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Jan's Master Class--SUSPENSE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Verna
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Postby Verna » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:08 pm

Jan, I was just wondering here. I know you keep this column going for fun and to help writers at FW, but have you given any thought to actually publishing a book from your materials? I know writers and teachers would be interested in having this material in hard copy.
Verna

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Postby glorybee » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:29 pm

Colin, thanks for the link--I see that several of your commenters mentioned the suspense! And that one has a whole lot of mystery, too. I hope you'll expand it some day.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:32 pm

Soren, thanks so much for mentioning the flawed MC. That's just so, so true...no one wants to read about a perfect, conflictless person or world. Might as well just describe butterflies and rainbows all the time, then! And the flaws definitely add to the suspense of the book--because the MC might make--oh horrors--the WRONG decision!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:36 pm

Allison and Rachel, you both pose some interesting questions/observations. Personally, I don't know about the effectiveness of suspense as relates to the outcome, but I can certainly say that it's usually more satisfying if the outcome is positive.

Case in point: The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. Tons of suspense throughout the book, and at the end? And at the end? He doesn't get the wretched fish! I was so upset when I read that that I flunked the test, on purpose.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:39 pm

Verna, the short answer is no. There's nothing here that's not available in most high school lit books, and I've tailored it so heavily to the Writing Challenge that I'd pretty much have to start from scratch if I wanted to try to publish it.

But thanks so much for the thought...I'll definitely keep it on the back burner...
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Kid Denver » Wed Mar 18, 2009 6:34 pm

This might not be very suspenseful, but with me you never know.

I heard a voice say, “Cry.”
And asked, “Why don’t I care?”
My room was collecting darkness
I felt a presence there.
“Forget the granite graves, dear son
Leave off your jacket black
I have a little light for you
Stand up and take it back.”

I heard a voice say, “Die.”
And hissed, “Life is not fair.”
My eyes screamed silently searching
I feared a presence there.
“Forget the Heaven’s harp, dead one
No praise will help you now
I have some pretty pills for you
Unfurl your wrinkled brow."

I heard my voice cry, Why?
And spat, “Why should I care?
My love was wrongfully stolen
I miss her stately stare.
Leave off my jacket black, you say
You have some light for me
Death says that I can come to her
And set my heartbreak free.

I heard a voice say, die
And one, that I should care
My room was collecting darkness
I felt two presences there.
I can’t forget the granite graves
Or that there’s hope for me
The taste of tears from death remain
And yet I want to see.

I wrote a poem called, “Bye”
That asked, why would one care
It begged you all, forgive me please
I found the pills still there
You’ll never read that poem I wrote
Because I saw the light
I tore it once and burned it up
And found the will to fight.

-Henry C.
Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men,... Col. 3:23

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Postby Soren2007 » Wed Mar 18, 2009 7:29 pm

glorybee wrote:Allison and Rachel, you both pose some interesting questions/observations. Personally, I don't know about the effectiveness of suspense as relates to the outcome, but I can certainly say that it's usually more satisfying if the outcome is positive.

Case in point: The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. Tons of suspense throughout the book, and at the end? And at the end? He doesn't get the wretched fish! I was so upset when I read that that I flunked the test, on purpose.

Leave it to Hemingway...I took an intentional ZERO on a story by Poe for a similar reason...ugh.
There was a story I wrote about a character that ended up making a total mess of things in the ending decision and my teacher about grounded me from writing ever again. She was right, but I had to do it at least once.
“Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.” ~Dillard.

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Postby glorybee » Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:27 pm

Henry, that was great! I've read very few 'suspense' poems, but this one had me going....will he take the pills?

And in line with the last few posts...I'd have been very unhappy if the resolution of the suspense was a granite grave.

Thanks for your contribution!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby swfdoc1 » Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:36 pm

A few thoughts:

1. I think suspense is accentuated by compressed time and/or fast pacing. It seems that these two would point in opposite directions: if you only have a short time and things move quickly, you might not have much of a story (of course you would have plenty for 750 words!). However, this problem is often off-set by a countervailing consideration. Suspense can be enhanced by adding detail—this would lengthen the story. Of course this must be done—and can be done--in such a way as to not slow the pace.

I think of Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children (occurring in one day), and A Stranger is Watching (three days). Numerous other suspense writers use this technique. I think also of the Gospel of Mark as compared to the other Gospels. Mark is the shortest, yet individually many of the pericopes (fancy theological word for stories) take twice the space. Yet Mark is the fasted paced and operates in the shortest timeframe: no genealogies of theologically symbolical prefaces that stretch back to Adam or God, no birth narratives, no story of Christ as a boy. I think his is clearly the most suspenseful Gospel

2. Mark also employs the technique of sandwiching—embedding one story within another: suspense builds as the reader waits to get back to the conclusion of the first story. This is often teamed with flashbacks.

