Archive for the ‘Suspense’ Category
Seven o’clock in the evening. A hot and moth-populated mountain night. Gasteneau sat alone in a rundown motel on the outskirts of town, a cheap room that he’d rented for this reason, because it was cheap, and because he could have it by the day or by the week, and because it was spacious and commanded a view of the outlying plains.
Outside, it was not dark yet, but all his shades were pulled. He sat in a corner of the room upon an old sofa. He sat fully dressed and with his hair combed back, as if he was going somewhere, but he did not move and had not moved for some time. On the arm of the sofa lay a black cigarette lighter and a pair of pliers. He appeared lost in his thoughts, his face haggard and ill-at-ease. An iron band of pain tightened around his head. He was sure now that he had not been imagining things after all, his old sickness was indeed lurking there, just beneath the surface, pulling at him persistently, and it was only with a great concentration of will that he could fend it off.
He had been sitting in the room the entire day, growing more and more uneasy. He had trained himself to wait in this way, motionless, hour after hour, like a prisoner. But something else was happening as well: an old injury to the big toe of his left foot had begun reasserting itself, nothing serious at first, a minor ache, but building and building until at this moment his toe was pounding away with each beat of his heart. It was a running injury caused from his toes banging repeatedly against the tops of his tennis shoes—except this time, as had happened once before, when he was in the army, in addition to the bruising, the toe itself had become infected, so that blood could freely flow in but could not escape. Periungal hematoma. The words kept running through the corridors of his brain, volleying, it felt to him, around the acoustical concavities of his skull.
Half an hour passed, one hour. A moth landed on his face, its touch light and dry. He did not brush it away. The room grew dark. The walls were filled with shadows. Finally, he reached up and snapped on the overhead light. He leaned forward and removed his shoes. He sat barefoot. His big toe, feeling to him now rather like an epicenter from which great waves of pain ceaselessly and concentrically pulsed, had become turgid and huge, the nail obsidian-black.
“Jesus,” he said aloud. He’d been afraid to look, and now he grew frightened.
At that moment, his gaze, shifting to the right, saw reflected in the dead cyclopean eye of the television screen a white envelope as it was being slid beneath his door. He gasped, turned his head.
He stared for thirty seconds, almost afraid to move. Had he not been paying attention, he may very well have missed it; for it had been pushed beneath the door in such a way as to slide under a nearby dresser, where it might have gone unnoticed, perhaps for years.
But he was paying attention, he was always paying attention.
He stood up and hobbled over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered out.
It was very dark. Still, he thought he caught the tailend of a long coat flapping once in the breeze; then it disappeared around the corner of the open hallway. Upon second thought, he was not sure. His palm, still clutching the doorknob, felt clammy. In the east, the moon was hovering up, pared so thinly now and with the earthshine so bright that the moon itself looked like silver pincers delicately a large gray ball.
Joel’s head swam. He did not trust his vision. All day long, in fact, he had been watching multicolored planets orbit slowly in front of his eyes and then explode without a sound. His toe was a live scorpion hanging off the end of his foot. It even occurred to him that maybe the envelope was not there after all.
He bent down to look.
There the envelope lay, peeking out from beneath the dresser. He closed the door, dead-bolted and chain-locked it. He reached down. He placed his fingernail on the corner of the envelope and eased it out. The carpet had cigarette burns here and there across it. His head as he bent over throbbed in unison with his toe. He slit the envelope open with his pinky. A small note on thick paper fell out into his hand. It said:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
His body went cold. His scalp numbed. He felt as if he might lose consciousness at any moment. He looked down again at the note in his hand. He reread it:
I learned a few things that might interest you.
Coffee at The Clear Sky, 11:00 AM?
He squished his eyes shut and rubbed his eyes. After several minutes, he read the note a third time:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
What the hell was going on? He tried to think; he could not think; he could not process anything. Greatly perturbed, he set the envelope and the note on the dresser and went for the pliers. He reached up and removed a framed seascape from the wall and then wiggled out the thin nail that the picture had been hanging upon. He sat back down on the sofa and, holding the end of the nail with the pliers, ran a lighter flame all along the nail-tip. His brows were deeply knitted.
In the army, they had fixed his toe roughly this same way, years ago.
In no time, he had the thin metal pulsing hot-pink. Large beads of sweat stood out along his forehead and along his upper lip, and the flame was reflected individually in each bead. His brow glowed like expensive wood.
He dropped the cigarette lighter onto the floor and leaned forward. Blood poured into his head. Sweat dripped onto the carpet. He looked once more at his toe: from the swelling, the skin was stretched out so taut that the whole top part of the toe glinted dully, the color of lead, a leaden ball. Another peristaltic wave of lightheadedness coursed through him. He closed his eyes, waiting for it to knock him over or to pass. It passed. He opened his eyes slowly. Concentrate, he thought, you’ve got to stay focused. He squeezed the pliers as tightly as he was able, and then without further reflection he jammed the molten metal through the top of his toenail and down into the flesh, extracted it. It took three seconds. A tiny geyser of infected pus and blood erupted, the engorged tissue squealing thinly, like a hog fetus, and then a blinding flash of white-hot light filled his vision, and after that all he saw was black.
Editor’s note: That was excerpted from Chapter 9 of this book:
Suspense, which isn’t a genre but a specific manifestation of plot, is when you can’t put the book down because you must learn what happens next. Suspense is when you’re champing at the bit.
Here are five ways to keep readers in suspense:
5. Arrange your events in such a way that readers will wonder about the outcome.
If a storyteller gives away all that’s going to happen, the story won’t hold interest. But neither will the storyteller hold interest if he doesn’t give you any idea where the story is heading. Feed readers information gradually — which is to say, release your information in a step-by-step fashion, so that the reader will gobble up your information like so many breadcrumbs.
