Welcome back to our NaNoWriMo weekly blog series! Today, Hannah lets us in on some of the great mysteries of building suspense, and even gives us some books to check out for their “unputdownableness.” If there’s a better word than that to describe my favorite books, I don’t know what it is. If you haven’t joined for a NaNoWriMo workshop, it’s not too late! There are still two left this month, and we encourage you to join in. More info HERE. And now, here’s Hannah!
“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!”
This week in Get Unblocked!, our NaNoWriMo writer’s block clinic, we talked about how to build suspense. The elements that create suspense aren’t just fun for the reader – they can also turn into valuable moments of inspiration for the writer. If you’re feeling stuck in your NaNoWriMo project, try some of these tricks for building conflict and suspense, and you may find your story taking off in an entirely new and exciting direction.
In my observation, three elements build suspense in a story: surprise, inevitability, and convention. Surprise is an easy one – but as anyone who has seen a lot of slasher movies can tell you, the serial killer jumping out of the closet stops being scary after the fourth or fifth time. Surprise alone, when overused, tends to desensitize the reader to any emotions you might want to inspire in them. When surprise works with inevitability and convention, you can produce a powerful brew of emotions in any work, whether it’s horror, adventure, romance, or even memoir. These three elements also work together to generate humor – humor and suspense have a lot in common. One of our regular students is writing a workplace memoir, and he said it’s difficult to capture that “had to be there” feeling when retelling his funny stories for a wider audience. Surprise, inevitability, and convention can work together to create that feeling that the reader is in on the joke.
So what are inevitability and convention? Inevitability is the knowledge that something must happen. That can be created with foreshadowing – dropping direct hints about what’s to come – or it can be accomplished by creating a set of conventions for your world that allow the reader to predict that if A happens, B will soon follow. Conventions are the rules for your world. Even if you’re writing nonfiction, you have to establish the rules for the world you describe – the only difference is, in nonfiction you’re not creating those rules imaginatively, but describing them from fact and observation (one would hope).
Stephen King’s Carrie is an excellent example of these three elements playing together. Even if you’re from Mars, the ending of Carrie won’t be a total surprise to you because King begins eluding to it from the first page of the book. What is a surprise is when, how, and why the prom massacre will happen. King creates inevitability with simple foreshadowing, while still withholding enough information to generate suspense. Additionally, Carrie’s powers, as well as the social behavior of the mean kids around her, follow strict and predictable rules. Watching Carrie’s powers grow within that structure is terrifying; so is reading about her physical and mental suffering through the use of the powers. The other students’ behavior (following the conventions King set) also builds suspense because they’re predictably mean – and we all know what Carrie’s capable of when provoked. But these rules aren’t for horror writing alone.
In a humorous situation, the fact that Bill is about to bite into a wax apple is a surprise (for him), and will also be a surprise for the reader because we don’t know exactly when it will happen – but it’s one that we can look forward to with hilarious suspense because we already know it’s a wax apple (inevitability) and we know that Bill can’t resist eating any apple he sees (convention).
Convention is a powerful tool for writing, and for generating inspiration, because it is also the basis of most conflict. Nearly all conflicts in fiction spring from a set of opposing conventions. Take The Lord of the Rings— a daunting work to emulate. J. R. R. Tolkein created vast lands, diverse peoples, and even complete languages for his sprawling epic, generating a complex and operatic interplay of political intrigue and old-fashioned adventure. But the whole story can be boiled down to one opposing set of conventions: 1) The Ring must be destroyed; 2) Everyone who possesses the Ring wants to keep it.
Coming up with a set of opposing conventions (or creating a new convention that opposes one that already exists in your work) is a powerful way to generate new conflict and suspense. It can form the basis of an entire story, or it can be a way to get your story moving again when you’ve coasted to a slow point. This week for our first writing game, we partnered up and took turns creating a convention, and then coming up with an opposing convention for it. The example I used to start us off was: 1) A superhero’s only power is flight; 2) His biggest fear is heights. Many students said that playing the game made them realize that they had already created many conventions for their NaNoWriMo project that they could challenge. You can play the game at home by yourself, using your own story, if you need a jolt of inspiration.
In the second half of class, we talked about what made a story “unputdownable.” We each listed the last book we just couldn’t put down – even if the book wasn’t that great by literary standards. (I’ve included the list below so you can check them out from the DC Public Library!) We discussed why these books in particular were so hard to stop reading. Many of them shared a strong presence of the three elements of suspense; and many of them generated those elements by playing with time. Whether it was the creation of inevitability by revealing, at the beginning, that a character was dead (or alive), and then building the rest of the story in flashback, or even telling the entire story out of order and letting the reader put the puzzle pieces together, many of these stories used the narrative timeline to introduce surprise, build inevitability, or illustrate conventions.
To explore this idea, our second writing game was a pass-the-pen; only, unlike a normal pass-the-pen, we wrote our stories backward. Each person wrote one line of a story, then passed it to their left. The next person had to write a line for that story that took place before the events already described. It was a difficult one, but it demonstrated how we can find inspiration for our stories by looking backward – when you’re stuck in your project and it feels like there’s nowhere to go, try exploring your characters’ or world’s past – you may find the map for where your tale needs to go next.
As a take-home exercise, I want anyone who’s reading this to take a little time this week to write a story about your main character’s childhood, even if you don’t use it in your final work. If your main character is already a child, flash forward and write a scene from his or her adulthood.
Want more? Some students have given me permission to post their exercises from class on my website; I’ll start sharing them onwww.HannahSternberg.com this week! Join in the fun!
Get Unblocked!’s Unputdownable Books
Telegram Avenue by Michael Chabon
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Z by Therese Ann Fowler
Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
Autobiography by Morrissey
To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever by Will Blythe
50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James
Infatuations by Javier Marias
World War Z by Max Brooks
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon