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Jan's Master Class--SUSPENSE

Posted: Sun Mar 15, 2009 12:20 pm
by glorybee
A short story has the element of suspense when the reader has a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, or doubt about the outcome of an event.

A few points about suspense:

1. It’s not only found in mysteries, adventures, and thrillers. Any genre might contain suspense; indeed, most stories should. Can you think of how romances, family dramas, and even comedies might be suspenseful?

2. Along with its cousin conflict, suspense is an element that is highly likely to draw a reader into your story, and to make her want to continue reading. If you’ve effectively incorporated suspense into your story, then she’ll naturally want to keep reading, and reading, and reading until the suspense is over.

3. An ultra-short story (like those in the writing challenge) might have only one suspenseful plot point, but novels and other longer works may have many. Some writers choose to end each chapter with a mini-cliffhanger, for the purpose of getting the reader to read just one more.

I like to identify suspense for my “real world” students by having them identify a question that they want answered. Here are a few examples from literature and film:

Abraham and Isaac: Will he really have to kill his boy?
Romeo and Juliet: Will Romeo realize in time that Juliet’s not really dead?
Ice Age: Will the saber-toothed squirrel ever get that acorn?

And now, you try some. You can answer them mentally or post your questions in a reply post (no peeking at Holly’s or Steve’s answers, though). What question does the reader/viewer ask herself for each of the following works:

1. Lord of the Rings
2. Charlotte’s Web
3. LOST (the television show…pick any episode)
4. Noah’s Ark
5. Toy Story
6. You’ve Got Mail

That’s probably enough. I hope that thinking of reader-generated questions helped you to start thinking about putting suspense into some of your writings. Here are a few final tips, most of which you’ve seen before in other classes:

1. Give your MC a conflict. Suspense will follow naturally as your reader wonders how the conflict will resolve.

2. Don’t make it too easy on the MC or on your reader. Let the poor fellow mess up, or make wrong turns, or sprain his ankle along the way. Let him think he’s solved the jigsaw, but hide the last piece.

3. Avoid cheating the reader by resolving the suspense in one fell swoop. “And then the bad guy gasped out the code word in his dying breath, and Joe got the treasure.”

4. In very short stories, sometimes you just don’t have time to fit everything in. You can—if you’re brave enough—end with a note of suspense. Some readers absolutely hate that, but some really love it. If you do this, leave enough clues in the story so that the intelligent reader can reasonably determine what will probably happen. I did this once, with my “Father” story—ended with a teen dad trying to decide whether or not to leave his pregnant girlfriend. I thought I’d made it pretty obvious what he’d decide, but by the comments I got, a lot of readers were unsure. So…do a better job of it than I did!

Homework: Tell how you’ve used suspense in your writing. OR tell how suspense is featured in a well-known piece of literature. OR react to anything I’ve written in this lesson. OR answer any of the questions that I posed in the class.

IF you do one of the above, you may link to a WC entry that features suspense. If you do, please tell us about it.

Here’s a bit of suspense for you: will Jan’s grandbaby be a boy or a girl? I won’t know for a month…and the suspense is killing me.

Next week: Symbolism

Posted: Sun Mar 15, 2009 10:13 pm
by GShuler
I wrote about suspense in children's literature when this lesson was posted and it got so long, my computer crashed. Really.

So this time I will keep it shorter.

I was thinking about how every GOOD children's writing (Saturday cartoons, children's books, puppet plays, etc) is loaded with suspense. Not just at the end, but all the way through. Every page is designed to get the child to turn to the NEXT page. And when you think of it, the last page is designed to be so gratifying in its resolution of the suspense that it has the child (especially beginning readers) starting all over again on page one. I believe the reason a child says "Read it to me again" is because the multiple levels of suspense kept their attention.

Dr. Suess is a good example because he wrote one sentence after another that built different levels of suspense. In "Green Eggs and Ham" Sam is pummeled with different ways and places to eat something he doesn't like. Every new option has the child eagerly waiting to see if Sam would have to eat that horrible meal. No story could have been less complex and yet he loaded it with the kind of suspense that kept the kids turning to the next page and then wanting to read it again.

And now I am going to shut up. Mostly.

In this story I tried to build two different scenes with two totally different kinds of suspense. Did it come across as suspense?

