Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Setting the Stage

by Stephanie Black

On my “Page Turner” blog last week, Melanie J. posted the following comment:
I really like suspense but in general I don't read it because too often authors sacrifice characters for plot. Meaning that they'll take an otherwise intelligent character and have him/her doing something completely out-of-character and boneheaded so they can build suspense in the novel.

I thought this was a thought-provoking comment. It reminds me of a movie my sister told me about where—okay, I can’t remember the details, so I’ll just make up what I don’t remember, but the gist is that the heroine had discovered a box containing evidence that her husband is some horribly evil dangerous guy. He is currently asleep in the house, so where does the heroine sit down to go through her box of evidence? Right there in the house, where the killer snoozes. Um, wouldn’t it be a better idea to get yourself to safety and then go through the box? Her husband wakes up and confronts her—surprise!—and mortal peril ensues and the viewer is left thinking “Now I understand why Mensa rejected her application.”

So I think Melanie’s comment was a good reminder to us suspense writers that just because we want a heroine to be in danger, we can’t make her do something unbelievably stupid to get there, unless we want readers to groan in disbelief.

Note that I didn’t say the heroine can’t do something stupid—I said she can’t do something unbelievably stupid. (Everything I say about heroines applies to heroes too—it’s just tiresome to type he/she all the time). Her actions must be credible, given the character and the circumstances. Real people—intelligent people—do stupid things sometimes, especially when they’re under intense stress, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that your heroine could do something dumb that launches her into additional jeopardy. But you need to prepare the reader for her actions. You need to set the stage.

Now if an action is just outrageously stupid, I doubt there’s any way to set the stage to make it credible, unless you’ve established the heroine as a complete pinhead, in which case you’re probably writing light comedic suspense. But in cases of more run-of-the-mill poor judgment, you can probably come up with a way to make the protagonist’s actions such that the reader can identify with them instead of thinking, “No one in that situation would do that.”

Here’s an example from my own writing. In Fool Me Twice, I felt it was vital that the protagonist personally confront the villain at the climax. The villain has manipulated her all through the book, and if she doesn’t go face to face with her antagonist, she won’t attain the character growth she needs. But here’s the problem—any woman with the brains of a garbanzo bean wouldn’t confront the villain solo. She’d call the police. How could I force the protagonist into a situation where it would be logical for her to confront the villain on her own? How about if she thinks the police are on their way, but the person she thought would call them didn’t call (which requires that this secondary character be given a credible reason not to call)? And once she reaches the place where the villain is and realizes the police aren’t coming, she can’t turn back or go for help, because it’s a matter of life and death, and if she delays even a moment, the person she’s trying to save could die. Ergo, she must confront the villain on her own. It’s up to readers to judge how well my strategy worked, but I was satisfied that under the circumstances, the protagonist’s actions were believable.

Getting characters to do what you need them to do in order to raise tension often involves cutting off their options. Suppose I want the villain to stalk the heroine on a dark, deserted road. She gets a flat tire and has to walk to the nearest house, a mile away, to call for help. Hmm . . . what about her cell phone? She has a cell phone; why doesn’t she have it now so she can stay safely locked in her car and call for help? Maybe she forgot it. Seems kinda convenient that she wouldn’t have it at the critical moment—unless I established earlier in the day that she didn’t have her phone. Maybe on her lunch break she reaches for it to text her teenage daughter to remind her about an orthodontist appointment and realizes she left the phone plugged into the charger at home. Or maybe I established that she’s forever forgetting to transfer her phone from one purse to another—her husband sighs and asks why she needs more than one purse anyway, and what’s the point of a cell phone if he can’t get in touch with her half the time? There are plenty of ways to make it credible that when the heroine reaches for her phone at the critical moment, it won’t be there, and the scene won’t read like I reached into the story and snatched the phone away so the heroine would be in more of a pickle.

Sometimes getting characters into perilous situations involves boxing them in with reasons why they can’t or won’t do what would seem to be the logical thing. Sometimes you can set the stage with backstory. Someone tries to kill Joe Hero, but he doesn’t call the police because ever since his dad got sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Joe has distrusted cops. He's going to solve this thing on his own. I’m perfectly willing to believe that Joe would keep the police out of things when most citizens in his situation would be scrambling to dial 911--as long as you give me a believable reason for his choice.

Set the stage for your characters to make the choices and mistakes they make and you can create suspense that makes readers gasp--not groan.


At 10/22/2008 3:55 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...


Great Post. It made me think about some ideas. Here’s what I came up with.

Timing. That's how most thrillers deal with the problem of characterization and making sure the character doesn’t do bone head things.

