Monday, June 11, 2012

Write Tip: Surprise v. Suspense by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, @BryanThomasS

returning cover smallOne of the better lessons I learned about storytelling came from my time in film school at California State University, Fullerton, during lessons on story structure and plotting. In talking about how to create suspense, the instructor introduced the concept of two kinds of suspense stories: surprise stories and suspense stories. Although both have similar elements, the type of story very much determines the arrangement of elements and ultimate effect.

In a suspense story, we have our protagonist walking on a sidewalk. Then someone else walking ahead drops a banana peel. The suspense is will our protagonist see the peel and sidestep or will he fail to see it and fall.

A surprise story has the protagonist walking on a sidewalk. He passes various people. Then he slips and falls on his butt. Then we discover a banana peel on which he has slipped.

These are not types of stories, mind you, but rather ways of creating tension and pacing to keep your audience interested. Both can be employed in either dramatic or comedic tales but the ultimate effect of one is quite different from the other.

My first Davi Rhii book, The Worker Prince, was very much a suspense story. It was about the coming of age of a Prince who discovers a secret about his past and begins digging into it to uncover who he is. In the process, he uncovers things about his family and government which he had failed to grasp as a youth and begins to doubt and question the morality of decisions and actions which have been taken. Of course, this brings conflict with his family and friends, particularly his Uncle Xalivar, who rules the Borali Alliance as High Lord Councilor. As Davi gets further involved with his birth family and people, the enslaved Vertullians, his life is put in jeopardy and he finds himself being pursued by people who wish to stop his questioning and charge him with crimes. In the end, he’s outcast and joins the Vertullians in a fight for freedom.

There’s much familial and political scheming which occurs in addition to the chasing and accusing of Davi himself. There’s constant tension of loyalties tested and an uncertain outcome to keep the story moving at a nice pace. Action is also employed to keep the story moving at a good clip, as well as interpersonal tension between characters.

But one of the challenges of the sequel is how to capture the feel of the first without retelling the same story. In the case of Star Wars, episode 4 “A New Hope” was Luke Skywalker’s coming of age story. He goes on a quest and finds himself along with, including some friends and companions. This is similar to Davi’s journey in The Worker Prince in many ways.

In the second novel, The Returning, new challenges arise as Davi Rhii’s rival Bordox and his uncle, Xalivar, seek revenge for his actions in The Worker Prince, putting his life and those of his friends and family in constant danger. Meanwhile, politics as usual has the Borali Alliance split apart over questions of citizenship and freedom for the former slaves. Someone’s even killing them off. Davi’s involvement in the investigation turns his life upside down, including his relationship with his fiancĂ©e, Tela. The answers are not easy with his whole world at stake.

Like Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, I chose to tell a story with a larger canvass in my second book. Davi is still central but other characters take far larger roles. At the same time, because of the nature of the middle chapter, I knew that while The Worker Prince had an ending which felt like closure, despite the antagonist’s escape, The Returning would be hard to end similarly because so much of it would set up events in the following chapter, The Exodus. For George Lucas, the solution was a chase story. Empire is really as much about Han and Leia’s developing romance on the run from Vader as it is about Luke’s ongoing discovery of his Jedi powers and desire to confront Vader. In my case, The Returning is about Davi and the Vertullians trying to settle into the life they fought so hard for, only to find many people ignoring their victory and, instead, doing their best to through road blocks up at every turn. On top of that, Xalivar and Davi’s rival, Bordox, are back seeking revenge. So, once again, Davi finds himself in jeopardy and the tensions of his life are also threatening his romance with Tela, the woman he wants to marry.

In order to capture the tension I wanted, I decided The Returning should be a surprise story. So I set up a mystery which involves not only the murders of various Vertullians and others but confusion about who’s responsible with a lot of different subgroups scheming and manipulating events so that we don’t really get answers until the end of the book. I also decided to up the emotional stakes for our characters. By putting not only Davi’s romance in jeopardy but the lives of himself, his friends, his family and others as well, I created the kind of tension which had my beta readers commenting: “just when I thought I could breathe again, something else happened to put me back on the edge of my seat.” Much like George R.R. Martin in A Song Of Ice And Fire, the series on which HBO’s A Game Of Thrones is based, I decided to create a situation where as the story progresses, we become less and less confident we know who will survive and how it will end. By finding ways to twist thing suddenly with new complications, much like the unexpected banana peel of our example, I created a fast paced novel which sets up well the third book and still ends with a satisfying conclusion to a middle chapter.

Ultimately, the ending became an almost “Who Shot J.R.” type of cliffhanger, but emotionally left readers relieved they could stop and breathe for a bit while waiting for the concluding book. At least, this is the reaction I’ve gotten from beta readers and reviewers I’ve talked with. I suppose we’ll have to wait until it releases on June 19th to be really certain whether or not I was a success.

Regardless, by arranging the order of events as shown in the examples, you can greatly influence the pace and tension of your story to create the kind of reading experience and page turning effect you desire your readers to have.

What are some ways you go about upping the stakes, the tension, and the pacing? We’d love to learn from your ideas as well.

BTS author photoBryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.