Friday, November 6, 2009

Suspense: When More is More

copyright 2009, Pat Bertram

Suspense is a hard thing for many authors to write. We don’t want to give away the story too soon, yet if we don’t tell enough, we will bore our readers. Readers need to know where we are going, they need enough clues to be able to participate in the journey, and they need a stake in the outcome. If a character agonizes for pages about a decision she has to make without readers knowing what the problem is, they won’t care. They will skip ahead or, even worse from our point of view as an author, they will toss the book aside.

For example, while getting dressed for an appointment that she’s dreading, a character may be dropping things out of nervousness and arguing with herself or another character about keeping the appointment. Readers might have empathy with her indecision, might even wonder what’s going on, but there is no real suspense because they have no stake in the matter.

If readers find out the character is getting ready to go to the doctor to learn the results of a test, the suspense is a little greater, and they have a little more empathy, but the scenario is still not detailed enough to build tension.

If readers find out the character has uterine cancer and needs to meet with the physician to decide on a course of treatment, that raises the stakes for both the character and the reader. And the tension level rises.

But if readers learn that the character’s mother died an agonizing death even after undergoing years of treatment for uterine cancer, and the character is trying to decide whether she is willing to undergo the same treatment or whether she would rather live out the remainder of her days the best way she can, then we have created real tension, and readers care. They wonder what the character will do, what they would do in her place, how they would feel if they had to make the same decision. It gives them a personal stake in the outcome, and they keep reading to find out what she is going to do.

As an added bonus, readers get to know her better and can empathize with her even if they don’t agree with her final decision.

So, by not withholding story points, we can create tension, develop a character, and please our readers. Not a bad day’s work.


Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado and a lifelong resident. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. Daughter Am I is Bertram’s third novel to be published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC. Also available are More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire


Marta Stephens said...

Hi Pat. You've made some excellent points. Knowing when, where, and how much to give the readers is extremely tricky. Aside from offering the reader enough information to make them care about the character, some clues need to be very subtle--almost invisible for them to have an impact when they're revealed later on in the book.

It's always great to have you here on Murder By 4. Thanks for sharing.

Kim Smith said...

this is great Pat. Love how you showed the importance of raising the stakes. A writer needs to analyze the situation and see how they can make it worse.

Good to have you on MB4

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Pat. It's great to do a blog exchange today with you around the occasion of your new release, DAUGHTER AM I. I hope our readers will also hop over to your blog to see the great content there.

This is a wonderful article that's got me thinking. Hmmm. Pretty soon I'll end up like SW Vaughn and have my characters plotting their revenge against me!

s.w. vaughn said...

Great points, Pat, and excellent examples!

Aaron - I just hope they don't unionize or anything. LOL

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

You're on fire, Pat. Every time I read your blogs I wonder how you can possible get any better. But your straight forward approach is better than any SS show with Big Bird. Any day!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, everyone, for the warm welcome I am pleased to be back here at Murder by 4, and even more pleased I was able to wheedle Aaron into guesting at my blog! Suspense is easy. Dialogue tags, now that's hard! Well, it's hard to write about anyway, which is why I so seldom do.

Joylene, thank you. It's amazing to me how even successful authors manage to withhold so much information that you stop caring. In a recent book, the author kept saying, "And they made their plans," or "She figured out the secret," without ever letting the reader (me!!) have any stake in the matter. Besides which, withholding information is a cheap way of creating suspense.

Ann Littlewood said...

Pat, a good, clear explanation. Thanks!

Sheila Deeth said...

I guess the art is in knowing what to withhold and what to reveal.

Deborah J said...

It's so great to see you here at one of my favorite writers blogs, Pat. You bring up some excellent points in your article. I wish you and DAUGHTER AM I the very best of luck.

Tracey Witt said...

Great points once again. Your progression of examples really brought it home. Nice job.


A. F. Stewart said...

That's the trick, trying to find the balance between too little and too much information.

Anonymous said...

Ann, thank you for stopping by. It's nice to meet you!

Sheila, yes -- it's also about knowing when your revelation is giving away the story and when it's adding to the suspense. At all times, though, it's about engaging the reader in a conversation -- telling them enough to keep them interested.

Hi, Deborah. I'm pleased that you stopped by. I appreciate the support you have always given me and my writing.

Tracey, Thank you! It's been great having you accompany me on my blog tour.

A.F., You're right. It's a balancing act. In fact, every element of writing is a balancing act. And when everything is balanced, you end up with a lovely work of art.