Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Writing Tips - Crafting a Novel - Upping the Ante and Creating Suspense in Your Novel


In our day-to-day lives, tension isn’t something we like to experience. However, in a novel, tension is essential. In fact, if there’s one thing every novel needs, it’s tension. Okay, maybe Proust didn’t write with much tension, but how many people do you know who love Proust? (I do, by the way, but I’m in the minority.)

Tension is important in a novel because it keeps the reader turning the pages. It keeps him or her wanting to know. So, how do we create that much needed tension? We create it by raising the stakes. And then, raising them some more.

Presumably, there’s something in your story your protagonist needs or wants, and hopefully, something negative will happen if he doesn’t get that certain something. His or her happiness, his job, his life even, depend on him attaining that need or want. When the stakes in a story are low, the tension is almost nonexistent and the story is usually weak. Very weak. But sometimes what a character needs or wants isn’t the best thing for him. In cases like that, the external stakes are linked to your protagonist’s inner life and he’ll feel conflicted, wondering if it’s all really worth it. Your story line should force him to reconsider his priorities.

In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it’s easy to see how one great author (and he was great whether you like him or not) went about raising the stakes in his story. From the very beginning, we know what Santiago wants. He wants to catch a fish, the bigger the better, to restore his lost reputation and boost his self-confidence. But the story would have fallen more than a little flat if Santiago simply went out with the desire to catch a fish, then landed a marlin. So, Hemingway raises the stakes. He not only makes the fish Santiago’s snagged a big one, he makes it the biggest fish (yes, it is a marlin) Santiago’s ever snagged in his life. But even that isn’t enough.

Santiago isn’t a vital, young man. In fact, he’s older and rather frail. (The book is titled The “Old” Man and the Sea, after all.) As his battle with the fish continues, there’s always the chance that Santiago will either have to give up or be pulled too far from shore. And then there are the sharks. We can’t forget the sharks. Or Santiago’s lost harpoon.

What all this shows is that Hemingway knew very well how to raise the stakes in his story and raise them again and again. He knew how to keep readers turning pages and interested in Santiago. We want Santiago to land that fish. We’re cheering him on. Then we worry about him getting eaten by a shark. Finally, we just hope to heaven he manages to remain alive and make it back to shore.

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew how to raise the stakes as well. Well, most of the time. He certainly knew how to do it in his classic, The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby wants something as much as Santiago wanted to catch a fish. Jay Gatsby wants to win back his former love, Daisy Buchanan, but Daisy’s married “old money” and Tom Buchanan, instead. Not to be deterred, Jay Gatsby makes a fortune himself and eventually returns to posh West Egg to pursue Daisy, who is living with her husband in the even more posh East Egg. And though she admits to having once loved Gatsby, she also says she does love Tom.

A man pursuing a now married woman he once loved when both were free isn’t anything to get terribly excited about. So Fitzgerald raises the stakes by letting Tom Buchanan be very aware of Jay Gatsby’s interest in his wife. Then, he raises the stakes again, when Daisy, who’s driving Gatsby’s car, with Gatsby in the passenger’s seat, runs over Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, and kills her. Now what will Gatsby do?

Complications, changes, twists, revelations. All these and more are tools to raise the stakes in your novel. You don’t need to use them all, but you certainly need to use some.

Change backs your character into a corner, and characters who are backed into corners often react very badly, indeed. Poor Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth encountered change after change, each one backing her into a difficult corner.

The “O. Henry twist” is, thankfully, out of favor now. But you can still surprise your characters – and your readers. You just have to be a little subtler about it than O. Henry was. Henry James was in The Portrait of a Lady, and poor Isabel Archer is absolutely tormented when she realizes her true state.

Revelations are also good ways to ratchet up the suspense and keep your reader interested. In Audrey Niffenegger’s best seller, The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s certainly a revelation when Henry tells Clare that he travels through time and that this time traveling is something over which he has no control. Niffenegger ups the ante even more when Henry reveals that he does this because of a genetic defect, one that could very well be passed on to any children the couple have (and it is, causing even more worry for the reader).

Of course you can’t up the ante in every scene or even every chapter. You have to take a breather now and then, and sometimes you’ll find the lull before the storm is more ominous than the storm, itself. In a novel, anticipatory anxiety, which causes us so much anguish in real life, is a good thing. Strive to strike a good balance between highs and lows, lulls and storms. Just make sure your lows and lulls don’t stop your story flat. That’s when readers toss the book aside and tell others they “just couldn’t get into it.”

And don’t think you’re writing in a genre that doesn’t require suspense. All novels require some degree of suspense and upping the ante, even if they’re character studies. Sure, a romance or a character driven literary novel is going to have less (or quieter) suspense than a thriller or a horror novel, but some suspense, some complications, some reversals, some twists must still be present or your reader would have no reason to keep on reading.

Remember, the best suspense involves a pared down writing style. When upping the ante, make sure every word has a purpose, even sentence is necessary, and every paragraph and scene contributes to the story line. Insert precise details, but never be vague.

You can and must insert suspense into your novel. Remember, readers have a wide variety of books from which to choose. There are so many books out there to read that none of us will ever be able to read all we want even if we live a good long time. Write your novel. Tell the story you want to tell. Just don’t let it stagnate. Not everyone is going to love your book for the simple reason that we all like different things in life. But don’t give any reader a reason to fling your book aside because it “just isn’t going anywhere.”