Tag Archives: writing suspense

Setting & Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in generic Metropolis, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. I’m not saying you can’t set a scene in a dark alley. Of course you can! Darkness adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. Alleys are splendid places for all sorts of nefarious activities or danger and therefore useful to fiction writers.

So don’t think I’m taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for the purposes of this example, I want you to reason through your impulse to use a gloomy, narrow location.

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings?

Oh, a trap. Hmmm, then Vinny is luring someone there. Cool, but why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist? Does Vinny intend to ambush Henry Hero? Or perhaps Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation? Are henchmen and minions scattered around to put all the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way and help you shape plot while you visualize what sort of confrontations your characters will have with each other.

Now, let’s look at some additional questions:

Why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Are you thinking, who cares which one it is? Ah, ah, rebellious one! It matters.

Perhaps this alley is close to the location where a key player intends to be. Or perhaps this alley has a dead end, and Henry Hero can be trapped into a shootout. Or perhaps this alley cuts through a congested area and provides a shortcut.

If Vinny is indeed planning an ambush, then a shortcut isn’t useful or needed. But if instead Vinny is planning a shakedown and needs a fast escape route, then maybe this alley is the best for his purposes.

Remember that plotting is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a generic location and leaving the subsequent confrontations to haphazard chance.

And now, I have yet more questions:

What else is going on in the alley, or–more specifically–what features does it have? Time to decide whether the alley is located in Metropolis or Smalltown. Some alleys are unpaved, muddy, full of potholes and broken glass. Some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are to accommodate garbage trucks, so they are always littered and feature garbage and recycling receptacles. Those in turn tend to attract scavengers and prowlers, either the two-legged or four-legged variety. Is there access to backyards from this alley, or are there featureless walls of tall buildings? Are there doorways and loading docks? Do homeless people shelter in the alley? Are there guard dogs chained up in narrow yards that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras?

What does this alley look and smell like? What … but wait! You’re feeling overwhelmed. You want me to stop.

Are you thinking, Sheesh, Chester, why do you go overboard with so many questions and details? I just want a corpse found in a dark alley because I want to put a crime scene in my story. I don’t want to count how many plastic straws are lying in the potholes.

Well, fine. Allow me to focus on other questions, such as … How did the body get there? Who put it there? Again, why was this alley chosen as a dumping point as opposed to any other alley in the community? Was the victim killed in this alley and left, or was the victim killed elsewhere and brought here? If the latter, how was the body transported? Were there any witnesses?

If this is Smalltown and it’s a muddy alley where the trash cans are kept, is the villain seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew?

If your story is set in Metropolis, is the villain seen by a homeless person? And if that option’s worn too thin for you, is the villain seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater?

Get the idea? When you think through your setting and work out the details that go with it, you’ll reach less often for simplistic cliches or boring backdrops that contribute nothing.

 

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Magic: Part II

Willful Writer is back at his keyboard, typing busily on his latest story. This one is about a young, brainy lad raised as a peasant, but really of noble blood. He has just been apprenticed to Yon Wizard, a fearsome enigmatic figure in a long, tattered robe and even longer beard that he tosses casually over one shoulder to keep from dipping it into his cauldron. After some haggling, the terms of apprenticeship are agreed and the lad is left with his new master. Yon begins his lessons promptly, and the lad proves adept at conjuring, summoning, and magical sweeping. Yon’s hut floor has never before been so clean.

One day, while Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the lad finds a quaking, frightened townsman on the doorstep. The townsman says a giant is attacking the town walls, and Yon must come immediately to drive the giant away before the town is destroyed. When the lad explains that Yon is away on mysterious wizard business, the townsman becomes angry and says that Yon has a contract and must offer wizardly protection or he’ll lose his lease.

The lad, being a helpful type and fond of his master, agrees to fight the giant. Standing atop the ramparts, the lad lifts his arms and summons a mighty storm cloud with lightning that sizzles blue fire-bolts all around the giant, catching his tunic on fire. The lad conjures a fierce wind that blows the giant off his feet and tumbles him back from the gates. The lad closes his eyes and draws more deeply on magic than he ever has before. Then he creates an enormous broom with a giant redwood log for a handle and roof thatching for the straws. And with a mighty heave of effort, he sweeps the giant away.

“Hurrah!” cry the townsfolk. “Huzzah! Hoo-yah! We’re saved.”

They surround the lad, slapping his shoulders and asking him what he wants as his reward.

The lad smiles happily, glad to have been of service. “I’d like a beer please,” he says.

“Now there is some good writing,” Willful declares. Typing THE END, he takes his latest manuscript to his writing coach, Ms. Sagacious. She reads it, muttering to herself as she turns every page.

“Awful!” she shouts. “It’s too easy. I hate it.”

Willful, still enamored of his story, dares protest. “Would you like it better if I included Orville the talking cat?”

“No!” Ms. Sagacious tosses his story into the wastebasket. “You’re missing the point. The magic is free, and that’s wrong. You’ve cheated again. Now go away.”

Poor Willful. He’s brought trouble into his story and eliminated the protagonist’s mentor at the crisis point because wizards always seem to vanish just when they’re most wanted. He’s given his protagonist powerful magic and stuck with the magical rules he created by making sure the lad uses a broom to defeat the giant. Why, why, why is Ms. Sagacious so upset with him this time? What’s wrong with free magic anyway?

Do you know, dearest blog reader? Can you guess?

Willful has not put any price on this story’s magic. It’s easy to learn and do, so easy in fact that it’s effortless. The lad does not struggle to master it, does not encounter any difficulties in using it, and suffers nothing in its application. To Willful’s way of thinking, why shouldn’t his protagonist get a break? This nice, heroic lad surely deserves an “easy button,” right?

Wrong!

When a story problem is solved too simply, suspense as to the outcome drops. If the lad never struggles or doubts, there’s nothing for readers to worry about. The story goes flat because a successful ending is too certain.

And magical powers–be they small or great–offer easy ways to success. Magical powers are natural suspense killers … unless a writer tinkers with them.

We do this by putting a steep price on the magic. If a story is to carry any dramatic oomph, then magic comes at a cost. That subsequently serves to counter-balance the effect and keep suspense high.

In The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, the evil magician is dying by slow degrees every time he uses his powers. He suffers nosebleeds after he works spells and grows weaker page by page. His plan is to create a new body for himself and transfer into it before he dies, and he is working against that deadline.

In Robert Jordan’s fantasy world, the male wizards eventually go insane from using magic.

Harry Potter pays the price of having to put himself into danger and face Voldemort, a villain so feared that no one else in the stories will dare speak his name aloud.

What price does Tolkien extract from his hero for wearing The Ring? Poor little hobbit.

In the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid, Ariel wants to be human so desperately she gives away her lovely voice in exchange for Ursula’s spell.

Horrible or mild, drastic or simple, magic must come at a cost if it’s to be dramatic, effective, and suspenseful. Avoid becoming so caught by your own enchantment that you break this second, very important rule of writing about the fantastical.

 

 

 

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