The dramatic question is probably the single most crucial element in an entertaining story. It lies at the heart of suspense.
The dramatic question centres around the protagonist’s central conflict. Here are a few examples of exciting questions:
Is Odysseus ever going to make it home from Troy?
Will Romeo and Juliet get together?
Is the old man, Santiago, ever going to catch another fish again?
Will Michael Corleone save his family?
Is Captain John Yossarian ever going to be able to go home from world war II?
The writer’s job is to pose the dramatic question, to make the reader want to answer “yes” to the problem, and then to create suspense by raising obstacles to the question.
One genuine way to build suspense is to have a false success, where the protagonist thinks they’ve answered the dramatic question, they’ve saved the world, they’ve solved the murder. Let your protagonist revel in their success for a while.
But, then, pull the rug out from under them. It always works…
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
― Franz Kafka
As writers, we can come up with some unique ways of looking at the world.
A man wakes up to realise he’s turned into a monstrous insect. A man attempts to interact with a strange, unknowable bureaucracy. Kafka imagined unconventional ways of interpreting the truth of reality.
We too have a unique perspective on the world. It might not be as bizarre as Kafka’s, or in many cases, it might be even more so.
Either way, merely own it. Don’t hold back—explore your ideas to their fullest degree. You can pull it all into shape in the, undoubtedly long editing process.
So just for now, follow all your crazy ideas as far as they’ll take you.
Today, let your book take an unexpected turn. Have you been wondering what would happen if your character said something extreme, or if they were faced with an unforeseeable plot twist?
I’ve discovered I’m drifting off into the Pantser’s world. So, take the risk and do it!
The first action is to pick a unique and unusual location. For a strange and unique mystery. This goes back to keeping things simple. Allow the wonder and confusion to stem from one part or the other of your story. Too much can create chaos in your reader.
Limit yourself to five or fewer suspects. Not only does this make your story more tight and concise, but it also makes it easier for your reader to keep track of the clues and hints.
Create subtle connections to each character to create cohesion. Your supporting characters are suspects by design. Each one should connect to each other in subtle ways. This will tie your story together in ways that will leave your reader reeling, but in a genuine way.
Eventually, it all stems down to; The intensity of your mystery will arise either from the characters or the intricacy of the crime. It is best to stick to one or the other, and you should have success.
1. A reader must have the same opportunity with the investigator for solving the crime. All the clues must be plainly stated and reported.
2. No deliberate tricks or dishonesty may be placed on a reader other than those performed legitimately by the perpetrator on the detective.
3. There must be no love engagement. The profession in hand is to bring a perpetrator to the bar of justice, but not to bring a lovelorn pair to their wedding
4. The detective themselves, or one of the official police investigators, should never turn out to be the offender. This is plain trickery, on a par with offering someone a penny for a ten-pound note. It’s false pretences.
5. The offender must be concluded by logical reasoning — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated admission.
6. A detective novel must have a detective in it, and a detective is not a detective unless he or she detects. Their purpose is to collect clues that will ultimately lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter being apprehended. If the detective does not reach their conclusions through an investigation of those clues, he has no more solved the problem than the pupil who gets their answer out of the back of the arithmetic textbook.
7. There frankly must be a corpse in a detective novel. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. A couple of hundred pages is far too much bother for a crime other than a murder, or a few. After all, the reader’s task and investment of energy must be rewarded.
8. The puzzle of the crime must be solved by naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. The reader has a chance when matching his wits with a typical detective, but if they must compete with the world of ghosts and go chasing around metaphysics, they are surely defeated.
9. There must be only one detective — that is, but one protagonist.
10. The offender must turn out to be a person who has acted a more or less prominent part in the story (antagonist) that is, a character with whom the reader is familiar and in whom they take an interest.
11. The butler or servant should not be made by the author as the culprit. This is begging the question; it is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that would not ordinarily come under suspicion.
12. There must only be but one offender, no matter how many murders are perpetrated.
Things that are at stake must be important. This might be a character’s life or living, a long-held dream or something else, but it cannot be immaterial. Moreover, over the course of the novel, the stakes must go up rather than stay the same or decrease. For example, a crime novel might begin with a police detective being given a murder case. Over the course of the story, your detective’s job could start to rest on determining this single crime, and the detective’s matrimony might begin to suffer. The stakes become higher than the initial motives for solving the crime.
Another example of raising stakes: an amateur detective starts out interested in solving a crime. Over time, the protagonist’s loved ones might become potential targets of the antagonist. This format of raising stakes was used successfully by the writers of TV’s crime thriller series ‘Dexter’. Suddenly the protagonist’s action has much higher stakes.
Understanding with the Reader
You can only build suspense if the reader trusts you to play fair. Build the reader’s trust by fulfilling any promises that you make throughout the book. This means you must follow through on any significant set-ups. This might feel tricky in the context of red herrings, but red herrings are not so much intended to trick as to mislead the readers. In other words, red herrings must always have an alternate explanation so that the reader does not feel cheated and remains within the suspension of disbelief.
If you spend a lot of time on some detail so that it seems like it is going to be significant and then you abandon it, your reader will undoubtedly feel frustrated. On the other hand, if you show your reader early on that your set-ups pay off, then you can build suspense with longer and more complex set-ups with story arcs across the entire novel and sustain your reader’s interest throughout your book.
All of this foreshadowing and suspense-building, that we spoke of in recent blogs, does little if the reader does not care about what happens in the climax of your novel. The best way to make sure that the reader cares is by creating strong characters that are real to the reader. When characters feel real, the reader will care what happens to them and about the suspenseful situations they encounter. Characters’ behaviour should seem reasonably plausible to the reader.
Building suspense requires mastering some writing techniques. It also requires making sure that you have engaging characters whose challenges matter to them and your readers. Suspense needs conflict and drama to grow. Compressing time or limiting the character’s freedom or means in some other way can help build suspense. Planting false clues via red herrings that leave the reader and characters unsure as to who can be trusted is also useful. Authors writing crime fiction must create a strong motivation for readers to invest in seeing suspenseful setups through to their conclusion.