You are welcome to pull out that rusty ax from behind your shed, because what I'm about to tell you will certainly scratch that itch in your psyche, that nagging wish to hack me to pieces and watch me bleed and die. Because. Oh, my glorious hamsters! Because I will blasphemise (is that even a word?) your previous beliefs in stretching out the suspense for as long as possible, salivating over your keyboard in feverish anticipation of hooking your reader on the mystery of your story. Only. Surprise!
If you artificially stretch out the suspense in your book, your reader will forgive you for a few pages. Maybe. That is, if the reader is of the patient kind. For the next few pages or a chapter the reader will grow increasingly irritated. And at last, when the droning prose will sap all excitement from the reader, the reader will slam the book shut and hurl it out the window, where it will bludgeon a passing elderly lady, who will collapse and at the alert of the spying neighbor (there is always that one, peeking though the curtains at the shenanigans of the neighborhood) will be collected by police officers who will scan the area diligently to find the treacherous owner of said book, and upon sighting your scared pallid face in the...but I'm getting carried away.
It won't be that colorful. The reader might never want to read another book of yours. That's what will happen. And, if the reader reads your book on any kind of an electronic device, there won't be any "hurling out the window" performed. Quite unfortunately. It is rather spectacular to watch a book fly.
What I was saying is this. When you write, if something takes you by surprise—and this applies to both plotters and pantsers—it will take the reader by surprise too. And if you grasp why this or that thing happens, tell the reader right away. Tell. TELL. Or show. Or whatever. Reveal. Don't hold back.
Every piece of brilliant suspense you have read has been suspenseful to the writer as well, either in the plotting stage (so later the writer knows exactly where to spin a particular twist) or while writing without plotting (this applies to us pantsers). If you shift this point of revelation to a later place, if you stretch out your story knowingly, the results might be disastrous. Don't do it.
You might say, "Who the fuck are you to tell me this?"
Yeah. Exactly. Who am I? I have only 2 years of experience being a writer, but I have a lifetime of experience being a reader, swallowing books since I was 4, and I can tell you that any time I felt like being led by the nose, I shut the book and set it aside. I am, however, one of those patient readers who will forgive. Lately, upon becoming a writer, I've been increasingly aware of my time spent on books that don't inspire me, so I don't twiddle my thumbs anymore.
I SET THE BOOK ASIDE RIGHT AWAY.
And I am not alone.
I have been asked this by a fellow writer on Twitter, this thing about arriving at the end of your draft and watching with horror how your whole carefully planned novel creaks and screeches and shifts, and makes a 90 degree turn, or a 180 degree turn, or spins out of control.
What do you do??
YOU BLOODY LET IT.
This reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut's 8 writing rules, or 8 basics of creative writing, or tips. Or whatever you call them. They apply to any writing. And they are simple and true and beautiful.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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've taken the liberty of bolding "To heck with suspense" part. What Kurt means (I think...I think that's what he means) is exactly what I have described above. As longs as you as a writer don't know, the reader doesn't know either. As soon as you know, the reader must know too.
Chuck Palahniuk at one of his readings, where I was present, said something along the lines of always making your reader feel smarter than you.
An example of this is how I pitch ROSEHEAD to people. People ask me, "What is it about?" And I tell them, "It's about a rose garden that eats people." "Whoa!" they say, and pick up a book. Now, the actual fact of the rose garden being carnivorous isn't reveled in the book until about the middle part, which is when I myself got it while writing the first draft, so I kept the twist there, but with each consecutive draft I kept changing the opening line to "reveal" that I know this right away. Here it is.
"Lilith Bloom had a peculiar feeling that the rose garden wanted to eat her."
The whole novel is summarized in the first sentence. I even wrote a blog post about that.
Stephen King is great at this. At setting up a great opening line that hooks you. Then he proceeds to feed you bits and pieces of information that keep you on the edge of your seat. He is very good at knowing exactly when enough is enough. This is called pacing, and it's a whole another blog post altogether, but once you get to the mastery of writing like Stephen King, you can allow yourself to stretch the narrative a little bit. You can indulge. Because at this point you know what you're doing. I always read those passages with a smile, and think, "Oh, Stevie, I know exactly what you're doing here, you bad boy." And I forgive him those moments because they're like a child showing off. They are endearing and masterfully concocted, usually. Because if they aren't, once again, I set the book aside.
So to us newbies, the path is in simple storytelling. Until we get to the mastery level and know how to stretch things out a bit, let's stick to Vonnegut's rules. Some would argue that indulging should be forbidden at the threat of such writers being spanked. I think, as artists, we all indulge in our art here and there, and it only shows that we're human and not perfect. We might even do this unconsciously. If we realize it and snap back, we will cut this out in the following drafts. Or maybe keep it, because we fell in love with it.
And, again, I took a long detour. AHHHH!!! You see what taking a break between drafts does to me? I want to bloody write!
However, this is the end of this post. Remember. TO HELL WITH SUSPENSE. Just tell the story as it unfolds to you. YOU are the one you're writing for, right? And YOU can't fool yourself, once you know.
P.S.: Oh, and since NaNoWriMo is coming up, if you want me to blog about any particular topics, to support you, let me know in comments. Or shout really loud by my window. Deal?