Writing Suspense: How to Write Stories That Thrill in Any Genre | Benjamin Percy | Skillshare

Writing Suspense: How to Write Stories That Thrill in Any Genre

Benjamin Percy, Author

Writing Suspense: How to Write Stories That Thrill in Any Genre

Benjamin Percy, Author

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15 Lessons (1h 16m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Designing Suspense

    • 3. Charting a Story

    • 4. Developing Characters and Narrative

    • 5. Using Inciting Incidents

    • 6. Developing Characters and Emotion

    • 7. Using Emotional Resonance

    • 8. Building Suspense with Temporary Blindness

    • 9. Using Reversals

    • 10. Creating the Turnstile of Mysteries

    • 11. Creating Triangulation

    • 12. Using Triangulation

    • 13. The End(ing)

    • 14. Final Thoughts

    • 15. Explore More Classes on Skillshare

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About This Class

"What's the secret to suspense? I'll tell you later."

Join award-winning suspense mastermind Benjamin Percy (The Dark Net, The Dead Lands) as he breaks down the essentials of writing genre-bending, reader-gripping works. Every lesson is packed with actionable tips, practical skills, and useful advice that will benefit writers of every medium, whether you're working on a novel, short story, or screenplay, or have an idea just starting to take root.

Key lessons include:

  • Developing a plot that keeps your reader wanting more
  • The Turnstile of Mysteries, or "the dance of the flaming chainsaws"
  • Controlling what your reader knows for a thrilling effect
  • Building three-dimensional characters with clear motivations
  • Entwining the narrative plot and emotional plot of your work 

By the end, you'll have the skills you need to design suspense in your work and an understanding of the story math that will, in Ben's words, grab your reader by the throat. Whether you're new to creative writing or a seasoned writer, this class will transform the way you plan, write, and read suspense, giving you the tools you need to grip your readers and keep them hooked.

Meet Your Teacher

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Benjamin Percy



Benjamin Percy is the author of four novels -- The Dark Net, The Dead Lands, Red Moon and The Wilding -- as well as three books of short stories, Suicide Woods, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk.

His craft book — Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction — was published in 2016 and is now widely taught in creative writing classrooms.

He is part of the new dawn of X-Men at Marvel and writes X-Force and Wolverine. He broke into comics in 2014 with a two-issue Batman story in Detective Comics, and since then he has written celebrated runs on Wolverine, Green Arrow, Teen Titans, Nightwing, and James Bond.

He writes the audio drama Wolverine for Marvel, now in its second season. The first season,... See full profile

