Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Suspension of Disbelief

I’ve found that the concepts used by successful authors are designed to transform readers into people who are mentally experiencing their stories. The publishing world calls this transformation, the suspension of disbelief. The reader must visualize being present as the story unfolds. They must become so engrossed in the story, that they are living in the scenes as characters in a movie. Visualizing, feeling, experiencing, being, sensing . . . believing. The key to achieving this suspension of disbelief is to transform a story concept into a memorable, engaging reading experience.
A successful thriller author must create a plot that naturally lends itself to conflict and tension. This requires mapping out a powerful story line. The beginning of a thriller novel sets the stage, introduces the characters and creates a conflict. The body of the novel builds this conflict up to the climax and then resolves the conflict.
There are two approaches to mapping out the story line or plot. A detailed outline or letting your muse guide you. There is no one-way or best method since there are many authors who will swear by each approach. Some develop a basic premise for their novel and then let their creative juices allow the words to flow onto the pages. I’ve found that more thriller writers follow the detailed outline approach since thrillers involve action, fast pace, high stakes, and a ticking clock.
Thriller writer Michael Palmer spends 4-5 months developing a detailed outline of his stories before he starts the actual writing. His typical outlines are 40-60 pages long.
On his website, Andrew Gross discusses what it was like working with James Patterson on the Women’s Murder Club Series and other novels he co-wrote with Patterson. “To be honest,” he says, “we always began with a concept and an outline that came from him, which we fleshed out into a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. Some chapters longer than in the actual book! No writer’s block here, the roadmap was always there. Every day, I knew exactly where I was going.”
I prefer a detailed outline that I call my “Novel Analysis Form.” I use a Word Table, which includes columns for Chapter/Scene, Time, Story Line, Point of View, Characters, Tension/Conflict, Setting, and Comments. For thrillers it is vital that all scenes contain tension/conflict. Tension/conflict keeps the readers turning the pages to search for resolution. Foreshadowing is an effective method to create tension. The transition between scenes is critical to creating tension. Each scene of a thriller should end with a ticking bomb, an urgent deadline, a character in jeopardy, a hint of something to come that grabs the readers by the throat and requires them to turn the page.
I spend a few months developing my Novel Analysis Form and, during that time, I also do a lot of research relating to my story concept and settings. The key is that every scene in a thriller should end with a powerful tension/conflict situation driving the readers to the next scene to see where the tension/conflict is headed. The outline is critical to creating a fast pace, high stakes, ticking clock.
Some authors complain that an outline would stifle their creativity. I believe the key is to accept the fact that the analysis form is just an outline and the final result is the words on the page of the novel. If your creative muse leads you in a new direction, your outline, like a roadmap, can guide you to your final destination even if you end up on alternative roads.
Image courtesy of Abel Leemans.

1 comment:

  1. David - I really enjoyed your summary of the dual approaches authors use. I find that I tend to bounce back and forth, but I am leaning more to trying your approach, with the built-in structure of the Word table, partly because with several projects going at once, I feel like a spend a lot of time just trying to refresh my memory about what's going on!
    Great piece!