Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mood Music

One of the most difficult things we face as writers is the creation of the mood.  We know exactly what we want the reader to feel when they become immersed in our story, but how do we translate that to the page in front of us.  I wish it was as simple as putting something in that says, "This is where you should begin to feel uneasy because the safety of the main character is at risk."  Unfortunately, doing so is a lot like dating - the more desperate you appear, the more you turn off the other party.

My novels usually rely on two things for the story - action and suspense.  I've never understood the romance genre and wouldn't have the first clue how to do it(not that I'm all that concerned about that...lots of folks can't create George Lucas...anyone find anything remotely romantic about the parts in Attack of the Clones that Lucas said set his heart aflutter?).  And although I like sci-fi, it's hard for me to get people to gape in wonder at the majesty of a far off alien world(that's why the world, for me, is just the backdrop of the story and note the focus of it).

But how do you properly do suspense?  Stephen King is a master of it, and I studied The Shining like a biblical scholar in an attempt to sort it out.  King's biggest key is in talking around things.  He builds to a slow boil and never really says everything at once.  Yes, sometimes King can be maddening by taking five pages to describe a toaster, but when he's at his finest, he gets you so enthralled that a spouse touching your shoulder to see if you're alright could send you skyrocketing into the ceiling.

You have to drop in bits and pieces, in my opinion, that are part of the overall arc, which takes patience most folks don't have, including most writers. We want the reader to simply get what we say, and we want to plow ahead.  But proper suspense takes time, which is why most folks are so bad at it.  It's like the difference between a guy who can slowly whisk to keep his main dish a quiche and not simply rev up the speed and say, "Fuck it - we're gonna have scrambled eggs."

Whereas suspense must be slowly built, action is usually the complete opposite.  It has to move from one moment to the next without repeating itself and not getting too bogged down in details.  You need to provide the background, but too much focus on it in an action scene will kill the breathless motion you're going for.  Good action needs to be so compelling that the reader doesn't even know he or she is turning the page. So great should the pace be that the story moves of its own volition.

In both action and suspense, the reader should feel like they are in the scene.  Their pulse should go up, and they should feel an intense urge to either join the fight or run from the demon.  And in a good book, a reader shouldn't even notice the transition from story to their reading to the reaction they're having.  I'd like to say I've mastered it, but we both know that's not true.  I'd venture that even King would say he has to work on it or it comes across as forced, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying. After all, Stephen King and Dan Brown had to start somewhere.


  1. I'd like to think I can build the suspense by making sure that my viewpoint stays with the main character and how they are seeing and experiencing the world. Knowing my character and experiencing the world through them is the key to building suspense. For me, it's like, imagine waking up and hearing a noise in the back of the house. What is your connection to the house? Have you felt this before? How does it feel to walk through the house?

    My biggest deal is the actual action. There is so much leaping, grabbing, dashing and ducking that my characters can do.

    1. I agree that viewpoint is important, but I've always found the biggest challenge in how I translate that viewpoint into a way to connect with the audience. I think the biggest key is patience in prose, and patience has never been my strong suit. ;-)