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1. Introduction: Suspense makes the audience lean forward with wonder. The most important question that a writer needs to consider is what happens next? My name is Ben Percy and I write comics, novels, articles, podcasts, screenplays. I'm going to share with you some of the skills and techniques that I've cultivated over time in this class, design and suspense. I wrote four failed novels before publishing one. I spent a lot of time struggling with the component parts of storytelling, trying to figure out how did these authors put together these exquisite short stories and these compulsively readable novels? We're going to do a deep dive into them in order to understand techniques, what I call Maya possible. Maybe you have a novel in progress, maybe you have a memoir or outlines, Maybe you have a few half-finished short stories or maybe you just have the germs of an idea, this class will give you the tools to tease out suspense in any capacity from first line to final draft. I want you to write a page that grabs the reader by the throat. So crack your knuckles, let's get started. 2. Designing Suspense: Thanks so much for assigning on to this class, designing suspense. We're going to get into nuts and bolts in just a minute, but first, a story. Let me tell you about my friend, Darrin. When he was in fifth grade, he was in Disneyland waiting in line for the roller coaster. He was drinking a Slurpee, it was a hot day and a handful on a shoulder. He looked up, there was a man standing there. A man with aviator shades that reflected Darrin's questioning face in miniature. The guy asked him, "Hey kid, how do you make a tissue dance?" Darrin finishes the Slurpee shrug, and instead of answering that guy, retreated into the crowd. Darrin thought this was weird, but the crowd pushed him forward. He tossed his Slurpee in the garbage can, he got locked into the roller coaster, and just as he was about to depart, a voice called out to him again. "Hey kid," and he looked over, and there was the guy. The guy with the aviator shades. "How do you a tissue dance?" Darrin called out plaintively, "I don't know", just as the roller coaster began to rise up toward that first dip. Even as he swirled all about loops and dips, he couldn't concentrate and enjoy the ride. He was looking down at the amusement park and he can see that guy looking up at him, malvin the words. After he got off the ride, Darrin traced his way through the crowd, he couldn't find the guy. So this question, how do you make a tissue dance consumed him as though in the answer was the meaning of life, some secret key to the universe. So how do you make a tissue dance? I'm not going to tell you, not yet, and that is your first lesson in suspense. Vampires, dragons, robots with lesser eyes, barbarians with the woolly underpants, this is what I was obsessed with as a kid, genre. So this is what I wanted to write. I wanted to write genre when I first stepped into a career of writing classroom, and my professor forbade me doing so. On their first day of class, he went on to the syllabus, and the final thing that he said was, no genre and I didn't know what he meant. I never fell out of love with mass market fiction, even as I fell head over heels for literary fiction, and what happened was, four years later approximately, I picked up a book, a book that had really profound effect on my brain. It's called Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon. So here I am reading this book and the thing that came across was that these writers were having fun, and Michael Chabon in his introduction to this book talked about how he was a bored reader and even a bored writer. What he was asking for was, for us all that kick down Francis, for us all that kick down doors and not worry so much about taxonomy, what this is or isn't because really who cares? Right? That's the kind of writing that I became most interested in, writing that is neither fish nor fowl, writing that is both literary and genre. Think about Cormac McCarthy for instance. At what part of the bookstore does Cormac McCarthy belong in? The road is post-apocalyptic, and no country for old men is crime. All the pretty horses are Western, Suchary is literature with a capital L. It doesn't matter, that's what it comes down to, it doesn't matter. So what happens to a lot of us I think is that, we take all of these classes and sometimes we get stuck on this plane of composition, and we think so much about craft that maybe things get a bit stodgy as a result of that. I think that there is a way to straddled both planes. I think there's a way to be in the sensuous plane. The plane where you're dragged down the rabbit hole, and I think that you can still be in that plane of composition and have artistic integrity. So that's what we're going to be talking about. How to with technique thrill the reader. So here's what we're going to cover. Here is your menu for this class. We'll talk about story math, which is a kind of algorithm for the construction of your story to follow. We'll be talking about temporary blindness, which has to do with the wonder as to what's around the next corner. We'll talk about triangulation, which is, I could say a way of creating micro finish lines within your story and not just thinking about the one big finish line which is the end, and we'll talk about the turnstile of mysteries, which I learned a lot from writing comics, and a lot from writing podcast episodes about how to constantly be swirling in to view different points of tension. Here's a frustrating truth, the world doesn't care if you want to become a writer. Most people don't have the same passion and commitment that you do, which is why community is so important. We have this thing called the Project Gallery that gives you community. You can share ideas there, you can ask questions there. Some of the exercises that I'll give to you, I hope that you post your work online, and I hope that you offer each other encouragement, it keeps you motivated even when you're out there on your own. So I'm going to rant a little, or crack some jokes, or bring in examples from film, from novels, from comic books, from music and then I'll give you some exercises to chase down on your own. Whether you are writing a fantasy novel, or a literary short story, or a memoir, or erotic Haiku, I hope you find these exercises helpful and I hope to light a fire underneath you. Next up, we will dive into story math. 3. Charting a Story: Let's now be nice and make fun of literary fiction for a moment. Your standard literary story might go something like this. Somebody is in the kitchen making tea. They set the kettle on the stove top to boil and go to a window and stare out at a roiling bank of clouds. The teapot begins to whistle. They steep the tea leaves. They go back to the window, teacup in hand. Now, the roiling bank of clouds is closer. They have an epiphany. The end. Nothing happens, but it's beautifully written. Now, let's be mean and make fun of genre fiction. In genre friction, there might be types instead of people. One-dimensional characters like hero guy, and love interests, and nerd, and trader et cetera, but the thing that genre fiction never forgets that all six cylinders need be blazing. We're going to take these two different mediums and merge them together through a prism of charts and graphs and algorithms, which I know is a little weird. So this is a graph, and let's call this vector, the vertical vector, the emotional plane. Let's call this horizontal vector the narrative plane. Literary writers are great at addressing these emotional vectors. Genre writers are on the side of the narrative vector. This stuff is happening, this stuff is happening, this stuff is happening, or finding the lost ark, trying to find the serial killer. Whereas, they never get to the lighthouse. In Virginia Woolf's, To The Lighthouse. I love the book, but it's almost entirely in the emotional vector. It's almost entirely interior. Even though it's a masterpiece, what I'm trying to say is that there is a point of convergence. If you think about a constant variance between the two, and address all of emotions and address all of the narrative, and address all of the emotions and address all of the narrative, and twining them in a single