Call & Response – The Mechanics of Suspense

I spent a lot of energy in my essay on hooks talking about curiosity… about a raising question in the minds of readers, so that the need for answers pulls them ever deeper into your narrative. Now I’m going to talk about taking that spark of curiosity and fanning it into a raging fire of I Must Know! In other words, creating suspense.

Every novel relies on suspense, to some extent, to keep its audience engaged. Even a poetic, angst-ridden vignette about two people suffering together over a cup of coffee should have enough ‘what happens next?’ to bring readers back if the phone rings when they’re mid-way down the page.

It should be self-evident, I hope, that suspense doesn’t just mean action tropes. The guy hanging off the cliff’s edge, the car chase, the scary monster lurking behind the heroine as she roams the darkened room in the scary old mansion, the full-on battle scene–these are what we often think of when called upon to imagine nail-biter situations. But suspense is also generated when we wonder: Will Lady Impertinence accept Lord Well-Heeled’s proposal? Can Lonely Guy overcome his need to seem invulnerable and reach out to his family? Is the eccentric, retired landlord’s wacky new tenant going to propel him out of his suffocating apathy… or merely send him to the file cabinet for an eviction form?

Note all the question marks? Wondering if I’ll answer any of them? See, that’s suspense.

And the answer, to Will I Answer, is an unequivocal yes. Because here’s the thing: suspense doesn’t work by just leaving the questions sitting. We’ll get tired and move on if we never get resolution. But once we know everything, the mystery is gone… so unless you’re at the very end of a book, each answered question should bring with it another question.

This is suspense in a nutshell: you make us wonder what’s next. You show it playing out. Then you make us wonder what’s gonna happen after that.

In the case of Impertinence and Lord Well-heeled, the question is ‘Will she say yes?’ The answer… well, say she says no. An obvious next question might be Why? But maybe we already know that. In that case, we ask: what’s Welly gonna do next?

If she says yes, on the other hand, maybe there’s a “But what if her family forbids it?” Lord Welly wants to know too! So maybe he finds out, through diligent but gentlemanly snooping, that his beloved was previously engaged to some boy who’s been missing for three years. There’s the answer. And the next question is: what if Impertinence’s ex is still alive?

Welly digs into that… and whatever he finds, it probably pushes the hoped-for marriage even further away.

You see how this works, right? As they say on shampoo bottles, lather, rinse, repeat. If you wrap something up and there’s nothing else to wonder about, you’ve finished your story.

Ramping it up or down.

The above story of Impertinence and Lord Welly forms an outline of the sort of suspenseful situation you might find in a romance . . . or within a romance subplot tucked into some other genre of novel. It’s a little melodramatic, of course, but you could tone down the storyline I’ve created, perhaps making the questions lie entirely with the realm of character. You might still have a proposal in the offing, in other words, but the questions could be less colorful: not so much a missing fiance, more of an internal struggle with intimacy. The unknown still lies at the heart of it: what do these characters want? What drives them? What choices will they make?

Or, of course, you can make it bigger.

When we think of suspense, we do often default to the stuff of action-adventure movies: the ticking countdown on the bomb, the car with runaway brakes, the outcome of a shootout. These are life and death events, big and noisy, with high and easily comprehensible stakes.

The question “Will They Die Now?” is endlessly compelling.

The speed, noise, and life or death stakes of a big action event can sweep us up in its excitement. We often care about the outcome of a fight scene even if we don’t know the participants all that well. Or imagine a Pink Panther-style scene, one that pits an anonymous masked thief against an array of alarm gadgets and highly trained security staff. We don’t know any of the people involved, not really, but the intricacy of the job at hand and the conflict–the thief’s ingenuity versus the threat of jail–fills the scene with a strong sense of Who Will Win?

