Saturday, July 2, 2011

pt 20 of Robert Kernen's "Building Better Plots"

Who’s seen the Bela Lugosi version of the movie Dracula? I absolutely love it. I’ve seen it a couple dozen times. Even though I know exactly what’s going to happen, I watch anyway, because of the way suspense is handled. Since it’s a visual medium, I feel the creepiness even when none of the characters talk. The physical set, gestures and expressions are exquisite. Lugosi’s “I never drink . . . wine” is in my top 3 list of favorite movie lines.

Way harder to do in a written medium. If we wanted to do something easy, we’d take up flower arranging. Kernen reminds us that suspense is necessary to a great dramatic story, but we have to be very careful with it. Too much suspense and readers feel continually on edge. Too little of course doesn’t work either. If you increase suspense at the wrong time, the natural flow of the story is interrupted and readers may be tossed out of the story. Back to juggling on that tightrope again.

Kernen says a couple very important things about suspense. “Creating suspense is all about revealing part of the picture . . . Knowing a little bit about a situation, an audience will almost always desire to know more . . .”

And: “Suspense is also the clever balance of timing. It is giving the audience a piece of information and then knowing just how long you can keep them waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Ways of doing this are the “time bomb”; the “puzzle”; and “truncating”, where you start a scene after some major event has happened or end the scene before that event occurs. An example of “truncating” is showing a couple in a heated argument and one pulls a gun. Then you cut to another scene where the character who was threatened is noticeably missing. Did the person get killed or not? Imagine the suspense if said character is your MC.

This is something I’ll have to work on a little at a time. I have some plot points that lend themselves to building suspense, but doing so I think isn’t something I can describe beforehand. It’s a very fine line. Some readers will “get it”, some will probably wish I’d hurry up, and some may think I’m going too fast. I won’t have specific examples for using suspense until I get to chapters where it’s relevant.

Kernen does recommend planting the seed of suspense that will carry readers to the climax early, even before the inciting incident. I can do that with Neal thinking about life with Trist outside of the gang, then dismissing the thought because he’ll never be free of the gang. Readers will remember that when Sandy offers to help Neal.

Also, the way I set up Neal’s eventual decision to leave the gang, I include a mention that the gang *will* try to kill him once they realize he’s left, so that bit of suspense always hangs over the characters and the readers.

That’s just one thread of tension. I’ll need to bring others out to keep readers immersed.

Ah, I thought of another example, using the “truncating” technique. I’ve discovered that Neal breaks out of rehab with his friend but then rethinks the move. I plan to drop the scene at that point, then switch to Sandy’s POV where he hears that Neal has returned to rehab.

Awesome. The more I read in Kernen’s book, the stronger my feeling gets that I’m solidly on the right track. But the devil is in the details, so I don’t expect everything to come easy from now on.

Next post, swinging to the rhythm.

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