3. Mark also uses the historic(al) present/periphrastic verb forms much more than the other gospels, i.e., he uses present participles with helping verbs, to describe past events. Much of this is lost in translation, but it can be seen in, e.g., Mark 12:41-44; 13:1-4 in the NASB.

4. I tried to end many chapters of my novel with a dash of suspense:

_________________

Chapter 3: As he tortured himself over these matters, he forgot about Susan . . . at least for a while.

Chapter 5: Peter wasn’t sure he was going to be ready for work by Monday.

Chapter 9: And so the trio met . . . and met and met. And nothing seemed to change with Peter. Then one day, the unexpected happened.

Chapter 10: All they did was walk around the block, but it was a huge achievement and they both knew it. As they sat on a bench in the small park across from Peter’s apartment building, he looked at her and said, “One small step for man,” and smiled. That smile melted her heart.

But the dark days were not over yet.

Chapter 12: And so, Susan began to plot how to clear two more hurdles that in her mind were critical. She wanted to take Peter away on one of the trio’s weekend trips, and she wanted to find out what the first “incident” had been. She was about to find out how easy the first hurdle would be to overcome and how virtually impossible the second would be to overcome.

Chapter 13: They were in love. They were starting to share more and more of their lives. Things were becoming increasingly normal. Why wouldn’t he tell her this one thing?

It wasn’t right. It just wasn’t right!

Chapter 14: “So! This is all about you not believing in God!” And before she could stop herself, she added “What did God ever do to you?”

In the next split second, Andrea was horrified at herself. She couldn’t believe she had said that! She had heard from Susan all about Daphne’s death and Peter’s journey toward God and his eventual anger at God and finally his rejection of a belief in God.

“What did God ever do to me?! Screw you!” “Screw” was not the word Peter wanted to use, but with every fiber of his being bent on the task, he managed to use it, instead of the word he wanted.

He stormed out of Ed’s house.

Susan bolted after him. She got as far as the front door. Then she ran back into Ed’s living room, hugged Andrea, and whispered in her ear, “It’s not your fault.” As she ran for the front door the second time, she shouted over her shoulder at Ed, “It’s not her fault.”

Chapter 19: “Dear God, please don’t let him be dead. Please.”

Chapter 20: She reached the stairs and bounded up them to the front door of the building. Then she froze. What if he was inside?

She whipped around. What if he came up behind her while she hesitated?

She didn’t know what to do. She thought she heard a noise behind her in the park, and she jerked the door open and plunged into the building.
_____________________

Some of this is pretty heavy handed foreshadowing; some a bit more subdued; all designed to get the reader to turn the page to the next chapter—and designed to mix the techniques. Some may be changed during the next edit. I didn’t do it EVERY chapter—that become a bit much, but I did it on average in about half the chapters.

5. Suspense at the end is not a bad technique for our 750 words. I tried in my very first Challenge entry: I Hate Christmas Cards. (You notice the newbie lack of spaces between paragraphs.)
Steve
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things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Postby anna banana » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:39 am

Steve, that book sounds like one I want to read! Where do I get my hands on that? Thanks for the references to Gospel of Mark. I've never thought about it that way before. I think I will have to read it again with that in mind. :D
And in line with the last few posts...I'd have been very unhappy if the resolution of the suspense was a granite grave.

Hey Jan, I don't think you should watch the movie "Arlington Road" then. You would not be happy at the end. (But it would make you think. :D )
In order to clarify: Rachel Rudd

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Postby Kid Denver » Thu Mar 19, 2009 9:10 am

glorybee wrote:Henry, that was great! I've read very few 'suspense' poems, but this one had me going....will he take the pills?


I think there is medicine for that going problem :lol: Especially when you read bad poetry. I cannot write rhymed, metered poetry. So to avoid giving you the "going"s again, I will stick to my other styles, whatever they may be.

Thank you for your kindness. See you 'round.