moment but instead, taking vacations from one to address the other. So enough of this. So if you've taken a creative writing class, you might have heard of the Freytag's triangle, which will look something like this. An upside-down check mark. Now this right here, is where you introduce expository information about the setting, about the characters, about the world before everything gets interrupted. This moment right here is the inciting incident. It is the reason your story is being told at all. Sometimes known as literally the invitation. Some pop examples that maybe everybody's familiar with, is the moment in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker slips his hand when cleaning the droids and a projection appears in the form a princess Leah. She says, "Help me moving on Kanobi, you're my only hope." So prior to this, what's happening is, we're introduced to the desert planet of Tatooine, and Luke's life there is a moisture farmer. Basically, it boils down to life sucks. That's often the case for so many stories. Harry Potter, life sucks. Cinderella, life sucks. Now, there's a dissatisfaction with the environment. There's something that this inciting incidents brings into the story that results in chaos, yes, but something that the character has been longing for as well and a necessary development for them emotionally, as a result of this gauntlet that they then have to travel through. This moment in a screenplay is minute 15. If a story is about a bear, bring on the damn bear. If you look at any horror film, and they do this so well, always opens up with an attack of an unseen creature. It's a threat that has to come. It could be that somebody gets a notification of a death, it could be that somebody gets drafted, it could be somebody gets a diagnosis, whatever. Something needs to happen right away. That's why your story is being told. Now, to complicate this upside down checkmark further, here's a juncture to consider. This in script writing is called plot point 1, I also call it a doorway. This is plot point 2 or the second door way. This is the midpoint reversal. This is the climax of your story, the summit of all the action. This, if you're French, the denouement. If you're from the Midwest, that denouncement, the falling away from action. If you think about how all of these pieces fit together, don't think of it as a real estate allotment, the way that I've drawn this out. This is not proportional. This right here, if it's a short story, you might come to the end of the action and just have a line or two. This, if it's a novel, might be the last three chapters or the final chapter. But generally speaking, this is considered the juncture of the first act and the second act, and this is considered the juncture of the second act and the third act. I'm going to get into what each of these things is. But for now, if you consider what I put on the page before, the vertical vector, a horizontal vector, the emotional well, narrative propulsion. People commonly understand that stuff needs to happen, and that there is up and downness to storytelling. Let's say that you have on one side of this graph, for lack of a better word, villain. On the other side of this graph you have, for lack of a better word, hero. So on this side it might be the empire. On this side it might be the rebellion. There's like a back and forth between them. You understand that. There's this fight that's going to occur, and I'm going back and forth and back and forth, and the hero is failing or the hero is winning, and we're moving towards the biggest battle of all. You get that. You understand that we have to get to Mount Doom. We have to stop the zombie virus. We have to start the serial killer. People get that. People get the back and forthness of this, but one thing that they don't get as well is that there's another way to think about this back and forthness. That is that there is a narrative arc and there is an emotional arc. There working in tandem. They are braided together, twisted together like a DNA strand. That's what this is really about. Not just battles that are occurring, but battles without and battles within, that are feeding into each other. What is the goal of a Wizard of Oz? Get to the wizard and get back to ultimately to Kansas. But what's the emotional arc of the story? At the beginning of the story, Dorothy sings a song somewhere over the rainbow way out there. What that reveals is the same thing that Luke reveals in the Star Wars, when he stands at the edge of the farm and stares out at those twin moons. That is a longing for the horizon, a want for adventure, something better than this moisture planets, something better than this hog farm in Kansas. Now, as she travels this goalet, as she goes through all these experiences, she learn something. Every story is a transformation story. Ultimately, Dorothy arrives at a place where she says there's no place like home. I should clarks those ruby slippers together. Every story is a transformation story, and the entwinement of the emotional arc and the narrative vector is a very tricky thing that we're going to be breaking down. 4. Developing Characters and Narrative: So here, I am talking about graphs, talking about math, I know it is a little obnoxious. But you should also know that I tried to put this into practice myself. So one of the things that I do is, I start to chart out characters. So let's say at the top of this outline, I have the concept, and then what I'll do is I'll have characters. So let's say it's Bob. Let's say It's Sue. Let's say it's Professor X, now we're getting into the X men. But essentially this left side of the story map is Wikipedia entries on who these people are. Once I figure out who they are, I figure out what they want. Once I figure out what they want, I have the first stirrings of plot. What I started to do then is, have these threads. These threads they go across, this plot threads. This happens to Sue right here, this is happens to Bob right here. Maybe this is the moment where Bob gets into a car accident. This is the moment where Bob fights the T-Rex. This is a moment where Sue wins the lottery or whatever. Then I put another scroll beneath this one. So let's say this is the first scroll or here's the other tacked up right below it. What I'm doing now is I'm taking all these threads, all these different plot points and moments of emotional catharsis and everything else, and and blending them together. So if you think about right that free tag triangle I drew earlier, I'm essentially doing this on its side. One of the things that I'm considering is chapter breaks. I'll go through all of these different beats, for the character is no go. This is a downbeat or this is an upbeat. This is a downbeat. This is a downbeat. This is an upbeat. What I'm looking for here is variance, tonal variance, almost like orchestration of music. I want the chapter breaks to have a back and forth to them. I don't want several downbeats in a row. What I'm looking for over the top when I account for these uptakes and down takes is something that might look like this. The introduction to trouble, the resolution to trouble. Oftentimes, the midpoint reversal are the highest moments of all. So you have these peaks and you have these valleys. The math of it is, oftentimes, the biggest valley is right beside the biggest peak. When I was talking about plot 0.2 earlier for instance, plot 0.2 occurs right here. It is the juncture of the second and the third act, under the phrase for 0.2 is, the dark night of the soul, the moment of loss, the moment where everything gets to be rock bottom for the character. This opens the doorway to the third act. When the hero who's up against the ropes decides that they must go on even though they feel as though they can't go on. But right on the other side of it is the highest peak. There's a precision to it, and I know that might seem obnoxious but what are you trying to do when writing the story except manipulate your audience. You are being manipulative, right. There is a way to push the buttons and make them gasp or make them cry, make them cry out in terror. You have to look under the hood of other stories sometimes to see how the engine is put together. 