Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What creates suspense?

Years ago, a film-maker friend of mine told me he wanted to try something radically different with his next project: he wanted to shoot a story that had absolutely no conflict.

He told me he didn't want to have a boy-meets-girl-then-loses-girl-love-story or a man-robs-bank-to-provide-for-his-family morality play or anything else that showed person A coming up against person B or obstacle C or life-changing circumstance D.

I thought about it for a bit, concluding that it definitely would have been unique among popular films at the time, but also would have been maddeningly boring. It might have made a somewhat interesting, avant garde music video done the right way, but it most assuredly wouldn't be a story. Conflict, and by association, suspense, is the very core of a good story. Without it, there is nothing to read, view or listen to that has any real narrative value.

And, it doesn't really matter whether your medium is film, music or literature, holding the audience in your hand and doling out to them enough to keep them glued to your tale, but not so much that they're walking away, is the true test of a good bit of storytelling…and my definition of suspense.

You can write in a horror or suspense genre or you can be entrenched in serious drama, but if you're doing it right, there will always be some level of suspension. Your words are the bridge from the beginning of the story to the other side of a great chasm. How you use them keeps the bridge from falling and the reader held aloft, far above the churning waters, but close enough to feel the spray when its white waters crash on the rocks. The danger of falling needs to always be present, even if it's not a dangerous kind of story -- even if it's only a story about two lovers who are twenty years apart in age.

There, that's suspense. It might not be huge, or life-threatening, but everyone in the room can put up their hand and say that they could foresee some difficulty in that: a man in his twenties, a woman in her forties, the two of them still mad with passion for each other. Roll cameras. And. Action!

I look at suspense in fiction and I say it's well-done if it meets two criteria.

First, has the author created an expectation that something is very wrong?

And, if not very wrong, then maybe it is currently sitting at "not quite right" and he is presently building-building-building with each major "moment" in the story to that spot of being very wrong. If so, tighten the straps and release the button on the drip bag next to your gurney. Things will get pulled out of proportion. And they should.

Good authors do "wrong" very well and the tricks employed come across as natural, so, basically, not as tricks at all. The concept of "building" is also key here. You want to see something amiss right out of the gate, but you also want room to grow the feelings of unease in the opening forty pages of a story. It should rise like the crescendo of a classical piece of music, and, contrary to what some may say, it should build at a predictable rate.

A solid current example of this in pop fiction is the readily available excerpt from Stephen King's new story collection, Full Dark, No Stars. The story is "A Good Marriage" and the snippet is here.

Now, I won't ruin it for you if you haven't read it. Go ahead, if you're curious. I'll wait. There. Neat, huh? Obviously I don't know where this story is going. And I don't want to. But what he's done is a very solid, very suspenseful piece. King is obviously very good at this. I don't need to remind any of you that he's one of the reigning masters, but I don't know if this story will wind up being good in the end. Who knows, right? Not until the final sentence. But at this moment, it illustrates my point very nicely. No one is clinging to the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm. No one is holding a knife to my throat and threatening to cut. But I'm suspended, nonetheless. I want to keep reading and find out what the bloody hell this wife has found in the garage she shares with her husband.

Second, does the author create a world where we, the readers, do the opposite of "suspending our disbelief?"

The reader needs to believe that what is happening could happen, may have happened, will happen, or, in fact, happens every single day in the world that he calls home. This is done through impeccable research and staying true to what most reasonable people would believe they would do in a similar situation, given the same facts. Even if it's science fiction or dark horror with strange things making scheduled visits in the dark of the night (read my free short novel, Shed, for more of this kind of weirdness), the world should be recognizable, either by its physical make-up or by its characters.

The above example by King gives a good dose of what I mean here, too. Anyone who's ever been, married--even for five minutes--will "get" what King is saying about these two people, their habits, their foibles, there angst and their love. Colliding and sparking and retreating over the course of time, these two people are married. Plain. Simple. Married. And the "realness" of it shows in every sentence. With a set up like this, how can we not believe whatever is about to come next, even if it is at once off the wall and, well, unbelievable?

So my bottom line for feeling appropriately suspended while I read a book (in any genre, not just the suspense genre) or while I watch a tv show, a flick or the top of the pizza box are these two ideas: Is something itching that spot behind my eyes, making me think twice about whether this should be happening? And. Do I truly believe I'm reading or seeing something in the real world as I've come to know it?

Could this really be happening?

And, if it could, then I will immediately be freaked out when the bed moves under me, even if it's only an inch.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where can you download my work?

My full-length debut novel, "On The Gathering Storm" -- along with the rest of my currently published catalogue -- is now available directly from a number of online stores.  If you find my stories at any other websites than these, they're not legal and I'd love it if you let me know about it!  Below is a listing of certified sellers followed by the number of ratings at that particular location.

Kobo Books 5 stars out of 5 (12)

Amazon 5 stars out of 5 (5)

Barnes & Noble 5 stars out of 5 (15)

Smashwords 5 stars out of 5 (45+)

If anybody has a buying experience to share (good or bad!) from any of these ebook stores, or would like to rat out a website who is selling an unauthorized or stolen copy of one of my stories, I'd love to be in the know.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Morgan Freeman Should Narrate My Life

Not that he needs the help, but I have a genius idea for Morgan Freeman's publicist.

