Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Running in High Heels

You hear high heels clicking, you see the young wearer of the heels stumble and twist her ankle while glancing back, terror etched on her face. She valiantly tries to escape the evil entity pursuing her, darn those three inch stilettos. And you know without a doubt - she’s a goner. She’s destined to go down in history as a plot point.

Suspense is what keeps us turning the pages. As readers or the audience we are being craftily manipulated by various techniques. For instance, the writer can stack the odds against the protagonist, think Rear Window, The Shining, or The Silence of the Lambs. The stakes are clear from the very beginning and there’s nothing we like better then rooting for the underdog.

In a romantic suspense we the reader need to feel emotionally connected to the main characters. We need to sense their worry, their fear, or their terror. We need to be able to taste it, smell it, hear it, see it and touch it. As the writer, we need to make them afraid. We need to be nasty and send them running. We need to create a sense of urgency. One way to do this is to use the ‘what if’ technique.

You start with an everyday situation. Lily, a teacher, is leaving school. Her objective is to get to an important doctor’s appointment.

Now add a ‘what if’.

What if you raise the stakes? Lily is in a bad mood because she was forced to suspend a student and she doesn’t feel like hearing more bad news.

What if you add a source of annoyance? It is unbearably hot outside and it’s making her tired and sick.

What if you add an element of danger? The suspended student is hiding in the bushes.

What if you add time constraints? Lily is already behind schedule because she had to deal with the suspended student and his parents.

What if you add the unknown? The suspended student has tampered with her car rendering it useless.

What if you add some dramatic irony? While Lily was meeting with the Principal, student and the student’s parents, she missed a phone call from the doctor’s office giving her good news.

The possibilities abound. You can generate a sense of urgency and the promise of conflict over several pages by asking yourself ‘what if.”

Alfred Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films over six decades. He was a master at crafting suspense.

“There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t …” Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock calls this the ticking time bomb plot. There’s a bomb underneath the table that the characters are unaware of but the audience is and the audience also knows when the bomb is due to go off. Suspense is created by the gap of what the audience knows and the characters do not. Anyone watched Psycho lately? He was skilled at creating worst-case scenarios which he call “frightmares”, nightmares that happen in our waking lives.

He also used anticlimax as a conclusion to the ticking time bomb scene. Think of a movie where the main character is about to enter a room containing the knife-welding villain but is called away at the last second therefore narrowly escaping disaster.

In romantic suspense plots we include a hero or heroine figure who can defeat any peril. To me, you just can’t beat the romance/suspense combination. More next Wednesday on creating suspense.

What’s your favorite Hitchcock film? Favorite author of suspense? Got any tips or techniques? How about suggesting a book or a movie?


Silver James said...

Two Hitchcock films that many people overlook, Arabesque and Marnie, always come to mind when asked this question.

Romantic suspense...Roxanne St. Clair's Bullet Catcher series, Brenda Novak (anything she's written lately), and while the series isn't technically romantic suspense, I'm a huge JD Robb/Eve Dallas fangirl!

Great post, Karen, especially since my current WIP is a romantic suspense!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, excellent post! Your what if section was perfect for explaining how you can up the stakes in a suspense novel.

After watching Hitchcock's The Birds, I stayed clear of his stuff. There was enough scary stuff in my childhood without watching it on TV.

I rememember watching 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' thinking it was a good show because we sang about it in church. I wanted to turn it off but a morbid fascination kept me glued to my seat. I still shudder just thinking about it and I don't even remember what it was about.

I've set aside a suspense wip due to other priorities but I'd like to get back to it someday. It's just that I usually do my writing between 9pm and 2-3 am and when I write suspense at that time, I keep thinking someone's watching me...

Janet C. said...

So, first, the shoes. Check out Erika's previous blogpost and her awesome shoe collection - I dare anyone to run in those puppies :0 And I apologize, I haven't memorized the embed HTML code - and I'm at work so I'm doing this on the fly.

I'll be back soon to talk about the real issue of Karen's blog - which is great.

Captain Hook said...

Great post, Karen!

I think building and sustaining suspense is one of the hardest things to do. Not sure how good I am at it.

Silver, Eve Dallas is the best!!

I don't watch Hitchcock movies. They give me nightmares.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great post Karen. Unfortunately I'm not that familiar with suspense or Hitchcock (though I have a nice dvd set to crack into this Hallowe'en). What I do know is a great article by Stephen King from on horror in Hollywood after watching The Strangers. I believe Hitchcock said things to similar effect, about how there's no fear in the reveal. It all comes in the build-up.

"Horror is not spectacle, and never will be. Horror is an unknown actress, perhaps the girl next door, cowering in a cabin with a knife in her hands we know she'll never be able to use. Horror is the scene in The Strangers where Liv Tyler tries to hide beneath the bed...and discovers she can't fit there."

And one of my favourites from Stephen King's article, as I'm strongly against villainous monologues and explanations for every single thing: "One more problem: Big movies demand big explanations, which are usually tiresome, and big backstories, which are usually cumbersome. If a studio is going to spend $80 or $100 million in hopes of making $300 or $400 million more, they feel a need to shove WHAT IT ALL MEANS down the audience's throat. Is there a serial killer? Then his mommy didn't love him (insert flashback). A monster from outer space? Its planet exploded, of course (and the poor misunderstood thing probably needs a juicy Earth woman to make sexy with). But nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations; they're antithetical to the poetry of fear."

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh and just for fun, another fav quote by Stephen King:

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

connie said...