5. Using Inciting Incidents: So I'm going to show you a few textual examples where novelist and short story writers are doing the same. This first line comes from 100 years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and it reads as follows, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." There's a few things going on in this line that I love. One is, if you think about first lines or the first scene of your film, of your memoir, of your novel, of your story as establishing a contract with the audience, there's a contract established here. That is that, "Many years later," meaning there's a now and there's a future. As he remembered that distant afternoon, there's a past. In one sentence alone, he's doing this crazy chronological Jujutsu, where he's all over the place and you, as a result of that feel, ready for an epic about 100 years of time in a village. But let's look a little closer of some other interesting things about this. Well, I know where the story takes place. I see this name Colonel Aureliano Buendía, I see a firing squad, I see the fact that they're discovering ice. That feels long ago or other worldly. This feels to me like, Colonel Aureliano Buendía with the firing squad, this feels like South America. So I'm orienting my audience. I'm doing a little bit of this work right here, and then, I've got trouble. A firing squad, right away. Life or death. I've got a reason to pay attention. Take a look at this line which is more genre. This comes from Ion Fleming's Goldfinger and it reads, "James Bond with two double bourbons inside him, shy back in the final departure lounges thought about life and death." That's just bad ass, right? But more than that, there's some cool things going on here. One, establishment of character - James Bond to double bourbons inside him in the final departure lounge. The way you introduce character, there's different ways you can describe their appearance, you can give them dialogue as a window into, what's going on inside them, and you can provide gestures, actions that are indicative of who they are. You got double bourbons inside him. That's a lot. He's thinking about life and death at the same time, so that emotional art, it's already there, it's already seated. Also, the narrative arc is already seated. He is in the final departure lounge, which is atmospheric, that sounds spooky, that sounds compelling, but it's just also the precipice of a journey. He's not balling up his socks and tucking them neatly into his carry on like, he's at the final departure lounge, he's about to set off. As I said before, this story is about a bear bring on the dump bear. There's the bear. 6. Developing Characters and Emotion: The narrative bear, is the emotional bear. On the subject of the emotional bear, think of the core wound of your character I guess you could say. Think about what your character suffers from most greatly. What's barbarians core wound primarily. We've all seen this in comics, in movies. Martha and Thomas Wayne, are walking with young Bruce through Crime alli, they're robbed, pearls get ripped off scattered to the pavement, gun fires, blood spills, there is the origin of Batman. So be thinking about these things when you are writing that introductory sequence. Because it's not just about pretty sentences. It's not just about fleshing out your character. It's about setting the stage for all the trouble to come. A trouble that is emotional, a trouble that is connected to the narrative itself. When I was in grad school, I knew that I was struggling with the architecture of my stories. I knew that the plot pieces weren't quite clicking into place. So what I did was, I found an author who I really admired, Flannery O'Connor. I read one of her stories five times. I read it five times because I wanted to understand each and every move it was making when it came to contributing to theme, to characterization, to that narrative vector. On the sixth reading, had a yellow legal tablet now, and I went paragraph by paragraph through it. What I was doing was mapping out the beats of the story, I guess you could say. So paragraph 1, character A introduced via dialog as jealous and spiteful, which is every Flannery O'Connor character. Paragraph 2, theme introduced via description of setting, and so on. Paragraph 3, paragraph 4, bit by bit what was happening. What I would do then was, I would take that architecture and try to write my own piece that bore no resemblance to the original. So character A introduced as jealous and spiteful in the Flannery O'Connor story, which is maybe connects to the core wound of the character, I'd do the same thing in my first paragraph, except they wouldn't be jealous and spiteful, maybe they're grief-stricken. I'd see that into the dialogue just like she did. So what I want you to do is find a canonical cousin. What author is doing what you want to do. Maybe it's a short story, maybe it's an essay, maybe it's a memoir, maybe it's novel, maybe it's a screenplay, maybe it's Connor. I want you to have a yellow legal tablet out. I want you to read. If it's a novel, go read it, read it twice or three times. If it's a short story, read it five or six times. If it's a movie, watch it, watch it again with the director's commentary on, read the screenplay itself, map it out bit by bit, then out of this, create your own story. So as a challenge to you, try writing out some first lines. Different variations maybe on the same, or maybe a whole host of first lines just to get you started on some different ideas. Try to seed into them, that emotional trouble and some narrative trouble so that we can't stop reading. So that at the end of the sentence there might be a period, but it might as well be an implied question mark. 7. Using Emotional Resonance: I'm going to give you an example from a memoir, and this essay is called, Father's, Son's blood. Fair warning, it's going to break your heart, so have the tissues handy. This is the open into this essay. "On July 31st 1961 in Fort Lauderdale Florida, I was sleeping late after writing all night when I heard my wife Sally scream above the yammering of children's voices. I didn't know what was wrong, but whatever it was, I knew instantly that it was bad. I sprinted down the hallway, and before I ever reached the front door I had met out with the children all talking at once, were trying to say, "Patrick, Kant, in the pool, get him out." The only house in the neighborhood with a pool was two doors away. I didn't break stride going through the front door and over the hedge onto the sidewalk. As I went through the open gate of the higher fence surrounding the pool, I saw my son, faced down in the water at the deep end, his blonde hair waft in about his head, the only movement. I got him out, pinched his nose and put my mouth on his mouth. But from the first breath, it didn't work. I thought he had swallowed his tongue, I checked it and he had not. I struggled to breath for him on the way to the emergency room, but the pulse in his carotid artery had stopped under my fingers long before we got there, and he was dead. That morning, I had breakfast with his mother, he had cereal. The doctor told me that in the panic of drowning he had thrown up and then sucked it back again. My effort to breath for him had not worked nor could it have. His air passages were blocked. Little more than a month, September fourth, he would have been four years old." So damn, that hurts to read. Note how at the beginning, in the very first line, he wakes to his wife screaming, there is that trouble right away. There's the setting right away, orienting us in time, orienting us in place. Doing some of those things that we've already talked about. But the thing that I really want to emphasize here is that, nowhere in this opening scene, which contains the inciting incident which contains the trouble that justifies this essay being written at all. Nowhere in here does Harry Crow say, how was sad. It's there though right? You feel it. All he does is focus on the action. All that's contained within this passage of physical bits. So this would be the equivalent of what we call the narrative vector, that narrative plane. It's pure narrative progression. Well, I was talking about the variance between them. The way that you can go back and forth, and back and forth, that's what comes next. It's after this scene that we'll really get into the darkness that begins to weal inside of Harry. William Cartridge says, 'Tell a story, have some thoughts about it." When you have those narrative peaks, those big burst of plot, especially at the climax of your story or at the inciting incident of your story, when the action is hot, write cool. In other words, do what Harry Crow state here, leave the emotions for afterwards. It could be that there's a big bank heist at the beginning of your story. Maybe a character gets shot. Maybe another character gets arrested. It's only then after this big heavily orchestrated moment when the criminals are racing through the town in their van, park and in some garage offside and asking themselves, "Oh, shit, what do we do next? That's when you find your valley, your relevant valley to follow. So we've been looking at the larger blueprints of a story. We've been looking at the overhead of view, the macro. What we're going to start to do now is get a little closer and figure out how they are on a chapter by chapter or scene by scene basis contributed to suspense. So next up is temporary blindness. 