An Apple For The Teacher...

Not, much of a teacher, me. My children remain spectacularly incapable of placing a wet towel on a radiator. As for the dog, let's just say it's a rare day she doesn't leave me a little 'gift' under one of the dining room chairs.

Consequently, it's always a dilemma when I'm asked to give a talk or a workshop. On the one hand I love to pass on any information/expertise I may have, but on the other hand, my track record of getting it across, is not without failure.

It helps if I tell myself I'm not actually teaching or attempting to teach. Rather, I'm having a nice chat with some nice writers. Chats involve tea and smiling. Expectations are low.

With this in mind, I found myself, a few weeks ago, setting off to a literary festival to have a chat in a room above an independent book store-cum-cafe (lots of tea and home made cake!).

I greatly enjoyed my little chat, touching as it did on one of my areas of interest; why suspense in any genre is imperative and some good ways to employ it.

Judging from the emails I received from my fellow chatterers, they too enjoyed themselves and found our chat helpful. So when yesterday morning I finally cleaned out my bag and found my notes, I decided to pass them on to you.

Why do all stories need suspense?
Suspense is often seen as the province of crime fiction and of course any piece of crime fiction without it is a pretty derisbale failure. However, I'd go further and say any piece of fiction without suspense is lacking a vital ingredient. Sure, a fabulous voice and delicious writing, will take us a long way, but these things alone, won't sustain the average reader. At least not for 80,000 plus words.
Think of all the great books you've read. What keeps you turning those pages, desperate to find oit what happens next? The answer is well crafted suspense.

How then to craft it?
First, don't be fooled into thinking you need a complex plot with a twist at every turn. Some of the most simple of plots have great suspense: will they or won't they get together? A person dies, but who did it? A lot of things dont have to happen (though they can), but what does happen needs to be delivered effectively.

There are lots of ways to do this, but here are four to try at home:

Discovering the story at the same time as the narrator, is a good way to build suspense. We the reader, only know what the narrator knows. When he is surprised, so are we. First person narration can give intensity here in a way that third finds difficult but care needs to be taken not to get bogged down in what 'I' am thinking. I speak from expereince here.

Another effective way to build tension is to let the reader know things that the main character does not. Build a 'he's behind you' moment and your readers can hardly dare look from behind their hands.

Make the stakes very high. You will have already asked what your character wants and why he/she cannot get it. Suspense and tension will build when you show your reader just how important it is that he/she gets it. Make this work on as many levels as you can. If he or she fails disaster will ensue in all aspects of your character's life, personally, professionally, every way. The higher the stakes, the more you create ther need to read on in expectation and uncertainty.

As suspense builds towards denuoument, consider making the langauge simpler, descriptions less complex, sentences shorter. Reading becomes a breathless experience, moving us faster and faster towards finding out what happens.

Right then, I hope you've enjoyed our little chat...


Sandra Davies said...

Enjoyed the chat, yes indeed, and your post echoes what I'm thinking about a novel I am reading at the moment ... he's doing his best, I can see that all too clearly, BUT the tension-building narrative is ... 'clunky' is the best word to describe it, heavy-handed insofar as clues are both bold and underlined. Which makes me conclude that it's all very well knowing the rules but seeing whether or not one is able to follow them wth sensitively is a different matter entirely ...

Rick said...

This was a pleasure to read, Helen.

DT said...

Some valuable food for thought here, Helen. It's the simple principles, done well, that really allow writing to shine. I may have to go back over some darlings...

And I love the way you kept your bag in suspense by not unpacking it for weeks!

Deb said...

Lovely chat, Helen!

Fionnuala said...

Lovely tips, enjoyed the chat. X