Not What I Had Intended

In this one I just had fun seeing if the brothers could come up with a caper and whether they would get away with it. I also tried to keep a little bit of suspense as the one brother feared that the other brother was going to blow their cover with the conversation about learning to sew. By the way, this story was based on what really happened to my brother and I when we were too young to know better. It wasn't cookies, though. It was Hostess Cupcakes.

The Great American Cookie Heist

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 1:33 am
by swfdoc1
I don’t know why people can’t look at my post. I will only state the most obvious question for each work. I will leave the more sophisticated questions to others.

1. The Lord of the Rings: I wonder how much shorter this will be in the Readers Digest version?
2. Charlotte’s Web: Is the runt of the litter tender or tough?
3. Lost: If Charlie is in Driveshaft and Locke has both of their albums and Locke works at a box company that Hurley buys after he wins the lottery and Hurley tells Jack that they have to go back to the island and Jack meets Ana Lucia in a bar in the airport before Flight 815 departs and Ana Lucia meets Christian and Sawyer in another bar why did Libby give Desmond her boat?
4. Noah’s Ark: How bad does it smell?
5. Toy Story: How <I>do</I> you go beyond infinity?
6. You’ve Got Mail: Hey, I wonder if that guy who plays Joe Fox would ever be interested in doing the voice of a cowboy named Woody in an animated movie about toys?

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 6:49 am
by glorybee
Steve, thanks so much for my early morning laugh--a fun way to start the day (I especially laughed at your 'Lost' question).

Gerald, I'll get to your wonderful long post when I've got the time it deserves; I'm off to work now.

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 9:54 am
by glorybee
Gerald, your linked stories are both full of suspense, in several different ways.

And I love your thought about children's stories and suspense. When my girls were little, they loved a silly little book starring Grover from Sesame Street called "There's A Monster at the End of this Book." Every page had them breathless, wondering what the monster would be...and even after they'd read it a gazillion times, and knew that the monster was just Grover, they still loved it.

Great point, Gerald!

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 9:57 am
by glorybee
Steve--as funny as your questions are (and they're funnier every time I read them), they don't really tap into the suspense of those stories...more like curiosity.

Know what I mean? I know you were being facetious, but I don't want to mis-lead others who attempt the same questions. Suspense-identifying questions usually ask something along the line of what will happen?
or how will this situation be resolved?.

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 10:27 am
by anna banana
I thought I'd try my hand at these questions...well at least 1,2,4,5,6....I must admit I've never seen LOST and don't mind that I haven't!

1. Lord of the Rings----will, oh, what's his name, Frodo, right?, make it in time to safety?

2. Charlotte’s Web will Wilbur be slaughtered for Christmas dinner or can Charlotte save him?

4. Noah’s Ark- will Noah build the ark in time? will any of the people be smart/righteous enough to join him?

5. Toy Story-will Woody be allowed to come back to the Andy's room? can he find and bring Buzz Lightyear back? Will Buzz Lightyear find out that he is really not Buzz Lightyear?

6. You’ve Got Mail-who is that mysterious stranger on the other side of those mails? Someone tall, dark, and handsome?

Well, that's my two cents. I should probably do some of the other homework, too, but that will have to come another time when my kids are not wanting to use the computer. :D

If I understood the way this works, then I can reference to one something I've written that has suspense.

Well, in this story it's pretty simple...but the question is will Mary find what true love really is? ... hp?id=7779

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 10:29 am
by swfdoc1
You may be right. Maybe I should have been suspensefully facetious instead of curiously facetious. But you were EXPECTING suspensefully facetious, and I'm still working on my SURPRISE technique. Gotcha!

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 11:07 am
by gemstone
You guys crack me up! Now, I'm off to incorporate more suspense in my novel.


Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 1:36 pm
by Symphonic
Ah, suspense... another subject I could discuss at length! I hope to keep this short, but will I? Can I? Stay tuned!

Great Expectations is not my favorite Dickens novel--but it’s probably his best-known, and it’s virtually a textbook on suspense. Central to the novel is the question, Who is Pip’s benefactor? Pip thinks he knows, but is terribly wrong... and that misunderstanding creates much of the tension in the novel. Another key questions –Will Pip and Estella end up together?–was one that not even Dickens himself could seem to answer. Depending upon which of the two endings you accept (and how you interpret the tricky last sentence of the second ending!), the answer could be either “no,” “probably not,” “possibly,” “probably so,” or “definitely.”

