Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Guest Post: Creating Suspense by C.E. Grundler

Please join me in welcoming author, C.E. Grundler to My Reading Room.  She has taken time out of her busy schedule to join me here today with a wonderful guest post about Creating Suspense.  I really enjoyed reading it and I hope you do to.  I think you will find it fascinating as well.  Tomorrow I will have a review of her novel, Last Exit in New Jersey which is really good so far.  So without further ado, please welcome C.E. Grundler.

First off, I’d like to thank Crystal for inviting me to be a guest blogger here today and giving me the opportunity to share a post with her readers. I’ll admit at first I wasn’t sure what to write, but I decided to explore a topic a friend and I were discussing the other day: creating suspense. From an author’s perspective, writing a mystery, thriller or suspense novel is a tricky thing.  As I wrote Last Exit In New Jersey my goal was to keep readers on edge as events unfolded; to keep them turning pages as they wondered what might happen next. I deliberately set my characters into the worst situations I could imagine, and then figure what else could go wrong. Just when things seemed as though they couldn’t get any worse, they still managed to, and then some. To create a mood of tension it was vital to reveal to readers just the right amount of information… no more and no less. As I wrote, one amusing concept served as my guide: Bruce the shark. Some of you may have heard of the Bruce, the mechanical shark (technically 3 sharks) from ‘Jaws,’ nicknamed in honor (or perhaps dishonor) of Spielberg's lawyer. And yes, that’s where the name for the shark in ‘Finding Nemo’ came from as well.

In my opinion, what makes Jaws an outstanding movie, what elevates it beyond a mere ‘monster’ movie is in a large part due to what you DON’T see. You know there’s something out there. You see a thrashing girl, a severed limb, a chewed up boat… but no shark. You know it will appear but you don’t know when. Abruptly it’s there, only to slip out of sight just as quickly and your anxiety rises even further. The truth is this elevated suspense was never part of the original script. ‘Bruce’, the mechanical shark, was malfunctioning through much of the production. But schedules were tight and filming had to continue, so the production crew worked around the shark’s absence by alluding to its presence. Docks were destroyed, those yellow barrels appeared and were towed back under, and of course, there was that famously ominous music. But watch Jaws and see how often the shark actually appears on screen. It’s not much. Yet the end result was a far more terrifying movie that focused the plot around the small group of people as you watch them face to this unseen threat. I truly believe if Jaws had been made today it wouldn’t be half the movie it is; with modern CGI special effects it would be too easy to show too much. The movie wouldn’t have run up against the obstacles it encountered, things would have gone more smoothly, on schedule and on budget… and so much would have been lost.

How does this tie to my writing? When I first began Last Exit In New Jersey, and again now with No Wake Zone, I set out with a plan. I wrote out a rough outline of the story from beginning to end, then began tackling each individual passage. As I proceeded certain characters developed more than I’d originally expected, leading into new plotlines and taking the story in new directions. But I didn’t let my original ‘script’ lock me in place and I didn’t try to force my characters to follow their lines. If they came up with better dialog and action, I went with the flow. And I left the mechanical shark off the screen, instead hinting to what threat might be lurking just out of sight, letting the reader sense its presence through other means. I made it clear there was something bad out there, but like my characters, readers didn’t know its true nature, or when or where it would appear. I wanted readers to focus on the characters, to care about them, to know they’re in danger, but not the extent of it or what the hell would happen next. As with mechanical sharks, sometimes it’s what we can’t see that scares us the most.