8. Building Suspense with Temporary Blindness: Let's talk about temporary blindness now, which is a tool that applies to your scenes and your chapters. You dangle something just out of reach, but carry it on the stack and the audience reaches for it but they don't get it. Stephen King says that, the most terrifying moment in any horror movie or any horror novel is when the character hears a noise behind the manic door, or around a bend in a cave, or deep in the forest. They hear a noise and they move toward it, and they reach for the handle of that door, that right there, that is the peak of tension. That's because whatever is on the other side of that door is not as bad as what they imagined themselves. When the shark in Jaws is just a fin in the water, that's when the audience is terrified. You can learn a lesson from that. Keeping things just out of reach and keeping things in the shadows, in withholding, in delaying gratification. There's only so long that an audience will wait before they start to get discouraged, impatient. Now, imagine that movie Super Bad for a moment. In Super Bad, the kids have to lose their virginity by the time they graduate high school. That's the larger order goal. The higher-order goal of the narrative. There's a ticking clock there and they go through these many adventures along the way. But it's imagined if like the wonder as to whether or not they're going to pull this off, like what if they had to lose their virginity by the time they got a PhD in Germanic literature, maybe not so urgent of a story. So be thinking about that shelf-life, be thinking about how long people are willing to wait. What you want to do is interrupt whatever the expected resolution, as you want to delay it, you want to insert some temporary blindness into the situation. One of the ways that you can do that is not just holding something out of reach but it's define the expectations of how a scene is going to play out. In the middle of that chart that I put down earlier, I had a moment called the midpoint reversal. That means that whatever the plan was, here's this inciting incident, here is this doorway moment where the character decides to go on this journey to resolve whatever the trouble is has been introduced to the narrative. Whatever their initial plan is, it's going to fail and it's going to fail again, it's going to fail again. Then, usually at that midpoint reversal of a screenplay, of a memoir, of a novel, what happens is, the defiance of that plan, the failure of that plan is so great that the character then needs to formulate a new mission, a new way to carry the story forward. A great example of this is the untouchables. Here you have Kevin Costner who plays an FBI agent. He's trying to bust the Capone gang. This is during Prohibition. So his goal is from the very beginning, get Capone, get Capone, continues to fail because Capone is such a great villains, is such a great mastermind. He's never going to bring him down. There's a midpoint reversal where what they recognize instead is that they don't need to get Capone, they need to get as accountant. So they go to make this big bust, they're out in the country, they attack this cabin, there are Tommy guns, awesomeness ensues, and then there's the recognition. Forget Capone, give the accountant, he has the numbers. The numbers are how we're going to bring him down. Everything shifts as a result of this. So there's a scene in Cormac McCarthy's road that I will never forget. I think it had something to do with being new father myself at the time when I read it, because it's about this father and the son in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and they face all of these threats. All they're trying to do is get to the ocean. So there's this scene in the road where the father and son come up on a house. They want a scavenger and they want to see if there's any supplies there, maybe some food there, but they also don't want to happen upon any threats. They go inside and the tension rises at first because floorboards, creak and they're not sure what's around every corner. So withholding information,right? You track the camera around the corner and finds that there might be a raccoon scurried along, or there might be nothing beneath the bed but a scuttling beadle. We're anxious. Finally, the track away from the whole house and they find a few supplies. They find something else, they find evidence that people are living here. So not only do they figure out that people are living in this house, they figure out that there might be food because they see in the kitchen certain utensils that have meat on them. So they do a deep dive and find a cellar door and decide to go down there. They go down into this basement, and they hear something. They can't see what it is because it's dark. They get a little closer and they get a little closer still. What they discover then are people. Somebody comes out of the dark reaching for them. They flinch back but then a chain rattles, and they discover these people are tied up. Not only are they tied up, they're missing limbs. They're missing a leg here and arm there, and a realization dawns on them. A horrifying realization that these people are the food for the other people. They are at that moment in the place where the food is kept and they hear a creek upstairs. Now they have these faceless enemies, they have these hideous goons in the basement where they're dealing with, and he has to give his son to safety. So security his child out, as a result of this, the people in the house know that somebody's been there and chase after them and so on. But this whole scene which takes pages and pages to play out, which continues to amplify it suspense which has a ticking clock because you're waiting for them to be discovered. I guess works so well in part because there's always something just out of reach something you don't know and are incredibly anxious about. This is what you invest into your narratives whenever you can. Here's an exercise for temporary blindness, a character is in bed, late at night and their eyes snap open. There not sure why. So there's the first question mark, right because they wonder what's a welcome them. Here's something that, it's under sound, a buzzing. They get up their hands out molding their way through the dark tottering their way down the hallway into the kitchen. Just like that scene in the road in a way, right? You're wondering what's around the corner and then comes a reversal. First, there's an answer to the question which is a phone. It's a phone that's buzzing. But as they get closer they realize it's not their phone, and they pick it up, and they answer it. Take it away. Write that scene, continue to write that scene with let's say, three more reversals that are interrupted by temporary blindness or wonder as to what's coming. Then I'd also like you to maybe put up on the boards some ideas of your own, some generative ideas for other people who are taking this course, where somebody might wonder about something just around the corner, a 3:00 a.m phone call or whatever else you might encounter and have them and your fellow classmates done post different ideas as to how things will turn out next. Give us a mystery and run with it. This next thing that we're going to be talking about is very closely linked to temporary blindness, and it's called the turnstile of mysteries. 