Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How to Add Suspense to Your Novel by Elizabeth Sims

 September 13, 2010, Elizabeth Sims blogged ‘How to add suspense to your novel.’ 
Dialogue that arises from action, emotion or necessity.
EXAMPLE: One of my favorite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories is the Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear, which is packed with textbook dialogue. Here’s the character Jack McMurdo responding with calculated disbelief to a workingman’s offhanded comment that a gang called the Scowrers is a murderous bunch. Thus he goads the man into giving him specifics:
The young man [McMurdo] stared. “Why, I am a member of that order myself.”
“You! I vould never had had you in my house if I had known it …”
“What’s wrong with the order? It’s for charity and good fellowship. The rules say so.”
“Maybe in some places. Not here!”
“What is it here?”
“It’s a murder society, that’s vat it is.”
McMurdo laughed incredulously. “How can you prove that?” he asked.
“Prove it! Are there not 50 murders to prove it? Vat about Milman and Van Shorst, and the Nicholson family. … Prove it! Is there a man or a voman in this valley vat does not know it?” …
“That’s just gossip—I want proof!” said McMurdo.
“If you live here long enough, you vill get your proof.”
Not only does this passage give McMurdo the information he’s looking for, it also advances the story in a natural way.
Dialogue in which one character tells another something they both already know, just so the reader can know it as well.
We’ve all read stuff like this:
Hero: “Hurry! We’ve got to move fast!”
Sidekick: “How come?”
Hero: “Because we’ve got to sabotage that convoy!”
Sidekick: “You mean the one that’s carrying 40,000 gallons of deadly radioactive bacteria straight toward the vulnerable entry point in the New York City water system?”
Hero: “Exactly! Yes!”
Ludicrous, no?
HOW TO DO IT: Weak dialogue in mystery can often be pinned on the easy habit of telling too much too soon. Did you notice that in the above example, McMurdo learns a lot (and tells a lot about himself) simply from the way he reacts to something the other man said? Having a character make friends with another for a specific purpose can work well; the reader can pick up on the manipulation and enjoy it.
Masterful writers have long known that emotion is a great dialogue engine. When a character is outraged, or dying to get laid, or seeking pity or admiration, that’s when she might let something slip, or unleash a whole tirade, which can trigger explosive action, be it a counter-tirade from another character, violence, flight, you name it.
You can engineer a juicy hunk of dialogue by writing down the result you want, then setting up a convincing sequence of events for the characters to reach that point. Expect dialogue to be a springboard for your characters.
And finally, here’s a rule of thumb I’ve found transformative: When in doubt, cut the talk.
5. CHARACTER MOTIVATIONS - Characters motivated by almost unbearable forces.
EXAMPLE: In “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, one of the most perfect short stories ever written—and one of the scariest—maternal grief is the reason Mrs. White interferes with fate and meddles with the terrible three-wish charm.
After receiving this supposedly magic paw and wishing upon it for 200 pounds sterling, she and her husband come into the money, but they are horrified to get it as compensation for the death of their son Herbert, who is mangled to death at work. Mrs. White, deep in grief, begs her husband to wish upon the paw for their son to be alive again. He reluctantly does so. But he had seen what was left of Herbert—who has been in his grave for a week—and now something is pounding at the front door, and there’s one more wish left in the paw.
Character motivation that boils down to … not enough.
“So, exactly why is this character risking his marriage, his children and his career as a doctor by serially murdering mafia chieftains?” I once asked a student in a mentoring session.
“Um, see, he wants to keep the streets safe.”
Wanting to help strangers may be a plausible motivation for lying, but not for murder.
HOW TO DO IT: Making your characters take drastic risks is good, but this works only if their motivations are rock-solid. In fact, the biggest favor a good agent or editor or writing group will do for you is challenge your character motivations. Internal motivation can work, but external motivation is better.
For example, it’s conceivable a cop or a P.I. could risk his life to find the truth because he loves the truth—but if the truth involves finding out why his partner was murdered in cold blood, as Sam Spade felt driven to do in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, now you’ve got something.
Do like Hammett did: Combine motivating factors. Not simply love, not simply money, but love and money. Hate and glory. Envy and shame. Sex and loss.
The possibilities are limitless. And, as with so many of the healthy writing choices listed above, you’ll find substantial combinations to be much more satisfying than quick and easy fixes. Feed your readers with them well, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

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