1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    But My Protagonists Don't KNOW They're in a Suspense Novel!

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Catrin Lewis, Aug 27, 2016.

    (This also applies to suspenseful plot lines in other genres.)

    I'm wondering how you like to handle this, or how you've seen your favorite writers handle this:

    How do you keep your POV character(s) in the dark about the danger a certain fellow-character or plot situation poses to them, without causing your readers to think they're unbelievably stupid not to see the threat?​

    It's my observation that we humans, unless we're congenital worrywarts, will see people and situations as normal or merely quirky, until a pattern forms or things blow sky-high and we're forced to see how abnormal life has become. Do people in novels have the same privilege?

    In the second chapter of my WIP a man comes to my male main character with a business proposition. This proposal will allow him wide scope to do the work he lives to do, and the money to keep his struggling business (his life's dream) afloat. There are one or two details about the offer that might be a little off-key, but in his enthusiasm my MMC subconsciously chooses not to hear them. He wants to do the work; he wants to make the money; he wants to fulfill his vision: what's wrong with that? He doesn't know he's about to be caught up in a suspense plot!

    But the reader does know. It says "suspense" right there on the cover or in the Amazon search string.

    I set up the potential client's creepiness through the POV of my female main character in chapter one, and a typical reader will already know or strongly suspect this man will be the villain. After all, this is suspense---there has to be a villain, right? So my latest beta reader thought my highly-intelligent MMC was impossibly, unbelievably stupid even to consider this character's proposition, let alone to want to accept it. Doesn't he know the bad guy has arrived? Doesn't he understand he's Up to No Good? Ergo, she concluded, there's a fundamental weakness in my plot.

    Now, she's the only one of my beta readers who has flagged this, or flagged it so early. (Another beta thought my MMC was taking the willful ignorance thing too far at the midpoint of the novel; I've corrected that and will correct it further.) But how do you keep your readers from hearing the ominous soundtrack so loudly from the very start that they question why the protagonists don't hear it, too?
     
  2. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I get this too with writing romance. It's patently obvious from the beginning who the two MCs are, and any genre romance reader knows they're going to end up happily ever after. Knowing that readers know that, I STILL have to make the things-keeping-the-MCs-apart convincing, and (if I'm good) I should make the reader doubt it, even though they know there is no doubt.

    How do I deal with that? Motivation. My characters need a convincing motivation to ignore that they've just met the love of their life, and so fight against giving up whatever to be with each other. If that motivation isn't convincing, the tension is going to be artificial and the reader isn't going to relate to those characters.

    So while I do think that only betas can tell you if you've got that motivation right... this is just one beta reader. There's always going to be one who doesn't get it--it's a rite of passage for every book! By all means, make some small tweaks to address her concerns if you can. But if it requires a total re-write? Personally, I wouldn't change anything. Unless something resonates me off the bat, I need at least two betas to be in agreement before I'll make significant changes.
     
  3. Petesky
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    Petesky Member

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    Your protagonist won't know as much as your reader does about what's going on in the immediate world around them. So I think it's ok to keep them in the dark from an obvious (from readers point of view) threat without them appearing dumb.
     
  4. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're right about motivation. I thought I'd made it clear previously that the MMC would just about sell his soul if it meant fulfilling his professional ambitions. (In fact, what that motivation takes him to is the main curve of his character arc.) But maybe I didn't make it clear enough?
     
  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Or this beta reader is a bit dense. ;)
     
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  6. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Dense? Well, no, but . . . well, see my PM.
     
  7. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Seems to me the key is distraction. If there are bills to worry about, a bus to catch or a deadline to meet, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
     
  8. Terathorn
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    Terathorn Member

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    TRUE!

    My approach to this is, again from my point of view, simplified. I set up the pattern like we as humans see and experience them. As you stated so eloquently below. (no sarcasm intended)
    (Sorry, I am a counseling Psychology major and i utilize it throughout my writing)

     
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  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    The reader doesn't have to know the forgone conclusion. It's always possible it won't happen.
    Is there a way to make the evil character more ambiguous, not so obvious?

    It's hard to say without knowing what those 'off things' about the villain are. Do they have to be revealed as part of the offer? Is the MC's denial the only way to trip the character up with the deal?
     
  10. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Distracting the protagonist, or distracting the reader?

    (Sorry. I was up late working last night and the brain isn't working full speed yet. :supersleepy: )
     
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  11. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Re: the off-key things, one is the antagonist's insistence on total confidentiality regarding the project, which is presented as being a country resort. The MMC easily explains that away. Another is his desire that the project be almost entirely underground, with a tunnel leading down to it. This I can tone down a bit. Oh, and did I say the potential client wants extensive storage space for guns and ammunition? This is the kind of thing that can set off questions in the mind of the post-9/11 reader. But the story begins in 1981, and the gun storage thing has to be in there, and the MMC has to rationalize that it's just part of the facility's being a high-end shooting club.

    (Sometimes I wonder if I need to put an Author's Note in the front matter, reminding readers of how much was different back then.)
     
  12. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    OK, what are you using now for the reason it's to be built underground?

    The secrecy is a bit tricky. Perhaps the excuse might be the resort is going to be for high end clients that need a well concealed location when they want to get away from adoring fans and/or political obligations.

    A country resort could be like Coober Pedy in Australia where being underground is a special attraction for tourists.

    Here's an underground spa and resort in Napa Valley.

    Don't let the reader in on the ruse. A gun club works fine for the storage space.

