Monday, June 13, 2011

Suspense, Surprise and Cliffhangers

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the tension between readers and books. And how as a reader I need books that give me all kinds of tension. The can't put it down stay up too late to finish it tension. The can put it down at night but can't wait to pick it up again tension and the perfect subway reading tension - I don't miss my stop, but keeps me totally entertained for 20 minutes, two times a day - tension.

A varied diet of reading experiences. They can't all be ROOM. I would die.

But I want to write the can't put it down kind of tension.

So, I'm trying to figure it out - as we all are. And of course the best lessons in writing these days are on TV, so I started to look there and of course after last nights Game of Thrones I realized how it hit that painfully sweet spot between surprise, suspense and cliffhanger. We can survive without all three but as writers why not shoot high?

I'm reading Divergent right now and it's full of suspense. Lot's of questions, some more pressing than others. High stakes. I am totally enjoying this book, but I can put it down. No Surprises. No gasp out loud moments. I'm half way through and I'm sure they're coming, but...I'm halfway through. Surprise me already. Flip this world on it's ear. Yeah, Peter got stabbed in the eye - but I don't care about Peter. Tris' mom was Dauntless, sort of saw that coming. Plenty of suspense, no surprise. No cliffhangers. For all it's violence and high stakes, it's a low tension book.

I watched the first season of Deadwood back to back this weekend for a break from working. Oh, this show...it's a fail on so many levels. But it's success - those characters, that world building, those actors, carry it. It's the equivalent of a subway read for me. Basically, I'm reading for the voice, sort of like the first few Stephanie Plum books. I was invested in Seth and Alma. Trixie. Totally riveted by Ian McShane...but I skimmed to get to those parts I liked. And talk about a show that needed a couple of cliffhangers...something! Murder someone we care about! Surprise me.

The second season of True Blood infuriated me with it's false cliffhangers. It would create surprise and suspense by giving us an episode end that was totally staged. Remember when Bill went to go see the Queen because she was the only hope for something that I don't remember and when he walks in the room all we see is a woman's leg covered in blood? Oh My GOD! The queen is DEAD! Oh no what will happen now? The next episode it wasn't the queen's leg, but the woman she was feeding from? UGH! Stop playing with me. Stop creating tension where there isn't any - or make real tension! Lafayette is dead! No, he's not. Bill is dead! No...he's not. Enough all ready.

Which brings me to Game of Thrones. They've killed everyone that took us into that story and that world. Every hero, every villain - dead. Each time it was a gasp out loud moment. And last night when they killed Lord Stark - you'd think we lost the sympathetic center of that show. The driving story. Sean Bean, for crying out loud. But they didn't just kill him, they gave birth to a terrible new villian. A teenage boy totally out of control. And the same damn episode they give us scene after scene of other character's that just build our love, our investment. I'm more invested in the half-man's story now, then I ever was really in Lord Stark's. I liked Lord Stark, but come on! I LOVE Tyroine. The pregnant queen out there in the desert with the dying husband and the black magic...the new Lord Stark, so young and leading a rebellion. Starting the book with characters that you intend to kill off to make room for new heroes and villains that we are MORE invested in...and there are zombies!!!

Honest to god, I keep thinking that suspense is part of writing romance. It's ingrained. And Surprise... well, surprise will come to me, right? Those little moments of magic...I can't plan for that! Cliffhangers I can manufacture. How wrong I am. How totally wrong. I need to plan this stuff, plot it out, build it in. I can't leave these crucial ingredients to chance. Game of Thrones certainly isn't and it's the best thing out there.

10 comments:

Maureen McGowan said...

For me, Divergent was full of tension, but I agree about the lack of surprising twists... Perhaps we're just defining tension differently.

Trixie was by far my favorite character on Deadwood (other than me being in love with Timothy Olyphant). Her story just gets better and better throughout that series for me.

Damn you for giving a Game of Thrones spoiler! (I'm out of town.) But I did kind of assume that was going to happen...

Eileen said...

