Surprises heighten emotions

Karalee’s Post #67

My 5Writer friends have been discussing the need to have and the difficulty of creating surprises, conflicts, and suspense in their writing. Even the joy of reading for reading sake seems like a lost pleasure in today’s generation, taken over by social media, video games, movies and TV.

So is all the time and effort worth it to keep writing stories that we fear the new generation has no interest in reading anyway?

Well I must confess that I have spent most of my reading hours in the last couple of months viewing Downton Abbey (now into its fourth season) and House of Cards (in its second season). Before now I hadn’t watched either and I wanted to understand what my friends were talking about.

Beyond a doubt I’m enjoying both series, and although the plot-lines are very different I keep watching them for the same reasons: the characters and the element of surprise and suspense.

downton abbeyI find that Downton Abbey is more predictable in its plot-line, but I’m still entertained due to the  the awesome setting in the abbey as well as the characters and their interactions and changes.



house of cardsAs for House of Cards, the element of surprise has me intrigued. The protagonist Francis Underwood (an antihero) is devious and malicious yet shows that he cares for his wife enough that he isn’t totally unlikable (although he is becoming more unlikable as the series continues). By the time Francis murdered Peter Russo, a Democrat running for Governor of Pennsylvania, I was expecting it, but when Francis pushed the reporter Zoe Barnes in front of an oncoming commuter train, I was completely blown away.

At first I couldn’t believe it. Why would the scriptwriters kill the person that I related to the most in the series? I LIKED Zoe. She had balls to stand up to Francis (now VP of the Unites States) and I was rooting for her to take him down!

To dissect this turn-of-events, it isn’t the fact that Francis murdered Zoe that bothered me, it’s the fact that Zoe is dead. Out of the series. Gone. Kaput.

zoe in house of cardsNow what? I was depending on Zoe to do great things in the series. She was bright, cute and gutsy. How could the scriptwriters get rid of her?

I found my feelings of disbelief, disappointment- and yes- anger, quite intriguing. Then, before watching the next episode I put my writer’s hat back on and asked myself: What has killing Zoe achieved?

  • total surprise, which caused my above emotional responses.
  • curiosity. Now what? Someone has to take Zoe’s place and go after the antihero Francis Underwood. Francis can’t literally get away with murder and ultimately become the president of the US!
  • Zoe’s replacement will also be in danger, so suspense is still high and I want to keep watching to see what happens.

Now with Zoe being literally killed off, it made me think about the characters I’m developing in my next story. I had NEVER thought about getting rid of one of my main characters that I’m literally telling my story through. It’s like killing the detective in a mystery.

But why not? It is absolutely a way to bring a new main character on stage to keep the story going. It may not be what I choose to do, but on the other hand it has opened my eyes to seeing other possibilities.

And it’s these other possibilities that not only keep writers writing, it also pulls in readers (or even starts people reading) and gets producers excited about turning our books into movies.

No, I don’t believe that readers are a dying breed, but they do expect a good story with unexpected twists and turns in order to devote their time to reading the book or even watching it in movie form.

Have surprises you’ve experienced through someone else’s storytelling enriched your own writing? 

The Secret of being a bore…

Square Peg in a Round HoleHelga’s Post #72: … is to tell everything (Voltaire)

Joe’s previous post, ‘Surprise, Surprise’ opened up a vast opportunity for discussion of planning a novel. Why? Because so much of a book’s ultimate success hinges on this one part of a story. After all, who doesn’t like a story that’s unpredictable? But, as Joe said, it’s not easy.

In my own writing, I never know during the planning stage how I will surprise my readers. If I would know myself there’s the danger that my readers will smell a rat and can figure it out well before they get to the dreaded, sagging middle. Ultimately, I want to surprise myself, and I often do when I have to research a certain element in my story. Suddenly information emerges that totally catches me off guard, and this forces me to change my plot. Often it leads to unexpected opportunities that make my story more quirky, more unique. I think that’s the main reason why I keep resisting the outlining process. I realize that mine is a flawed process, but getting an organic writer to do a scene by scene and chapter by chapter outline before writing the first sentence is like… well, you know the cliché of the square peg.

I would like to chat about another important element of a good story, related, yet different to surprise, namely Suspense. I know this has been over-discussed and over-worked, but I always find it fascinating to explore new angles.

First off, what elements create suspense in a story?

Two things have to happen: Conflict and tension (no, they are not the same as suspense). Interaction of juxtaposing opinions is conflict; interaction of conflict and players creates tension. Add a time element to tension and voila, we have created suspense.

Suspense is not created equal. It comes in a myriad of forms. Readers who love police procedurals will be thrilled with a nail-biting denouement of a shootout or last-moment capture of a villain before he blows up a school. Romance readers will get their pound of flesh (cliché intended), when their heroine faces the biggest betrayal of her life – the man she sacrificed everything for has impregnated her younger sister and she has to decide on how to take revenge, or, escalating the suspense, find ways to forgive. Perhaps a mother has to choose between saving her small child on the railroad tracks or cause the train with two hundred passengers to derail. Or something.

