Tuesday 4 August 2015

Using Suspense to Mess With Narrative Structure – David Thorpe

So how do you make suspense work?

I'll tell you later.

cheeky grin emoticon

First, the necessary info:

The #MSWL tag on Twitter stands for "manuscript wish list" and both agents and editors use it and the related website to alert writers to what they are looking for. It is extremely useful and greatly simplifies the process of manuscript submission and selection for both sets of actors.

Now, a flashback:

The other day, when I was monitoring the wish lists for manuscripts aimed at older children, teenagers or young adults I was struck by the number of requests for novels that had an unusual structure or played with the traditional narrative form, or even had unreliable narrators.

Why should it be that editors and agents think that readers in the age range from older children to young adults are looking for something other than stories with a traditional structure of beginning, middle and end, in that order? Perhaps they have had enough of such structures already in their short lives, or perhaps there is something else?

Writers nowadays have to compete with a plethora of other media – films and streaming television, Instagram, YouTube and video games – to grab the attention of teenage readers, who are hungry for an immediate hit and possess a comparatively short attention span.

Diving into the story at the deep end is one way to do this.

The traditional structure means that in act one, known as the set up, the writer takes the time to introduce the context and the characters before coming to the main problem which the protagonists has to solve. Several writers, including myself, on this blog have written about it before.

This takes time and maybe modern readers don't have the patience to plough through all this. They want to cut straight to the chase.

One way around this problem which writers frequently use is to open with a prologue containing high action that is either part of the back story or a flash forward (e.g. the Young Bond stories written by Charlie Higson) before  commencing act one. (This is a device often found in early Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The disadvantage of this approach is that you still have a slow pace in act one. Modern readers are wise to this and the risk is that they may lose patience. For these readers there must be either almost constant drama or humour depending on the genre to keep them hooked.

Yet from time to time as storytellers we have to give the readers information such as descriptions of characters, places, and other incidental but necessary plot information. So how might we be able to do this while playing with traditional narrative structure? Conveying this information can slow the pace unless it is deftly mixed into the narrative flow like adding seasoning to a dish.

When the information is what would have been in the set-up it will seem like a flashback. The flashbacks are dropped into the main chronological sequence to add relevant backstory on an ongoing need-to-know basis.

Now writing courses will tell you that flashbacks slow the pace, but that isn't necessarily true. The key to good storytelling is to maintain the suspense, to get the readers turning those pages. What if we use flashbacks in order to keep the suspense going for longer?

Let's say you're telling a friend about something exciting that happened to you. Some way into your story you realise that they won't understand who a certain character is who has appeared on the scene, so you have to spend a couple of sentences filling in who they are. Then you pick up your narrative.

The listener will be grateful because it helps them understand what's going on but they will keep listening because they know they are going to find out what happens next pretty soon. It's the suspense that lets them do this. Of course if you spent too long telling the life story of this person they will end up forgetting where they are in your main story, or lose interest and walk away. So you keep the insertion as long as it needs to be and no longer.

So the storyline reaches a cliffhanger, which doesn't have to be a big deal, just something you know will make the reader pant a little to find out what happens next, then you drop in the flashback. The more of a deal the cliffhanger is the longer the flashback can be. All the time they're reading this they're also wanting to get to where the storyline picks up again.

That's the key to this form of playing with structure.

So how do you make suspense work?

Told you I'd get to it.

Suspense works on different levels of timescale. A short timescale may be, say: what is behind this door? Will the prisoner reveal the answers to the questions being demanded by their captor? Will the boy tell the girl how he feels about her? The longest timescale for suspense in your story is the one set up near the beginning that you resolve at the end. In between there are other ongoing questions being set up and resolved (or not) over different timescales, not just in your main narrative but in any subplots.

When looking at your structure you should be particularly aware of all of these suspense elements.

Here is a metaphor to illustrate this idea. Imagine a guitar fretboard.


At one end is the beginning of your narrative and the other end is the conclusion. Each fret is a plot point – the tension rises and the pitch gets higher as you move along the fretboard. All of the suspense elements in your book are like rubber bands stretched between nails hammered into the fretboard. (Please don't spoil a real guitar by hammering nails into it!)

These suspense elements (rubber bands) will overlap: some will be short and some will be long. The more you have and the more they overlap, the more of a page turner you have.

So, at each point in your narrative, on every page, you can ask yourself the following questions for each of the narrative strands:

  1. What does the reader know?
  2. What do they want to know?
  3. When shall I tell them?

This will allow you to keep track of the suspense elements.

Okay, armed with this information we can go back and look at the structure of your book. Where are the moments of heightened drama? To keep high both the tension and the attention of the reader, you would need to keep these high drama moments coming thick and fast. But after a high point the reader needs to catch their breath. This is when you can insert the flashback containing the necessary back story information that the reader needs in order to make sense of what's going on.

Of course if these scenes themselves contain drama, so much the better.

This is just one way in which you could scramble the narrative structure. But whatever method you choose there needs to be a good dramatic reason for it, perhaps linked to the journeys of your main characters. It should not be arbitrary.

David Thorpe is the author of YA speculative fiction novels Hybrids and Stormteller.


Dianne Hofmeyr said...

David this was brilliant! And loved the guitar analogy. I'm writing my first YA thriller and some of the feedback has been – not commercial enough. 'Suspense works on different levels of timescale' struck a cord with me. And now armed with your 3 questions to myself will revisit the text. I think the tension is all there but the timescale is too linear. Anyway off to reread your blog again and peruse #MSWL.
Thank you! A perfect post for me right now.

DavidKThorpe said...

Thanks Dianne. I had the exact same problem with a YA novel and thought of all this while editing it.