Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Writing Suspense--Growing the Problem

In two previous posts, I wrote about a theory of suspense based on two principles: isolate the protagonist, and grow the problem. In the last post, I gave some ideas for isolating the protagonist. In this one, I'll talk about some ways to grow the problem.

One way of growing the problem is to give our protagonist a formidable oponent. Few authors do that better than Sara Paretsky. Her detective, V.I. Warshawski, faces such foes as a labor union, the Chicago mob, a huge insurance company, a Great Lakes shipping magnate, the Democratic Party of Chicago, the Chicago Police Department, and the Roman Catholic Church. But Paretsky doesn't only challenge V.I. with powerful antagonists. She challenges V.I. in every scene.

Here's an example. V.I. is knocked unconscious while searching the basement of a decaying building. She wakes up to find the building on fire and the door locked, her escape blocked. In the room with her is her elderly aunt who has also been knocked unconscious. Will V.I. get her auntie and herself out of the building in time? Of course she will, but not before encountering numerous obstacles and raising the reader’s heart rate along with her own.

The book is Burn Marks. The suspense is unrelenting. How does Paretsky create the suspense? In several ways: One, she creates obstacles for V.I. Two, she takes each problem and enlarges it. Three, she raises the stakes. Four, she isolates the protagonist as I discussed in my last post.

Obstacles can be a part of the problem or unrelated to it. Either way, they intrude and make the problem more difficult to deal with. The tendency of V.I.’s aunt to run away makes the initial problem of finding a place for her to stay that much more difficult. If auntie hadn’t run away to begin with, the two women wouldn’t find themselves in the burning building. Other problems also intrude; an irate neighbor who calls the cops when V.I. disturbs his sleep, clients who push deadlines on her, and police who harass her. All these obstacles increase V.I.’s frustration and, consequently, the reader’s frustration, thus raising the reader’s anxiety.

Giving your detectives emotional or physical problems that impair their abilities increases suspense and makes them seem more human. A hangover is a good temporary impairment, so is a bout of flu or a minor injury, either job related or from some other source. Little problems become big problems and big problems become life-threatening. With each one, the reader’s sense of anxiety increases. At the same time, the reader’s sympathy and emotional involvement with the protagonist increases. A protagonist who gets up to chase the bad guys despite being under the weather is one we can identify with and root for.

An author enlarges the problem by making sure that the obvious solutions don’t work. Readers are intelligent and will expect the protagonist to attempt the obvious solution. When they don’t work the protagonist is frustrated again and must resort to extraordinary methods. In Burn Marks, when V.I. gets the desperate call from auntie asking for help, the reader thinks, “Call the cops.” V.I. does, but the officer in charge of the case isn’t there; the dispatcher tries to relay the message but the officer doesn’t receive it. Obvious solution #1 has failed. V.I. tells her auntie to stay by the public phone so she can locate her. Auntie, of course, doesn’t. Obvious solution #2 doesn’t work. Expecting the cops to be there soon and expecting her aunt to be nearby, V.I. enters the hotel in search of her, beginning in the basement. Now she’s isolated and the suspense is mounting. She finds her aunt unconscious but then she herself is knocked out.

When V.I. comes to, groggy from the blow and still weak from the flu, the obvious solutions aren’t so easy. It’s dark, the door is locked and the building is on fire. It’s a life or death situation. The author has raised the stakes.

V.I., on her hands and knees, searches the floor for her flashlight (obvious solution) but encounters rats (enlarged problem). Without a tool to open the door, she shoots the lock (obvious solution), but the door doesn’t budge because it has been nailed shut (enlarged problem). Finally she gets out by shooting the hinges, but her aunt is still unconscious (enlarged problem). If V.I. were at the peak of her abilities, if she were not weakened from the flu, if she were not groggy from the blow on the head, she might be able to carry her aunt up the stairs to safety. But of course she can’t because the problem has been enlarged and all the obvious solutions taken from her.

Who could put the book down at this point? We’re caught up in the suspense the author has created by, 1) throwing obstacles up to the protagonist, 2) making sure the obvious solutions don’t work, 3) raising the stakes, and 4) isolating the protagonist.


Morgan Mandel said...

The hard part for the author is to figure out how to resolve the protagonist's problems.

Morgan Mandel

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

You've given us some wonderful ideas to remember as we write our mysteries. Thanks so much!

Marilyn Meredith

Chester Campbell said...

Good job of explaining the workings of suspense, Mark. Lee Child did an excellent job in one of his Reacher books (can't recall the title) when he had his hero crawling through a cave that became more and more restrictive. It just about triggered my claustrophobia.

Mark Troy said...

The book was Die Trying and that scene you mention still creeps me out.

Dana Fredsti said...

I love it when an author places their protagonist in situations that have me wondering how the heck they're gonna get out of it... and when it's REALLY good, you can re-read the book and still have that same feeling of 'oh crap, how's this gonna end well?'
Nice post, Mark!