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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, February 14, 2013

CRAFTING SUSPENSE

"It was a dark and stormy night"

A very wise man once said there's nothing new under the sun; that everything we do and attempt someone has, in one form or another, in the past.  That's true as far as I can tell.  There's been billions of humans on earth and folks today are no more clever and inventive than those in the past.
Creative arts such as music, painting, writing, and so on are all areas people expect fresh new ideas and mock duplication and repetition.  The problem is at a certain point, we're all cannibals and thieves when we create: we re use what we've done before or what someone else has done before.  
Great artists repeated certain compositions and techniques.  Great composers repeated themes and chords, even entire segments were reused in later, more successful pieces.  Great writers use patterns and formulas to craft their stories.
The reason for this isn't sloth, it is not because an artist is trying to steal in most cases.  There's simply no better way to do certain things.  Mysteries can't be mysterious if you give too much away too soon.  You can't write a romance without at least two people becoming romantically inclined.  If you write a book without conflict or drama, its boring and pointless.  And after all, everyone has a style and a method of writing which is most comfortable and easiest for the writer to follow.
Attempts to make these sort of efforts "fresh and new" end up being lame and awkward at best.  Yet using the same patterns can become repetitious, boring, and can ruin an otherwise good tale.  The problem for a writer is that if you use all the same techniques, people will lose their "immersion" in a story.
What I mean is this; if you are reading a good story, most readers tend to become involved enough they ignore the outside world and their mind plays along with the tale, not so much deluding themselves they are actually in that tale, but pulled in enough to be like someone underwater, surrounded by the story being told, without realizing it.
If something jarring, sufficiently inconsistent, or obnoxious happens in the story it can damage that feeling of immersion and pull you out to where you recognize you're reading words on a page.  Instead of enjoying a story you feel like you're reading a book, to put it another way.
And poorly handling a situation can cause this.  Watching the incredibly awkward trainwreck of the "love story" in Star Wars Episode II (Attack of the Clones) was so painful all sense of being in a far away world or following the story was totally lost.  If you read a book and the writer employs tired, overused cliches or terms that everyone is sick of, suddenly instead of reading you're looking at words and hoping you get past that bit.
They've jumped the shark, and need to think outside the box, because their paradigm has become gay.  See that sentence?  Its horrible, because it simply uses terms everyone has overused to the point of producing misery instead of delight or interest.
And that brings me to writing suspense.  If you want to write a good, suspenseful scene, you have to employ techniques which will help the reader build in nervousness and concern for the people involved.  Writers such as Alistair MacLean were brilliant at this; you seriously feared for the lives and safety of everyone involved in the story, whatever it was.  He was a genius at keeping you guessing, wondering who was the bad guy, what was going to happen next, and slipping in treason and confusion into every stage of the tale with stories such as Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone among many others.
In the book I'm working on right now, the scene involves a Nazi officer being stalked by a werewolf through the dark, curfew-silent streets of Krakow.  The lights are out, the streets are empty and dark, and the whole world is cold and wet with earlier rain.  Now, the usual way to get suspense and fear is to have storms and scratching branches and so on, to emphasize things people are familiar with which set them on edge, and to use imagery which makes people nervous or feel dread.  Terms and descriptions comparing ordinary items to more horrible things are often used; the plain fence in front of a house looks like tombstones, the bush reminds one of reaching claws or spiders, and so on.
The problem is, this has all been used so much by so many writers, I'm not sure it even works any longer.  And since I know exactly what is happening and why, there's no suspense for me when I read it, no matter how its written.  I think this might be a problem for all writers, trying to craft a mystery when you know the end already can't be easy - where's the mystery?  Where's the surprise?  In both of my previous books I've had elements of mystery or at least a puzzle being solved, but they weren't the primary focus of the story so if it didn't work, it wasn't particularly damaging.  In the end I think it worked out okay.
The problem is, with this book, tentatively titled Life Unworthy, I'm trying to write a suspense-filled story with elements of horror.  This isn't a cuddly fun werewolf, this isn't a hunky werewolf you choose between for the sparkly vampire.  This is a horrific murdering monster under a ghastly curse.  And I want readers to be in dread of the killing machine while feeling even more dread about the cold, systematic evil of the Nazis.
Meanwhile, I'm trying to make the werewolf at least somewhat sympathetic and tragic while making the Nazis more complex and interesting than the usual caricature.  They aren't all goose stepping Jew-hating robots, they have varied reasons and goals behind their actions.  The trick is to make them human and even to some degree likable despite their evil, because to me that makes the evil all the more horrible.
A monster is just a monster, you don't feel bad or betrayed when they do wrong.  A somewhat likable person who does unthinkable evil is more shocking and painful, I believe.  And while it isn't fun to make Nazis nice guys at times, they were.  Its not like they went home and beat their wives, murdered babies, and made a shrine to Hitler out of the bones of old ladies, they had wives and kids and families, loved ones and pets and happiness too.  That's what makes what they did all the worse.
So I'm struggling, and maybe overthinking things a little.  In my previous two books, I just sat down and wrote, and ripped them out in about a month's time.  The words flowed and were easy to put on paper, the story just poured out onto my laptop with few hitches and hesitations.  The setting, the characters, the events were all simple to me after thousands of hours of role playing games set in my fantasy world.
With this book I have to research continually to try to avoid errors, continuity issues, improper references, and so on.  I struggle to get the right mood, to keep the flow appropriate to the events, and to move the plot to the story I want: to examine the nature of evil and its consequences.
And that's good, in a way.  I could knock out story after story of Erkenbrand running about in the wilds facing problems and overcoming them; chances are I will at some point.  But I'd like to do more than simple fantasy stories, little fun adventures.  I want the books I write to be more than just pulp fun for someone to read for a few hours.  I want people to think and maybe even learn a little in the process.
Louis L'Amour wrote hundreds of stories, and almost all of them at least at some point force you to think, understand, and learn something about the setting, events, people and ideas he wrote about.  His stories were simple and often followed a very typical pattern, but there as more to them.  He didn't write "great literature" but then, a lot of what people call great literature I'm skeptical of, to say the least.  I'd like to be more like that, to entertain and tell stories that make people think.
So I want to write something different, and this story follows a pattern of sorts I established for myself when writing the series of fantasy novels I'm working on: 2 fantasy books then something different, to break up my thinking.  But its not easy.
I'm not of the mind that everyone has to try to stretch and do something more 'serious' or different than they do well.  Groucho Marx never felt the need to do horror or serious drama, he stuck to what he knew and did it well his whole life.  If you're good at something, stay with it.
I'm just not sure what I'm exactly great at, and I have a story here I want to tell which is a twist on things in a way I have never read before, in a setting and involving themes that I think should be popular and should interest readers.
The challenge is to find a way to get it done, to plow through the difficulties without falling back on easy, all-too-common tricks.  If I can do this right, it should be pretty amazing stuff.  If I can't, well at least its experience that will help me write better the next project I work on.
And there's one thing I learned from a class I took on marketing and business of art: you're never going to think your work is good enough to sell unless you're deluded.  But if you have any skill and talent at all, your work really is good enough at a certain point, and you have to recognize that as an artist.

1 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

Your second book was pretty good at getting me immersed in the story (I've not read the first yet.)

4:20 PM, February 14, 2013  

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