Dear Writer, do you remember the evangelist? Just because he goes about preaching repentance does not make him a saint. So here goes – suspense mistakes.
- 1. The John-Two-Ten Mistake
Couldn’t resist giving this one a fancy name, sorry. In the Christian bible – for I fear there might be other bibles – the passage, John-chapter-two-verse-ten, has a line about saving the best for last. So…
Since you know suspense to be a withholding of vital information from the reader while dropping juicy hints along the way that’d fuel his interest in this unknown information, the tendency is to enjoy this momentary power you have over the reader and hold back too much for too long – without dropping anything to engage him meanwhile.
After you might have heightened his expectations, you keep him hanging from that cliff while you take your time doing the carousel around it. Soon he gets cross-eyed and tired, and by the time you come around to letting him off the hook, he has passed out. Dear Writer, by the time you break the suspense, your reader is sleeping off his boredom and irritation. What has happened is that the middle of your story has sagged with a lot of material that does little more than beg us to keep reading for there shall be light at the end of the tunnel.
- The moment you sense that you just cannot get past a particular point in your story without showing your hand, my friend, divulge the precious information and move on. You’ll be surprised how much this will help the story. On the other hand, try to hold off epiphany a moment longer and the reader will begin to suspect where you are headed, and, except you have another ace up your sleeve, your surprise is ruined already.
- Create subplots – you know, those small-small stories within the main gist. E.g. Two guys find their friendship under strain when one confesses to a dirty lie in their past. Now while the story gallops on to how they resolve their wahala, why don’t you tell us about Deji’s real motive for befriending Charles in the first place? Why don’t you craft something about Charles’s mum’s illness and weave that in? Be careful not to wander far from the main story though.
- Have more than one ‘suspense point’ spread throughout the narrative so that when you release one surprise, you will still have one or two more up your sleeve.
- 2. The Staccato or Cracked-Picture Mistake
This mistake features in sentence construction (and is a personal flaw of mine).
Generally, the tighter a sentence, the better its chances of heightening suspense, and the looser it is – weighed down by adverbs and adjectives and suchlike baggage – the less likely it is to do so. So the rule is, at the points you want to create the suspense, control your ink-flow. Start to say less and say only what is necessary. With this, the sentences around there will become charged with expectation because they are crisp and lean. However, problem arises when these sentences become too tight. Then they read stiff and jerky – like pictures off a cracked VCD – and do not flow naturally, one into another.
Everything was silent in the parlour except for the chirp of crickets outside. Outside – where the crickets chirped. Outside – from where he’d heard that cough. He opened the door. Dissolved into the night. He went only eight steps. A hand shot out of the darkness. Slapped his face. He screamed. He lost consciousness.
Ok, the piece above may either not be totally bad or is an extreme example, but let’s try this repair:
Everything was silent in the parlour except for the chirp of crickets outside – the same outside from where he’d heard that cough. He opened the door and dissolved into the night. He had gone only eight steps when a hand shot out of the darkness and slapped his face. He screamed then lost consciousness.
Well, something like that – reducing the periods, phrases and clauses, using a few more commas and conjunctions – and the result is prose that is smooth as a baby’s butt.
- 3. The Force-Feeding Mistake
Stories are told for different reasons and it is based on these reasons that the different elements of storytelling – plot, characterisation, theme, language, setting – interact in varying proportions. There is the kind of story that is plot-driven, another kind that is character-driven, yet another that is more a celebration of language than anything else – Chioma Okereke’s Bitterleaf comes to mind here. Now, off the top of the head, a plot-driven story should require more suspense than a character- or theme-driven one. So, look at your story; does it need all that suspense if at all? If no, then stuff it – No, not in the story, but in your pocket! What are you trying to say (or achieve) with the story, and to what extent will it serve or jeopardise the reader’s interests to keep him guessing? Creating suspense is not a do-or-die affair in storytelling; a story can do just fine without it.
- Suspense is but one technique among many others in storytelling – for it is not only insecticide that can kill a fly (a broom can serve too) – so do not rely on just one technique when there are a few others – humour, rich language, vivid description, etc – that can help you compel the reader to hang on till the end. Hell, you might even suck at creating suspense yet are good at writing great dialogue – why don’t you capitalise on that?
- And remember, no rule in fiction writing is absolute. Just bend them your way.
Many thanks for reading and – perhaps – tolerating this! Cheers.
© KCN, July 2012