In my continued study of conflict and suspense, I found some great information in Chapter Six of Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias.
The majority of the book is specific to screenwriting, but chapter six is stuffed full of great information about creating emotional engagement to hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end. In the book Mr Iglesias describes
Three types of storytelling emotion
Voyeuristic emotions – curiosity about new information
Vicarious emotions – when we identify with characters, we feel what they feel
Visceral emotions – are the feelings we most want the reader to experience, physical thrills. They include: interest, curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, laughter, etc.
Story vs. Plot
To explain the difference between plot and story, Iglesias uses a quote from Lillian Hellman, a dramatist known for her success as a Broadway playwright,
“Story is what the characters want to do. Plot is what the writer wants the characters to do.”
He then continues to say,
“Story is your creation, your art. Plot is the vehicle for telling your story in an entertaining way, your craft.”
He ends the explanation with a quote from Irwin Blacker, a screenwriter who taught George Lucas at USC,
“Plot is more than a pattern of events; it is the ordering of emotions.”
The same story can be told in as many ways as can be imagined, but to be a page turner we have to keep the reader’s interest through emotional engagement.
You want to design your plot as a series of events to create anticipation through:
- Curiosity – what will happen?
- Suspense – will it happen?
- Tension – when will it happen?
- Hope – looking forward to it happening
- or Worry – not looking forward to it happening
This anticipation should ALWAYS be fulfilled and when it is the reader feels:
- Surprise – unexpected results
- Disappointment – not getting what was hoped
- or Relief – not experiencing what was feared
How to create Anticipation:
- Establish character traits – the reader will anticipate the character’s actions and reactions
- Set up character goals – established intention creates anticipation
- Overlap problem and solution/Question and Answer – when one conflict is resolved it creates a new one or leads to an even greater conflict
- Talking about the future – the character talks about future plans, or future events are revealed and then the reader is taken into the past to the events that led up to the events
- Plans and daydreams
- Appointments and deadlines
- Worries and premonitions
- Warnings – predictions and omens – the main character is warned by someone else
- The Macguffin – a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock that refers to a priceless or elusive object that everyone in the story is after.
- Mood – use the setting and mood of the story to set up anticipation
- Dramatic Irony –
- Reader superior position (reader knows something characters don’t)
- reader inferiority (character knows something readers don’t)
- misunderstanding between two characters – anticipate when error will be revealed
- deception – anticipate if character will find out before it is too late
The formula for suspense (provided by Mr. Iglesias)
Suspense = Character Empathy + Likelihood of threat + Uncertain Outcome
Suspense should be everywhere
- At story level – will the hero achieve her goal?
- At scene level – will the hero get what she wants?
- At beat level – how will the hero react emotionally?
How to achieve suspense and tension:
- Control the balance between frustration and reward – emotional + to emotional –
- Create immediacy – something has to happen NOW!
- Create opposition/obstacles/complications
- Cross-cut between two different events (parallel action)
- Delay outcome for tension
- Displace your character (fish out of water)
- Focus on an object – when object can cause potential danger (rope slowly unraveling)
- Force character into a dilemma (fork in the road) – the longer you make the character agonize over a choice, the greater the tension
- Force character to face his fears
- Increase Jeopardy
- Increase Revelations – a revelation is anytime a character learns something so important it affects the plot
- Increase Unpredictability – make things worse than the reader expects
- Reader superior position – the reader knows something the characters don’t
- Remind the reader of stakes – the character talks about the horrible things that can and will happen if she doesn’t reach her goal
- Raise the stakes
- Set up a character with unclear motives
- Set up an “odd couple” situation
- Set up dangerous work
- Set up deadlines of limit time (ticking clock)
- Space suspense – fear of the unknown
- Unpredictable character response
- The Trap or crucible – a closed environment the character cannot run from
- Tension releases
There is a lot more very useful information in Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias and I recommend reading it.
For our purposes, let’s apply what we’ve learned so far to analyze the first episode of The Misadventures of Moxie Sharpe. For those of you familiar with wattpad, since this story is a serial and for fun learning purposes, I saw this as an opportunity to try out the online story sharing platform. So I’ve uploaded the first episode of The Misadventures of Moxie Sharpe to wattpad as well (I’ll work on a better book cover soon).
Let’s start with the formula for suspense:
Suspense = Character Empathy + Likelihood of threat + Uncertain Outcome
Is Moxie Sharpe and empathetic character?
Well, I think so, of course, but please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Karl Iglesias outlines three ways to connect with a character:
- Recognition (understanding and empathy) – from the little we know about her backstory, Moxie was deserted by her father who she looked up to and replaced with a lovable, but unreliable agent. She is still able to get her hopes up only to be disappointed by reality.
- Fascination (interest) – Moxie was once a famous musician. She is a motorcycle enthusiast who has won the bike-o-lympics multiple times and has an agent who takes care of all of her decisions. She speaks her mind and is unique to the environment of the story.
- Mystery (curiosity and anticipation) – Moxie has a mysterious past and as a complete fish out of water has a mysterious present. What will she do next?
Is there a likelihood of threat?
This first episode revolves around the question of how did a bass player who likes to play motorcycle rallies end up playing the lute at a renaissance fair? In the answer to that question, it becomes apparent that a lute player has gone missing. The likelihood of threat is still pretty minor until the last line which is also the cliff-hanger.
Is there an uncertain outcome?
Episode one leaves us with many questions. Has the lute been used as a weapon? Has something bad happened to the lute player? Is Moxie in danger? Will Moxie figure out her lute music before the morning parade and keep her job?
If you think back to the three kinds of death, Moxie is facing at least two: physical and occupational. Is she also facing a kind of psychological death? How does a rocker biker handle being a wench at ren-fest?
It looks like the first episode of The Misadventures of Moxie Sharpe left us with many uncertain outcomes.
It looks like the first episode follows the formula for suspense! What do you think? Am I on the path to understanding conflict and suspense?
Tune in Sunday for the second episode of Moxie’s Misadventures. Which of our many new dramatic writing tools will I use? Oh, the suspense!