How Not To Build Suspense…

Sometimes, it really sucks being a writer.  Like when you’re just trying to enjoy a book.

I recently read a book, a YA fantasy with a fairy tale feel to it, partly as “market research” but also because this is the kind of book I love.

It started out in a rather promising way, with a queen and a commoner linked until that all-important sixteenth birthday, political winds swirling around them and a handsome knight caught between them. 

But after a hundred pages and more, nothing much had happened — or rather, things were happening, but the main character didn’t know much about what was happening, and rather than being tantalized and rapidly turning pages to learn more, I found myself getting frustrated and annoyed.

Why?  

You know the feeling you get when you’re watching a poorly written romantic comedy, when all the guy and the girl need to do is to TALK, for goodness sake, and all their misunderstandings will be resolved?  That’s how the bulk of this book read.  Any conversation that could have led to a greater understanding by the main character was cut off prematurely by hurt feelings, the awkwardness of budding romance, and worst of all, by sudden, contrived interruptions.  These were so manifestly the design of the author, and not organic to the flow of the tale or the motivations of the characters, that I was growling and rolling my eyes as I read.

Why did the writer do these things?

I checked the book jacket.  She’s a writing teacher, so I don’t think she did it out of ignorance or inexperience.

I think she did it because she wrote the book in first person, she needed to keep her main character in the dark, and she couldn’t figure out how else to do it.

There’s the problem:  the words have to serve the story; the story can’t serve the words.  I know that first person is popular in young adult right now, but as an author, you can’t make decisions based on what’s popular.  You have to make decisions based on what is right for your book and for your characters.

In first person, it is extremely difficult to conceal information from your main character without also concealing it from your reader.  While your narrator may remain blithely ignorant, it is doubtful that your reader is willing to remain so for long.  We don’t read to be deceived unless we know that we are reading a thriller or mystery, and no one likes to be talked down to.  If the narrator is constantly avoiding asking that ONE QUESTION that would deliver the goods, the reader is just going to walk away.

Suspense doesn’t come from withholding information because a character doesn’t ask the obvious questions.  It doesn’t come from a character being willfully blind, or stubborn, or constantly interrupted at the moment of discovery.  That leads to frustration, not suspense.

In case you are wondering, I did finish the book because, as a writer, I had to know what the author would do.  When and how would she let the narrator in on the facts?  Eventually (somewhere around page 250), the girl was told, and the truth was as I had suspected since around page twenty-five.  No big surprise after all that waiting. 

This book should have been about a hundred pages shorter, and the big reveal should have come around fifty pages in. 

Have you ever had this experience?  Where you couldn’t switch off your internal editor and it really wrecked the book for you?  What was the issue, and what do you think the author could have or should have done differently?

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10 Responses to How Not To Build Suspense…

  1. mabelgygi says:

    Maryanne,
    Sometimes you are too smart for your own good, but I have definitely had that happen to me before. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was distracted from a book; I just didn’t like it and didn’t want to pick it up after putting it down. Thanks for a great post this morning!

  2. Nisha says:

    When I first started writing, it happened to me all the time. There came a point where I just could not finish reading ANY book. It wasn’t only because I wasn’t enjoying the books I was reading but also because I started becoming ultra-sensitive to small things that the authors were doing, things I would not have noticed as a non-writer(I’m sure you understand what I mean). Im not so sensitive now though, thank God!

    A friend of mine(a horror fan like me) recommended a book by an award-winning author. It was the worst book I had ever read. I only finished it to spare her feelings. The plot: 5 girls go for a holiday in the woods and camp out at an abandoned holiday resort. Abandoned for a reason as a massacre took place there ten years ago or something. They spend the whole plot trying to run away from a crazy man who wants to kill them. The author disperses ‘flashbacks’ of the girls’ histories throughout the book which had nothing to do with their current situation. It would have been slightly better if he found a way to bring the skeletons in their closets back to life and tied it in to the whole plot. Cliched I know but still better than what I was left with…

    • It’s funny how much you don’t notice when you’re not looking for it! I try very hard to leave my “red pencil” on my desk when I’m reading for enjoyment, but sometimes, well, here we are.

      I am also frustrated when the big authors seem to be just phoning it in. I’m guessing all the girls wore bikini tops and short shorts too, for maximum vulnerability…

      • Nisha says:

        Yep. And they kept going skinny-dipping in a pool that just happened to be heated by an underground spring. How convenient.

  3. Chrissy Prisco says:

    Once in a while a book like that is good because I tend to be an awkward teenager and find that myself put in the situation would be quite similar to the character and that I admit I make a bigger deal out of small things, prolonging them for the effect I guess, and the resolution is never a gratifying surprise. I tend to build myself up for a disappointment but in reality, don’t most young adults do such things? Most of the time, I tend to despise these types of books for the same reason. That I see how naive and obnoxiously stupid the character is and how it relates to myself. That I should get to the point and get over my uncomfortable avoidances but maybe that’s why we need books like these. It takes picking one up once in a while to jump start the adult in me over the young lol but definitely not an ideal writing approach if you’re aiming for a bestseller or attempting to recreate a modern masterpiece like the work of Shakespeare.

    • I see your point now, about how that kind of avoidance might be realistic for a young person — whoa, I totally don’t want to deal with this so here I am walking THE OTHER WAY! — but in a book that would have to be done really carefully to avoid the problem that this author had of being obvious and manipulative of her characters and their situation. Plus, I don’t think I’m such a genius that I figured out the big secret early on; I think it was pretty clear, so making us all wait for the big reveal was more torment than fun teasing. I’m going to keep your comment in mind, though: that books “jump start the adult” in you. I think that’s brilliant. Thank you.

      • Chrissy Prisco says:

        The author probably had good intentions and just went about it the wrong way. I’m loving this blog thing lol and thank you, I’m happy to share one of my brief moments of brilliance with you 🙂

  4. Julie Musil says:

    I haven’t had this exact experience, but I do read differently now. I did recently read a book that I thought was silly, even though it’s not mean to be silly. I guess it helps us to learn from the good and the not so good.

    • Agreed, Julie. Have to learn from every experience, good or bad. I often find it easier to see what’s wrong with the bad than to tease out what makes a good book good. Thanks for stopping by!

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