Plotting for Suspense

I have fallen at times into the trap of justifying plotting and suspense issues in my writing because some of my favorite bestsellers have the same issues. The problems with that line of thinking are many, but in general it’s never a good idea to ignore issues with your work just because someone else got away with it. Those bestsellers I referred to above have their faults, but they also each have great qualities that make them incredible books. Besides, a first book really needs to be as good as it can be to get attention above all of the great books being submitted to editors (or self published).

I’ve done soul-searching regarding suspense in my own writing, and here are some rules on plotting for suspense I’ve come up with for myself:

Set your stakes high and keep them high.

An interesting concept that I’ve come to understand embarrassingly late in the game is that plot isn’t all about action, or rather that action and suspense aren’t equivalent.

And lest my fellow writers think less of me as they assume I’m ignoring “suspense-fatigue” or whatever term you might want to use for unending suspense in a story, that’s not necessarily what I mean here. The point is that whatever suspense you create in the heart of the reader around your primary conflict should be kept in focus throughout the story, though fluctuations in suspense and action levels are necessary to create an engaging and enjoyable story.

Some of the most pointed (and correct) feedback I have received was about the main plot line fizzling out in the middle of the book. I figured that since my beginning and end were very related and resolve the primary conflict, the middle could wander a bit in the name of character development and world-building. But I was wrong. Which brings me to the next point:

Character development and world-building can and should happen during scenes that matter to the primary conflict.

I like to think that this is something I understood when writing this book, but again I think at times I confused suspense and continuity of primary conflicts with action. This forced me to rework or completely eliminate some scenes while editing. Therefore my mistake wasn’t (I hope) in the writing of the scenes themselves, but in the architecture of those scenes. Which is pretty embarrassing considering my whole professional life is centered on comprehensive processes (and I think a story and a process are very similar). So this was a fantastic lesson for me to learn for various facets of my life.

*I also want to call out that delayed suspense works, or is at least generally accepted in books with multiple POV’s like Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time because suspense is preserved (if done well) for each character in the story, while the reader skips to other characters and usually different stories, or at least different views of those stories. It does not work as well in books like mine where the vast majority of the book follows one primary character.

Secondary-level conflicts and story lines should be woven around (or intersect with, depending on how you want to visualize it) the primary conflict.

Because I am a nerd, I visualize this as oscillating signals, where sub-plots interact with the primary plot to form a cohesive and fluid combined oscillatory signal. If the plot lines are not aligned properly and on the same scale, it will result in a disjointed story. See visual example below.

The point is that the red line is the sum of the other two lines

Foreshadowing is your friend.

The only thing I have to add to the discussion on foreshadowing is that it doesn’t need to be complex and difficult to implement. It is generally just a matter of being conscious of your plot points and ensuring that you have a “beginning” to every conflict in which you resolve something important to your characters. For example, I’m writing an “interlude” scene to build reader connection with a character who is important to the protagonist but doesn’t appear until the very end of book 1 (and spoiler alert, he dies).

 

 

Interview with Alan Bahr – Tiny Frontiers

Hey people. My buddy and coworker Alan Bahr has a Kickstarter project active right now, and anyone who is interested even the tiniest bit in RPGs/tabletop games should go check it out. It’s already funded, and now he’s working towards enough funding to unlock all of the stretch goals that he has set. I picked up a copy – my very first rpg!: Tiny Frontiers.

Alan is a huge book nerd, a great guy, and more important to this post: he is a game-design wizard. He built the Planet Mercenary RPG for Howard Tayler of the Writing Excuses crew, and is now launching his first solo effort. I’ve never played an RPG before (is that the right term? Do you “play” an rpg, or is there a non-noob term?), but from what Alan and others tell me, he’s designed this game to be simple yet engaging enough to be perfect for beginners and experts alike.

