Tuesday, May 7, 2013

To Heck With Suspense

Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #7

1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.      Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  1. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I wonder if everyone would agree on this one. After all what’s the point if there is no suspense. Isn’t the fun of conversation that I don’t know what you are going to say next? Maybe not so much.

As I first started sending Henry to publishers I would write query letters that set up the twists and turns that set up the suspense to what I thought of as my creative moments. I finally realize the query letter was meant to lay out the plot to convince the agent or editor that I had an intriguing story. The first few pages that accompanied the query letter are to show that I had the writing skills to flesh out the story.

Several things go wrong when the writer is too invested in creating suspense. One is there is the possibility that we have left out more than we realize and the reader doesn’t get it. Have you ever had to reread a part of book several times because something very significant happened but it made no sense? Maybe this is the result of too much suspense and not enough story.

Secondly I am sure the reader enjoys a few surprises but I think they enjoy them more if they have been suspecting that this turn was coming. The first person Henry meets in Altara is the old man Papo. I originally thought of Papo as a Gandalf type guide to help facilitate the story. In Henry’s first three days with Papo Henry Goes back and forth about how much too trust Papo. The evening of the third day the reader and Henry find out Papo is going to facilitate the story by engaging in a plot to kill ‘Henry and the other boy.’

And finally not everyone is looking for suspense. The plays of Shakespeare are probably one of the most widely read and performed body of works in the English speaking world. Performances are attended by those who have read and even acted in these very plays. So we can assume for the greater part of the audience there is no suspense yet they are there on the edge of their seats. Why? They are there to see how the parts are played and the story told.

In my youth I reread the Lord of the Rings at least five times. The story always lagged in Book II and ended the same way in Book III. Yet I kept coming back. It is probably the same for some Harry Potter fans. Maybe we read and reread because we want to escape into that time and space.

Maybe knowing where the plot is going is like having a clearly planned road map for my journey. Even though I have a map there will be many sites along the way I don’t want to miss.


This is obviously the last of the Vonnegut blogs. The next four or so weeks will be blogs about some of my recent experiences and observations along the roadway of life.

No comments:

Post a Comment