Monday, January 11, 2016

Writing Dynamite Suspense

Not to be outdone by my neighbors' yard décor,
I recruited some construction guys to place this
at the end of our driveway. Not really. It just
showed up one morning, adding thousands to the
 value of our home, which we rent, so it doesn't
 really matter to me one way or the other.
It happens to all of us. We think we're ready for something; we plot, we plan, we do whatever it takes to be ready when the times comes. And then ... nothing.

I'm not talking about dynamite blasts--well, in a way I am, but I'll get to that in a minute. Right now I'm talking about keeping the suspense alive for our readers. Taking them to the brim of disaster, then pulling back. Giving them a few more hints, more brim-hanging, and still teasing them. More hints, more hanging, and then when you finally have them where you want them ... they close the book and leave. They're sick and tired of the teasing. They want something to happen, for crying out loud.

That's exactly how I felt a couple of days ago after I discovered this tastefully-colored sign adorning the edge of our driveway. Because we live in a new neighborhood, the construction is non-stop and our backyard looks like a literal war zone. Mounds of dirt, rock, debris, and those lovely blast blankets (my name, not theirs) made of old, ripped apart tires greet me from the front and back windows of our house. From what I've observed, Tennessee is comprised of six inches of topsoil and a state-wide chunk of granite that extends about 12,000 miles into the earth. Planting petunias requires a post-hole digger. Digging a basement is out of the question, and running sewer lines, as they're doing at the moment in our neighborhood to accommodate the cul-de-sac going up behind us, means dynamiting their way past that first six inches of dirt and on down toward the earth's core. My experience with the blasting the other day reminded me of ways we can surprise our readers without teasing them past their tolerance levels.

Without giving away any of the plot of my latest manuscript, I'll tell you how I kept the suspense alive without (I hope) driving my readers insane. Yes, we want them on the edge of their seats, panting for that moment when it 1.) all falls together, 2.) all falls apart, or 3.) falls flat on its face. Falling together can mean things work out well for the protagonist or that the reader finally understands what's going on, whereas falling apart can mean the end of the antagonist or that the preconceived notions of our reader are dissolving before their bleary eyes (they've been reading through the night, you know, unable to put our book aside). Both definitions for either of those two works in the favor of both the author and the reader. And I've said it before, falling flat on its face means ... well, you know.

So I try to keep the suspense in motion by manipulating the speed and cadence of the chapters, speeding up at times, slowing down at others. Oftentimes leading up to a finale doesn't have to be full-speed-ahead, even though the plot may have progressed rapidly for the past few or several chapters in order to set it up. Too much of a good thing, though, can be wearing. (Except for pecan pie. You can never have too much pecan pie.) Pie aside, leading the reader on a pell-mell race through the last third of the book is liable to leave them exhausted and instead of panting for the ending, they might just roll over and nod off. To make sure I don't overstimulate them, I chop up my chapters with short scenes. Some are very short--one paragraph of information telling them what's going on behind the scenes can do two things: increase the suspense by filling them in on the actions of other characters or where the timer on the bomb is at the moment, and slow down the pace just enough to give the reader a breather. Then it's on to another character and what he's/she's grappling with at the moment. Done in the right way, you can drop the bomb on them when they're least expecting it and give them that satisfying ending, one they didn't see coming and aren't too exhausted to appreciate. As an added benefit, keeping the reader invested in the actions of other characters (assuming their actions pertain to what's going on at the time) imparts that "in the know" feeling we all look for in a good book. We want to be surprised, but also to be kept in the loop just enough so we can't cry "Foul!" at the end.

Back to my dynamite-filled afternoon. I'd been waiting for them to blast all day and when the first one came, I literally threw myself across my four-year-old granddaughter in anticipation of the ceiling falling down upon us. That didn't please either one of us. I didn't hear any of the warning signals and assumed they hadn't bothered with them. Later that day, though, I could see through our kitchen window that they were preparing for a second blast. This time I'd be ready for them, I told myself. I watched as the crane deftly maneuvered the blast blankets atop the area they'd been scurrying over for the past few hours. Finally, they were ready. I was ready. Molly was ready. "Any minute now, honey," I said in my best "don't-be-afraid-of-the-earth-rattling-noise-I'm-about-to-subject-you-to-sweetie" voice as I focused my phone camera in the direction of the grand finale.

But they weren't ready. More men scurried over the mound of blankets. What were they doing? Playing king of the mountain? Then more men came by. They talked, they gesticulated, they took a lunch break, they moved massive pieces of machinery away from harm's way (a good move, looking back on it), they took sips of Mountain Dew and tossed the can to the ground. "Earth haters," I thought. My arm was getting tired of holding that darned camera high enough over the screened section of the window to get a clear shot. Molly was getting tired of standing next to her deranged grandma and whined to get back to playing Drown the Little People in the kitchen sink. The suspense was killing us. I panned the phone to keep up with an orange-vested man holding what looked like a can of hairspray (vain, aren't we, Dynamite Dude?), but ended up being the anemic air horn. When he hit the button, the resulting noise wouldn't have awakened a colicky baby from six inches away. We waited. More. Still more. Just when I thought I'd drop the camera and miss it altogether, it went off. Even though I was ready for it (and had been for the past three hours), when it exploded, my arm jerked and I got a great shot of the blue sky over our house followed a second or so later by some dust blown upward.

Yep, the grand finale arrived, all right. I thought I was ready; I thought I'd prepared; I thought I knew the mind of Dapper Dynamite Dude. I didn't. He played his game well, and by the time the end came, I was ready to throw in the towel. At just the right moment, he made his play and blew me away. (Excuse that pun. It was just too good not to use.) His scurrying over the mound, drinking Mountain Dew, and taking my mind off the explosion by showing his blatant disregard for our planet all redirected my mind and altered the speed and cadence of the event. He took me by surprise.

Well done, Dapper Dynamite Dude. Now go find that slivered Mountain Dew can and put it in the recycle bin where it belongs.
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