Thursday, January 29, 2015


Why the suspense?


            In Part One of this tale, the reader was left stranded in the night with three young campers in the cab of an old, broken-down pickup truck, which is stalled precariously on the edge of a deep mountain ravine.  Sniffing around outside the truck is a large creature of some kind that cannot be determined in the thick darkness of the moonless night.  While the campers have firearms back in the open bed of the pickup, they have no guns with them in the cab where they cower, hiding from the dark creature.
            Of course, the tale doesn’t end there.  The story is just getting started.  The scene has been set and hopefully the reader’s expectations have been prepared for a journey with these young campers into the unknown.  The reader knows the best part of the story is yet to come.  The campers must conquer or be conquered.  It is the expectation that the campers will find a way to conquer that keeps the reader reading.  The reader should now be gladly on board and excited for the ride--hungry for the rest of the story.  Oh, the beauty of suspense!
            Suspense is like an unsatisfied hunger that keeps the reader reading until the end of the story, where the hunger will be satisfied.  In the best stories, where the reader identifies with the main character, the reader relishes both the hunger, while it lasts, as well as the eventual satisfaction of that hunger at the end of the story.  And, sweet is the satisfaction of a hard-fought winning battle and a tale well ended.  After carefully building suspense, be sure to resolve it thoroughly.  A cardinal rule of storytelling is:  Do not gloss over the ending!
            Especially in young-adult literature, when the reader has bonded with the protagonist, the young reader will expect that no matter how great the odds against success, the protagonist will find a way to succeed.  Of course, the protagonist must win by pluck, not luck, and even a twist ending must not be a random win.
            A decision to resolve the suspense of the central plot with the protagonist’s ultimate failure is not satisfying to younger readers, and it is a sure strategy for permanently driving such readers away.  While frustration and failure are an important part of act two, the reader is looking for success by the end of act three.  A young reader wants to be immersed in a world of new beginnings and exciting transitions, a world where anything is possible and hope is a guiding star.  A world of despair, overwhelmed by failed dreams and missed opportunities, is for an older, more jaded audience—and it has few fans even there.
            Literary suspense is the result of proper plot development, and a writer has many tools to use in developing a storyline that will capture the reader’s imagination and carry her along towards an anticipated salvation or destruction.  Tools like point of view can put the reader in a character’s mind, building an empathetic bond.  Repetition of seemingly innocent facts can build tension.  Foreshadowing creates curiosity, and the list goes on.  Make the reader hungry for more information, and then slowly, carefully feed and starve the reader as the tale unfolds.
            In our current tale of three hapless campers, facing a live predator, we want to know literally who will feed and who will starve?

<>  <>  <>

            “Man, that thing is big!”  Jay pointed out in a hoarse whisper.
            All three of us were now peeking carefully over the dashboard at the big, black shadow in the night, sniffing around the dying red embers of our bonfire.
            “Hugh, do you still have some firecrackers in your pocket?” I asked quietly.
            “Yes,” he said, nodding his head in the dark.
            “Open your side-vent window and drop a lighted firecracker out there.”
View of Panamint Mountains
as seen from the Slate Range
            Without a word, Jay fished out his box of matches.  He and Hugh had been lighting firecrackers all day and had the process down to a science.  Hugh held a firecracker down close to the floor, trying to minimize the glow of the burning match that would be seen from outside.  When Jay had lit the fuse, Hugh slipped it through the window vent, dropping it to the ground.
            All the while, I was watching the prowling, black pillar of darkness in front of the truck.  As soon as Jay had struck the match, the thing turned to stare back at the truck, seeming to stare directly at me in the cab.  A couple seconds later, the firecracker sounded with a bright flash and a satisfyingly loud bang that echoed off the mountain.
            Instantly, the black shadow sprang away from the truck and disappeared into the night, bounding up the trail into the mountains.  After listening to silence for a minute, I said, “Throw a few more firecrackers out there to make sure that thing is not sneaking back towards the truck.”
            Immediately, Hugh and Jay went to work tossing a series of lighted firecrackers out the side-vent window.  Again, the bright flashes and loud bangs were satisfying.
            Bravely rolling down my window about a foot, I stuck my hand out with the flashlight.  Clicking it on, I shined the light up the trail in the direction the shadow had run, and then down along both sides as far as my light would reach in each direction, looking for any movement or for a pair of light-reflecting eyes watching my flashlight.
            Seeing nothing and feeling bolder, I quickly stepped out my door, and reaching into the back of the truck, I handed rifles and ammo into the cab to Jay and Hugh before jumping back in to shut my door and roll up my window.  Once we had all loaded our guns, I had Hugh reach out his window, shining his light up the trail again and from side to side.
            Finally, I stepped out my door and began shooting up the trail into the darkness.  I wanted that black shadow to know we were not toothless, and as I listened to the ping of the bullets that ricocheted off the rocks up the mountainside, I hoped the creature was getting the message.
            It wasn’t long before we heard the coyotes start up yelping and howling again.  Apparently, they were no longer nervous, but we were.  We decided to stay close to the truck during the night.  Jay chose to sleep in the cab with the windows rolled down just a crack.  Hugh and I spread out our sleeping bags in the back bed of the truck, but we did more tossing and turning than sleeping.  Thinking it couldn’t hurt; we periodically tossed out a lighted firecracker.  If we heard a noise nearby, one of us would sit up to shoot into the darkness.
            During the night, Hugh and I decided that the big black shadow must have been a mountain lion, but it was the biggest mountain lion we had ever seen.
            It was a long, miserable night, but it gave me time to think.  With the first light of dawn, I gathered up the random tools that Jay’s dad had left lying around in the back of the truck.  Before long, I had the dashboard off so I could look down behind the cab’s console panel.  There it was—a foot-long piece of melted wire that had shorted out against the truck’s interior frame.
            Next, I went to work removing one of the rear taillights, where I cut out a length of heavy-duty wire long enough to replace the fried piece of wire behind the console.  After twisting the replacement wire into place, I turned the ignition key.  With the first try, the truck started right up!  Everything worked now, except the rear taillight of course.
Available Housing
A Fixer-Upper
            Just an hour earlier, we had been racking our brains trying to figure out how to get home, or at least how to signal for help, but suddenly none of that mattered any more.  We had survived the first night.  The danger had passed, and we were only the second day into our weeklong camping trip.  Nobody was interested in going home at this point—there were still too many unexplored canyons ahead of us.  Who knew what we might yet discover.
           We were ready for the adventure to continue, and it did.  We didn’t see any more large shadow creatures, and the truck didn’t break down again, but we had great adventures throughout the week with all kinds of interesting findings and happenings, but that’s a longer story for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment