Saturday, May 1, 2010

Follow that cab!

The opportunity for spicing up a narrative that has fallen like a souffle right out of the oven comes bursting forth in the nature of a character suddenly being aware he is being followed, this trope a frequent participant in a mystery or novel of suspense. With careful shepherding, a character being followed can produces five or six pages. In the hands of an old pro mystery writer, it can even become a running theme, involving the tailers--those who follow--being themselves tailed.


If your character is a woman, the awareness settles in that she is being stalked, which is more true to reality than the being followed trope, but nevertheless is to be approached with extreme caution; both approaches are signal flares that the narrative is in trouble, wanting some help to bail it out of its cliche-generating circumstances.

Causing a character to be followed or stalked becomes the writer's first-stage response that something is necessary to heat up the tension to the point where it might possibly qualify as suspense. In a story you did for The Eureka Review, you had a character being set upon by a mugger who was interested in what most muggers are after, actual cash or something that can be sold/pawned for the going street price. You knew there was a soft spot in the narrative and so the response set in. The person being mugged had been forced to attend a therapy group by his department chair at the university, which gave you the next step--the mugger was in the same therapy group. But this was not quite enough. The victim had been on his way to The Wine Cask to purchase a bottle to take to a first date with a lady who very much interested him. The mugger discovers the victim's purpose, then peels off a few twenties from his wad, gives it to the victim, suggests an appropriate pinot noir, then goes on his way. All of this ties in with the theme of the story because the object of the victim's passion is also in the same therapy group, having been given the probationary option of group therapy because of a previous conviction for shop lifting. Of course on the first date, she--the object of the victim's affection--leads him into a store, where she begins asking him his opinion of certain items. It began as a story you have begun a number of times, attempting to show the more absurd sides of university faculty life, but as the stakes and individual vulnerabilities grow higher, the story invariably moves away from campus and into more personalized and vulnerable territory yet.

A device to create tension and suspense must do more than create a frail atmosphere of tension, it must put the characters a step or two over some limit they have set for themselves, a limit the reader sees ultimately, but which you see first with the racing heart of excitement and mischief.

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