Tag Archives: suspense

You’re gonna need a bigger boat…


And the man who uttered those memorable, and for me so very relevant words, is gone. Roy Scheider passed away at 75. Jaws is high on my list of favorite movies, and one I can watch time and again. In fact, it is what I consider essential mid-winter viewing, keeping me from climbing the walls while the river’s frozen, the docks pulled, and Annabel Lee is wrapped beneath her cover awaiting spring. Jaws has some of the best ‘on the water’ scenes of any movie, and the Orca is a beautiful example of an old wood fishing boat. As a kid, all I ever wanted was a boat like that. I think I’ve come pretty close.

But what makes Jaws truly outstanding, what elevated it beyond a mere ‘monster’ movie is what you DON’T see. You know there’s something out there. You’re shown a thrashing girl, a limb, a chewed up boat and more. You know the shark will appear but you don’t know when. It does at last, only to slip back out of sight, raising your anxiety even further. The key to this, for anyone who knows the history behind the movie, is that ‘Bruce’, the mechanical shark, was malfunctioning through much of the filming. But there were tight schedules to keep so they worked around the shark’s scenes with hints of its presence. Docks destroyed, towed floats and barrels, and of course, the music. Watch the movie and see how often you know the shark is present but unseen. It wasn’t deliberate at the time but ended out more terrifying. And it also focused the plot around the small group of people involved, people you come to understand as you see them responding to this unseen threat lurking beneath them.

Among the notes posted over my computer is “Leave the mechanical shark off screen.” As I write, I deliberately keep the scary stuff lurking just out of sight, and let the reader sense its presence through other means. I want you to focus on the characters, care about them, know they’re in danger, but not what it is or what the hell will happen next.

Am I soup yet?

I suppose this gives me a place to vent, rather than walking around in circles, mumbling to the cats. Not that there’s much need for venting at the moment, just a general ennui, and trying to get all my muses in a row. The frustration of writing suspense, and most anything else, I imagine, is that as you’re working, everything is in your head. You, the author, know what’s around every turn and under every rock. You know the red herrings, and you know the red shirts, (the fifth crew members on Star Trek, the ones that wound up vaporized or condensed into a neat little geometric shape of minerals,) and you know who is really good/bad/out of their minds. So, as I write, I’m wondering, am I really pulling this off? Will this make sense to my readers, am I giving too much, and will they see it coming a mile away, or am I giving too little, and the pieces won’t mesh in the end. According to my kind victims, uhm, test readers, for the most part, yes, I pulled it off. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t tweaking to do, but that’s to be expected.

So now I’m doing it again. I know what’s in ‘the snow’, where, why, and how it plays out. I have everything outlined, and it is all coming together very satisfyingly. My characters are throwing me a few curve balls, which I expected, and I roll with it. Sometimes a scene isn’t working, so I back up, hit the delete key (okay, cut and paste it into a scrap file) and start over. Minor characters stepped up to bigger roles, action shifted. I try to write with a general idea of where I’m going, then figure the worst possible route to get there. What could go wrong? With my characters, that’s not too hard. How could it go even worse, and what, in turn, might that lead to? Sometimes I find myself on an entirely different path, and the outline gets overhauled. Overall, it’s a fun process, though at times it leaves me pacing and mumbling ‘I need something.’ Those around me have learned not to be alarmed by this behavior.

Presently, I’m in one of those spots. My mood tends to reflect my characters at the point of a scene. And presently, my most antisocial, snarky, difficult character is trapped in a tense, stuffy, social scene. She’s at her best alone or in life & death situations, and while it is necessary she be there, she, and consequently I, am not happy about it. So ‘we’re’ sticking it out, and by the second draft I’ll work in more humor and/or violence to satisfy us both.

Thank goodness my husband understands, when he asks how my day was, and I say “I really need to kill someone.” (That’s in two chapters!)