The Suspense is Terrible. I Hope it Will Last–Oscar Wilde
Hilary Mantel gets my nomination for one of the great novel titles of the decade with her blockbuster companion piece to her Mann Booker winning Wolf Hall. Bringing Up The Bodies for some reason got me thinking about bodies as a good metaphor for how we design our plots.
“He knows where the bodies are buried” is cliche for describing someone who knows all the secrets in an organization. Secrets that can be used as weapons or rewards, and “he” can decide who gets hurt or gets helped. As the author, you’re the person who knows where your plot secrets are buried. The trick is to bring them up at the right time and the right way.
Hitchcock once said that if there’s a bomb on a bus and the audience knows it, you’ve got suspense. Who put it there? Why? Is it intended for a particular person? When will it go off? Will it go off at all? If it does, how many people will be on the bus at the time? Will the bomber’s “target” still be aboard? If you don’t have questions like these in place before the explosion, if the bomb just blows up, all you have for your reader is a surprise. you’ve robbed them of all that delicious anticipation.
It’s best to get your reader wondering about the answers to questions like these early on. (Just as important as wondering about the answers is caring about them, but that’s a topic for another blog.)
Even if you’re not writing crime or thriller or sci-fi, the principle applies. The romantic heroine has been waiting for love how long? Why hasn’t she found it? Is it somehow her fault? (Better for your piece if it is, in my opinion.) Or has she found it and watched it (let it?) slip away?
There are many ways to play your setup, of course. You can show us Jeffrey planting the bomb early on. We don’t have to know till much later that his planned victim killed his father, that Jeffrey’s been tracking him down for years. In fact it’s probably better if we don’t know till much later that he’s not the villain we assumed he was when we saw him leave that explosive brief case under the seat in chapter one or two.
In the case of the romance, we can watch Marilyn ruin her relationship with two or three perfect men. We don’t have to know right away that she learned her behavior from her mother, whose penchant for keeping men at a distance might have stemmed from a rape or a father’s abandonment or … so many other reasons.
The specifics aren’t as important as the process of building your reader’s curiosity about those buried bodies, then bringing them up one by one just as the suspense is at its height. You don’t want to do an “info dump” and waste all your secrets in one big hunk of backstory. Especially at the beginning. And, unlike Hilary Mantel in her tale, you won’t be escorting them toTower Green for beheading. You’ll be artfully constructing the dramatic tableau that only gradually reveals the shape of your story. Where to place them and when.
Oh, he’s handsome, your reader notes. I wonder who’s going next to him and in what pose. Whoa! She’s bleeding. Why? Who did that to her? Was it that handsome guy? And why?
As Stephen Sondheim says in “Putting it Together”
Bit by bit,
Piece by Piece-
Only way to make a work of art.
Every little detail plays a part.
Art isn’t easy.
Even if you’re smart.
You think it’s all put together,
But then something falls apart
Art isn’t easy.
But, I say, one writer to another, it’s such great fun.