Guest Post: “You Can’t Hide Everything…So Don’t” by Seth Skorkowsky
Today I’m thrilled to welcome back Seth Skorkowsky to The BiblioSanctum with a guest post on writing his Valducan series. It’s always a pleasure to have you, Seth! Valducan is an urban fantasy with a horror twist, featuring a world of magic, demons, and sentient spirit-imbued weapons. Yes, it’s as cool as it sounds. I was hooked from the first book Dämoren, and was equally taken with its follow-up Hounacier. Earlier this month saw the release of the third book, now available from Ragnarok Publications! Ibenus is another gritty tale of mystery and action, this time starring police detective Victoria Martin as she attempts to track down the order of Valducans following her own attack by a demon. My review is scheduled to be up next week, but in the meantime, please enjoy this post by Seth on writing about Surprise and Suspense!
YOU CAN’T HIDE EVERYTHING…SO DON’T
by Seth Skorkowsky
The Power of Suspense.
There’s nothing more fun than a good twist. I’m not referring to the twist ending like “He was dead the whole time,” though those can also be fun. I’m referring to that moment when everything goes wrong and the best laid plans are thrown askew by some terrible event that the heroes didn’t see coming. This event is usually between the 45 and 55% mark in the story.
This can put the author in the awkward situation where they have to decide how much they want the reader to see it coming. We don’t want it to feel like it came out of nowhere so we use a little foreshadowing to pave the way for the moment when it all goes bad. However, we also don’t want to make it too obvious. Audiences love to be surprised, but they also love trying to figure out what’s going to happen before it does. It’s a game we all play, and if what we suspect ends up being true, then it can ruin the experience for us. We say that the story is predictable or that I “guessed the reveal.”
Fear of this can lead storytellers to hold back on the foreshadowing, reign it in so that it isn’t as easy to predict the big twist. This again leads to the problem that the audience might feel that it came out of nowhere and throw out phrases like, “deus ex machina.”
Authors lose sleep over worrying, “Is my story too predictable?” and “Does it feel like the twist came out of nowhere?”.
So instead of dwelling too much on what the reader might predict, an author should go ahead and assume that there will be parts that the reader will predict. Unlike the heroes in the story, the reader knows that this is a story. The audience knows there is plot structure. They’ve read the blurb that tells them what the story is about, and they know that there’s still two hundred pages left when the hero believes the adventure is near its end. So there is no point in hiding these facts or even pretending that you can.
When we watch Alien (1979) are we surprised when the crew encounters aliens? Of course not. Even if we hadn’t seen the trailer, the name of the movie is Alien. No one is in the least bit surprised when something comes out of the egg. But what none of us saw coming was what came out and what exactly it did.
When I wrote the summary for Hounacier, I threw in that the hero is betrayed. One reviewer in particular was very vocal that the summary was a spoiler and told too much. However, the reason I did it was because that prior to the betrayal, any attempts at hiding it would have been laughable. The reader knows this is a story. The character does not. So I just went out and admitted it.
Does this mean the reader will know too much? No. Because what the reader doesn’t know is the specifics. The how he’s betrayed is the real twist. How he deals with that betrayal and the limits it pushes him to are what drives the story once in incident happens. So instead of a reader saying, “I think I know what will happen,” they instead have, “When is it going to happen?” and “How will it happen?” This transforms plot-guessing into suspense.
Alfred Hitchcock has a brilliant quote that he gives about Suspense versus Surprise. Unfortunately, it’s a little long to use here, but I’ll summarize it.
Imagine two people are talking and a bomb explodes. Everyone is surprised, but that surprise lasts only a few seconds. Now imagine that the audience knows that there is a bomb that will detonate in fifteen minutes. They see it ticking while the characters are talking and the clock is getting shorter and shorter. You’ve now turned 15 seconds of surprise into 15 minutes of suspense. (That summary hardly gives the quote justice. You can find it here: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/728496-there-is-a-distinct-difference-between-suspense-and-surprise-and )
It’s nearly impossible to keep a story 100% spoiler free. Even if a reader avoids all reviews and blurbs, they still begin the story with the knowledge that it is a story and how long it is. I like to think that most readers are smart enough to try to figure out what will happen next. So instead of letting them have access to the low-hanging fruit and giving them a chance to say, “Ah-hah, I picked your fruit. It was too easy,” just knock those low hanging ones down. Make the reader focus their attention on the tasty bits that are too high for them to easily reach.
The surprise should never be that something bad happens. The surprise should be the situation when it does, and the results that continue long after the bomb explodes. Instead of trying to completely conceal the twist, use the reader’s knowledge of it to build suspense or misdirect their attention until the full twist is revealed.
Raised in the swamps and pine forests of East Texas, Seth Skorkowsky gravitated to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor.
His debut novel, Dämoren, was published in 2014 as book #1 in the Valducan series; it was followed by Hounacier in 2015, and the third book, Ibenus, arriving in 2016. Seth has also released two sword-and-sorcery rogue collections with his Tales of the Black Raven series.
When not writing, Seth enjoys cheesy movies, tabletop role-playing games, and traveling the world with his wife.