Pacing and Suspense

I was just reading an article on The Hunger Games in Entertainment Weekly -- this is my official source for all things pop culture, and by the way, Stephen King writes a column for it, so nanner-nanner-poo-poo. The overall topic was related to the movie adaptation. Lionsgate has the film rights and the scriptwriting process is well on its way. Nicole Sperling made this striking observation.

The books (which hide a compelling antiwar message behind the veneer of a tween thriller) are exceptionally well written and expertly paced, with near-constant suspense.

In particular, two phrases jumped off the page at me: "expertly paced" and "near constant suspense". I would certainly agree that in the first book, especially once they're in the arena, the suspense is nearly non-stop. The tension in the second book starts immediately because of President Snow, and then jumps through the roof when they're called back for the Quarter Quell. And if you haven't read Mockingjay, well, it's pretty much a non-stop ride on a runaway train. Nobody I know was able to put any of these books down without some form of dire threat.

So how do you manage expert pacing while keeping the reader in a near-constant state of suspense? This is tricky business because if your reader's heart is constantly pumping you run the risk of wearing them out. Here are some ideas, the basis of which require that your characters have excellent voice and are just plain interesting. You won't have much suspense if nobody cares about the people in the book.

Open with tension and suspense. Do you want to grab your readers' interest right away? The best writing lesson I ever had told me to begin the story when things change. What better way to change things for your characters than by sticking them in a stressful situation? Leave open questions, but not eight million of them.

Keep it moving. This should be pretty obvious. If scenes don't advance the plot, cut them. Whether it's commercial or literary, please don't spend a chapter in which nothing happens except the examination of a character outside the context of advancing the story. This is crucial to excellent pacing.

Every chapter needs a little tension. That's right. Every single chapter you write should have a little edge to it, except perhaps the epilogue. I'm going to mention this again later, but tension levels should read like a healthy EKG. Great big pulsating scenes followed my moments of quiet. There's nothing wrong with quiet moments, but they can never flat-line, or your patient's dead. All can seem well, but it's always good to have an undercurrent of some emotion, such as fear or hatred. Let it simmer and occasionally boil over a bit.

Cliffhangers. Often, you think of a cliffhanger in terms of the "To Be Continued" byline at the end of a book, movie or television show. Here's the challenge. Think smaller. Conclude your chapters with a cliffhanger. Clearly, you can't end every chapter that way, nor do I think you ought to. Sometimes, it's nice to end a chapter on a positive note, giving the reader some amount of closure on one particular issue. However, cliffhangers are critically important to adding suspense, especially early on when you are still trying to bait your readers (yes, they are fish, and you are trying to land them). These suckers are so important to getting your readers to turn the page rather than setting the book back down and either going to bed, or coming home from the book store or library empty-handed.

Tension in bunches. They say life's challenges occur in multiples. Stress can happen to your characters three chapters in a row. Three stressful situations can happen to your characters in one chapter. Or, if you want to go for the trifecta, beat your characters about the head by having three stressful situations occur per chapter, three chapters in a row.

Give 'em a  break. Everyone needs to take a breath. Your characters. Your readers. After a solid week of battling evil creatures with mixed results, everyone's sitting around the campfire with their age appropriate beverage of choice. Take advantage of that time. Spill a little back-story. Add some emotion. But make it interesting. Let it serve a purpose. But don't forget a teaspoon of tension. Let it be ever present. I'm also a big fan of ending one of those scenes with a major disruption. It's a great way to let the reader know that they've had a moment to catch their breath, but they better saddle up once more.

Take everything away from your protagonist(s). This works if your main character is a protagonist that appeals to your readers. Take away what they love. Leave them with nothing. Make their lives as wretched as possible. Why? Suspense. Huh? If your protagonist resonates with your readers, they're going to want to see what happens. Will Katniss overcome and survive the Hunger Games? Against all odds, will she save Peeta too?

Mix up your sentence lengths. This is such a nit, but it makes a difference to how your story reads. If every sentence is about seventeen words, joined together with a conjunction, then your reader will start to nod off. If every sentence is about six words, your reader will become irritable. Mix it up. Break up your longer sentences with the occasional short one to make a point. The short ones have a greater impact that way.

Place foot on neck, don't remove. a.k.a. Climax. This is the EKG where the patient is undergoing a stress test. They're jogging on a tread mill, working like hell to keep up. I like big, multi facted, multi-chapter climaxes. The tension should be high. The resolution shouldn't be easy. You need more than one mountain to climb. Once your characters reach the zenith of one mountain, they should discover that there's another bigger one, this time with irritated and generally peckish cannibals waiting halfway up. Even better, they should discover that one among them is a spy for the evil king of the irritated and generally peckish cannibals, and has been leading them to their slaughter since day one. Finally, once they get past those guys, it might be a good time for an asteroid to burst through the atmosphere and set fire to everything. By the way, this is a great time to think in terms of plot twists or the big reveal. Hence, the spy.

Satisfying Resolution. Don't cheat your readers. How you resolve everything--if you resolve everything--needs to make sense in the context of your book. If the reader says, "Sorry, I'm just not buying that." You've missed something. You don't want them feeling like Clark Griswold arriving at Wally World to find it's closed. Do you want to be taken on a roller coaster at gunpoint?

And there you have it: my recipe for pacing and suspense. I could have sworn there were like eighteen more concepts I wanted to raise, but they were probably boring and didn't advance my point.


Annie McMahon said...

Awesome post, Jay! You nailed it. And now you should write a whole blog post for every point you mentioned, with examples and everything. :)

Jay said...

Thanks, Annie! I appreciate you volunteering me to think and organize. LOL it must be a jersey thing.

Louisa said...

Great post jay. you've given me some awesome ideas and i'm twiddling my fingers eagerly like homer simpson.

Jay said...

Cool, Louisa! Happy to help. Now let's hear your tips!!!!