Part of the tension thing is the emotional investment in the character thing and you already do that so so well, Molly. ROOM had me white-knuckled because I was so invested in Jack and his Ma. I'm reading EMPRESS now and a lot of surprising things happen, but I couldn't care less. I'm not invested in the character at all. (Please someone explain to me why this book won a bunch of awards. Please.)

You can't always surprise in the same way, though. Toward the end of the second book in the Martin series, I was getting a little tired of the "she-escapes-the danger-only-to-be-in-worse danger" model that he uses over and over.

We're watching The Killing right now and I am fascinated, but every episode has the same arc. At the end of each episode, you learn something that makes you think you know who the bad guy is and then at the beginning of the next episode, you learn that the person is not the bad guy and spend the rest of the episode building to the conclusion that it's somebody else. And then you do it again. I'm still watching, though . . .

Kathy Holmes said...

I agree about the best examples are on TV. For me, the best writing on television is "Mad Men." They have perfected the "worse thing that could happen then happens to that character" technique. I'm now rewatching the past seasons on DVD while I wait for the next season to begin.

Sinead M said...

The writers created so much suspense by killing Ned, in proving that any character could be killed at any time, no matter how seemingly central to the story, or how noble.
It was an interesting decision, but I read somewhere that in the books, Stark's children are the real protagonists and in that case, the death makes so much sense.
Loved it, love the series and would love to watch Deadwood sometime.

As for Divergent, I'm with Maureen, I found it really tense as well.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think the tension killer in Divergent is that she's so clearly good at being dauntless. She's smart, she's getting in touch with her ruthless side, she's no coward - I don't beleive she's as low in the rankings as she is. Bt I'm still reading it every night and it's shocking and exciting and super well-written - I'm just not surprised. oh Maureen - sorry to spoil it. It's shocking - I NEVER saw it coming. It's Sean Bean for crying out loud!

Eileen - I agree with the emotional connection and what is so amazing to me in this tv adaption of the books is that and this stage I'm MORE emotionally attatched to the various heroes as I ever was with Ned. Ned did the right thing, his family loved him - instant hero. Tyroine far more complicated, not heroic at all - way more emotionally attatched.

I don't even know what The Killing is? I don't think we got that one...

Stephanie Doyle said...

And we're sure Ned's dead? My assistant who also watches says there is going to be some trick. The sound you heard was someone else getting popped.

I don't know. What I have found fascinating is that I'm reading the book and actually... I think the show is better.

I was expecting more depth at the book level, but it's really not there. Good stuff, but it makes sense that George was a screenwriter first. He wrote a story fit for the screen and it's really really working.

Tyrion - he just gets better every week.

Eileen said...

Ned's totally dead. Really most sincerely dead. Well, if he's not, then he doesn't come back to life until after book two's over.

Tyrion gets better and better as the books go on. He's such a complex character. How he became who he is, the internal politics of his family, his own sense of honor and duty and integrity.

But can I say, whoa! That's a lotta nudity going on! Body parts everywhere!

The Killing is on AMC. It's a remake of a Danish show. It reminds me of Durham County Secrets, which I also loved. Things don't move fast, but it's incredibly tense and complex. Here's the url: http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-killing

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, I wanted to watch The Killing, Eileen and forgot that it was starting. I tried to watch on the on demand channel last week and they only had the last 3 episodes. :( Hoping they'll show again from the start. AMC usually does...

Maureen McGowan said...

Molly, I knew she was a born Dauntless, too. For me the tension was wondering what the consequences of being too good at it were, (her mom warned her not to let herself be ranked too high) and being caught as a Divergent...

And also, I think, whether she could accept their way of thinking given how she'd grown up, or whether anyone can be only one thing... Or whether she'd be forced to kill her family at gunpoint at some point...

I did see a lot of the twists coming, but I wasn't expecting her to kill as many people near the end, and I felt some kind of tension the whole time. There were no flat bits for me.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I'm not saying I don't love Divergent - I do - I just don't feel like she's in danger... I wonder how much of my lack of tension worries has to do with it not coming with the book jacket - it's like I don't have a soundtrack to tell me when I'm scared. But it's awesome. Loving it. Looking forward to all the killing... oh and the Four stuff is pretty delicious....

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