That said, sustaining a sense of edge of the seat excitement in a longer work is easier if you develop the readers’ investment in our characters. We’ll care about Joe Stranger bleeding out as the ambulance wails, too far away to get there in time, because we’re human and most of us feel a certain amount of sympathy for a fellow being who’s injured.(If that’s not you, honestly, don’t tell me.) But we’ll care more when the injured character is someone we like.

So in my next craft essay, I’ll talk about that whole tricky thing where you make readers care about your characters without actually making them all treacly boring do-gooders.

So you want to get going on a novel?

As some of you may have deduced, my spate of posts on basic writing skills is an effort to create some new resources for the students in my next UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course–Novel Writing I, Writing the First Novel. The class opens for ‘business’ on April 16th and the point is to conceive of and start a novel… to do the preliminary planning and get a first chapter drafted. I’m scheduled to do the N2 class in the summer, and the tentative plan is to then do N3.

What does this mean? It’s an opportunity for writers located anywhere on the Internet, and working in any genre, to have me look over their shoulders for three quarters in a row, and to workshop their books-in-progress with a group of 10-15 like-minded writers.

Questions? Let me know!

Hooks, otherwise known as beginnings

I always liked the word hook, as writing terms go. Maybe it’s because I did fish as a kid…

Me and the first fish I ever caught, plus back up singers.

(I realize that the fish should be turned sideways, so that it’s recognizable, for this photo to be any use as proof. Still. That’s me, and my first kill.)

It’s one of those metaphors that really works for me. Hook embraces the idea of the title as that first glimmer of a lure… and then the opening words or sentence, the first few paragraphs, get that opportunity to either grab the reader or let them get away.

No matter what term you use for it, a well-crafted opener is a must for fiction of any length. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and that’s true whether they’re reading purely for pleasure or because they are your dream agent and they want to consider representing you, you, you.

(Sure, there are people who will chew on through a few paragraphs of sawdust because they’ve liked your other published work, or because they’re completists who’ll finish anything once begun, or they’re your mom, or Harriet Klausner, or because it’s easier to keep going than to decide to switch to something else. But reaching the smallest possible subset of your potential readership isn’t the goal, right?)

So, how do hooks work?

Well, we’ve already established they make the reader want to read on. And want–desire, in other words–is an emotion. This is a lot of what fiction-writing is. You are trying to make the reader feel something.

Midway through a book or story, you can do something terrible to a character and that desire to read on will come from empathy. The reader will by then have befriended your characters, and they’ll want to see what happens next because they’re in a relationship of sorts with them. But early on, that emotional investment isn’t there. Imagine someone you’ve just met, who asks you to meet them for a coffee. If you aren’t pretty damn sure you like ’em, you’ll put them off.

That said, it’s not impossible to evoke empathy for a stranger. If you start a story with “The two homeless kids…”, you’re probably going to find a fair number of people who’ll go a little further.

And why is that? Partly, it’s because homeless children evoke a strand of sympathy just by being big-eyed starving moppets. But mostly it’s because some part of the reader is thinking: the two homeless kids… what?

And that’s the emotional essence of a veritable ton of hooks: curiosity. That sense of What? is a comparatively easy emotion to evoke. You can take that pair of disadvantaged children, for example, and crank the mystery right up:

The two homeless kids…

…were down to their last bullet.
…fought in the dark over the leprechaun.
…had been dead for at least a day.
…definitely weren’t human.
…not only were identical, but bore a creepy resemblance to young Elvis Presley.
…broke into the magic shop at moonrise.
…flat out refused to talk, even after we threatened to charge them with espionage and insulting the dignity of a police horse.
…had silver eyes and arsenic-tipped fingernails.

You see what I mean. If you get a person wondering, they’ll read on. And then you can move into engaging other emotions–be it friendly feelings for the characters or the surprise of “Hey! I wasn’t expecting that!” Once that happens, you’re well on your way to reeling them all the way to the end.