I’ve used suspense of some sort in every one of my longer stories and novels. You mentioned the possibility, Jan, of ending a story with suspense–leaving the outcome somewhat in doubt. That reminded me of a novel in which I left the two main characters in suspense at the end, though I provided a little more information to the reader in an epilogue. And since I can’t remember one of my Challenge entries that has suspense as a major element, I’ll link to that epilogue.

The novel takes place in the mid-1990s. One key element in the story is a box of costly jewelry which has been lost since the early 20th century. This jewelry (and the subsequent search for it) has been the catalyst for much heartbreak, misery, and even murder. At the very end, after the culprit has been identified and the other elements of the plot resolved, the MC and his wife think of one more possible location for the jewels. They find a small cave, and a possible hiding place, but instead of the jewels they find a old box full of a child’s treasures: bits of broken glass, etc. There has been a lot of tension between them during this search–subtle hints that perhaps finding the jewels wouldn’t be good for them. But when they find the box of children’s playthings, they fall into each other’s arms laughing, and accept that sometimes it’s better not to know some things. And that’s how the story ends, followed by this epilogue (which is written in a very different style from the rest of novel):

Epilogue to February Mist

This ending felt (and still feels) absolutely right to me... though I have to admit that no one else has liked it!

And that relates to what I believe is an important element in writing suspense. I think the suspense created in the story should be somewhat proportionate to the payoff for the reader. In a short story (such as a Challenge entry), you could probably get away with 700 words of a woman lying in bed, hearing footsteps in the hallway, terrified, wondering what to do... only to find, in the last sentence that it was only her cat or dog. But in a longer story–especially a novel–you make a certain compact with the reader. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a mystery, or a romance, or any other type of story in which the ending is in doubt.

If it’s a mystery, for example, and you’ve hinted for 200 pages about some “dark secret,” it needs to be at least somewhat original and unexpected. (I don’t mean shocking or horrific--I think I said a couple of weeks ago that I don’t like the pop culture sensibility that equates “original” with “lurid.”) You simply need to make the reader feel that the ending was worth all the dark hints and clues and tension.

Okay, I suppose I’ve rambled enough. Thanks, as always, Jan, for the great opportunity to learn and share! I really missed this last week!

Carol S.

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:31 pm
by glorybee
Rachel, thanks for chiming in--I like your answers to the questions, and I really like your linked story, which contains not only suspense (this week's lesson) but a surprise ending, too (since the reader is led to believe she'll find romance).


Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:35 pm
by glorybee
Carol, you should feel free to ramble at any time--you're one of my most valued contributors!

I love the epilog, and it really makes me want to read the book. Is it available?

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 6:03 pm
by Verna
I love Suspense!
I don't think I've ever been more surprised at an ending than in the movie The Sixth Sense.

My students always would get angry because there wasn't an ending to the story "The Lady or the Tiger." Several years ago I found on the internet a sequel, where the author wrote an ending years ago when he had so many disgruntled readers.

Again "I love suspense," but if you're waiting for me to post a clue to a story I'v written with suspense, you'll be suspended forever! Not because I'm modest--I just haven't been to write one.

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 7:27 pm
by Chely
glorybee wrote:When my girls were little, they loved a silly little book starring Grover from Sesame Street called "There's A Monster at the End of this Book." Every page had them breathless, wondering what the monster would be...and even after they'd read it a gazillion times, and knew that the monster was just Grover, they still loved it.
OH MY GOODNESS! That was my favorite childhood book! And I almost mentioned it myself. I have a tape of me reading it a five years old, and my sister just bought it for my girls for Christmas.
"YOU TURNED ANOTHER PAGE!!!" Lovable, furry Grover. Ahhh.

Alrighty, back to the regularly scheduled class...

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 7:30 pm
by glorybee

I know this was not your intention, but do you realize that you've just made me feel very...very...old.

That fact that YOUR favorite book was my DAUGHTERS' favorite book...

I'm going to go rub some liniment on my arthritic hip.