Henry C.
Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men,... Col. 3:23

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Postby glorybee » Thu Mar 19, 2009 10:15 am

Steve, thanks so much for the little bits from your novel, showing how writers can end chapters with suspense to get the readers to read just one more. And I appreciate your saying that you don't do it for every chapter; I'm sure that would start to get wearisome. You've got to let that poor reader get a Diet Coke or a moment with the family every now and then!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby hwnj » Fri Mar 20, 2009 1:44 pm

Now that I have surely sufficiently deprived any of my fellow students from peeking at my answers, (for what that's worth other than my LOTR questions, :-)) I will torment you, Miss Jan, with this lengthy pontification. :D
I will go back after writing this book and read the replies beyond the first half dozen I was able to get through on Monday, so please forgive any redundancy.

I think that news headline writers are specialists in suspense. In one line or sound bite they must capture our interest to read further or tune in to the evening news. I was recently frustrated by a headline about a truck driver pulling over in front of a car who's driver was having a heart attack, and getting the car stopped so she could get help. What they never told the reader was how he knew that there was a problem requiring such bravery and risk.

1. Lord of the Rings
This trilogy is tightly strung with suspense, and these are but a few of the questions one might ask.
What has Gandalf learned about the ring that Bilbo found in The Hobbit?
Who are the dark riders, and what do they want?
Will Frodo be able to depart the Shire undetected?
Will Frodo be able to stop the willow from imprisoning his friends?
Why isn't Gandalf at the Inn like he promised? Can they trust the stranger who claims to be his messenger?
Will they find the herbs necessary to keep an injury from becoming fatal?
How can they win the race against time to reach safety with the elves?
Will they be able to escape the blizzard and the wolves?
How will they get to the other side of the mountains with the pass blocked?
Will Gandalf find the right words to open their escape route before the Watcher's tentacle pulls one of them in to the lake?
Will they all be able to escape from Moria?
Will they stay together to try and rescue the captured hobbits, or split up?
What should Frodo do about Gollum?
What will Treebeard do with the hobbits?
Will the Rohirim reach their fortress in time?
What will happen when Pippin sneaks a look at the Palantir?
What will happen when Aragorn tries to lead his company through the paths of the dead?
Do Frodo and Sam have a chance against the giant spider?
How can Sam possibly manage to rescue Frodo from Morgul Tower?
Will Pippin be able to get help in time to save Pharamir from his father's murder/suicide plot?
Will Sam and Frodo be discovered impersonating orc soldiers?
Will Frodo actually be able to relinquish the ring in to the fires of Mount Doom?
What has happened to the Shire in the hobbits' absence?
What is Miss Jan waiting for before reading this extraordinary classic? :D

I'm sure the other five have been well-covered by others.

It's not a well-known piece of literature, but there is this book called The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter. A nobleman's son, whose mother died in childbirth, is nursed by the stone mason's wife, and he becomes best friends with his "milk brother." What will he do when his "brother" is sentenced to severe punishment for something they both did, while he is hardly chastized? His decision spawns a lifetime of love and hate, honor and betrayal, vengence and compassion. Yes, it's nearly 900 pages, but it's worth turning every single one.

I don't think suspense is something that I focus on in my writing, (so perhaps I should work on that,) but it does turn up from time to time, even in my poetry.

Will the widow in this poem follow her culture, or her deceased husband's strange new faith.
The Greatest Sacrifice

In this story, I used anonymity to help carry the suspense. I never do actually reveal the identity of the MC/spy, and take my time in revealing the name of his target.
Opened Eyes

What will the outcome be in this trial?
The Fittest Punishment
(Hopefully not what Miss Jan would like to do to me after this assignment.) :D
Holly

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'It is better to be liked for the true you, than to be loved for who people think you are.'

"In order to realize the worth of the anchor, one needs to feel the stress of the storm." Daily Encouragement Net (Stephen & Brooksyne Weber)

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Postby glorybee » Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:32 pm

Woo hoo, Holly's back!

What I'm waiting for, Miss Holly, is for Tolkein to release the version with less words. LOTS less words. And smaller words. As Winnie the Pooh said so eloquently: "I am a bear of very little brain."

Thanks for your insights on suspense, too. I share your frustration with news stories that leave you knowing less than when you started! And the horrid thing is, you may never know, because they move on so quickly to other news stories!

Thanks for the links--the one I enjoyed most is Opened Eyes, because it had a great aha! moment. Classic!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby hwnj » Fri Mar 20, 2009 11:07 pm

"Little brains" my foot! Either your self-esteem has been assasinated, your self-awareness has amnesia, or you are exhibiting grotesquely false modesty.

...Or you have just never developed an appreciation of fantasy, which is okay, as I have never developed a taste for Shakespeare. :D
Holly

"There are two ways of spreading light -- to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it." Edith Wharton

'It is better to be liked for the true you, than to be loved for who people think you are.'

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