Since the actor has narrated nearly every piece of film since The Shawshank Redemption, and he has played everything from a convict to God himself, I figure he should hold a contest to cement his status as the world's most popular go-to guy for voiceovers. How should the contest roll? That's a detail I'll let some young, eager intern figure out.

But the winner gets a small film crew to follow him around for a week. Some hollywood editor-types shrink it down to a manageable hour or hour and a half suitable for the web. I write the copy. Morgan narrates.


A couple of excerpts from my example pitch (in Mr. Freeman's world-famous tone, of course):

"Jason woke to the screams of a toddler. It was five past five. A full hour and forty minutes before his alarm clock should have woken him. He rolled over and slammed his fist on the clock for spite, rolled out of bed and stepped barefoot onto the large peg of a wooden train car..."
"Now, when Jason was a boy, he dreamed of writing. Of waking up eager to get his thoughts down on paper and share his insight with the world.  Not drinking himself to sleep with a cheap box of wine after an evening of not writing a single word. That's right. Not. One. Word."

The name for the contest? "MorganMe". Double boom.

You can thank me with cash, Mr. Freeman's Publicist.

Write a blurb that Mr. Freeman could narrate about YOUR life and post it in the comments below. Everyone with a solid effort gets a copy of my ebook, "On The Gathering Storm".

Friday, September 3, 2010

Honesty, It's Such a Lonely Word

As I see it, there are three kinds of truth-telling when it comes to writing.

1. There's narrative truth-telling. I'll come back to this in another post, but this is essentially the insides of the story. How much of what you're being told as a reader is true or bent or completely fabricated. Is your narrator trustworthy? Or does he have an agenda all his own? Are you--as a writer now--intentionally misdirecting your audience for a greater gain? To a lesser degree, this area can address whether the writing is good. For example, do you have anachronisms present in the story? Are there hover cars flying around 18th century England? And, is this intentional for a purpose that will be revealed? There's some interesting stuff here so I shall return to it another day here on the Farthest Reaches.

2. There's a character truth-telling, in which we may, as writers, define characters that do not know their own truth or are, unintentionally lying to themselves. There may be a man who thinks he is a stand-up husband and father, but in reality he's a liar, a cheat and not very comfortable in his own skin. He may falsify records at his job or see hookers on his lunch break but, outwardly, and in the script of the story, he holds his head high and acts as if he is a pillar of the community. There is some trickery here because an audience may disagree with the author's judgement call, or miss the disconnect entirely if not done well. Now, whether the author should be judge and jury, that's another matter up for debate, isn't it?

3. Lastly, and this is the one I'll address in more depth today, is the matter of authorship truth-telling.

How much of my story reveals something about me? And am I comfortable with that? I've been writing fiction for over a dozen years now and I still struggle with this. Not because I worry about being honest, but because there's a temptation to pull in the reigns a bit or sanitize things for the protection of the reader. Some of you are undoubtedly saying, "No! You must let the story be what it is!" And this is true. I have uttered the words, "Story is king" on a number of occasions and I believe that it is a truth of the highest order.


There's a bit of creeping doubt, isn't there? It's more than tidying things up for a reader, it's about the closeness of the material to the writer himself, to his life, to the lives of his loved ones. If I write a story about a pedophile who lusts after young boys and the writing of this character is so sharp and believable, will my readers wonder, even subconsiously, if their dear author has the same affliction? What would this do to me if eyebrows were raised and how much scrutiny might come about from it?

Plus there's this: A main character in a novel has a really bad drinking problem and, as a plot device, it pushes him to make a major mistake. He climbs into a car and hits a toddler on a winding suburban road. Ack! What if I wake up one day and realize the plot device was a fake, but I have the problem with alcohol which I was ascribing to Joe Character? Would I fly into a rage? Would I be embarrassed? Would I be forced to look at a character flaw in my*self* that I didn't want to see?

If I write a fight scene between a husband and wife that is so razor-thin with the emotions of such a compressed moment, will readers wonder if my own marriage is on the chopping block? Especially if the fight was taken from my real life?

Now readers are an astute bunch. You've got to assume they are smart, smart, smart. And all of my readers have proven to be incredibly on-the-ball when it comes to "getting" what I'm putting out there. Any one who's married for any length of time will know that husbands and wives fight. And they fight hard sometimes. Through it, of course, they learn how to fight but sometimes they learn how to cut. The bone comes exposed and the nerves are tingling and it can feel like life or death. But it doesn't necessarily point to bigger problems. And it doesn't have to be the end of the world.  Our genetics makes us mad with vulgarity and hateful things to spit out, but it doesn't mean we are packing the car in the next instant and driving two hours in the rain to get away.

But there's still that niggling bit of doubt? You read some writers' stuff and you sit back and say, Hmmm. What neuroses is this madball writer sharing with me today?

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In another post, I will delve into some specific examples from my writing that you may have read, anecdotes from "On the Gathering Storm", my current novel, "Shed", another novella that is turning out to be rather endeared by the people who've read it, and a couple glimpses into my forthcoming novel, "Thalo Blue" where I'll talk about my aversion to guns. Yes. GUNS!
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