Saturday, November 7, 2009

Creating Suspense: Keep the Plot Moving

Creating suspense seems like a reasonable task when writing a story. After all, you just keep stuff happening to the characters, right? Well, yes, incidents that put your characters in some sort of challenging predicament is what keeps the story interesting. But is there a certain technique that a writer can consciously focus on to make it all happen in an effective way? Margaret Lucke in her book, Writing Great Short Stories, sums it up into four techniques: 1) raise the stakes; 2)eliminate the options; 3)isolate your characters; and 4)ignite a ticking bomb.

Raise the Stakes: This goes along with the idea that what happens to your main character, all that conflict, should keep the interest of your readers. In order to do this, you must raise the stakes, i.e. keep the challenges and obstacles coming with each one a bit more risky than the one before. It's as if she or he must bring more to the table to overcome the obstacles and has that much more to lose or gain, depending on whether he or she fails or succeeds.

Eliminate the Options: This reminds me of playing chess. The further you are into the game, the more pieces you may lose, leaving you with fewer options to overcome your opponent and win. Keep reducing the options your character has to get out of the fixes you put him/her in. Tease your readers. Let them think a solution is about to work, and then snap! The solution has disappeared and your character must scramble to find another way out of the problem.

Isolate Your Character: Everybody wants friends in a time of need. Like I mentioned in a previous posting, if your character has some allies to help out, that makes the situation workable. But what about at one of those climatic moments? A suspenseful juncture when you want to put your readers on the edge of their seats? In those points of your story when you think it needs a little oomph, why not isolate your character? Cut him/her off from the rest of the world? I mean physically put the character in a place where there is no outside help. The character must figure it out all by him or herself. Or maybe it's a place where the character is emotionally isolated. An abusive home that he or she can't escape, perhaps. There are lots of choices.

Ignite a Ticking Bomb: Several movies pop into my head right now: Speed, Die Hard, Air Force One, John Q just to name a few. You know, those movies where the clock is ticking and each minute that passes raises the stress and tension level. And to add just an extra element of suspense, you might create a situation where the character doesn't know how much time he/she has left. It could be five hours from then or five days. No one knows. How's that for excitement?

Those are just a few ideas on how to create suspense. Hopefully, some of them work for you. If you have techniques of your own, stop and drop a line! Happy Writing, all :-)


Tina said...

I think of my hero's character. What is the worst thing that can happen to him right now? What will be the hardest psychological thing to face? Then I make it happen. Poor guy!

teacherwriter said...

Tina....That's such a good point. We shouldn't let ourselves feel sorry for our characters all the time. Otherwise nothing bad ever happens to challenge them!
Thanks so much.

Hunter said...

Ha! Put them in a tree and throw rocks at them...

plainolebob said...

Teach, you are so smart, why ain't my writing classified any where.
I get lost sometimes, I never seem to follow any of the rules of writing.
Besides editing, which I am really bad at, people seem to like the stories, hell, a couple even told me to write a book, I ain't got the patience for all the editing and organizing.
What would you do with my stuff?

teacherwriter said...

Hunter... That's the spirit!

Bob ... That's easy. After all, you've done the hard part, which is creating an entertaining story. Now, you just have to find someone to go through and proof it :-)

Innocent Owner Of Mad Cats said...

I am trying out a new writing style on two of my stories I will be posting later. Your site has helped out tremendously in helping me break through some of the harder parts.

teacherwriter said...

Innocent... Thank you for your kind words, and I will be stopping by later on to check out your stories!