    You can do subtle foreshadowing without giving away the store. The story starts with the excited MC, it looks good. There is nothing fishy about the project. Then the reader gets something subtle, the specs for the ammo/weapons room is odd. The bad guy has a believable reason - this will be a really unique gun range.

    And so on...
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Not necessarily. A few stories end in tragedy. Wuthering Heights comes to mind.
     
  14. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    It's not genre romance. Modern genre romance has a HEA, or it's not genre romance.
     
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  15. GingerCoffee
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    Oh. :)
     
  16. ddavidv
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    ddavidv Contributing Member

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    You divulge the bad guy is bad in the first chapter. Why not move that to later in the story?

    Iv'e used different tactics in my two suspense novels. The first time the bad guy is clearly bad in chapter one and my MC escapes him. He is gone and considered a non-threat until halfway through the book when I bring him back.

    The second book I have one bad guy masquerading as a cop. The reader isn't privy to the fact he's a pseudo policeman even though he was introduced in chapter two. I distract the reader from the possibility because we have bad guy #2 introduced in chapter one...except there is no definitive proof he is a bad guy, just my MC's gut feeling.

    There are all sorts of ways to do it. I think the way you've put your book together is more challenging but certainly not impossible. However, if your MC reads as "too stupid to live" by being absurdly blind to logic or making truly stupid mistakes then you need to rework it.
     
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  17. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    The protagonist. Or course, if the protagonist is distracted, the reader should be, too. It's kind of a two-for-one thing. ;)
     
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  18. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I came across a little ebook called Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland the other day and although I haven't read the whole thing yet, I did find one very interesting exercise near the beginning.

    She talks about making an expectations table (not her name for it). In column A you list all the things that might be expected to happen based on what's set up earlier on. In column B, she suggests making a list of any and all ways those expectations might be subverted.

    It's a real brain-stretcher and I admit I had a hard time with it. But because I find it such an intriguing way to look at story planning, I'm going to give it another try with my next novel.
     
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  19. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Re: the underground aspect, the "client" uses the right buzz words to make the architect MMC think he's going for state-of-the-art energy efficiency and environmental preservation. Moreover, he says he wants total privacy. But yeah, he can say his "guests" want the privacy, too.

    The secrecy is in relation to the project planning only ("Don't tell anyone I came to see you or anything about this project"), or so the MMC assumes. He explains it away to himself and to the FMC as the client's financial/marketing/competitive decision. This is easy for him as the client has been dangling before him how cutting-edge and innovative this facility is to be (playing on the weak side of his ideals). Of course the client wants to get in on the ground floor! (So to speak. :superwink:)

    As to not letting the reader in on the ruse . . . there has to be some suspicion. The FMC takes a dislike to the "client" in the first chapter when he appears suddenly in their office, insists on speaking only to her boss (the MMC), and treats her in what she interprets as a sexist manner. She does NOT tell her boss how it went down; she only reports that the visitor was "strange." The project interview scene is in her POV, overheard from her drafting table (dinky one-room office). It's fine if the reader thinks she's being a little self-centered and unreasonable--- at first. But the "client" has to say something to convince her that her first impressions were right and she must try to talk her boss out of taking the job. The real fun begins when the MMC does turn it down and the would-be client doesn't respond well at all.

    This is the approach I'm taking. After the refusal, the bad guy will try to undermine my MCs professionally, but after a period of struggle they will think they've overcome that and the villain has gone away.

    It's occurred to me that I can do a rewrite to make it look to the MCs that the bad guy has gone away permanently. The reader won't believe that, but it will take away some of the impression that the MMC is willfully blind/too stupid to live.

    Although--- although--- I MUST leave enough willful blindness in so, at the end of the book, he can look back and see that that's exactly what he was. (Character arc!)

    This gets back to motivation: making sure the reader knows that my MC is a man who would close his ears to the nagging doubts because paying attention would force his attention away from what he really wants to do. But I could rework some things in the interview scene so the warning bells are not so loud at that point.
     
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2016
  20. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    In this case, if I understand you right, my MMC is distracted by the opportunity he believes this man can offer him, and so doesn't see the flaws in it. I thought I'd done an adequate job of that already, but maybe the flaws are a little too blatant?

    Whatever I do in the way of rewriting this scene, I have to leave enough off-key factors in to convince my FMC (and the reader) that she has solid reasons to refuse to work on the project, even if it means the loss of her job.
     
  21. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not having read your story, I can't say for sure, but...

    Yes, if the MMC is distracted by excitement over the possibilities of the offer, possibilities that your FMC thinks are dumb or simply nonexistent, I don't see why that wouldn't work.
     
  22. Terathorn
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    I'm by no means a suspense writer, so on that angle itself im useless.

    But, the 'project' is a resort, yes?

    With architechural projects its always "What the client wants" no matter what it seems to us or anyone. Its what we're paid to build, we build it like the instructions say.

    Client wants secrecy?

    1981- NDAs or Non Disclosure Agreements were around and used often. Keeps your workers from blabing to competition.

    Hope this is helpful. :)

    ~Tera
     
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  23. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting analogy. Is it the architect's or the builder's responsibility to make sure the structure remains standing?

    I ask because it occurred to be that no matter what the client wants, the architect (or builder) is responsible for making sure the structure is sound. And perhaps a comparison could be made on that point with writers as well. No matter what the publisher wants, it's our job to deliver and make sure it holds up under reader scrutiny.
     

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