Lighting The Fuse

This is one of the most potent techniques in creating suspense. What it means is this: Something terrible is going to happen, usually at an appointed time, and the characters must stop it from happening and that ain't easy.

In one of the "Perils of Pauline" movies, the hapless Pauline was tied down to the tracks by Snidely Whiplash and the 12:10 was never late. And Dudley Doright was meeting all kinds of obstacles to getting there on time.

In the Tarzan movies Jane was always clinging to a log or a capsized canoe and heading for the rapids. The Indiana Jones films have many similar situations.

The old TV show "Batman" made a parody of the lit fuse. Every week the dynamic duo were faced with a terrible end: being baked in a cake mix or sliced up under the blades of a huge pendulum or dangled over a vat of boiling acid while the rope unraveled.

Making up situations with a lit fuse is not difficult. Here are some examples:

• Lisa, who's been grounded by her parents, has snuck out to see a movie with her boyfriend and must be back at midnight when her parents get home. Trouble is, on the way home from the movies her boyfriend's car blows a head gasket ...

• The sheriff has told Black Bart to get out of town by sundown, but Bart's not leaving, he says, and will kill anybody who tries to make him ...

• A forest fire is heading toward the Brumble family, who are camping. Their car won't start. They've got to get out before the fire reaches them—and the wind is up ...

• Doris Felcher has twenty-four hours to get an ounce of honey from the dreaded Albanian albino blood-sucking bee, or space aliens from Zork will destroy Earth ...

• Little Mary has a high fever, and if ole Doc Adams doesn't make it through the blizzard in time ...

Thriller writers know well the value of a lit fuse. In Frederick For-syth's The Day of the Jackal, the Jackal is hired to kill Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, early in the story. The fuse is well lit; the hero must stop him in time.

In Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle, the Nazi villain is trying to get to a radio to contact Berlin with critical information about the impending Normandy invasion. He must be stopped in time.

In the climactic sequence of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Leamas must get over the wall before the deadline or he'll be trapped behind the iron curtain.

It isn't only political thriller writers who use this technique.

• In Jaws, the shark must be killed before the closed beaches ruin the town's tourist industry and wreak untold hardships on the townspeople.

• In The Red Badge of Courage, after Henry runs, he discovers that because his unit was routed no one will know of his cowardice as long as he can get back in time.

• In Gone with the Wind, the Confederate Army is leaving Atlanta, the dreaded Yankees are coming to burn the city, and Scarlett must get out—but first she has to deliver Melanie's baby because the doctor has already fled.

• In Carrie, the fuse is lit as the pranksters are getting set to douse poor Carrie with pig's blood at the moment of her coronation as prom queen.

• In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia runs off to Gretna Green with Wickham and everyone's in a panic to catch up with them before she is completely ruined by the scoundrel.

Suspense, then, is a matter of creating story questions, putting the sympathetic characters in a situation of menace, and lighting the fuse. It is making the reader worry and wonder. Who the reader is worrying about, is, of course, the characters. If you're going to write a damn good novel, you're going to have to have damn good characters, which is the subject of our next discussion, in Chapter Three.

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