Say the wife lifts the lid on the box, finds the documents and in that moment of realization her husband appears in the bedroom doorway. That's a whole different matter than her finding the box, taking it downstairs to the kitchen, getting some OJ and toast in her bathrobe and spreading the sensitive documents over the kitchen table for a casual morning review.

At the moment of opening the box she is not only confronted with the realization that her husband is a murderer (or whatever), she's also got to decide if she's going to play the clueless card and pretend she didn't see anything. Otherwise she's got to run.

In order for this to work effectively you have to foreshadow some of the items, documents, etc so that when the reader and the heroine see them, they both (reader and heroine) realize at the same time that the husband is the bad guy. You’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. The same is true of an artifact. A document isn’t nearly as effect a tool at transmitting information quickly and with great emotion as is an artifact. If the man is a serial killer, then personal effects of the women he’s murdered is more powerful than, say, a newspaper article with the police report of the murder. Usually thriller writers use both.

If you have the realization come at the same time as the husband enters the scene you have a very cool double emotion of finding out and fearing for the heroine’s safety all at the same time. And whenever you can do the DOUBLE EMOTION thing, you’re sure to engage your reader.

The other point is the WHO CONFRONTS WHO problem. You want your heroine to confront the villain in order to finalize her character development, but you want to make it realistic. Nearly all suspense, thriller writers do the "last breath" confrontation, where the villain they thought was dead, takes a deep gasping breath, grabs the heroine by the throat, raises the knife and she has to, one last time, free herself from the clutches of her enemy.

Most of the time it really isn't a last breath confrontation. But what it suggests is that instead of the heroine confronting the villain, the villain confronts the heroine. Again you must foreshadow some way for the villain to find out that the heroine needs to be dealt with. Have the police place a wire tap placed on her phone. Have the police prepare a police profile on your heroine. Have her shown on a surveillance building camera through the view point of say, a security guard. Its all just typical, not necessarily important description in the course of your story, but when the villain’s diabolical plot goes crumbling down, he lashes out with his last breath, or last bit of freedom before his capture, at the object of his demise. Maybe he shows up at her home with a torn out phone cord from the tap on her telephone. Maybe it’s a police report and he's part of the police force. Maybe it’s a video surveillance camera that caught her in the act of finding him in the act.

Whatever it is that leads him back to her, it should be part of that confrontation scene so the reader and the heroine understand, darn it, he found me. Then you solve your second problem: the Who confronts who issue.

Good luck thrilling your readers. You do a terrific job of it.

David G. Woolley

At 10/22/2008 4:45 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

Aw, shucks. I still get a giggle every time I see my name in print.

Well, maybe not if it's the Police Blotter or something.

Anyway, I read Fool Me Twice (and finished it which is huge considering I quit two suspense novels this week alone), and I was very satisfied with the scene you set up. It worked for me. I really liked your book.

I think it must be really hard to do, though, because so few people seem to pull off the suspense without character sacrifice. When I find a thriller that can find that balance, I'm so happy about it, I generally try to put it in the hands of everyone I know.

At 10/22/2008 7:43 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

How about when the heroine is afraid someone might be in her house, possibly even hiding in the closet she was just putting a coat into and then she ... rushes over to see if anyone's read her diary! (Not making this up.)

I've been encountering the "boxing in" like you said. "Well, why wouldn't this law-abiding character go to the police with the information?" Because he watches too much Law & Order and is afraid of getting slammed against the wall by UnStabler?

Real life: I have personally called 911 three times in the past 10 years. If I'm really suspicious, I call the cops.

At 10/22/2008 11:41 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

Jon-- I know! I was dumbfounded with that scene in the book. I could not believe it. I finished the book just because I have a thing about finishing books. Then I went on to read another book that was even worse.

Stephanie- Loved Fool Me Twice. That scene worked for me. I didn't feel that it was a stupid thing for the her to do at all.

And David- I am still waiting for a scene that will tick me off.

At 10/23/2008 1:23 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Great insights, David.

Well, Jon, you know how women are about their diaries :)

Melanie and Sandra, thank you so much!

At 10/23/2008 8:17 AM, Blogger christina pettit said...

I had a seminary teacher who called this stupidity, or shall we say "lack of insight" the Nephite Syndrome . . . because, Duh, haven't we heard about this situation before, and been told exactly what to do? In the heroine's case, GET THE HECK OUT. In the Nephite's case, repent. Your readers thank you for thinking thia through so completely!

At 10/26/2008 9:58 PM, Blogger Gamila said...

You know I don't think that suspense novels are the only genre that have this problem on the character front. Personally, I have seen tons of LDS romance novels do this. They put their characters in situations that they would never realistically stay in or get into in the first place just so they can have "romantic tension" moment. It really does drive me up the wall.


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