Monday, July 21, 2008

Carol Berg on Creating Suspense

Carol Berg wrote a post, Me, Myself, and I - Part 2, in which she gave to following good advice:

Giving the reader information that the POV character doesn’t have is ONE device that can enhance dramatic tension....Tension is raised when a person in a dramatic situation lacks critical information and knows it. This is the key to many mysteries and suspense stories - things keep happening and the protagonist doesn’t know where the hammer will fall next. It is a sense of inevitable danger....

Example: if you’ve read (or seen) Touching the Void, the story of the two UK climbers in the Andes. One breaks his leg in a terrible storm and the other, to save his own life, is forced to cut the rope. He climbs down, assuming his partner is dead. The guy with the broken leg doesn’t die, and the book tells how he crawls out of a crevasse and all the way back to camp with a broken leg and no water. One of the greatest points of tension in this book is that the guy crawling doesn’t know whether or not his partner has broken camp and left the area. Switching out of his POV would actually KILL tension.

So what if you want the POV character to be “innocent,” unaware of her lack of information? Then you have to add the spooky music other ways. Warnings. Concerned friends or colleagues. Other events that the reader might be able to pick up on. The risk here is making your POV character seem stupid or incredibly naive - both turnoffs. But consider which is more dramatic…having a piano fall suddenly on your hero’s head or having him see the piano dangling and the rope fraying and knowing his foot is caught? Consider whether we really needed to know what dangers Frodo was to face or the entire history of the Ring before he set out on his journey? There was plenty of spooky music playing.

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