Saturday, June 27, 2020

Suspense cheat sheet


For (the yet unfinished and currently on hiatus) Have Hat Will Travel story I needed a single 'suspense' chapter because, well, I was going to do bad things to my main character.

To make sure I pushed all the buttons I created this little 'cheat sheet'.

Push all buttons!

... and be as evil as you can be!

This is an essential part of becoming the best overlord possible. You must learn to deal with your underlings, and you must be willing to give them the punishment they deserve. As I'm not omnipotent yet (working on it though) in the real world, then at least I've got the power in my imaginary world.

Thus I can do bad things to my characters and get away with it. And as an evil overlord, it is my duty to make sure they won't get too 'uppety'.

What's even better?

What's better than suspense... dread... or fear? Organized suspense, dread, and fear! Hah!

Not horror

Note that suspense isn't the same as horror or mystery. Horror is about scaring the reader, mystery is about providing the reader with puzzles. Suspense typically includes a lot of mystery elements, but often adds unlikely escapes, bare-knuckle fights, heists, and car chases. Mystery is Hercule Poirot, suspense is Mission Impossible. Stuff like Philip Marlowe sits somewhere in between 😏

When writing suspense, you're trying to keep the reader on the edge of his / her seat, by posing ever-increasing challenges to your main character. The reader typically knows the main character is going to overcome the problems, but it won't be easy.

Witholding information from the reader

When writing first person it's okay to withhold the plans of your main character sometimes, right until the very last minute, but that shouldn't be done frequently. This isn't a mystery where the MC uses miraculous insight to solve a mysterious murder.

I find it annoying when, in first person stories, the author keeps the information or plans the MC has away from the reader.

Story limitations

Adding a 'suspense' chapter to another type of story poses a challenge in its own way: you don't want to alienate the reader, you don't want to disrupt the flow of the full story. So when 'inserting' a suspense chapter you have to keep some things in mind:

1. Stick to the same format and tense (first or third person, present or past tense etcetera)

2. Don't go overboard with violence (make it match the remainder of the work)

3. Is it really a single chapter? Then do you really, really need such a 'suspense' chapter?

For example, Have Hat Will Travel is more entertainment than suspense, and it features little mystery. Violence, however, is not a problem.

On the other hand, something like my first novel definitely has it's fair share of mystery, so a suspense chapter won't stand out that much. You might think of the whole story as a 'urban contemporary fantasy mystery action', but I think that's a little too explicit when it comes to genres 😁

The pudding

The proof is in the pudding.

I combined the different lists, stripped out what I could not use, and came up with this set of targets. Then I wrote my chapter and tried to hit each and every bullet. You decide if it worked.

See Have Hat Will Travel chapter 13: Not the Real Her (6) for the results, and if I accomplished my target, or not...

The cheat sheet

Change the order as you like...

1. Start with a spectacular, unlikely, or mysterious event, hook, trigger

2. Explain protagonists' motivation (or perhaps not, this is a tricky one)

3. Give the characters motivations (reasons to succeed, and reasons to fear failure)

4. Cause doubt, express fear, if you can manage and handle it then add despair

5. Address / include all possible fears

6. Hinder communications

7. Add time pressure

8. Endanger other important characters

9. Hurt at least one good friend and / or innocent bystander... or both

10. Enforce impossible choices (kill your brother to save your sister, etc.)

11. Have one or more solutions fail (don't we all love failure!)

12. Promise punishment, foretell disasters, before actually implementing them

13. Start with minimal violence

14. Increase the challenge every time

15. Add at least one (almost) impossible challenge with an unlikely outcome

16. There must be great risks but also great rewards

17. For each case of good luck one case of bad luck... or five cases of bad luck 😈

18. Wrap up the chapter with either a happy outcome, or go for a shock effect

Further suggestions welcome 😎


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