False Suspense

A long while back, I edited a manuscript from one of my mentees.  The manuscript was aimed at a romantic suspense publisher, and while the story was good, and the characters were well handled, and the setting well done, the way she handled the suspense drove me absolutely bug-nuts.

I tried several times to explain my issue, but I didn’t have the words to explain the troubles I was having.  A couple weeks ago, I read a published novel that was obviously a first book, and this book used the same technique to handle the suspense, but this author took the technique so far to the extreme that I was able to clearly see what was driving me so bug-nuts about my mentee’s book.  Then last week, I read a book by a big name author who used the same technique, but used it effectively.

So here I will try and explain the technique I call “False Suspense”, using examples from “Mentee”, “FirstBook”, and “BigName”.

All three stories have a heroine with a nasty past that is going to come back and bite her.

In Mentee’s manuscript, the heroine begins the story already having a boyfriend, but after an incident where her picture ends up in a national tabloid, she dumps the boyfriend and meets the hero.  Heroine mentions a couple times to a friend “I have a nasty past”, but says nothing to the hero, and hero and heroine go along their merry way falling in love. Meanwhile, the reader gets intermittent scenes from the bad-guy’s POV, while the bad-guy plots his nasty plots.  Suddenly, at the black moment of the book, bad-guy poofs! into the hero and heroine’s life, captures the heroine and does typical bad-guy nasty things.  The hero, of course saves the day (it’s a romance after all), and the heroine learns all kinds of great things and the bad-guy is vanquished. But it left me unhappy in a way I couldn’t define.

In FirstBook’s book, the heroine again has a past that is going to come back and bite her.  In this case, heroine meets hero and they blithely proceed on their merry way falling in love, with the past briefly mentioned by the heroine to a friend, but again not to the hero.  Meanwhile, we-the-reader are given very lengthy scenes from five different police-people’s POV, plus the bad-guy’s POV… all talking about things that the hero and heroine are totally oblivious to.  At the black moment, the hero and heroine are completely blind-sided by the bad-guy, but they are saved by all the cops who are on the bad-guy’s tail, and the day is saved. I found it a deeply unsatisfying read.

Can you see the technique that both of these writers used?

False Suspense Technique

  • Have Hero or Heroine with a nasty-past that is going to come back and bite them.
  • Hero or Heroine share their nasty-past with a friend, or dream about the nasty-past, or things happen at various points in the story that require remembering the nasty-past, so the reader is sufficiently informed of the threat from the nasty-past.
  • Have Hero and Heroine meet, but because they are so fearful, the nasty-past isn’t shared until a very long way into the book, and maybe not until the nasty-past actually bites them.
  • Hero and Heroine blithely go along with their story completely oblivious to any threat.
  • Meanwhile, because there is no suspense in the Hero and Heroine‘s storyline suspense needs to be generated, so external POVs are inserted into the story, usually at least the Bad-Guy‘s POV, and often other people’s POVs also. All of which the Hero and Heroine are completely oblivious to.
  • At the Black-Moment, out of the blue as far as the Hero and Heroine are concerned, Bad-Guy attacks.
  • Bad-Guy is defeated and situation is resolved.

And after reading the FirstBook‘s story, I was able to see why it drove me so bug-nuts.

The book is supposed to be a suspense, but the main plot line contains no suspense until at the black moment when the main characters are blind-sided by a big bad thing they had no idea existed before.

The suspense was artificially created by the addition of a POVs that had no correlation to the main plot line.

And that annoyed me no end.

The technique might work for some readers –as it obviously did for FirstBook‘s agent and editor and her various readers who went on to buy her other books– but it doesn’t work for me, because I seldom read scenes written in the bad-guy’s POV, especially not long scenes written in the bad-guy’s POV.  When I read, I read for character.  I want to read about how the good guys face their world and their lives, I want to read about the lessons they learn, and how they learn the lessons, and I want to read about how good-people think, so I can become a better person.  As a reader, I really don’t care how the bad-guy thinks. In these two books, because all the “suspense” was carried by characters who I didn’t care about, I wasn’t invested in the story to the extent the author obviously thought I should be, and I wouldn’t buy another book by FirstBook.

Now, that all said, how did BigName author use a similar technique in a way that worked for me as a reader?

BigName‘s book began much the same.  Heroine had a nasty-past. Hero and Heroine meet, and Heroine hides past from Hero.  Bad-Guy’s POV appears in a couple shortish scenes.  But, in BigName‘s book, the two plot lines intersect about a quarter of the way into the book, rather than at the black moment… so the majority of the book is the Hero and Heroine dealing with both falling in love and the Heroine’s nasty-past.

The differences between the book that worked for me and the two that didn’t are three-fold:

  1. the main plot line contained suspenseful elements long before the black moment
  2. the hero and heroine didn’t get blind-sided by the bad-guy
  3. the bad-guy’s scenes were really short

In BigName‘s book, the hero and heroine worked together to deal with the situation, and as they did so, they learned and grew more together.  And for me, because the book was so much more focused on the main plot line rather than on side-people who I didn’t care about, it ended up being a much stronger and more satisfying book.

So… what would I deem a better technique for the circumstance when the lead character has a nasty-past that’s going to come back and bite them?

Effective Suspense Technique

  • Have Hero or Heroine with a nasty-past that is going to come back and bite them.
  • Hero or Heroine share their nasty-past with a friend, or dream about the nasty-past, or things happen at various points in the story that require remembering the nasty-past, so the reader is sufficiently informed of the threat from the nasty-past.
  • Have Hero and Heroine meet, but because they are so fearful, the nasty-past isn’t immediately shared.
  • Meanwhile, because there is no suspense in the Hero and Heroine‘s storyline suspense needs to be generated, so external POVs are inserted into the story, usually at least the Bad-Guy‘s POV, and often other people’s POVs also. All of which the Hero and Heroine are completely oblivious to.  All of which are kept as short as absolutely possible.
  • Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the way into the book, the nasty-past bites the Hero and Heroine, and two plot lines join.
  • For the rest of the book, Hero and Heroine are forced to deal with nasty-past, along with all other plot lines.
  • At the Black-Moment, Bad-Guy attacks, and Hero/Heroine are prepared to deal with him.
  • Bad-Guy is defeated and situation is resolved.

So, that’s my theory.  What’s yours?

 

Addendum: Several people have asked me: “Aren’t black moments supposed to surprise the characters?”  And, yes, the whole point of black moments is to surprise the characters, but it should be a surprise of scale and scope (it’s bigger and wider than they’d ever anticipated), rather than what I’m talking about here, where the characters have no idea that there even is a black moment approaching until it blindsides them.

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