4. Misdirect your reader.
If you think a story is going one way but the story takes a drastic turn, you will continue reading.
3. Make the events of your story meaningful.
An event is something that happens in actuality. If, for example, your main character drives down to the bar and that is all, this IS an event. But it’s not a very meaningful one. If, however, your main character sits down at the bar and the lady next to him immediately throws a drink in his face and says “You bastard!” — well, that is a more meaningful event, provided there’s a motive behind it and you the writer disclose the source of the conflict.
2. Create interesting characters.
Characters who possess strong qualities go a long way in holding a reader’s interest.
1. Give readers something to worry about.
A professional writer I once over-served says he begins every story NOT by establishing a plot-line but by establishing “a line of anxiety.” By this he means, a sequence of events that will cause people to worry. In order to manage such a thing, you must create a clash which in reason will interest your reader. I say “in reason” because inconsequential events — such as getting your scalp massaged or your knob polished — are really not strong enough to make your readers worry.
Holding the reader’s interest is the total goal. In determining whether an event is interesting, ask yourself this: Is there any good reason why I myself would be interested in this episode? Are the values presented herein significant enough to worry about?
There’s a game that certain writers like to play, and it’s not called Hide-The-Salami (although that game is popular among certain writers as well, myself perhaps foremost among them). In the game I’m talking about, someone — anyone — comes up with a random list of words or components, and the writer is then asked to create a story using these words. For example:
A knife, a monk, an abandoned building, a beautiful woman, a strange light, a handwritten letter, a bloodstain.
For many writers — even experienced writers — the immediate temptation here is to cram all these elements into the very beginning, so that the mission is accomplished.
“In the abandoned building, illuminated by a strange light, a beautiful woman with a bloodstain on her blouse held a knife to a monk’s throat. The monk did not look at her but stared down at a handwritten letter, which the beautiful woman could not see.”
Almost invariably what ends up happening next is that the writer panics a little over where the story is going to go from there, and thus the writer begins to create more and ever more characters, and to add to the increasing complexity, until by the end of the game, the writer cannot keep everything she’s devised in her head. The new ideas, which in and of themselves may be perfectly sound, spin out of control, and the story loses cohesiveness.
The most edifying aspect of this game is streamlining.
What some writers who play this game have learned is that it’s best to sprinkle the elements all throughout the story.
A compelling story can be told with relatively few elements provided the writer creates a believable Situation, with a compelling conflict. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and plots, let us never forget, derive from characters under adversity.
The best stories are those that can be summed up in one sentence.
Said John O’Hara.
A solid story hinges upon The Situation.
The Situation is not the whole story but the essence of that story’s conflict, which will in turn shape the events of your plot.
Here is an example of a situation:
On a certain summer evening, a charismatic priest, no longer young but not yet old, who has devoted his entire life to God, suddenly feels the last particles of his faith dematerialize before his eyes, when a veiled woman he cannot see convinces him that God is a logical impossibility.
This situation comprises the essentials of a good story because it carries with it the essence of the conflict.
Conflicts come from characters in the face of adversity.
Conflict is at the heart of every good story because conflict is what will hold the reader’s interest.
A conflict means that there is a clash, and that there are obstacles to overcome. These two things are what hold one’s interest.
Holding the interest of the reader — or, in the case of movies, the viewer — is the total goal.
If, for example, you’re thirsty and you look in your refrigerator and find only orange juice and soda pop, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve: i.e. you must choose between those two things.
Obviously, though, this isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. But why?
The answer is that the choices aren’t important enough to be of lasting interest.
To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain importance.
Of course, not everyone regards the same things as important — and that is one of the reasons there are genres: romance, western, history, mystery, horror, fantasy, and so on.
In all genres, though, the basic principle remains the same: there must be a clash of values (which is to say, a conflict), the clash must be of relative importance, and the best stories can state the essence of that conflict in one sentence.
That one sentence is The Situation.
This issue, which is very closely associated with plot, is called suspense.
Suspense is when your eyes are nailed to the screen. It’s when you’re coming out of your seat. It’s when you cannot stop turning pages, and you’re grinding your teeth without knowing it.
To create suspense, you first of all must create characters who are convincing, and you must do so by means of a convincing situation.
The Situation is the essence of your story’s conflict:
He loves her who loves another, but she must marry him nevertheless in order to save the man she truly loves.
That is a situation.
If you have convincing characters and a sufficiently complex situation, suspense can be built by then letting readers glimpse your overall purpose.
I emphasize glimpse here because you mustn’t ever completely give away your whole purpose, which is like giving away an ending, and yet also you must not hold back too much, or your story will seem like (or perhaps actually be) a haphazard collection of random events.
A storyteller must strike a balance: too much information will kill suspense. Too little information will create boredom.
Little by little, let your readers in (a little) on what you’re doing. If your characters are good and if your storyline is interesting, you’ll then — and only then — have those readers hooked.
Parcel out your information piece-by-piece, in such a way that your readers will feel a sense of anticipation over what happens next.
Think of the last time a book or movie had you riveted. Analyze how that came about. You’ll see that the reason you felt this way is that through capable plotting — which is to say, a complicated situation — the storyteller created characters whom you cared about and that storyteller let you in little-by-little on her purpose.
The storyteller fed you information at just the right pace to keep you eating out the palm of her hand.
A professional writer I once knew told me that every story he writes, he begins not with a plot-line (too vague, he said) but with what he called “a line of anticipation.” By that he meant he came up with a line of events that would make people nervous.
Reader, make your readers nervous.
If you can make readers nervous, you can write a successful story.