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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Maya Reynolds: Building Suspense

I think Maya Reynolds has a great instinct for writing suspense so I begged her to write about her technique, and she delivered, complete with a little taste of BAD BOY.

As an extra special treat she is also giving one signed copy of BAD BOY to one lucky person who leaves a comment on this post.

Drawing will end Saturday noon.



Good morning. I’m thrilled to visit today. I love spending time with Maria, one of my favorite people and a very talented writer.

Maria asked me to describe how I go about building a suspense scene. I’m going to use a scene from my new novel Bad Boy to help explain my process. I plan to skip through the scene, picking out the sentences I need to make my points.

Begin in the Ordinary World
I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, described in great detail in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell believed in the monomyth, a similar structural pattern found in myths throughout the world.

In all the myths Campbell examined, the story always began in the ordinary world. When I write a suspense scene, I start out with my protagonists going about their business with no expectation of what is to come. In the scene I have in mind from Bad Boy, Leah and Quin are leaving a restaurant where they’ve created a bit of a stir:

. . . the couple headed out of the restaurant, leaving the waiter smiling at the hundred-dollar bill in his hand . . . As soon as they got outside, Leah gave in to the bout of giggles she’d been fighting, and Quin quickly joined her in laughing. They walked around the building, reminding each other of the outraged expression on the faces of the manager and . . .
Keep the Description to a Minimum
This is not the time to go into flowery descriptions. Give enough information so that your reader can track the action, but be careful not to slow things down by a leisurely description of everything in sight.

As they turned the corner to the parking lot, three shadows separated themselves from the darkness crouched at the foot of the building.

“Hey, wetback, I got business with you.”
Use Short Sentences and Action Verbs
Short sentences are a writer’s trick to speed up the pace. If you write a forty-word sentence, everything slows down. This is also not the time to go Thesaurus-hopping for fancy words. Stick to action words.

Notice in my third sentence below, although it has twenty words, it is building the pace in short, action clauses:

Jake, the blond from the restaurant, surged toward Quin. At the same moment, Frank made a feint forward. Quin threw the bag of food at Frank, spun out of Jake’s path and grabbed his arm, pushing him past.
Raise the Stakes Every Chance You Get
Every scene should have an emotional arc. You want to build toward a crescendo so you need to keep piling on the danger (or suspense).

Seeing Frank move to jump Quin from behind, Leah ran at him. She swung her shoulder bag as hard as she could at his head.

“Bitch!” he yelled, fending off the bag.

She opened her mouth to scream, but he backhanded her, striking her chest hard.
Share Information about Your Characters’ Personalities
I used this scene to reveal information about Quin, but notice that I didn’t TELL, I SHOWED.

Quin twisted to catch and steady her.
“Don’t call for help,” he said as his gaze went beyond her to Frank, who was fumbling in his pocket.

“What?” she asked, disbelieving what she’d heard.

“Don’t call for help,” he repeated. “I’ll deal with this.” His voice was hard, his eyes focused on the only man still looking for a fight.
If You Have a Chapter Break, Keep the Tension High and the Arc Building
I like short chapters: eight to ten pages is my norm. I try to end every chapter with a hook to force the reader to keep reading. I resolve that scene at the beginning of the next chapter and then start the arc toward my next hook which will occur at chapter’s end.

The chapter in which the ambush started is eight pages with the last three pages devoted to the beginning of the fight. This is the ending paragraph to that chapter:

Instead of taking advantage of Quin’s distraction to escape, Frank had pulled a switchblade from his pocket. He stood his ground, holding the knife in his right hand. “Come on, Mex,” he taunted. “Let me stick you.”
And here’s the beginning of the next chapter:

The blade gleamed evilly in the yellow light.

“Quin!” Leah cried.

“Shhhh. It will be all right,” he soothed. “Give me two minutes, and I’ll take you home.” He pushed her toward the parking lot.
When You Aren’t Stressing Your Characters Physically, Stress Them Emotionally
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve critiqued manuscripts where writers finish the suspense scene and then just wander around, figuratively smelling the roses. It’s as though they feel they’ve paid their dues and are now entitled to relax for a half dozen pages.

Not me. I’m always putting my characters under some kind of stress: physical, emotional, sexual. I try to mix it up, and I try to vary my pace from fast action to warm and fuzzy romance. But something is always happening. Here’s the end of the knife fight scene and the seque into the next scene, which is filled with sexual tension.
They had just started toward the motorcycle when the squealing of brakes on the avenue warned of the arriving squad cars. Quin grabbed Leah’s hand and pulled her back toward the buildings.