Here’s a favorite curiosity-inducing opener:

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

And another, very prettily written by Stephen Barnes in Zulu Heart: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America:

In the verdant grasslands a brisk hour’s run from the coast, close enough for to spice the air with the ocean’s foam, thirteen solemn men sat circle, speaking of death.

Curiosity isn’t the only way to go, of course. There are other strategies, like…

Dialog Hooks

Dialog is seductive to beginning writers–I see a lot of student manuscripts that open with speeches. The allure is that it lets you open with a character and a scene in progress. Someone’s saying something… to whom? The curiosity is almost built-in.

But, again, we don’t yet have a relationship with that character. So whatever it is that they say needs to be remarkable enough to catch our attention. If you want to open with two guys jawing over the weather over the back fence, either the weather should be life-altering or your way with voice better be as sure-footed as that of a mountain goat. “Well, Earl, we got the planting done and now it looks like rain,” just isn’t going to cut it. Though Jane Yolen comes close with Briar Rose:

Gemma, tell your story again,” Shana begged, putting her arms around her grandmother and breathing in that special smell of talcum and lemon that seemed to belong only to her.

(I looked hard for something really revolutionary, dialog-wise, on my shelves, and came up dry. Dialog hooks are hard! Help me, please, if you know of a good one? And hey–no “I” protagonists talking to the reader. That’s different.)

Here’s what happened, now I’ll tell you how: the classic example is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of the hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

Running, Fighting, Chasing Each Other through the Trees: Another near relation of curiosity is suspense–opening with action. If the homeless kids in the above example are on the run, we’ll hang with them for a little while to see if they get away, and who’s after them, and why. A chase or a battle is inherently compelling. We want to know who wins. And, if over the course of that clash we come to know the players a little, to feel something for them and have a stake in their predicament, we’ll have three chapters read before we remember we meant to put the kettle on. (I’m going to talk about getting readers to like your characters soon, by the way, in another post).

Here’s a bit of action:

Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson: Roscommon came and laid waste to the garden an hour after dawn, about the time I usually get out of bed and he usually passes out on the shoulder of some freeway.

Start with character–Wherein you give us a look at someone, or better yet a glimpse into their soul:

The Rift, by Walter J. Williams:

He was a god to his people. He lived high above the earth, in the realm of his brother the Sun, and his rule stretched from the world of life to the world of spirits.


Expendable, James Alan Gardner:

My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance.

Not last, and certainly not least, you can set a hook with the aesthetic appeal of your prose. Setting out an authoritative and cool storyteller’s voice, something we just want to listen to… it’s a powerful thing, and powerfully hard to do, too. Here’s one of my favorite voice-y openings:

In the Woods, by Tana French:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the batts shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of hook types. I couldn’t possibly come up with them all. My hope is that by now you’ve got the general idea. Open any book you love, read the first two paragraphs, and analyze whether, how and why it gets your interest. Then compare it with your opener. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Try it: Here’s Roots of Evil, by Sarah Rayne:

It’s not every day that your family’s ghosts come boiling out of the past to disrupt your ordinary working day.

Why does it work? You tell me.

When in doubt, remember–you can put more than one worm on a story hook. So, my final hook type is this… Multibait! None of these tactics is mutually exclusive. A great hook is probably going to play on several reader emotions, and combine more than one interest-grabbing strategy.

But if you’re stuck, I recommend starting with curiosity. Dangle something shiny and mysterious, start the reader wondering, and get your tale underway.

The Weight of Ideas

I wrote not long ago about generating a big pile of ideas for a future book or story, of using the brainstorming process to explore all the things you might want to write, the better to figure out which idea would be the best use of your time and energy.

But once you have that big shiny pile of potential storytelling treasure, how do you separate the iron pyrite from the nuggets of gold?

Sometimes you’re lucky. There’s an obvious contender. It grabs you, it beguiles or terrifies or otherwise drags you to the notebook or keyboard. You are compelled to write it. That’s an incredible feeling, and can lead to some amazing fiction. But what if there are a few tantalizing prospects? How do you decide which ones are keepers?

