can trust him not to lead me somewhere I don’t want to go.

Perhaps I’ll regret this little experiment.  Perhaps not. I’ll keep you posted.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Too much or too little?

It’s an easy trap to fall into as writers: we want to build tension and suspense, so we must keep our readers guessing. We don’t want them to know any more than absolutely necessary, and we never want them to know more than the main character knows–they should know less, if at all possible!

Are we sure?

...but kept the audience guessing.
…but kept the audience guessing.

I’ve been reading “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I’ll just admit this is yet another party I’m late in coming to and leave it at that. I won’t say much about the novel, but I will say it’s a wonderful study in asymmetrical information. Initially we don’t know more than the main characters do, perhaps even less. Even when the authors give us viewpoints from the aliens we don’t really learn much–certainly not enough to upset the balance of information. We’re still as much in the dark as the main characters. We know someone knows more about what’s going on than we do, and that bothers us, but only a little. We trust that we will find out soon enough.

But around the midpoint of the novel this begins to change as the authors begin to ratchet up the tension. Some of that tension is from the rising action of the novel. But suddenly we, as the readers, are presented with information to shake our foundations while the main characters are not. We now know more than they do, and that in itself becomes another source of tension! It’s like a horror movie when we’re practically yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in that room! You’re going to die!”

...and the audience that knew enough to make it funny.
…and the audience that knew enough to make it funny.

It works beautifully, I think. The action in the novel has fallen off, but the tension continues to build primarily because we know that the characters, though acting correctly based on what they know, are acting entirely wrong for what is really going on, but we have no way to let them know. Being in the know is a burden!

And yet it’s that knowledge that makes the novel continue to feel taut, continues to keep us anxiously engaged. Were we still to know only what the main characters know we might be tempted to yawn or even set the book aside. The action has slowed, and we would have no way of knowing the situation is much, much worse than they realize. Knowledge in the novel is still asymmetrical.

Eventually we know (or at least hope) we will need to reach state where that asymmetry is gone and everyone will know everything worth knowing. It will be, I assume, intensely satisfying. But until then, that asymmetry will continue to grate and cause reader anxiety, and that’s precisely what the authors wanted, I believe.

So don’t always assume the asymmetry always has to be at the reader’s expense. Keeping them as uninformed as the protagonists is a natural way to go, and there is nothing wrong with it. But sometimes it can be even more effective to let your readers in on the secret. Or, as in the case of “The Mote in God’s Eye” it even works well to switch back and forth.

In the end it comes down to this: What’s best for the story? What makes for the best story you can tell?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…