Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Horror: Building Suspense


Today I finished reading Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell.

The novel is not horror, but horror writers could learn a great deal about the buildup of tension, suspense, and the effectiveness of a masterfully handled climactic moment.

Beware! I'm about to give away the plot of this novel, so if you'd rather read it first, do so now.

Teodor, an immigrant from Ukraine trying to provide a life for his family, has had some hard breaks and struggles. As a convicted felon he is unable to obtain land through the homesteading program, so he makes a deal with his sister to acquire some homestead land under her name. She puts her name on the contract, he does the work, they both end up with land in the end.

Things go wrong when the sister's husband, a cruel lowlife of a man, returns form his most recent months-long foray away from his family and responsibilities, and begins to stir up resentment against Teodor. Bad blood runs thick, Teodor is betrayed by this brother-in-law and his emotionally impotent sister, and Teodor--again--loses everything. The story culminates in a horrific act of desperation and despair.

Ms. Mitchell beautifully intertwines the use of present tense (which gives the events a sense of immediacy) with a continually shifting POV (which I don't recommend a newer author attempt, but which Mitchell also masterfully handles, never leaving the reader confused as to POV, and giving the story an uncanny depth of understanding for the characters and their dilemmas), both of which add tremendously to the developing suspense. However, Mitchell (unlike, for example, Dan Brown) gives the reader time to breath, breaks at which to ponder what has occurred and what might occur after the next page turn.

So how does Mitchell successfully build her tension to the heartbreaking conclusion?

1. She lets us know immediately, on the first page of the book, that we should expect tension, heartache, death. Does that detract from the tension? Does it take away from the horrific revelation at the end? Not at all. It is a story UNFOLDED. The tension is provided in the reader finding out HOW it unfolds, NOT in the reader being suddenly surprised by things that come out of left field.

2. She gives us time to become deeply involved in the characters' lives. The reader weeps for them, rejoices with them, loves them, hates them, truly cares for them, because she has drawn them in such a way that the reader KNOWS them. She makes her characters believable, real, sympathetic. And by SYMPATHETIC I mean we can relate to them. Even the nasty brother-in-law is a sympathetic character. We don't have to feel sorry for him or like him to be able to relate to him, but we can relate to who he is, why he does what he does, because we can see something of him in ourselves or in someone we know. Because we can believably see some part of ourselves BEING him, or marrying him, or falling in love with the man he tries to show the world. Even at his most vile, I pitied him. When other more innocent characters made choices that brought the conflict to an explosive head, I cried for them, for their feelings of desperation and helplessness, because it's that helplessness that every human being most fears, and desperation that causes otherwise good people to do despicable things. If that isn't horror, I don't know what is.

3. Ms. Mitchell NEVER betrays her readers' confidence by withholding information. She lays it all out, bare as a newborn baby, for the reader to feel and experience along with the characters. Does it diminish the tension? Exactly the opposite. We know something's going to happen. It's a story, after all. Something always happens in stories. It's how it comes to happen that we love to read about. It's the middle of the story that we relish and savor with every turn of the page. The opening merely leads us in, the ending wraps it all up, but the middle comprises the overwhelming bulk of the story. It must never disappoint or mislead.

4. Ms. Mitchell masterfully engages her reader's imagination and never betrays it. Imaginative engagement is crucial to a well-told story, and it's a challenge to maintain it. It must be nurtured with accurate information and kept clear of any disruption. Disruption occurs when the information you give contradicts what the reader imagines. If your story gives clues that one of your main characters is, as a very simple example, a man but turns out to be a woman, you've betrayed your reader, disrupted his imaginative flow, and given him an opportunity to put your story down--and NOT pick it up again. If you give clues that one of your main characters is a powerful wizard, but then he is unable to actually DO anything to help resolve the story, you've betrayed your reader. If you set up one character as a favorite, as the hero, then you kill him halfway through the story, you've betrayed your reader. I know of one best-selling author who did this. I still feel betrayed more than a year after reading that book, and am much more wary of his work, which translates, quite frankly, to much less likely to buy.

You're a writer, so you should understand this metaphor. I call it the train metaphor:

When I'm writing, it's like I'm driving a train down the track. When I'm interrupted, the train stops dead, and it takes a considerable amount of mental effort to get it chugging again. This is why many authors choose a secluded nook somewhere to do their writing.

In relation to imaginative engagement, your reader is riding an imagination train. Every piece of information opens a visual image in the reader's mind that both emotionally and mentally involves the reader in the story. When the reader is misled his train stops until he is able to recallibrate his visual image before proceeding. Sometimes it takes only a second or two to recallibrate, but every time the reader has to do it, the likelihood of his continuing with the story diminishes. Sometimes I've been so confused by misinformation in a story that I'm completely unable to get the train going again and the story dies in my hands. A well-written story must engage me, and it must maintain that engagement with accurate and complete information to keep the train chugging along.

If you've been reading carefully, you've no doubt noticed that these four elements intertwine a great deal. Unfolding, characterization, reliability, imaginative engagement. They are so intricately woven together as to be a single thick rope, but the rope can't hold together if any one is missing. A well-written story needs them all.

And one last thing, I tend to think (and it may just be my opinion) that horror told in first person POV immediately loses a huge amount of potential tension because we know that the main character/narrator is going to live to tell the story. Peril is lost and the fear of its potential with it.


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