I believe a skilled writer can take almost anything and turn it into a decent story. All those quickly jotted concepts have some potential; like seeds, they’re just waiting for the right conditions so they can germinate. I mentioned Macbeth in Spaaaace! in that previous post. It sounds a little silly, right? It’s meant to. I scrawled it down quickly and initially dismissed it out of hand. But as a starter for a book goes, there’s nothing actually wrong with it. Tend it just a bit, and you might get something like: “a tale of ambition and murder, set on a 29th-century space station haunted by ghost-like aliens who adopt the appearances and personalities of the recently dead.”

I could run with that. And I bet every single one of you could spin up your own interesting take on that same questionable catchphrase. Shakespeare’s core idea is all about ambition out of control, after all–the desire for power. That’s never going to lose its currency.

So, if you do have a bunch of rapidly generated concepts for stories, and they all have the potential to be amazing, does that mean all ideas are created equal?

No. Some ideas can simply carry more than others. I can think of no better way to put it than to go back to the metaphor of story seeds. Think of them this way: some are flowers and some are trees.

(Don’t get me wrong: I loooove flowers. I’ve published over thirty short stories and I’ve got more on the way.)

It’s pretty common for writers, especially new writers, to start on something they think is a story, only to have it climb sky-high on them. In almost any medium-sized story workshop–imagine ten or so writers, each submitting a completed work of short fiction–it’s common for at least one draft to come in that is super-dense, bursting with a complexity that challenges its length. These pieces have too many characters and too much going on. They have subplots begging to be written, or actually crammed within the margins of the action. Just establishing the setting and principal characters takes pages, everything’s incredibly interesting, you hit the 6000 or so word mark. . . and then Boom! The writer wraps it up suddenly, superfast.

“I think this may be a novel,” is what you hear, invariably, when these pieces are workshopped. Readers can see that the idea is just, somehow, a book. It can carry more.

Is there a way to tell which is which before you start writing? Perhaps not always. Experience helps. With practice, you develop a better sense of your own rhythms and proclivities, and you can take a look through the list and see which ideas are going to snap together beautifully, in a few scenes. Those are the flowers.

Here are some clues to help you evaluate the rest.

Do a census: Can you tell this story with two people, or does it need at least ten?

How many scenes can you imagine? Your main character’s gonna start out in one place, emotionally, and end up in another. How many beats will it take him or her to get there?

Could you do it in one scene? Is there a way to just write the climax and have it make some kind of sense?

How complicated is the thing the main characters want? Could they get it immediately if they just pulled themselves together, or are there obvious preliminary steps along the way, like walking to Rivendell or finishing grad school?

Does one big thing happen to the main character? Or can you see emotional arcs for any of the others? Is there more than one person going on a big journey?

What are the demands of the point of view? It’s not an absolute rule, by any means, but in short stories we often recommend restricting ourselves to one point of view. If you can’t imagine this story coming together without switching in and out of several of your characters’ heads, you may have a novel on your hands.

Can you imagine the story playing out in one physical locale? No? You need at least two principal settings? They’re going to visit at least four planets? Every member of the main character’s dinner club has to host a night out for the story to work? They’ll eventually quiz fifteen different murder suspects? The higher the number, the more likely we’re getting into book territory here.

Do you have a sense of its tone changing? Is it a quick, nasty, jolt, like Pat Cadigan’s “Roadside Rescue“? A hilarious comic sketch like Ray Vukcevich’s “A Holiday Junket?” Does one of the storylines look like it might be serving as comic relief? Are there places where you’re thinking: ‘here we need to slow the pace a little, or bring the mood down?’ If it’s big enough to need that kind of variety, it is, again, probably a book.

Sketch out a rough outline. Is it half as long as you expected? Four times bigger?

