Thursday, June 22, 2017

Kate Forsyth’s secrets for page-turning suspense

So, the book started off great. And then . . . you as a reader found yourself flipping pages, looking for something to catch your eye until you finally put the book down. Never to pick it up again. And probably never, ever to buy another book by that author.

Now you’re the one writing a book. And from time to time, you glance at that long-neglected volume on your shelf, and a chill runs down your back as you wonder whether readers of your book will grab it happily also, only to put lay it down well before they finish. Never to look at it, or any of your books, again.

image: wikimedia commons
What we need here are Australian author Kate Forsyth’s secrets for keeping those pages turning.

Forsyth has shared her tips on how to keep readers reading in writing workshops all over the world, and she recently gave Texans a glimpse of them as well. Like her discussion of the exposition plot (see Tuesday’s post), some of these tips may seem counter-intuitive, but Forsyth has the credibility gained from writing dozens of international bestsellers.

Secret # 1: Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy.

She really, really likes (and writes) likable characters. Likable, of course, doesn’t mean perfect. Far from it. It means a character readers can empathize with. Give the character ample time on the page to make his/her wants and needs known. She won’t rule out the use of “dark” characters (rules, in her mind, are made to be broken). But be aware that we as writers will have to try a lot, lot harder, to make readers empathize with unlikable characters. And then, of course, there’s the jeopardy part. . .

Secret #2: Action does not equal suspense.
           
You’re thinking, I’ll amp up the jeopardy by making my heroine run around like a meth-crazed Yorkie terrier. Wrong. “Too many high-action scenes can actually dissipate suspense,” Forsyth warns. “Suspense happens . . . in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.”
           
Secret #3: Surprise the reader.

Let bad things happen early in your story. It shows you can do worse things later. How much worse? They’ll have to read the story to find out. . .

Secret #4: Maintain suspense even in low-tension moments.

Remember that old saying about story structure – a sequel of reflection follows a scene (or several scenes) of action? Don’t lose readers during those periods of reflection. Characters can reflect like crazy while they know, and readers know, that something really, really bad is waiting to jump out and say, boo!

Secret #5: Don’t overdo the violence.

This may seem as surprising as secret #2, but readers can become desensitized by too much gore. As Forsyth noted, if you’ve seen 17 characters skinned alive, what’s one more? Meh. The same caution applies to sex scenes. Postponing gratification lets the sexual tension mount and mount and . . .

Secret #6: Tension always rises.

Each event has to be more dramatic than the one before. Quicken the pace as the climax approaches (pun intended). Chapter lengths will also get shorter as the pace quickens.

image: wikimedia commons
Finally. . . Should I even reveal Secret #7? Who will she choose? Will they be in time? Will it finally happen?

OK, here’s the big reveal of --

Secret #7: Vary the type of suspense.

Forsyth recognizes three types of suspense, affecting three parts of our bodies  – intellectual curiosity (head), worry and apprehension (heart), and creeping dread (gut). Use all of these, in different ways and at different times.


Of course, Forsyth provided much, much more information. Maybe I’ll write more about her workshop later. Or you can keep an eye on her for more tips. And keep an eye on this blog, and on sites such as the Writers Guild of Texas, which helped sponsor
Forsyth's Texas visit, for more writerly help.