I’m all about doing what I can for friends who are chasing their dreams, so I asked Alan if he would be willing to do an interview for my sad little blog, and he was kind enough to accept. So here be it:

 

Me: Rapid Fire: Favorite Book, Favorite Series, Favorite RPG, Favorite Video Game, Favorite Movie, Favorite Band?

 

Alan:

    • Favorite Book: Legend by David Gemmell. It’s an epic heroic fantasy, with a bittersweet but wonderful ending, and some of the most exciting characters I’ve ever read.
    • Favorite Series: Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. Love every minute of it. Even the sloggy bad ones.
    • Favorite RPG: Pendragon, the romantic (in the literary sense) fantasy RPG based on the Matter of Britain. My absolute favorite RPG.
    • Favorite Video Game: Not a huge video gamer, but I love the Uncharted series. Lots of action-adventure-y fun.
    • Favorite Movie: Casablanca. No contest.
    • Favorite Band: Chris Botti is my favorite musician. I love trumpets and smooth jazz.

Me: Love me some Wheel of Time. Some of those other answers were a little fishy (Casablanca? Like for real?), but that saved you. To be fair, I haven’t seen it due to my rule about not watching movies older than I am. I’ll let it slide. This time. On with the interview. What would you consider to be your super power?

Alan: Probably writing lots of rules? Also, I have a pretty solid memory and head for advanced math on the fly. Dunno. Wish I could fly though.

Me: Okay Regulation-man, how did you get into RPG Game Design?

Alan: Accidentally on purpose! I just was never satisfied with what games allowed me to do, so I was always making house-rules (custom rules for my home game), and it ballooned from there. I became a pretty constant participant in open submissions and freelance stuff on the web.

Me: What’s the significance of your company name, “Gallant Knight Games”?

Alan: I’m a big believer in innate goodness and heroism, along with the capacity of humanity to strive for something larger than their individual selves. Hence the Gallant. I love Knights as an ideal of the aforementioned belief, so Knights. Games, is obvious. I make games!

Me: How many people comprise Gallant Knight Games and in what capacity?

Alan: There is myself, I handle the rules, writing, creation, creative endeavors, networking, marketing and all that jazz. Then my wife Erin who handles the finances and backend, keeps me on track and sane, and makes sure I don’t forget to eat (I do that).

Me: Where did the idea for Tiny Frontiers come from?

Alan: Well, it’s an idea spawned from the game Tiny Dungeon (made by Smoking Salamander Games), and taken to a newer level. We’ve really strived to maintain the ideas of SSG and TD, but to make it our own. So far, I think we’ve been successful.

Me: What’s your favorite setting (so far) in Tiny Frontiers?

Alan: Asking me to pick a favorite is hard. But I also can’t tell you, as it’s not been revealed yet! It’s awesome. I think they’re all interesting, and fun to play around in.

Me: For non-rpg people (like myself), what aspect of gaming is most appealing? Why should I pick it up?

Alan: As a writer, creating stories is your lifeblood. RPGs allow for you to work with a group and create a story as a cooperative team, within a framework designed to encourage imagination, while providing some guidelines to keep it fun.

Me: What does your design/writing process look like?

Alan: I generally start with the framework rules (ie. What rules does the game absolutely require), and work from there? I tend to overwrite, cut it back, overwrite again, and just keep repeating that process. The it’s buying test components and organizing gamers to play the game ad nauseum until it’s ready. Obviously, with re-writing all along the way. Every project is a little different as I’m always learning more and more about the best way to do things.

Me: How do you find vendors for printing your game manuals and fabricating the other game pieces?

Alan: Lots of research, asking those who have done this before, and just lots of mistakes. I always order a test run before I do production run, and gauge the quality myself.

Me: What does the future hold for Gallant Knight Games?

Alan: Well, I have some projects already lined up, including some licensed games for fiction lines, and some dream projects of my own. I’d really love to make an espionage RPG one day, along with a noir detective game, and a game inspired by samurai.

 

There you have it! Go check out Alan’s game!