“Wait!” she said, tugging her arm from his. “Shouldn’t we stay? We’re the victims here.”

“Princess, with my record, I’m guaranteed to spend the night in a cell while you tell your story over and over again until six a.m.” He glanced in the direction of the crunching gravel. “Make up your mind fast. Is that the way you want our first date to end?”

Anyway, that’s my take on the suspense scene. Thanks to Maria for letting me take up space.

See you around.

Don't forget to catch Maya's interview on Radio Free Bliss and see what makes her tick!

Maya Reynolds blog

Buy BAD BOY at:
Post a comment for a chance to win a signed copy of BAD BOY.


J.K. Coi said...

Hi Maria and Maya,
Great advice on writing action, and you're absolutely right about making sure your characters are always getting put through their paces. Never let them rest, because that's when the reader decides to rest and puts the book down !

Griefcase said...

Hi Maria and Maya,

Ditto comment above. Thanks for sharing. Now I'm off to get my own copy of "Bad Boy." Sounds like a fantastic read!

Linda Della Donna

The Belle in Blue said...

Great post, Maya. One of the things I loved the most about BAD GIRL was that there wasn't a single scene that dragged. Something was always happening. Of course, it was most often something naughty, but it wasn't titled BAD GIRL for nothing! LOL

Hope I win the copy of BAD BOY, but I'll be getting one regardless.

~Joyce Scarbrough

Karen Adams said...

Hey Maya--

Great discussion. The conflict thing you mention is currently giving me fits. I am having a problem with the couple in my WIP--not erotica--but, essentially, I cannot get them to stay mad at one another. I write a fantastic scene, where they're in conflict, both for professional and personal reasons. Then, I find myself waking up very early in the morning, and they are already apologizing to each other. I give in and write the scene, thinking that I'll just save it for later, but I find that it impedes further progress. I need them to stay mad, even in my head, apparently.
I've been searching for some kind of visual image or metric or something for drawing out this conflict over the length of the ms, but I've come up with nothing.
I hope you have experienced something like this, bc it is currently making me feel a little crazy.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!

Shelley Munro said...

Thanks for the great post, Maya. I'm going to save it. Your examples are really helpful and it's a reminder to me with my current WIP.

I love the cover for Bad Boy.

str8shooter said...

Hi Maya, I love the way you have explained the techniques you use and the reason and results of those techniques. My favorite was the "stressing the characters" section because I have been guilty of that, causing a loss of interest by the reader. That is also very hard to catch during the editing by the author.
I thought the section about revealing the character's personality could have used a stronger example. The quotation you used shows some of Quin's personality and ego, but so did the quotes in the other sections. I'm thinking another quote in the book might have revealed a stronger trait. Perhaps the important thing is to feed the reader bits of personality throughout the story.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and technique with us. I look forward to reading "Bad Boy"

Maya Reynolds said...

J.K., Linda, Joyce and Shelley: Thanks so much for the kind words.

Karen: Sounds like you may be mistaking angry arguments for conflict. It's a common mistake. I had a published writer point out that I was doing the same thing in an earlier manuscript.

It's hard to create conflict that doesn't feel "manufactured." Misunderstandings, coincidences and petty arguments are not the best or strongest form of conflict.

Think about where your characters are--in their goals and motivations and in their inner feelings. See if there is something there that creates a natural conflict. If not, throw obstacles in their path. Never let them get too comfortable.

I tend to write two parallel storylines in my novels--the relationship plot and the secondary plot. If the relationship is going smoothly, the obstacles occur in the secondary plot. If the secondary plot is humming along, I find my conflict in the inner lives of my protagonists.

Thanks for commenting. Write on.

Maya Reynolds said...

Str8shooter: Thanks for commenting.

I absolutely agree that the important thing is to feed drips and drabs of clues to the characters' personalities throughout a manuscript. I was trying to take my examples from one specific scene so I had to take my "personality" example where I could find it.

catie said...

Haha! Maya, you make me want to stand up and cheer: "Yay for the writers who advocate concise, engaged storytelling! Death to pointless meandering!" :)

Mike Keyton said...

Hi Maya,
Great post. All these things I'm 'aware' of but you can never be reminded enough - especially for someone like me. Often I'm only one step ahead of the reader...wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

Jacqueline Carney said...

Great post Maya and wonderful blog as well. I will definitely follow Maria.

I think your tips here were right on target and helpful no matter what the genre. Writing is, after all, all about the storytelling.

I look forward to your posts on Mikes Workshop as well. Jacqui

cttiger said...

Wow, thanks for the word of wisdom. I'm working on my first mystery and I already see how I can make some improvements. Great tips and examples.