Sunday, July 25, 2010

BUILDING SUSPENSE in your Novel with author Ellen C. Maze


Recently, I completed my second novel, Rabbit Legacy, and began the fun-filled days of editing the work. I sent it off to three editors—two of which are also authors—and printed out a copy for myself to read aloud. I had been studying books on ways to improve your novel and one of the things I learned to recognize was places where suspense could be increased, therefore making the book better. 

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the instances I found to increase suspense and at the same time enlarge the characters multidimensionality. See, suspense is no good on its own; it needs to be supported by context, character personality, plot, theme and progress. Here are a few places where I was able to increase suspense AND advance the plot or character development at the same time. Take a look:

BEFORE:
(Chapter 28, excerpt)
Fifteen minutes passed before a yellow Dodge Ram pickup came barreling down the two-lane highway that ran through the park. Beryl stepped into the road and waved his arms as Ta’avah limped along the side. They played their roles well enough that the driver slowed, pulled off, and then hopped out to offer assistance.

“What happened, son? Did you have a wreck?” Thick and muscular with an ample beer belly, the driver helped Ta’avah balance and then noticed the copious amounts of blood staining Beryl’s shirt and jeans a few feet away. His eyes widened and he did a double take at the twins’ faces. When he recovered, he pointed at Beryl. “Ya’ll get in the cab. I’m taking you to the hospital right away. Come on, son. Can you walk?”

Beryl hobbled to the vehicle unaided as the husky Samaritan carefully lifted Ta’avah into the passenger seat. When he came around to the driver’s side to open the third door, Beryl reached forward and grabbed him tightly by his arms. The man was shocked by the move for the first several seconds, but as his predicament dawned on him, he began to thrash wildly against his attacker.

Beryl met Ta’avah’s eyes, who hadn’t lifted a finger to help. On the contrary, he leaned back in the seat, smiled, and crossed his arms. Undaunted, Beryl growled and stressed the man’s torso to one side fracturing several vertebrae. The truck driver screamed high and terrified as his legs buckled. Eyes still glued to his superior hidden inside his brother’s body, he held the man up with one strong arm and stabbed him in the neck with his free hand. He’d have his fill with or without the demon’s help. His victim stopped struggling moments into the attack, and Beryl drew out his blood until he could hold no more. As he was finishing, Ta’avah slipped down from the truck and casually approached. (end excerpt)


At the highlighted portion, I realized that I glazed over Beryl’s attack. Initially, I probably did that to save word count, or maybe I wrote this scene in a hurry. But either way, I did the character a disservice by not covering how he would attack such a victim. Read the expansion below and see how I was able to delve into Beryl’s state of mind, his relationship with his master, and his general worsening attitude by simply showing the reader how the attack went down.

AFTER:
(cont’d)….Beryl hobbled to the vehicle unaided as the husky Samaritan carefully lifted Ta’avah into the passenger seat. When he came around to the driver’s side to open the third door, Beryl considered how the attack would go down. Subduing mortals was easy enough if you surprised them. The two seconds that it took to realize the threat was plenty of time to snap a neck or otherwise immobilize for feeding. The driver was a big man and would have leverage; Beryl didn’t want to be shoved off his feet in front of his master. He limped toward the man and whimpered, his muscles tense as he prepared to lunge.

“You look all banged up, son. What happened to ya?” the man asked, his head to side, totally convinced by Beryl’s performance.

Dashing forward, Beryl reached and grabbed him tightly by his arms. The man was shocked by the move, but as his predicament dawned on him, he began to thrash against his attacker. Beryl allowed the man to struggle and met Ta’avah’s eyes. His master leaned back in the seat, smiled, and crossed his arms. Undaunted, Beryl growled and spun the man around easily, grabbing him around the chest from behind. With a sneer aimed at his master, he stressed the man’s torso to one side and fractured several of the driver’s vertebrae. His victim screamed as his legs buckled and pain ripped through his body.

Eyes still glued to his superior hidden inside his brother’s body, he held the man up with one strong arm and stabbed him in the neck with his free hand. They weren’t leaving him alive so Beryl aimed for the jugular. He’d have his fill with or without the demon’s help. His victim fell unconscious, and Beryl drew out his blood until he could hold no more. As he was finishing, Ta’avah slipped down from the truck and casually approached.
(end excerpt)

Another instance where suspense was improved was in Chapter Forty, where Beryl is trying to avoid the police. Opening up these violent scenes actually reveals the character’s growth leading up to the end of the book when he is a significantly changed person. Check out how I chose to expand this scene (it is established in the text that these quoted italics indicate telepathic exchange):

BEFORE:
(Chapter 40, excerpt)
“I can take out the ones I see. You kill your three. Meet me behind the privacy fence gate. I have a van.” Beryl paused making sure his every word translated across.

“Yes?”

“We’ll make a run for it.”

Silence. Beryl smirked unintentionally, sensing hesitation in his master that Meryl would never have suffered. Maybe Ta’avah was not as strong as he pretended.

Then a gun fired, muffled and from inside the bar.

Beryl jumped into action.

Faster than the eye could see, he gained on the policeman closest to him and snapped his neck. As he was falling to the ground, two of his buddies turned to come to his aid, their guns drawn and beginning to come up. Beryl didn’t allow them to complete their arc. As quickly as possible, he rushed them with arms wide, cupped the heads of each with his open palms and slammed their heads together so hard, their skulls cracked like egg shells.

In a flash, a cop rounded the corner, aimed and fired just as Beryl leapt off the ground and scrabbled onto the roof. One uniformed officer disappeared into the bar but there were at least two left outside. Had Ta’avah finished off his or had he been shot? Should Beryl make a run for it alone? (end excerpt)


During proofing, I realized that I totally cheated Beryl out of another chance to show insight into his thought processes. By adding just a few lines, I was able to increase the suspense in an already suspenseful scene, and remind the audience that being shot earlier in the work weighed heavily on Beryl’s mind. Check it out:

AFTER:
(cont’d)…In a flash, a cop rounded the corner, weapon trained at Beryl’s chest. The sudden recollection of being shot by Canaan’s woman caused his pulse to speed up. He so didn’t want to be shot again. The officer’s finger tugged at the trigger as Beryl leapt off the ground and scrabbled onto the roof. The spent bullet ricocheted harmlessly on the cement wall, but the radio chatter increased exponentially. Beryl sensed more units being dispatched from all over the city. Things were getting out of hand.(end except)


Now, wasn't that a hoot! There are more, but these are two to get you started. So if you write fiction and want to spice it up with a little kick of suspense, look for places where you glazed over action that could be really be expanded and do the novel good. Happy writing!

~Ellen C Maze, www.rabbitnovel.com


Recommended text: The Plot Thickens, by Literary Agent Noah Lukeman

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