9. Using Reversals: Here's a way that I handled this in a Batman comic. I got really lucky, and then I made my debut with Batman, my comics debut. So I write a two shot arc, a two issue arc four detective comics called Terminal, and this is the way it works. We're at Gotham International Airport, it's stormy. So stormy that the planes are in a holding pattern overhead, and all the planes on the ground aren't allowed to take off. Bruce Wayne is there in his private plane about to go on vacation. So he's about to take off on vacation but, of course, we have to interrupt this. We have to introduce trouble. So the trouble is not just the storm, its that, despite the holding pattern, the control tower notices that a plane is still project. Why? Why is this plane coming towards the runway? Why is it not responding to them hailing it? Is it a mechanical failure? Or is it a terrorist act? That's the first question. So the Port Authority cops get down on the runway, they're all lined because they don't have enough time to bring up the jet planes to potentially escort the plane out of there. So the plane lands and they track it, they tell it to stop, but it doesn't stop and it begins to veer off the tarmac towards the airport. So that's where we recognize like,"Okay. This is actually a magnified form of the trouble we anticipated. It is seemingly a terrorist act of some sort." So the plane comes towards the airport, things are escalating. Its coming towards the airport, and we cut to the interior and a bunch of people are sipping lattes and reading newspapers, and then, in the atrium the window shatter all around them and the plane comes baring through. The fuselage sparks and the tile buckles and somebody gets ground-up inside the engine and so on, and then it comes to a screeching halt. So now the question is, why? What do they want to accomplish and what is going on on board? Because the windows are black, and still no one was responding. So of course, Bruce Wayne leaps into action as Batman. He opens up the cabin, he goes inside and the mystery solved, except there's another question mark on the other side of it, a bigger one. Everyone on board is dead, and they are not just dead, they are mummified, seemingly mummified, they're old, and they aren't just old, but like the plastic in the inside of the plane it looks cracked. The wiring is flickering on and off the lighting. So we wonder,"What's going to happen next? That wonder is even greater because there's another question mark on the other side of it. Batman notices that the clocks in the airport are starting to slow down. Batman notices that when he takes off the cowl in the bathroom, he sees Grey threading across his hair. He comes to understand that this is contagious. Then the question becomes, how do we stop it? Who is responsible? Question mark. You can think of it as a dance of the flaming chainsaws, you can think of it as a turnstile of mysteries. But it's a series of reversals that keeps you constantly off-balance and it makes you say,"Wow!". 10. Creating the Turnstile of Mysteries: So now we're going to get into what I call the turnstile of mysteries. We'll start things off by bringing back my friend Darren. Remember him? He introduced himself to me in high school by saying, "Hi, my name's Darren. How do you make a tissue dance." I saw him introduce himself over and over and over again to parents, to pals with the same queue to a joke that he didn't know the punchline to. I worked in athletic club when I was in high school. So I was in the locker room. You should know that this is one of those athletic clubs where everybody is fairly well-off and wears boat shoes and is named Tad. So I was in the locker room picking up towels, when I heard over the lockers these two guys talking. They said, "Hey Tad, I've got a good one for you, how do you make a tissue dance?" and I drop the towels, and I heard what the Tads are talking about. I heard then the answer to the question that has haunted Darren all of this time. I refused to tell them what the punchline was. Because I am a terrible person. This is why I'm refusing to tell you. Just now. The most basic explanation of this is that you have all these question marks in your story. We've talked about that, it's the end of a chapter break. Something that's going to make the audience keep going. But along with this, you have to understand there has to be a bigger question mark on the other side of that answer. They've only wait so long. They want to be fed information. So you finally give them that information but behind it is an even bigger question mark. You want that. When it comes to the emotional manipulation of your audience, you want them to feel off balance. Because then they're more vulnerable. A great example of this comes from Jaws. Sometimes I feel like I could teach any craft lesson by talking about Jaws. In Jaws, there's a moment when the men are down in the belly of the ship, and they're talking about their scar stories. Then Chief Brody says, "What about that one?" He's referring to the fore arm of Captain Quint. Captain Quint puts his hand over the scar and he says that was a tattoo he got removed, and Richard Dreyfuss cracks a joke then. Plays the character of Hooper and he says, "Let me guess, Let me guess. Mother." Then he starts laughing and giggling and the manner in a really emotionally vulnerable state. They've never been this loose with each other. They've been biting each other's heads off throughout the film and now finally, they're drunk on whiskey, they're defying, and I feel in this moment vulnerable. I'm laughing. So that's the perfect time, when you give your audience a tickle, that's a perfect time to slug him in the stomach. So what happens then is, he launches into the story of where the tattoo came from. "You know chief, that's from the U.S.S Indianapolis." Richard Dreyfuss says, "You were on the Indianapolis? He starts to tell the story about how they were delivering the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb. Two torpedos came out, knocked open the belly of a ship, it sank, then they were adrift in the ocean with sharks feeding all around them. He encounters Herbie Robinson, bossoms meet , grabs his shoulder, Herbie Robinson turns over and his bottom has been bitten off, his bottom half is gone. All this comes to justify his journey. He's an Ahab character. Ahab has lost his leg, and is after the white whale, and Captain Quint has been wounded by this mammal within the Indianapolis. All of these men, hundreds of men, have been consumed by sharks all around him. He's going to kill this shark. Even if it kills him. The core wound to the character is finally on display. The reason it works so well is because a moment before they were laughing, one of the things that you want is to make your audience feel different things. If they are feeling happy one moment, and sad the next, that's great fiction. I took a lesson from what I learned in grad school. I had taken those short stories by Flannery O'Connor. I had broken down their component parts. I did the same thing later on with novels. I want to write a big thriller something that despite its length, was still crazy readable. The book that everybody was reading at the time was Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So what I did was I read it, and I read it again, and then I read it again. So every character I came to understand had a few different things, quarrelsome things that were bothering them like. It's not just a core wound of the situation, but it goes beyond that, it's more three-dimensional than that. So Mikael Blomkvist for example, the main character of the book has professional troubles with his job at a magazine. He has financial troubles, because he's now out of a job. He has legal troubles because he's being sued for an article that he didn't research carefully enough. He is having familial troubles. His daughter doesn't really want to talk to him. He's having romantic troubles. He's having an affair with a woman and there on again, off again. Then when it comes to the narrative stuff, he has serial killer problems. What I came to understand is there