Suspense can also be much more subtle, yet no less intriguing. In literary novels it can take on psychological or emotional suspense, like the protagonist’s spouse slowly descending into mental illness, or her closest friend revealing a personality trait that devastates her and she may never recover from the loss of loyalty. Just as antipathy, dissimilarity of views, hate, contempt, all can accompany true love, according to Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. That too is suspense in the hands of a skilled writer.
Either way, suspense, will keep your readers’ noses in your book and have them line up at Chapters on the first morning your sequel is up for sale. I was surprised therefore when a friend and one of my beta readers of Taste of the Past (culinary mystery co-written with Paula) said there was too much conflict in the book. “These people are always fighting”, was her feedback. “It spoiled all that delicious food and the sunsets and beautiful Tuscan landscape.”

Did she have a point? At first reflection I dismissed her feedback as coming from a reader who does not appreciate the value and necessity of suspense and conflict. After all, ‘Cut quarrels out of literature, and you will have very little history or drama or fiction or epic poetry left’, said American sociologist Robert S. Lynd some decades ago.

Upon further reflection, maybe my beta-reading friend was right – or partially so. Perhaps we missed some subtle nuances. We wrote that book eight years ago, my first serious effort at writing a full novel. ‘Conflict in every scene’ was the credo we’d been taught and that’s the one Paula and I wrote by. Could it be that the conflict my friend referred to was too obvious, too in-your-face? Maybe the stakes weren’t clear enough or high enough and we might have over-compensated with too much outward and petty fighting. I hope we find the time to do a serious edit of our manuscript. After having the benefit of eight years of learning and practicing writing with our capable critique group, who knows what good will come of it.

But I am sure of this: I am loath to bore my readers. I’d rather start knitting socks. As Jean Baudrillard reminds us, the world’s second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.


The writing on the wall

Helga’s Post #54:

A new dawn. A new direction. If you read Karalee’s last post, ‘Deciding on a new project’, you know what I mean.

When we gathered at my house we all came prepared with up to three plot ideas each for our collaborative novel. Well you know how that ended. (Do I hear a collective ‘we could have told you so… ?)

Did we leave defeated, feel discouraged?

Nope, but thanks for asking.

In fact, I am happy to report, we finished our meeting re-energized, re-invented, and re-committed, both to our individual writing projects as well as to our 5Writers group. This is the amazing thing – just when we thought after realizing the collaborative novel isn’t likely going to work – voila! Up we came with another idea, and a much better one. It builds on the group’s synergy and will surely contribute to make every one of us a better writer. It will also add a dose of discipline to our work, something that has been – let’s be frank – sliding (with one notable exception).

What’s so innovative about each of us coming to the next meeting armed with an outline of our next work?

Simply this: Outlining is a tricky beast. It’s as much as an essential tool as a snare to creativity. Some in our group live and die by it, others (like me) are writing by the seat of their pants. All of us have tried both approaches – writing with and without outlines. All of us have lived with the realization that at least some sort of outline is necessary. So this will be a great challenge for the pantsers among the group, while the rest can teach us how to be less intimidated by the process. It will be interesting to see if they can convert us.

I am fascinated just how much time and energy is used on the topic of outlines. A quick Google search brings up hundreds of links. From agents and editors, to writing teachers to published authors, everyone seems to have an opinion. And far from the same opinion. I am leaning towards the ‘moderates’, like J.K. Rowling:

“I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.” So, yes, a basic plot outline. If that works for one of the most successful modern writers, I think I can live with that.

Meanwhile, I continue writing my novel that I started several months ago (the one I was supposed to have finished by our collective deadline of February 5 this year). It’s slow going. I found myself trapped in plot logistics. I felt like a noose was tightened around my writer’s neck with the trap door about to drop. (I can hear the outliners: See, that’s what happens to pantsers. Serves you right!) I woke up at night thinking of a way out, untangling the web. I kept tinkering on the edges, without much success, until I realized that much more drastic steps were needed. Like completely changing the dynamic between two of my main characters, and some other radical changes like setting, stakes and motif. The eraser no longer worked. I had to use a chainsaw.

No, not as in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rather, in order to make my story better I am focusing on increasing suspense. The kind of suspense that has a combination of both excited expectation and uncertain fear. Readers want to experience fear, because, in the words of English playwright William Congreve, security is an insipid thing. ‘Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life,’ he said 300 years ago, and his wisdom holds true today. A good story must have a good dose of danger and conflict, which means you need a really bad antagonist, lots of twists, and perhaps a gripping love story and always a satisfying ending.

But what a good story needs above all is a writer who is committed enough to finish it. And take risks. Don’t hold back, and when you’re done with the first draft, be prepared and be brave enough to revise, cut and toss. As Margaret Atwood quipped:

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word…. A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.”

That’s what it comes down to. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves when our first draft doesn’t quite measure up to a Number One bestseller. A little kindness is not out of place. And with that in mind, I am starting the weekend with a traditional TGIF cocktail, a Kir Royale. For two.