Thursday, December 15, 2011

Suspense Versus Surprise

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by Chris Eboch/Kris Bock

 

A few years ago I had the chance to ghost write a novel about a certain famous girl sleuth. Not only was that fun, but I learned something valuable from the editor. She asked me to look again at my chapter endings, and said,

“I would like to see more of a slow build-up toward the intense action. In horror movies, it’s always the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door that scares us the most, not the moment right after she opens the door.”

She’s noting the difference between suspense and surprise. When something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, that’s a surprise. If you are going about your business, perfectly happy, when a car slams into yours, or something hits you in the back of the head, or a phone call reveals bad news, that’s a surprise. But up until that moment, there was no suspense.

This is an important difference to remember when writing, especially when writing thrillers. We know the importance of surprise twists, and we may be tempted to keep secrets and let them out with a bang. But true suspense comes from suspecting that something will happen and worrying about it or anticipating it.

Something Is Coming...

To build up truly dramatic moments, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is going to happen. Here’s an early version of a chapter ending from Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, my novel for ages 8 to 12 (written as Chris Eboch). The narrator, Jon, isn’t sure he believes his little sister Tania when she says she can see ghosts, but goes with her to look for one as their stepfather films his ghost hunter TV show.

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

Tania turned to me. The look in her eyes made my stomach flip.

The moment isn’t bad for a cliffhanger chapter ending, but it could use some more buildup, more time for Jon to suspect something’s wrong. Here’s how the chapter ended in the published book:

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

She didn’t back up. She swayed.

I took a quick step forward and put my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. I looked down into her face. I’d never seen anyone so white. White as death. Or white as a ghost.

“Tania,” I hissed. I gave her a shake. She took a quick breath and dragged her eyes away from the staircase and to my face. The look in them made my stomach flip.


The revised version is longer. To get the most out of dramatic moments, you actually slow the pace by using more detail. It’s ironic, but you want to write slow moments quickly, maybe summing up a boring afternoon in a sentence or two, while writing a fast moment slowly, drawing out every detail.

Powerful ParagraphingWhispers in the DARK

You can also affect the pace of your story by your sentence and paragraph lengths. Description or introspection can usually be put in longer paragraphs, slowing the pace and lulling the reader into a false sense of security. When you come to a big action scene, though, try breaking it up into short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs actually make the story read faster, because the eye moves more quickly down the page. You can also emphasize an important sentence by starting a new paragraph or even putting that sentence into a paragraph by itself. For example, consider the following two versions of a chapter ending, adapted from my new romantic suspense novel, Whispers in the Dark (written under the name Kris Bock). The heroine, Kylie, is being chased by villains. It’s dark, and there’s a cliff nearby.

Example 1:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back. Something sharp caught me across the shin, causing me to yelp and stumble forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me. Unfortunately, the foot found no place to land, so I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind. And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

Example 2:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back.

Something sharp caught me across the shin. I yelped and stumbled forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me.

The foot found no place to land. I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind.

And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

These use nearly the same words. The only differences are that in the second version I broke up some long sentences into short ones, and I use four paragraphs instead of one. I think the second version captures more of the breathless panic that the narrator would be feeling. Think about that phrase “my life flashed before my eyes.” Life really does seem to slow down in the most high impact moments. Capture that on paper, and your readers will race through the scene breathlessly, wanting to find out what happens.

Learn More

Eboch credit Sonya Sones (1)Of course, not every chapter can end with dramatic physical action. My essay “Hanging by the Fingernails: Cliffhangers” in Advanced Plotting (written as Chris Eboch) also discusses how to use cliffhangers in quieter moments. I covered that on my blog as well – along with 10 other posts on cliffhangers! You can tell I love the subject. See my cliffhanger blog posts here.

Learn more about Chris and read excerpts of her work at www.chriseboch.com (for children’s books written under the name Chris Eboch) or www.krisbock.com (for adult romantic suspense written under the name Kris Bock) or see her Amazon page. Kris Bock’s first romantic suspense novel, Rattled, features treasure hunting adventures in New Mexico. In Whispers in the Dark, coming out this month, a young archaeologist seeking peace after an assault stumbles into danger as mysteries unfold among ancient Southwest ruins. Can she overcome the fears from her past, learn to fight back, and open herself to a new romance?

Chris Eboch’s book Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. Learn how to get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve your pacing, and more. Advanced Plotting is available on Amazon in paperback for $9.99, or as an e-book for $4.99 on Amazon or Smashwords. You can also read excerpts from Advanced Plotting and get other writing craft advice on her blog.

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6 comments:

jenny milchman said...

Great topic, Chris--and such a subtle yet all important distinction. Thanks for the post.

Miranda Parker said...

Chris, thanks for this great lesson on creating tension using pacing.

Chris Eboch/Kris Bock said...

I tried to post earlier, but I don't see it yet, so apologies if this comes through twice....

Thanks for having me. I love talking about plot! And I love finding tools that writers can use to improve their work.

Whispers in the Dark is now available on Amazon in the Kindle version ($3.99). Here's the direct link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006M6P6FA. The cover looks funky for some reason, so we're working on that. The print version should be available next week.

Thanks for stopping by!

M.E. Anders said...

Thanks, Chris! I am actually beta-reading a thriller for a writer friend, and this situation (Suspense vs. Surprise) popped into my brain during one of his scenes. There was a *bang* where did that come from moment, that could have benefitted from more foreshadowing. I'll point him to this post. :)

Chris Eboch/Kris Bock said...

Writers -- especially of mysteries, thrillers and suspense -- are often told they have to have surprise twists. That can lead to tossing those *bangs* in there with no foreshadowing, but as you noted, the reader is just as likely to be confused as impressed.

Jodie Renner Editing said...

Excellent post, Chris! I'll be sending my thriller author clients here to read your great advice.

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