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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
How to Create Tension Through Misdirection
This guest newsletter is by William Noble and is excerpted from Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict, Action & Suspense. A car engine breaks the stillness of the night ... the smell of seaweed intrudes on an afternoon chess game ... an unopened letter slips behind couch cushions.
These are what we might call "plot-hypers," in that they add elements of uncertainty and tension. They create a rise of anxiety by injecting an unexplained event or circumstance. What makes plot-hypers especially helpful is the relative ease with which they can be used and the impact they can have on a story.
Plot-hypers create uncertainty that might-but doesn't have to-complicate things. They raise the tension level. What plot-hypers require is a sense of proportion that tries to keep the cat in the bag while opening the bag enough so the cat can breathe.
We speak of subtlety and misdirection because the story moves with veils and whisps and bare outlines, and there's no attempt to ring a bell or blow a whistle so the reader's attention can be lassoed like a runaway calf. What this type of writing requires is a careful assessment of how much or how little to offer the reader, keeping in mind that we don't want to be unfair, and we don't want to obfuscate beyond a reasonable point. It means that we must come up with at least one plot-hyper, and we must plant the key somewhere in the text.
Why do we use subtlety and misdirection in the first place? And do they really enhance the way we build action and suspense? The answers lie in the simple equation that becomes an element of the partnership we develop with our readers: The longer we keep our reader guessing, the more attention they will pay to what they are reading. And subtlety and misdirection are two of the most effective tools available to keep the reader guessing and reading. It's as simple as that.
Take a look at this example:
The blackened mask had two slits for the eyes and a triangular hole where the nose would fit. Lips pierced by claw-like teeth were painted where the mouth would have been, and my mind screamed the question ... would I be victim or victimizer this time?
And compare it to this one:
"I didn't know you'd gone to acting school," she said.
He laughed. "My father's idea. I only lasted two months, and I was pretty bored." He pushed himself from the chair. "What about that pizza?"
Assume that both of these selections come from a scene that deals with the same suspenseful topic-a sinister mask, and how it affects the person who is wearing it. The selections come from different directions, but both seek to develop suspense. In the first, there's no attempt to hide the horrible implications; the mask is described, as are its possible effects. No subtlety here, no misdirection, only a straightforward depiction of a suspenseful event.