Disclaimer: As much as I want to recount the workshop in minute detail, I don’t have the time or the memory to do so. But, for the sake of my fellow writers, I’ll hash out the high points and my notes from the lectures. To organize my notes and thoughts, I’ll go through the week according to the agenda. You’ll miss out on most of the personal bits, but I’ll try to remember the enlightening conversations as best I can.
We read “Suspense” by L. Ron Hubbard. There’s a lot by Hubbard that I haven’t read and don’t have much intention of reading, but his essays on writing business are golden. In “Suspense,” Hubbard narrates the making of one of his own stories. Here are a few quotes I marked from the article and some of my thoughts relating to them.
“Technique is not a habit, but a constant set of rules to be frequently refreshed in your mind.” I just like this one. Maybe I’ll put it on a note card for the board above my desk.
Hubbard describes suspense as “the dragging agony.” He explains that while writing his adventure story, he faced a choice: have his character get discovered then simply knock out the enemy, or to take the reader through a complex series of attempts, successes, and mistakes–“the dragging agony of suspense.” He explains that in suspense “you focus his [the reader’s] mind on an intricate succession of events and that is much better than getting him [the reader] a little groggy [bored] with one swift sock to the medulla oblongata.” To me, that means suspense is the prolonged unfolding of events that the reader already knows will happen. It’s the heightening of the reader’s anticipation and the excitement of the “how” of the story.
Interestingly, Hubbard also offers a caution. He says, “Fights, at best, are gap fillers. The writer who introduces them for the sake of the fight itself and not for the effects upon the characters is a writer headed for eventual oblivion even in the purely action books… But fights accompanied by suspense are another matter.” He even challenges writers to remove every fight from a story and leave the suspense just to see if it still stands.
Basically, suspense goes beyond mere battles. Every scenario allows for suspense. But to that caution, he adds another: “Action suspense is easy to handle, but you have to know when to quit and you have to evaluate your drama and ladle it out accordingly.” Because suspense is the “how” of reaching a specific plot point, you can’t keep the reader waiting too long to reach the destination.
Dave has made a study of the physical reactions readers undergo while reading. It made for some interesting discussion.
First, the reader has to care about the character for suspense to work. Two primary ways to do this is to have the character suffer and/or have the character care about others. If a writer does this well, the reader’s brain releases oxytocin, which contributes to human behaviors such as sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety, and mother-child bonding. In short, creaming empathy between the reader and character forms a bond that heightens the reader’s anxiety when the character or someone the character cares for is put into danger.
At this point, having created empathy between reader and character and then put the character in danger, the reader’s brain releases cortisol and adrenaline which increase the reader’s heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supply, leaving him feeling more awake, energized, and focused, and excited for more.
Dave brought up one more suspense technique–foreshadowing. Hubbard dismisses foreshadowing as “weak” in his article, but Dave disagreed, explaining that strong hooks trigger the reader’s brain to release dopamine, which creates feelings of excitement and anticipation. These emotions feed the reader’s curiosity and keep him reading.
In short, don’t “get to the point” with stories. Spin out the tale. Create complications. Throw in a wrench to bind the story’s gears for a bit and have the characters struggle to get it out. That’s what suspense comes down to. That’s what readers want and what our characters need. Because what satisfaction is there in success without struggle?