Swamp Survival Strategy 6: Increase the Suspense Quotient

Usually most genre books have some degree of built-in suspense as to their eventual outcome. Romance is an exception, in that the outcome nearly always results in a relationship commitment between the two primary characters. However, the misunderstandings and tribulations they endure create a small degree of suspense over how they will work things out.

Basically, if a book is written with a goal-centered protagonist opposed directly by an antagonist, then readers turn pages with some degree of suspense/anticipation as to how, where, why, and whether the protagonist will succeed.

Thrillers, suspense, mystery, and urban fantasy books, naturally, employ additional methods to heighten suspense from start to finish. And therefore, as a swamp strategy, I strongly suggest that you borrow some of these techniques to help fill a sagging story middle. It not only perks up reader interest, but I have found that it keeps me more involved in my story. The writing process stays fun instead of becoming a monotonous slog.

Let’s look at some of the ways suspense can be generated or boosted.

Establish reader sympathy for the next victim. By the center of the book, you should have a strong bond built between your protagonist and readers. However, if your midpoint is going to feature the death of a secondary or minor character as a shocker plot twist, then make sure you put a brief spotlight on this individual and feature some action or personality revelation that makes him or her either likable, vulnerable, or poignant. Take care with this approach because you don’t want to telegraph the danger that’s about to strike. But if you can evoke reader sympathy–however briefly–then the shocker will carry stronger emotional impact. Sympathy can be launched in a sentence or two. No massive character background info-dump is necessary.

Set a clock ticking in the second act. Whether the deadline is a literal one or a psychological one, establishing that time is running out brings a sense of urgency that keeps plots from losing momentum. Ticking clocks can be a bomb detonator set to explode at a certain hour. It can be a slow-acting poison administered to someone the protagonist cares about, necessitating a race to find an antidote. It can be a looming hurricane approaching the coast and forcing people to evacuate. It can be criminals holding hostages in a bank.

Don’t open that door. The ancient Greeks created the myth of Pandora’s box to illustrate the dangers of curiosity. Without being curious, mankind can’t move forward or make discoveries. Yet curiosity can tempt the unwary into all sorts of difficulties. As a suspense technique, the “door” that shouldn’t be opened can be an address or locale that’s off limits. It can be an actual locked door within a spooky old house. It can be the questions asked by an investigator or the background check on a suspect. Is there a place in your story’s middle where your protagonist can prowl in forbidden areas? Secrets are always fascinating, aren’t they?

Set up a series of obstacles. Some thrillers put their protagonists through a harrowing ordeal of physical challenges. Think of every James Bond plot you’ve ever read or watched. Sooner or later, Bond must infiltrate the lair/stronghold/citadel/laboratory/mansion of the villain–working his way past guards, traps, sharks, pitfalls, attack dogs, and henchmen. Throw in a ticking clock or sense of urgency, add a dose of extra sympathy, and make certain your protagonist is trying to open a door that shouldn’t be unlocked, and your plot will benefit. However, if your story isn’t action-adventure, then a series of obstacles can be a series of riddles to be solved or optical illusions to master or a spellcasting to countermand. Cracking a code or deciphering the missing element in a chemical formula are variations of obstacles.

Isolate your characters. Whether your protagonist actually infiltrates the villain’s territory by venturing behind enemy lines, or simply remains behind to hold on while sidekicks are sent for help, the point of this tactic is to isolate your main character and thereby intensify the danger he or she is in. In Agatha Christie’s suspense masterpiece, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, the entire group of characters is immediately isolated by being lured to a remote island without any means of leaving. Their isolation casts an initial feeling of unease over the company, and when deaths start occurring, their entrapment with no way to get help adds to their danger. Although in contemporary fiction the invention of cell phones mitigates this effect, writers simply create dead zones, make Wi-Fi unreliable, or drop calls. Think how cut off and uneasy you feel if you inadvertently leave your phone behind. Emails and texts can’t reach you–bliss–but you can’t help but wonder, what if I should need to reach someone in an emergency?

Use atmosphere. Let the works of Edgar Allen Poe guide you in how to employ atmosphere, mood, setting, and even weather to increase the creepy factor your book may need. Storms and downpours create an atmosphere of gloom and isolation. They hamper our senses. Be sensitive to the setting details you’re mentioning or describing. Radiant sunshine in a lovely flower-strewn meadow makes us happy. Booming thunder and hammering cold rain make us huddle for shelter and dive into caves or creepy old deserted houses where we shouldn’t normally venture.

Danger should be real. Beware of creating phony danger that turns out to be a false alarm. It’s inadvisable to warn of danger, to build anticipation toward your protagonist having to confront that danger, and then end up rescued in the nick of time or finding nothing in the locked room after all. This kind of plotting is, at best, weak. At its worst it’s known in the writing biz as a “paper tiger.” Fake danger is considered a cheap trick, and it infuriates readers. Earlier this week, I was listening to a half-hour old radio program from the 1950s, a mystery featuring the detective Rick Diamond. Normally Rick is snarky, self-assured, and always investigating his way into trouble that beats him up, shoots at him, or knocks him cold. This particular episode featured a murder victim that had been beaten to death. Details were gruesome, including a broken back and crushed throat. Rick, of course, ended up locked in a cellar with a creepy giant of a man who intended to do the same kind of violence to him. Up till this point, the story had been suspenseful and harrowing. Imagining Rick scrambling in that gloomy cellar, trying to avoid grappling with an immense man with long swinging arms and a habit of muttering to himself about “having to kill another one,” was hair-raising stuff. And then, just as Rick was about to be snapped in half, rescue arrived–very contrived rescue–with an awkward verbal explanation of how the police lieutenant just happened to figure out Rick was there and in trouble. No doubt, the writer ran out of time or minutes or ideas and had to do something to meet the deadline, but his “solution” was a phony and a cheat. It made me angry that I’d wasted time listening to it. That’s the worst Diamond program I’ve ever encountered. Actually, it’s the only bad script I’ve come across in the Diamond episodes, so I won’t give up on the show but I’ll never trust it quite the same way again.

These are a few tactics to add danger, zest, unpredictability, and excitement to the central portion of your book. Thrillers employ these and more from start to finish, but I’ve chosen these because they work very well for second acts. Utilize them all or just a few or simply one, and see if you aren’t happier with the result.

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