This week: Tick, tick, tickEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to create urgency and suspense.
Quotes about Suspense:
"Setting a time limit for the events of the story creates an urgency that adds to the suspense page by page. For example: "Unless he located Hawfield in twenty-four hours, the girl would be killed," or "He had six hours to reach the rendezvous point, and if he did not make it, he would be left alone behind enemy lines without resources of any kind." As the minutes tick by, each obstacle to the hero's progress is magnified and made more (pleasantly) frustrating for the reader."
~ Dean Koontz, Writing Popular Fiction
"This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."
~ Oscar Wilde, poet, novelist, playwright.
"Suspense combines curiosity with fear and pulls them up a rising slope."
~ Mason Cooley, humorist, professor
The Ticking Bomb
You might think the most thrilling and suspenseful things in your story/novel are the chase scenes, fights, or places where the hero’s life is in imminent danger. These things are certainly exciting for the reader, but you can’t use them throughout the whole story/novel. So how do you keep enough tension in between action scenes?
Often referred to as “The Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock directed things like: “Psycho,” “North By Northwest,” “The Birds,” and “Strangers on a Train.” Many of his plotlines or story devices are still being copied by modern cinema-artists and writers. His “Bomb Under the Table” theory of suspense is very well known. Here it is -- the best possible explanation of how to create suspense and keep the audience on the edge of their seats:
“There is a distinct difference between “surprise” and “suspense,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist [villain] place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the décor [setting]. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”
~ Alfred Hitchcock, from Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, Simon and Schuster, 1983
How to Increase the Suspense
Here are some ways to insert suspense into your writing.
The Ticking Bomb -- Using a time deadline can create urgency in the narrative. Not only does the hero have to solve the crime, find the monster, or save the victim, he must do it in a certain time limit. For instance, in “Poseidon Adventure,” the ship is sinking and the group has only a certain amount of time to escape. In “Armageddon,” a killer asteroid will strike the Earth and the well-drillers must beat the deadline and blow it up before it does.
The Poison Pill -- By using a medical condition or a trap for the hero or victim, you can raise the tension level. It’s not a cut-and-dry deadline. The disaster/death/illness may not happen by a specific time -- or it might! In films like “Crank,” a poison is used. In all the “Saw” installments, traps or difficult choices are used as pseudo-deadlines. In “Speed” the dang bus is gonna blow up if they go below 50mph. While when it's going to happen isn’t a sure thing, it’s enough to keep characters and audience saying, “Hurry up! Hurry up!”
Just Around the Corner -- This device puts the hero in close proximity to danger. For instance, he must investigate the monster’s lair. Or a group of teens accept a dare to spend a night in the haunted house. Or the innocent kids are kissing in the car, and we know the serial killer likes killing young lovers in deserted spots. These situations are designed to have the reader yell at the book, “No! Don’t go in there!” or “Don’t do that. Look behind you!” (This only works if the reader is sure the monster or villain is somewhere close by.)
The Enemy Within -- This last device is probably the weakest but still works to create urgency and suspense if used properly. The enemy within can either refer to the hero or someone in his group. For instance, if the hero is a werewolf (or zombie-bitten) and must complete a task before he “turns,” like locking himself up before he eats his girlfriend, it sets out a deadline for him. Or if the werewolf/incipient-zombie is one of the group, the rest must watch his every move, knowing something may happen but they don’t know when. There can also be a betrayer in the group. People are dying and suspicion falls on the group’s members, but “Who can it be?” Trying to work out who the betrayer is will keep the audience glued to every action and bit of dialog.
You can up the tension level in your writing by adding a deadline for the characters.
The deadline can be specific (like an exact time) or can be inferred, such as: if you do this (or don’t do this) then an awful thing will happen.
The setting can play a part in suspense if the hero (or group) is placed close to the monster, but they (and the reader) don’t know exactly where it is or when it will strike.
The key to good suspense is letting the reader know about the danger early on, making it as real and threatening as possible, and reminding the reader of it by having the characters think about it or mention it in dialog. Keep reminding the reader that time is running out!
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories about deadlines and suspense for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Villains, Monsters, and Psychos" where I asked them to tell me who was their favorite villain, monster or psycho. Thanks for replying!
Here are the replies in the order they were received:
Moon Voyager writes: Good preview of villains but Frankenstein wasn't really a villain. The character was basically ignored and left out in a world by himself. The poor guy committed heinous crimes because crimes were committed against him and in the end he does weep for his "father" I think my favourite villain, one of them, is Tooms from X-Files a mutant cannibal who acts sans empathy and full of animistic hunger :P
Mary Shelley did a good job humanizing "the Monster." And yeah, Tooms was a very creepy guy with those elongating-hand shots and the yellow eyes!
dejavu_BIG computerprobs writes: Great Newsletter as always! Thank you for featuring my story, 'The Cleansing.' My favorite horror movie is an old one called Burnt Offerings. A nice family moves into a beautiful old house, the dad starts changing, mom starts changing, finally they try leaving, the final scene freaks me out, what's left of the family drives away, the burning house begins to re-build itself. So, the house is the monster. I don't know why, but it freaks me out just thinking of it.
You're welcome. It was my pleasure to feature such a good story! I've never seen “Burnt Offerings,” but I've heard it praised as really scary.
Brooke - I'm backkkk :) writes: Great NL! I really enjoyed reading it. Now I just need to put pen to paper and get it done!
Thanks! Yes, keeping butt-in-chair is a challenge for every writer. You can do it!
alexchase writes: Hey there- I LOVED the villain's newsletter. I'd have to say my favorite was John "Jigsaw" Kramer. Between his 'Carpe Diem' motivation behind his crimes, his brutal cunning and how he turned his engineering expertise into a method of killing almost made him more human, if possible, than any of his victims.
It's true. I almost liked the guy. At least I admired his craftiness and originality. He was one heck of a villain.
Raven writes: My favorite villain might be Annie Wilkes. King does working-class women so well, even crazy ones. Also, loved the Romero quote.
Yes -- King does crazy very, very well. Many people think Misery's Annie Wilkes is the scariest villain in literature. As played by Kathy Bates, she scares me so much I've never been able to watch the whole movie. Interestingly, King dreamed the story while sleeping on a plane. I guess I need to pay more attention to my dreams!
Jeff writes: Really great advice on creating memorable villains. Thanks for the tips and the great NL!
Aw, I'm blushing. That's a great compliment coming from you.
BIG BAD WOLF is Feeling Lucky submits "The Vampiress and the Boy" and writes: I'd have to say, "Evil Ash" from "Army of Darkness".- "I've got a bone to pick with you."
I find the "Army of Darkness" movies a little more black comedy than horror. But they sure know how to splash blood all over the place!
keltic angel writes: Great newsletter. It has a lot of good info.
Thanks very much! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
platinumbwords writes: I love stories/films where the villain turns out to be the guy/gal you don't expect or that blur the lines between what/who is good and evil. I.e. the so-called "normal" everyday person who winds up terrorizing the character(s) who is/are more believably (a) villain(s) (physically disfigured, offbeat rebel, foreigner, "alien," or just somehow different) for example the scientists in Splice who mistreat their created "daughter."
I also thought "Splice" was a good movie because of the moral and ethical questions it raised. The best movies and books make you think.
Barbie writes: Hi, thanks for this very useful newsletter. My favourite villain is Ivan Vanko in Ironman 2; the more psycho the villain, the better the movie.
I agree. If the villain or monster seems super-dangerous and deadly, it makes for a much better film/book. Thanks for writing!
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