Guest Tips #4 R. N. Morris (Part 2)

photo by Simon Nicholls

Generating Mystery and Suspense

Part Two (you can read Part One here)
When I’m thinking about suspense, I picture a tightrope walker.  The tightrope walker keeps walking forwards, doesn’t look down, and doesn’t look back. Imagine, however, that you’re a tightrope walker crossing a high wire suspended between two walls. You can’t see what’s behind the wall ahead of you (or the one behind you for that matter). You’ve got to keep moving and you’re in trouble if you fall off. But you have no idea what it is you’re moving towards.

The tightrope walker is the reader, of course, not the writer. The writer constructed the walls, and knows very well what’s behind them.
One of the simplest and most effective ways of creating narrative tension is to obey the often cited directive “Show don’t tell”. What I mean is if you write what is happening but you don’t explain why it’s happening, you immediately create tension and suspense in your writing that will keep the reader reading.

The very nature of linear narrative storytelling works in your favour. Think about the way you construct a sentence. The meaning of that sentence isn’t fully grasped until the reader gets to the end. And a skilful writer will arrange the words so that the punch is delivered towards the end. Writing is by its nature a series of revelations, a gradual unfolding. You can’t blurt it out all at one. You have to weave a thread.

It’s up to you as a writer to decide how much you tell the reader, and when. Of course, readers don’t like it if they feel that they have been cheated, that something crucial was withheld from them that could and should have been shared.  But there’s no reason at all to do that. I’ve just finished Lee Child’s 2010 novel, Worth Dying For, in which a mysterious consignment is being smuggled across the Canadian-American border. We’re not told what’s in the container, only that it is something very valuable to certain criminals. We can guess, in fact that’s what we’re invited to do, and there are certainly plenty of quite legitimate clues dropped. It would be cheating if Child misled us, or if he hadn’t mentioned the consignment at all and it turned out to be crucial.

The way to do it is through point of view. There are characters who don’t know, fully, what’s going on. If the reader is linked to them through viewpoint, they don’t feel cheated, because they are as much in the dark as the protagonist, and may even get there first. When you are writing scenes in which characters who do know the secret are involved, either stay away from their viewpoint, or restrict their focus, so they are thinking about something else at that moment more urgent, such as staying alive! Showing and not telling comes to your rescue again.

Suspense is also created out of a sense of inevitability – the best plots combine inevitability and surprise. The reader knows that something bad is going to happen, but is not precisely sure what form it will take. As a writer, you can play with this, setting up expectations, and subverting them to create surprise.

In my first novel, Taking Comfort, the central character Rob is drawn into collecting mementoes from scenes of tragedy and disaster. I aimed to create a sense of inevitability in the downward spiral of his obsessive behaviour, the progression from accidentally finding things, to seeking disasters out, to – possibly – initiating them. But I also hoped that how this spiral played out would be totally unpredictable.

Of course, when you surprise yourself, you know that you’ve really succeeded. To do that, you have to dig deep into whatever part of your subconscious it is that contains the story waiting to be told.

R.N. Morris is the author of four historical mysteries published by Faber and Faber: A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk and the forthcoming The Cleansing Flames (due out May 2011). A Vengeful Longing was shortlisted in 2008 for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel, and runner up in New York Magazine’s Culture Awards for best thriller. He has twice been highly commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime. His first novel, written as Roger Morris, was the contemporary thriller Taking Comfort, published in 2006 by Macmillan New Writing. He has run workshops on mystery and suspense for City University MA in Creative Writing. He has also written the libretto to an opera.

This post is part of the Guest Tips Series, a collection of pieces of advice and personal experiences from writers who are not me. Bits of advice or ranting from writers who are me can be found here, in the Tips for Writers bit of the blog. If you fancy writing for me, you can find out a bit more about the hows and whys and wherefores here. 

2 responses to “Guest Tips #4 R. N. Morris (Part 2)”

  1. D J Harrison says:

    Very clear and helpful post, thanks. I am reminded that Chandler used a single, tight viewpoint which works wonderfully well. The reader gets to see what Marlowe sees and is inevitably impressed by what he makes of it by the end.

  2. roger says:

    Hi DJ, glad you found the post helpful. That’s interesting about Chandler and Marlowe – but yes, it happens quite a lot with detective fiction, I think. The reader sees exactly what the detective does, but is not privy to what the detective is making of it. Maybe the detective isn’t either, because the solution may be being worked out subconsciously?

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