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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Multiple Storylines for Suspense, Part 1

Greetings, suspense writers!

This week I'd like to do a two-part series on intercutting between two or more storylines in your fiction. First, how and why to do it. Second, when not to do it. You can read these in their original context at my Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column. Let's begin.

The villain has your hero backed against the wall. The hero's gun has been lost over the cliff. The villain pulls out his chrono-strombulator and levels it at the hero's nose. But what's that? The sound of a thundering herd? STAMPEDE!

Now you insert the most wonderful, infuriating three "letters" in the history of fiction: ***

Ack! The triple asterisks of doom! The three sisters of fury!

And you pick up another storyline already in progress: Ginger in the race car trying to find her hankie.

"What's going on with my hero?" the reader wonders. "Will the stampede save him? Can we please get back there?"

Meanwhile, as Ginger searches for her handkerchief, she hears voices coming into the garage. It's Perry and...and Juliana? What's he doing talking to Juliana? Ginger pokes her head around the corner and sees Juliana standing very close to Perry. Suddenly she stands on her tiptoes and leans in as if for a kiss.


Bwahaha. Asterisks of Smiting!

The herd of water buffalo bursts through the stockade. The villain swerves his head toward the noise. It's enough for our hero to leap upon him and snatch the chrono-strombulator from his grip. Aha! Now the foot's on the other hand.

And so you go, switching back and forth between two (or more) storylines, keeping your reader tearing across the pages like a crazy woman.

Intercut to the Chase

Intercutting between storylines is one of the simplest and most effective ways of increasing tension in your fiction. Well-chosen start and stop points keep the story zinging along at light speed.

It's best if the events you're cutting between are more or less simultaneous. The hero/villain standoff above could conceivably have taken place at the same time as Ginger's romantic intrigue. That's better than cutting between the villain/hero standoff and, say, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Simultanaety is vital for this to work.

It's also best if you don't keep the reader hanging an impossibly long time. For instance, if you were to leave the hero/villain standoff at the point of the stampede and then cut away to a three-year romance between Ginger and Perry, and then cut back to the hero and villain just discovering what the stampede is, it wouldn't work.

Use the cutaway to leave the reader hanging and increase suspense, but don't ask her to believe that the moment has been frozen for too long. Try to match the time it takes to play out the scene you cut away to more or less with the length of pause in the original storyline. You can play with this some (like I did above), but don't push it.

Intercutting between storylines is a great way to skip over long boring sections of your story. Let's say your hero is getting on a trans-Atlantic flight. Nothing happens during the flight that affects the story. If you want to make it feel as though time is passing for the hero while he's in flight, try cutting away to a lengthy scene in another storyline.

By the time the scenes in the second storyline have come to a nice pause point, the hero's plane will have landed and you can cut back to that storyline.

For more on regulating the perceived passage of time in your story see Tip #27.

Intercutting is a great technique, and not only for suspense writers. Anyone can use it (unless, of course, you're limiting your story to only one storyline).

In the next tip I'll talk about one major caveat regarding intercutting. But until then...wait, who's there? Aagh! It's- It's...YOU.



Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott


Blogger Brian Reaves said...

This is one of my favorite tricks, and I agree it's hard to pull off properly. You have to make each storyline just as interesting as the other or the reader will either become frustrated at this obvious attempt to create tension or just skip ahead and ignore the second plot. Great post today, Jeff!

8:48 AM  
Blogger Gina Conroy said...

Great topic, Jeff. And thanks for keeping me in suspense! :)

9:24 AM  
Blogger José Roberto Pereira said...

I'm a brazilian writer and I really like your blog.
Maybe we can change some ideas...

11:56 AM  
Blogger glittchintime said...

"I really enjoy your writing," Carole said, and smiled.


The wind blew furiously across the lake. Jeff wondered what on earth the people were doing at the Bison Ranch. He walked over to the fence and touched it--which proved to be a mistake, as it was electrified.


Carole looked down at her computer, and resumed typing.

1:39 PM  
Blogger GG said...

I quite like this technique as a reader, and to the extent given. It works very well in books that are not necessarily suspenseful.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous downstroker said...

Hello, and very nice... ;)

5:22 PM  
Anonymous downstroker said...

Hello there, very nice...

5:24 PM  
Blogger rygo.net said...

wow.. that is awesome!


5:25 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

I had no idea how to do this properly in my story, thanks! Jeremy and Ella's story line is now criss crossing and I didn't know how to just make Ella stop with Myles and go save Jeremy from getting killed by the villan. Thank you for stopping me before I dragged on with Ella and Myles.
- Emily

8:23 PM  
Blogger elliott610 said...

Just subbed, I believe this will help my writing. My own writing is quite bizarre and the breakaway helps to add some sanity.

9:10 PM  
Blogger R2K said...

: )

10:18 PM  
Blogger S. Scott Craft said...

There once was a radio show called Suspense.
Couldn't the reader just skip over the intercut part and return to the action?

11:56 PM  
Blogger Richi Aggarwal said...

Keep up the Mystery!

3:14 AM  
Blogger LindaBudz said...

Great blog, great post, and I love your Tips column! Glad Blogger listed you as a notable blog today (and I happened to look ... must be fate!).

6:28 AM  
Blogger 'mbm' said...

Excellent tip. I'm about to explore the rest of your site for more. Thanks.

7:27 AM  
Blogger 'mbm' said...

P.S. I'm new to blogging but I read that it's OK for me to just go ahead and put a link from my blog to yours. I'm going to go and do that right now.


7:30 AM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

Thanks for all the kind comments.

This is a reply to S. Scott Craft:

I don't know about the radio show, but in a novel, sure, the reader could page ahead and find where storyline A picks up again. But unless she's very uninterested in your other storylines, she won't do that. It's much easier to just read what's on the page next.

I'll admit that as a reader there have been one or two times when I was engaged by one storyline but pretty much disgusted with the book as a whole. So I would scan around for just that one storyline, just to see how it turned out.

So it's our job as authors to try to make all your storylines interesting.


10:14 AM  
Blogger Super BradPete said...

Graet book!

12:16 AM  

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