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Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Ticking Time-Bomb

Many of the fiction manuscripts I see lack suspense. Characters are just kind of puttering along doing nothing much. I find myself bored before I reach page 5. And if I'm not engaged by page 5, why should I read through to page 305?

Brothers (and sisters), these things must not be!

One of the best ways to turn your novel into a page-turner is to introduce an impending OR-ELSE element that ratchets up the suspense with every passing moment.

I call this the ticking time-bomb.

The classic illustration of this is what we saw in the movie Armageddon. An asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. If the good guys can't figure out how to stop it, we're all doomed. Every second the asteroid is out there, hurtling toward earth, it increases the tension.

Speed is another good example: if the bus stops they all die, but the bus can't run forever. Or consider Dante's Peak: the volcano is about to erupt--it could go off any second!

Granted, these examples are pretty severe. You don't have to go to these extremes. However, you see how it works: establish a terrible thing that is going to happen, that every second brings us nearer to, and all your suspense problems vanish in an apocolyptic cloud.

What could it be in your story? Are the British coming? Is D-Day only hours away? Is the food going to run out? Or maybe it's something more mundane: the girlfriend is about to leave for the summer, the baby is about to be born, or the game clock is about to run out.

I'm talking not just about suspense here, but about stakes. What are the stakes in your novel? What is the OR-ELSE eventuality your characters want to avoid?

Try to get your ticking time-bomb established very early. Many novels do it with a prologue. Your protagonist may not know yet that the aliens are about to attack the Earth, but your reader knows. And knowing something the characters don't--especially something awful that may happen--is a great way to increase suspense in your fiction.

Every novel could use a ticking time-bomb. It's a natural way to up the ante for your reader. Examine your work-in-progress. Do you have one? Is it strong enough? What might you do to heighten the maddening sound of that timer ticking down?

Jeff Gerke


Blogger Gina said...

Great post. The ticking time-bomb is something I see lacking in my first WIP, among other things!

A great example of this in television is the series 24. The suspense builds with every episode and just when you think some resolution will be reached, they hit you with a twist you didn't see coming.

BTW, this post would make a great addition to the Carnival of Christian Writers at http://writerinterrupted.ginaconroy.com

7:22 PM  

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