was, you could called it turnstile, you could also call it, I started to think of these things, this principal things that are without and within the characters that inform the narrative. I began to think of these things as flaming chainsaws. I began to think of this dance, as the dance of the flaming chainsaws. One of the things that I figured out was that, all right, here comes this thing, about the serial killer. It's flaming into view. Just when you're wondering what's going to happen? It's the chapter break. As you open up that next chapter, what typically happens is it will switch from Mikael Blomkvist's point of view, to Lisbeth Salander's point of view. So we're like "But what about that." But then here comes another flaming chainsaw coming towards this and we have to pay attention to that and then it goes by. Then we turn to the next chapter, crap, here comes another one. Then there's this rotation until they all perilously come falling down together at the end. That's the way those chapter breaks for those scenes work. You come to this moment, this moment rises up and then white space. Figure out what the stakes of the situation are. Whenever that thing gets resolved there should be some other trouble on the other side of it. So let's get into an exercise that builds off of this discussion. Do yourself a favor, give yourself a cool setting. In this exercise, let's say you're in Seattle. One of the things you have to do when you consider a setting is like, what are the cool stages that I can set my characters upon? So let's say your character is on the ferry to Bainbridge Island in Seattle. What are the series of obstacles? What are the series of reversals that you can insert into this scene? Again, I'm giving you a ticking clock. They're going from Seattle to Bainbridge, which takes half an hour. What can happen during that time? Give me at least three reversals and make every reversal have a bigger question mark on the other side of it. So here you are building a larger architecture of your story, you're figuring out how to constantly keep your audience off balance, but I'm going to teach you a trick next called triangulation that will really ramp up the suspense of every chapter or every scene that you compose. 11. Creating Triangulation: Here's what I mean when I say triangulation. You have character A, you have character B, and you have some thing between them that triangulates the Molnar. So earlier, we were talking all about the higher-order goals of the narratives like stop Voldemort, find serial killer, get to Mordor, but what I'm going to suggest to you when talking about triangulation is that you need lower order goals as well. Think of them as micro finish lines. So yes you need to keep in mind that larger goal of her story, just as the marathon runner needs to keep in mind the finish line, but the marathon runner will succumb to exhaustion and go nuts during that 26 mile race, if they're not looking at that fire hydrogen up ahead, and running toward that or that street sign or that park bench or that likes water station, and that's how you get to the finish line, is by thinking about each of those incremental goals. On a scene by scene basis need to consider this, very simply your director and your character is asking what's my motivation. Over and over again, this is what I see in student work. They have written an emotionally profound moment. Where say a couple is going to get divorced, and what they do is sit the characters down on a park bench, at a diner booth, or at a bar stool, and this is the worst possible move. Without exception, I have cut every single bar scene from a student manuscript that I've ever encountered because what the characters do is they sit down, they get a point field, and then they talk, and they talk, but the thing to keep in mind is that the goal of a conversation is never enough. Give them something else to do, and when you give them something else to do, you accomplish what Emily Dickinson said when she said, "Tell it slant." So let's say they're a couple, who's going to sit down on the dining room table and discuss the imminent separation. Let's say instead, you put them on the porch, and they're painting it, and there's wasp nest, there's rotten citing, there's a ladder that keeps getting an in between them, there is a throw cloth in which somebody who tangles of their legs, there might be neighbors listening in, the goal, the micro finish line, the lower order goal of this moment is painter porch. But the thing about the interaction of follow is that, there'll be talking around when it comes to tell it slant, there will be talking around the thing, right. Maybe in other words in the way that he scrapes at the old paint reveals something about what's going on inside him, and by him not being able to articulate it with words but instead physically like it makes it sometimes more powerful. Maybe the way that she accidentally kicks over the can of paint that spills between them. I can say something really profound, and if you think about this every time you have a conversation put the characters on the side of a mountain during the middle of a snowstorm world getting a knock. The way that they dress the animal butcher them meet the way of the knife slips and punctures the gut sack, the way that maybe one brother when talking to the other stands up with a knife gripped in hand looking at him with mirrored eyes like what can reveal not only emotionally metaphorically, but how can that adds to the tension, how can that crank up the suspense of the same. Thomas Harris. Great thriller writer, also a great literary writer. Silence of the Lambs is his most famous novel, but my favorite book of his Red Dragon, and in Red Dragon there is a serial killer. Francis Dolarhyde known as the "Tooth Fairy" is known as the Tooth Fairy because he puts on his grandma's dentures and bites as victims, gross, and there's one thing and you wonder whether he is or isn't going to change his ways because he's fallen in love with somebody. Now, the Tooth Fairy he believes himself to be hideous. He has a cleft palate and it covers it with a mustache and it's given him a speech impediments retries not to talk and he works at a video processing lab. There is a blind tactician there. He processes videos with her, they come to have relationship feels safe because she can't see him, and he has a rover for drinks one night. While they talk and enjoy martini, he says, "You know what, I have some work from the office I brought home. Do you mind if I just put on his video so I can just put it on mute or put it on the background and we'll just make sure that it's all cut correct way. There'll be a big help." she's is like yeah sure that's fine. But what she can't see and what we know is that the video that he is playing on the TV on mute is of him murdering a family. So here they are discussing the future of their relationship, becoming intimate, and we wonder like in this moment is he going to decide on the straight and narrow, could he change his ways or is he going to put in the dentures, right? So, so, so tense all because of the way it is triangulated. You're exercise for triangulation is this. I'm going to supply you resume dialogue and that dialogue is floating in white space. Your job is to contextualize it, want you to figure out who these characters are, you figure out what they're talking about or what the subtext is of what they're talking about, and I want you to patch into this. Something, some task some micro finish line, some lower-order goal, and the way in which you describe it, way in which you describe their physicality, I wanted to say something about their interior world. I want you to try to crank up the suspense as best as you can in let's say a quiet way. So here's the dialogue. "Hey,". "Hey yourself." "We need to talk." "Okay." "I need to tell you something." "Okay." I'm late." To what?" "I'm late." "So I took the test, and it's positive." You're positive? I mean, you're sure?" "Yes." "Wow." It's as simple as that. But I want you to complicate it. I've had some students who approach this as a pregnancy and I've had some students taking it in an entirely different direction. You could have them in the kitchen cooking something together. You could have them hiking a trail. You could have them