Thursday, January 6, 2011

Building Suspense

Elizabeth Zelvin

I handed a manuscript I loved to my agent not long ago, hoping the hard part was over now and I could forget it and move on to the next project while she sent it out. Nope. Although my agent, unlike some, does not consider herself an editor, she put an unerring finger on the element that still needed beefing up. Add more suspense! she said. This interlude slows down the narrative. That crucial request gets granted too easily. After my habitual preliminaries (which consist of me whining, I can’t!), I buckled down to work. As it became clear to me how I could fix the sections she’d indicated, I realized that in the course not only of writing mystery fiction but also reading tons of it and discussing it ad infinitum with other writers and readers over the past few years, I’ve been assimilating some useful knowledge about generating suspense that I was able to apply.

The manuscript in question is Voyage of Strangers, my so far unpublished Young Adult novel about Diego, a young Marrano who sails with Columbus. Two published short stories deal with the first voyage in 1492. This novel is the story of the second voyage, but it starts in Spain, where Diego has to get his young sister away from the Inquisition. In the first draft, she is living in the home of a stuffy aunt, having left the convent where she was at school. In the revision, the story starts in the convent, where Diego is visiting when the aunt arrives to announce they must leave immediately, because it isn’t safe there any more. It seems so obvious, in retrospect, that the second version is more suspenseful.

Rachel, Diego’s young sister, wants to dress as a boy and sail with Columbus. Of course, Diego says no. It’s impossible—but in the end, it’s their only option. In the first draft, when they finally ask Columbus if she can go, he says yes. Why didn’t it occur to me that he has to say no? My agent saw it, and so did I, once she pointed out that I could build tension that way. In the second version, Columbus says no; Diego finds a solution that he thinks settles the matter; he sees her off, boards his own ship—and finds out too late to turn back that the plan has fallen through and Rachel is on her way to the Indies (not yet called the New World in 1493) with him and Columbus.

In the second half of the book, what happened historically is so dramatic that I wasn’t under the same pressure to beef it up. But once I started thinking about building suspense as a technique of fiction writing, I could see ways to improve on my narrative. In one scene, Diego and his Taino friend are fishing when they hear Spanish soldiers coming to attack the village. The Indian says he’ll circle around and try to distract them while Diego runs to warn the villagers. In draft one, in the next scene, Diego has reached the village and is delivering his warning. What was I thinking? It was so easy to make the soldiers’ arrival into a cliffhanger by writing an intervening scene from the young Taino’s point of view, as he tries to lead them away from the village. It’s more suspenseful if the reader has to find out what happens in that scene before learning whether Diego gets to the village and warns the villagers in time.

All this sounds elementary, except that I’m struck by how none of it occurred to me as I told the story for the first time, and how obvious the need for such devices became once I started working on the revision with the deliberate agenda of increasing the suspense. In the first draft, I was telling myself the story. I’m an into-the-mist writer, so I didn’t have an outline except for the framework of historical events on which I built the adventures of my fictional characters. In this case, the story came easily. In fact, it seemed to me that Diego and Rachel were dictating it to me as fast as I could type. It was a wonderful experience, and the narrative as I first set it down had the ring of authenticity. But applying suspense-building techniques made the story even stronger.


Sheila Connolly said...

We're just too close to our books to be objective--that's why we need our agents and editors. I know a number of people whose editors just say, great, fine, I sent it straight to copyedits, without making any critical comments. In my opinion, any book benefits from a good analytical reader (notice I say good!).

And I agree--the flaws seem obvious, once someone else points them out to you.

Of course, I'm always terrified that my editor will say, "but nothing happens in the book!"

Suzanne said...

I think of a tip I read long ago in a screenwriting how-to book. You figure out the place your character least wants to go, and you take the character there.

In other words, torture your character.

Suzanne Adair

Sandra Parshall said...

It's amazing to me how many published books have precious little suspense. *Every* novel, even a literary novel, should have conflict, and conflict is what produces suspense. Not only do we have to take our characters where they least want to go, as Suzanne says, we have to give them a bumpy ride along the way. In his book THE FIRE IN FICTION, Don Maass emphasizes the need for what he calls micro-tension -- tension in every scene, every paragraph, every dialog exchange. The secret to micro-tension is conflict, whether it's between two characters or between the POV character's opposing desires and emotions.

Marilynne said...

I wish I could look at my rewrites as clearly. I also go through a totally grumpy phase when someone has edited or commented on my work. When I get over it, then, and only then, can I see my way clearly.

I wonder if published authors still have to fight that.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Marilynne, absolutely. It's been amazing to me how much I've learned about the craft of writing fiction since getting published. The passage of time seems to be an essential ingredient.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz, congratulations on seeing your agent's comments as an opportunity to strengthen your ms, and good luck with it once it's submitted. And thanks for reminding us all of the need for tension and conflict everywhere!

Ellis Vidler said...

Very good, Liz. Maybe we need to keep asking "what if" all the way through. I had a similar problem. It seems so obvious now, but I didn't see it for ages. Your YA sounds good. I have lots of young readers in my family, so keep us posted.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Ellis, I sure will. :)