Hi Karen,
I ran into some suspense on top of suspense at U of S. We were watching a Hitchcock movie when the film broke. Never did find out it ended.
I like your list of possibilities. You have me thinking about trying a romantic suspense thriller at a some point.
Favourite Hitchcock movies? Birds and Psycho because they were so well done they scared me silly. I keep a weather eye on the local ravens and I still think about Psycho sometimes when I am staying in a hotel alone.
The teacher scenario struck home. I was in a similar situation once. No suspended student but a long-winded parent. Got to dentist finally and had a wisdom tooth pulled. No notable romance involved.
Again, no romance but I thought Sixth Sense was brilliant. That's not right. There was a romance involved but in a whole new way. I saw Silence of The Lambs and thought it was scarier than any half dozen Hitchcock films put together. The prologue film is even scarier.
What is your romantic suspense about?

Karen said...

Hey Silver. Two other Hitchcock films I enjoyed are Rope and Dial M for Murder but my all time favorite is Rear Window.

One author I enjoy reading is Tami Hoag.

Good luck on the writing. Looking forward to reading more.

Karen said...

Hi Anita Mae. It's amazing how your mind can play tricks on you. I have to say, I hate staying up late by myself, it creeps me out for no good reason. Although I remember staying up late one night as a teenager to watch Carrie. Yikes. Maybe that's why.

Karen said...

Saw the shoes, lusted after the shoes.

Karen said...

Captain, I'm not sure how good I am at it yet either, hence the research in how to produce it. :) More on the same subject next week.

Karen said...

I love that, 'they're antithetical to the poetry of fear'. I'm going to remember that phrase. It's been a long time seen I've watched The Sixth Sense but I think that movie is a great example of a movie that didn't shove explanations down our throats and let us figure things out on our own.

LOL, I just saw that quote about adverbs the other day, can't remember where, was going to print it out and staple it to the wall into front of me.

Karen said...

Hi Connie. I couldn't agree more about The Sixth Sense. I wish I could magically forget the ending and watch and experience it all over again.

And I found The Silence of the Lambs to wonderfully scary but not scarring which is the way I like it.

My wip is about a teacher, Lily, who comes across one of her students being attacked by gang members and how she also becomes a target while trying rescue him. With the help of the hero, of course.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karen, popping back after I mulled your post over on the drive into town. You mentioned suspense coming out of the gap between what the audience (or reader) knows and what the characters know, such as the bomb under the table. I think this is a great example of where a prologue is a viable option.

While it does digress into explanation and Why The Villain Is Just Doing It For Love, I've always been a fan of The Mummy (with Brendan Fraser, back before he got typecast doing family fare), and it's an example of a very vivid and blatant prologue. But the little bit at the beginning explaining what happened is what allows the audience to build tension during the whole beginning of the film. The characters don't know what's going on, why these things are happening, or the significance of opening said book/sarcophagus, but we do. Also an example of deferring the tension based on our knowledge, there's a scene where they figure out the key goes to the sarcophagus, they're about to open it (oh no, evil will be unleashed!) and then!... they hear something in the corridor and leave. But we know what's waiting in that room, and it will only be a matter of time. It's all because of the prologue.

That's not to say it wouldn't work without a prologue, but it's a good example of when they can be a good storytelling device.

And now back to lunch/writing.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
I haven't seen it for years, but The Birds scared me silly. Hitchcock was certainly a master.

I love your "what if" questions. I guess that's the first rule of suspense: make life as tough as possible for your characters. I really enjoyed reading part of your Lily story and I look forward to reading the whole thing someday.


Karen said...

I'm trying to recall more detail from The Mummy. But my memory is proving a bit foggy. I know I liked it and I've watched all three.

Karen said...

Thanks Jana. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, I've never seen The Birds. Then again I'm scared silly of birds without watching the movie.

Janet C. said...

Alfred Hitchcock scares me senseless. That's the difference in yesterday's suspense/horror and today's - the element of unknown, our own vivid imagination, that's what created the spookiness of those type of movies. Some movies today do that (Sixth Sense is one), but most just go for the creepy and gorey.

I love to read romantic suspense. The hot hero, the smart heroine out for justice (like your Lily), the evil villian, and a mystery layered in to create tension and page turning.

Dee Davis, Jasmine Cresswell, Karen Robards, Linda Howard are some of my favorite romantic suspense authors.

Great post, Karen - looking forward to next week's continuation.

Karen said...

There's nothing like picking up a great romantic suspense, holing up in one's favorite reading spot and delving deep into a great book. Some of my favorite romantic suspense authors that I haven't mentioned before are Allison Brennan, Cherry Adair, and Lisa Jackson.

Helena said...

Karen, I agree with your favourite Hitchcock title. Rear Window is my all-time favourite and because Jimmy Stewart was so fantastic, I didn't even want to see the Christopher Reeves re-make. Also liked The Man Who Knew Too Much which was itself a re-make of a movie from the thirties, I believe.

I was a Hitchcock fan when the movies were originally coming out. Dates me, I know. I didn't miss a one. Did you know that he always appeared somewhere in each of the movies he directed? A crowd scene, or the camera panning a sidewalk would reveal him just disappearing around a corner, sitting at a table in a restaurant, but you had to be quick to see him. The camera never lingered long. His television series was pretty good, too.

I love suspense and crime thrillers. It was a test of some sort when I found myself living alone to be able to watch them and not get freaked out. I don't do too well with the horror genre. So I try to leave Stephen King off my menu (both books and movies).

Looking forward to your next instalment on how to inject suspense into our writing. I don't have a lot of experience with romantic suspense, but do read some mainstream authors, such as Lee Childs, Robert Ludlum, and their ilk.

Sorry I'm late commenting. Busy, busy day, Helena.

Karen said...

Hi Helena. I've looked but I've never found him.