Anticipation Of A Violent Event

The third method of creating narrative tension—anticipation of a violent event—should be implicit in the first two techniques. The man being chased is trying to avoid his own death or trying to keep information from the antagonists which would allow them to wreak havoc on other people. The race against time is entered for the express purpose of preventing some deadly, disastrous event. If this violent event is not his own death, it should be something that will have a grave effect on the hero—such as the death of the woman he loves.

The bestselling novel, The Day ofthe Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, builds narrative tension in all three ways. The protagonist is a clever French policeman assigned the job of tracking down a hired killer who intends to assassinate the President of France on a certain day, at a certain place: the race against time. The antagonist is the assassin who is almost as clever as the policeman and is being hunted across the entire European continent: the chase. As the story builds and builds, the reader begins to wonder if the assassin might not kill someone, even if not the President: anticipation of a violent event. Forsyth employs the three methods to the last page, resolving the story in the very last paragraph.

Once you have chosen the type of suspense story you want to write, have picked and researched a background, have plotted your story, and have decided how you will build narrative tension, you should ponder these three less important but still vital questions:

1. Should my story be told in first or third person? There is no hard and fast rule for this, in any genre; every story demands its own voice. However, a good rule of thumb is to use third person for a story whose hero is hard-bitten and extremely competent. A first person narrative by such a hero, in which he must regularly comment on his own prowess and cunning, may seem ludicrous to the reader. He may dislike the hero and, therefore, the entire novel. A very sympathetic, very human hero makes a good narrator for a story, as in Donald E. Westlake's comic crime novels, God Save the Mark, Somebody Owes Me Money, and The Fugitive Pigeon.

2. How close to the end of my suspense novel should the climax come? The nearer the end, the better. Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing "The End." When the reader knows what happened, he doesn't want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotional involvement—a thousand words, no more.

3. Can I build a series character into my suspense novel? A spy will be sent on more than one dangerous mission in his career; a detective will handle more than one case; a criminal will pull many robberies in his professional life; a soldier may be assigned to several different campaigns in one war; an explorer will most likely tackle one of Nature's challenges after another. All of these make good series characters. It stretches credulity, however, to imagine that any ordinary citizen will have bad enough luck to become the protagonist of more than one sudden terror story in his lifetime. Likewise, few scientists experience major crises more than once or twice in their careers, if that often. Remember that the nature of your hero's occupation must generate dangerous situations.

That's it. If you read Chapter Nine, especially the section dealing with style, you're ready to try your hand at providing vicarious thrills for the vast suspense audience.

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