visiting a carnival. You could cram as much narration into this as you wish. So you can keep your physical descriptions spare as well, but play around with it, and try to give attention and try to give it a deeper meaning and do not under any circumstances put them on a park bench or else for this next and final section, we're going to review some of what we've learned and find a way to synthesize it. 12. Using Triangulation: Kent Haruf wrote a perfect novel, a perfectly foursquare novel called Plainsong. There's this one beautiful scene in it that illustrates triangulation. Though this guy's name that McPheron brothers. There are these old bachelor farmers. They're not very good with their words. So imagine how awkward it would be when a local teacher asked them to be the caretaker of a pregnant 16-year-old girl who's been kicked out of her home. That's Victoria Roubideaux. She moved in with these guys and they have no idea what to do. They try to make up her bedroom as best as they can. They try to offer her food, but everyday conversation for them is incredibly painful. But here's the thing that happens, they really fall for Victoria. They come to think of her like a daughter. She's maybe eight months pregnant when they say, "Get in the car." They drive to a nearby town. This whole time she was asking, "What? What are we doing?" They don't tell her. They arrive at a JCPenny. They walk directly to a clerk and they say, "If you were going to buy things for a baby, what would those things be?" Victoria in the meantime says, "What are you doing? No, you can't spend that kind of money on me." But they completely ignore her. So moving. Imagine how clumsy it would have been and risk sentimentality if instead, she came home from school one day and the McPheron brothers said, "Sit down Victoria. We've made up some decaf coffee and we are now going to discuss your situation. We love you and think of you as a daughter. Will you please continue to live with us. We will support you and your child." That will be bad. "Don't do it, triangulate instead." 13. The End(ing): So we're near the end of the discussion and maybe you're near the end of your story. What next? How do you conclude things in a way that feels satisfying and suspenseful? One thing you want to keep in mind is that the audience should go into white-space, should turn that final page, and have the story, the narrative still progressing, still churning in their mind. Short stories handle this like so. They get to that conclusive moment, the summit of the story we were talking about and typically what happens is, stuff just ends. In other words, there is no long denouncement. The end of the short story should feel as though a canon has gone off and the air is still trembling. If you think about Joyce Carol Oates and her short story, Where You Go and Where Have You Been, it ends with her opening the door to her house and walking towards the car of the kidnapper who will eventually murder her. We don't see this happen, but we know it's coming. I like the idea that you are creating a co-author in your audience, that you are giving them some complicit power in the narrative, especially with shorter stories. If you think about the cliffhanger of a comic, in the same way that you might think about the conclusion of a short story, you're passing the baton and allowing them to fill in the blank space. Now, with a novel, you've got all these threads. We talked about the dance and the flaming chainsaws, we talked about the turnstile of mysteries, we talked about emotional bids, and narrative beads, and factors and how you bring them all together. Here's something to keep in mind. You should vary the way that these end. So I talked before about the emotional stakes of a situation. If it's jars, here are some things that Chief Brody is struggling with. He's struggling with his job because he is new to the island and people are dying. He's dealing with political problems because here's the mayor telling him, "Keep the beaches open." He's the only with familiar problems because he's so tense and always on the job investigating everything, his wife is feeling a little bit like she doesn't know who he is right now. So the motivation for him going out and pursuing the shark, yes it has to do with the physical states of the situation, it has to do with concluding the narrative vector but it also has to do with him reclaiming his masculinity. So here you have a character struggling with this, this, this, and this. One of the things that I would do is have them fail at one, have them win at one, and have one end ambiguously, in the same way that short story might. So that thread will continue to go on in the audience's mind. You have a tonal variance then, like you have all these things up in the air and each one when it passes through the jugglers hands for the last time, one will cut you, one you'll catch, the other one is still falling towards the jugglers hands when we blink away. Think about how you need to leave your audience wanting more. Maybe you should consider that every story no matter how short has a SQL. Remember my friend Darren, remember how he wanted so deeply and passionately to learn how to make a tissue dance. One day before we headed off to college and went our separate ways, we were out on Lake Billy Chinook water skiing. I figured why not now? He was out behind the boat doing his thing, some tricks right in the wake and I call down to him over the outboard motor. "Darren," and our eyes locked. "How do we make a tissue dance?" You could tell he knew it was coming. He waited over a decade for this punchline. I waited another 30 seconds or so just to prolong it there's much more delicious amount of suspense in the air. Finally, I told him, How do you make a tissue dance? You put a little bogey in it. At that moment, Darren released the toro and fell back and the lake swallowed him up with a look of utter disappointment on his face. The same disappointment you're feeling right now. His journey was over. If only Darren had tracked down that guy with aviator shades when he was at Disney World. If only he had learned the punchline and if only that punchline turned out instead to be a password and if only that password gained him admission to a bar called the dancing tissue and if only he was escorted behind the bar to meet with the owner with a mysterious tattoo, a shaved head, and a mechanical leg, then poured a bottle of whiskey out for them both and said, "I've been waiting for you Darren. I've been waiting for a long time." If only the wonder is to how that punchline that turned out had led to temporary blindness that had led to a deepening mystery with a greater question mark at the end. If only Darren had been asked another question, "What's the key to suspense?" I'll tell you later. 14. Final Thoughts: Every time I teach a workshop, I share this quote with my students and I have it framed next to my desk as a reminder. It comes from Harry Crews, who we heard from earlier in the essay, "Fathers, Sons, Blood". He has this to say, "You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live. That's what I've discovered about writing. The world doesn't want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel, or time to write a story, or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read, if you wait for the time, you'll never do it because there ain't no time. World don't want you to do that, world wants you to go to the zoo, and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week." Isn't lead to true? The zoo is calling, the zoo is laundry, the zoo is Netflix, the zoo is a trip to the ocean, a walk in the park, the zoo is very, very appealing, and what I hope this class will do is not only give you some techniques like triangulation or a turnstile of mysteries that you can use in your work, but I hope that this discussion as a whole has lit a fire, gotten you excited just as the community that maybe you've been introduced to through the project boards, through the interactions you might have there, that this will become infectious, that will motivate you to chase down the pages that await you. Because it's always easier not to write. Get motivated to keep hammering even when the zoo calls. So pull out that hammer, get to work. 15. Explore More Classes on Skillshare: