Modern story writing requires the author to blend together a number of threads slowly revealing the connections to the reader. Most stories require an element of suspense. It’s what brings the reader back for more as the author dangles the next carrot in front of the curious reader.
There are many genres in the literary world and they all have different tools to ensure the next page is turned, but the most common one is suspense.
It’s worth spending time on how suspense works and how it also can be done badly.
- Don’t tell all in the first chapter – Sounds simple but useful to remember that when building your character and storyline, be careful what assumptions the reader is making. I write crime and thrillers, both can be different in structure but have many things in common. One thing is that readers are already beginning to form opinions about characters on the first page. Your challenge is not to close off those opinions, you want to prick their imagination, but make sure you have a sense of what they might be thinking so that you can control it and re-use it further down the line. A good example in crime and thriller writing is to introduce your reader to the bad guy early on so that the reveal at the end has more credibility, but be aware of what you tell in that introduction. You might want to cloud it in other contradictory clues or just leave the reader one distinctive characteristic in mind e.g. a recognisable tattoo, a distinct voice, a look in the eye, something you can bring back into the reveal at a later stage. But be subtle, the reader must not be allowed to guess so you must confuse as much as you hint.
- Hint’s and clue’s – In the interest of playing a game with the reader, you might want to get them guessing. Whodunnits in the crime genre are classic for this and of course the rule is that it should never be the one you think it is. Agatha Christie was the author who is most famous for deploying the technique but whilst the principle remains the same, readers are far more familiar with the genre and therefore you have to be cleverer at surprising them. Some crime writers turn this on its head by telling you the perpetrator at the beginning but create the suspense by not revealing it to the characters and leading them into situations where the reader has prior knowledge of the danger they are in. A movie that is the best example of this is Apollo 13, where everyone knows the end. But somehow the screenwriters were clever enough to make the journey just as exciting
- Red Herrings – Blind Alleys are useful tools for crime and works in other genres as well. The reader is often working ahead of the story trying to anticipate where the ending is leading, partly to reassure themselves that it’s all going to be ok in the end, but also because they think they’re cleverer than the author. That’s when the red-herring turn’s into a slap in the face with a wet fish. Build a story line that gives them enough clues as to where you are going, keep dropping hints, and then shock them with the revelation that they got it all wrong.
- The end is never the end – A bit like the red-herring, we can lead the reader to think the story is resolved, that the happy ending is reached. That’s when you reveal another layer to the story, totally unexpected, often a twist and drag the reader back round the whole story again. This is a tricky storyline technique to get right as hitting the reader with a yet unrevealed piece of information might annoy them. The real skill is letting the reader believe they should have known this all along and that the author gave them enough clues. That wins the author respect and a return visit.
- Don’t overplay it – A further rule of red herrings, clues and false endings is not to overplay it, especially if you’re writing a series of stories. Readers of genres/series like the rules of the game, because they like the suspense. But they’re also good at spotting the tricks authors use, and as soon as you become predictable the suspense flies out the window. So don’t be formulaic. Know how to use the rules but vary how you deploy them. For Example:- Patricia Cornwell places her character in personal danger in every case she writes, and given it’s a series, when ever she walks into the killers trap, the reader has a reasonably 99% sure guess that she will walk out of it again. As a reader that bores me, and the reason I no longer read her books. This is a major problem for series writers. I’m not saying don’t ever send your character into personal danger, but at least anticipate that the reader might be thinking, ‘I’ve seen this before and I know she get’s out,’ and therefore do something different. Treat the reader with respect if you want them to keep coming back to your stories.
- Don’t forget your clues – Having created hooks for your reader make sure those hooks are resolved otherwise your story will look messy and incomplete. For example if you tell the reader your bad guy has an interesting tattoo that would trigger interest in him, when you get to reveal the story behind the character don’t forget to explain the tattoo. The reader will want to know and will be annoyed by the omission.
Next week I will talk more about planning these storylines to be sure you don’t make mistakes with clues and don’t forget the key points that keep the element of suspense.