Do you find yourself thinking you can condense three scenes into one, or get rid of characters, to fit a 7,499 word limit? (7,500 is where a story becomes a novelette.) Does that idea, of cutting, fill you with joy or dread?

Most importantly: what do you want to say? What’s cool about the idea? If merely answering this question takes you pages, you’ve probably got a decent weight of material on your hands.

As you work through the above questions, one of your contenders should pull ahead of the pack. And if after all that evaluating you’re still excited about that little seed, still having new epiphanies and discovering things to explore, and “OOh! And also I can do this!” Then you’ve probably got a hell of an unwritten novel on your hands.

Every Single Book You Could Ever Write, and then Some

Readers don’t ask me where I get my ideas that often, in the grand scheme. In my more self-aggrandizing moments, I like to imagine they look at my ideas and run screaming. What’s more likely is that the people I talk shop with tend to have already tried writing. As a result, they’ve had a chance to figure out that having ideas is far easier than crafting them into stories. Perhaps they already know that the real bind is having ten great concepts and knowing you won’t get to them all, certainly not before you’ve had a thousand more.

Ideas can, in fact, be very easy, especially once you’ve had some practice.

Don’t believe me? Try this. It’s not a new exercise, certainly not unique to me, but a few times now, I’ve decided on a new project by making a list of every single thing I could think of to write next. These were long lists, numbering twenty-five, even fifty items. The lists included simple and perhaps questionable ideas (“Macbeth in Spaaaace!”) and complicated, unworkable ones. They had pure romances and hard SF concepts based on articles I’d read in anthologies like The Best American Science and Nature Writing and lots of offshoots of the things I love to write most: other world fantasies, historical fiction, time travel, alternate history, magic-mystery fusions. They also had stuff I write less often, like YA and horror. Though I write prose fiction, they’ve included concepts that screamed screenplay; there’s even been a musical theater idea or two.

Even if you are pretty sure you know what you’re going to work on next, there’s value in embarking on this type of quick sift through the idea basket.

Why? First, it plugs you directly into the fun of writing. There are few things more gratifying than the pure untrammeled glee of creation, of playing with your subconscious, your muse, your writerbrain… whatever you care to call it. Thinking about what you might write is like the part of your birthday where you get to open your gifts and count up the loot, but haven’t yet moved on to discovering that one of the sweaters doesn’t fit, or that some of the boxes say Some Assembly Required or Protagonist Not Included.

A wide-ranging and uncritical exploration of possible writing projects creates a collage of the inside of your mind. It gives you a good picture of where you’re at artistically and emotionally, what you are interested in exploring, the psychological and thematic terrain you may want to cover. These insights can, in turn, inform the idea you eventually choose, whether they initially seem like the heart of the matter or not. When you generate dozens of possible ideas for novels, some of them are sure to overlap. If there are three stories in your long list that center on lost kids, or unrequited love, or people grappling with their parents’ health issues (or any common element) it may be a hint that you’re ready to dig into that material.

A long list of everything you might write might just as easily contain a couple variations on stories you’ve done before, giving you an opportunity to evaluate that impulse to cover old ground… to decide if you’re taking on something that might be comparatively unchallenging. The list should have a few things that are so ambitious they feel well beyond your current reach. One hopes, finally, that there will be a couple oddball concepts in the mix, glimmers of silliness or lunacy, peculiar possible experiments.

Finally, once you go through them, the long list of everything you might write should turn up a few things you are desperate to work on. Ideas so compelling that the thought of shelving all but one of them is painful. Bright, challenging, cool and above all exciting… that’s the one you’re looking for.

(And what if you can’t narrow it down? What if there isn’t one obvious contender… what do you consider when choosing between a small group of obvious winners? That’s a subject for another essay… so stay tuned.)

Every time you commit to a writing project, you’re simultaneously deciding to not write ten or twenty or a hundred other things. Having a look at the opportunity cost, before you start, can help ensure that you are making the highest and best use of your precious writing time.