(This how-to article for Comics Values Monthly employed examples from my recently completed miniseries, Concrete: Killer Smile
, which are illustrated herein. –PC)
From the beginning I planned the latest Concrete miniseries, Killer Smile, as an out-and-out suspense story.
My reputation for wordiness, and stories about “nothing” (though meant as a compliment, I winced at Alan Moore’s description of the small-scale, non-melodramatic stories I am known for) would, I decided, be left behind. This would have few panels per page, restrained dialogue and life-and-death drama from page seven onward.
I stuck pretty much to this plan (some flashbacks to facilitate characterization crept in), and in the process found myself re-examining the technique of suspense writing.
Alfred Hitchcock is credited with distinguishing suspense from mystery: it doesn’t concern whodunit, but when’s-he-gonna-do-it. You put somebody in jeopardy and have him struggle to escape it. He makes progress, but complications arise (often of his own doing), putting him in deeper danger. It escalates to a crisis in which he either succeeds or fails interestingly.
It sounds so straightforward and schematic that anybody could do it. But there are a few qualifications to this formula, and they call for craft and invention.
We have to believe he’s in jeopardy. The threat must be logical, plausible and immediate. Some thought must be given to the antagonist’s motives (unless the threat is nature itself, or mere circumstance), we must not feel the protagonist is holding a resource unreasonably in reserve, or doing something unbelievably stupid.
The movie Alien, eerie classic though it is, has been rightfully criticized for having an “idiot plot”. Once they’ve seen their crewmate’s chest erupt with a cheetah-quick, steel-toothed monster, the characters wander the dark recesses of the ship, one letting water drip in his face, another looking for a missing cat (!), another blindly crawling through ventilation ducts – all to provide scares and to be picked off one by one.
Small acts must have big consequences. Why? So we’ll note with wild intensity every small thing that’s done, speculating what affects it will bring.
In Killer Smile, Larry stops to help a pretty girl pump gas. In her nervousness, she douses his pants with gasoline. As a result, her boyfriend (who was inside robbing the station) is prevented from shooting Larry to steal his truck (they’d all be incinerated). A further result is that he decides to force Larry to be his driver. A yet further result is that he’s given the idea to douse his old car with gas and set it on fire. And a further result is that Concrete’s distracted by the gas station explosion when Larry drives by, when he might have figured out Larry was in danger. And there’s another result later in the story (I’m not telling!).
There has to be a time limit. This is why you see so many ticking bombs in thrillers. We have to know things are coming to a head, that there isn’t all the time in the world to solve the problem. This can be implicit and indefinite – in Killer Smile it’s Concrete trying to reach Larry before the police do; they think he’s leading the crime spree, and may kill him, if the gunman doesn’t do it first.
The character should have a personal stake in the crisis. Why? To increase the pressure on him, and to add complication he must cope with. The Bruce Willis character in Die Hard would have had less to worry about if his wife wasn’t among the hostages. He could have conceivably walked away from the situation in a way that would have been emotionally believable. Thus, it is Concrete’s best friend Larry I have kidnapped, rather than a sympathetic stranger.
Robert Heinlein wrote a wonderful story, "Water is for Washing", with a nice twist on the high-personal-stake idea. A man is struggling to save two children after a earthquake opens a channel from the sea to Death Valley, which is below sea level. The highest point he can’t get them to is six feet beneath the high-tide mark .. and he can’t swim. He’s deathly afraid of water (he saves them by strapping his legs to the four-foot elevation marker, and holding them on his shoulders).
What happens later should be set up in a way that doesn’t telegraph what will happen. Jim and Ken Wheat, screenwriter/directors who taught me much by example, used to call this “laying pipe”. The key is showing that leaky liquid nitrogen tank in some way that doesn’t tip off that it’s going to rupture, killing the villain. The most elegant way to do this is the phony payoff .. some event, gag or twist that seems to be the entire reason for paying attention to the tank. The reader is lulled into thinking the matter is closed, then you surprise him.
Surprise people. This may be obvious, but it is the soul of storytelling. As people consume story after story (or as in our culture, movie after movie), they become so sophisticated that, increasingly, they can tell what’s coming. The trick of having a relentless pursuer rise from apparent death has been so overdone that I think killing him “only once” would be a surprise at this point. The audience you are addressing have many of the same culture-derived expectations you do. Trick them now and again.
Reading great suspense writers is the way to learn this aspect of the craft. One of my favorites is Roderick Thorp, whose novel Nothing Lasts Forever became the film Die Hard. His characters have deep flaws, rich histories and sophisticated interior lives which keep them from becoming cogs in the suspense machine. You care about what happens to them. Cornell Woolrich is considered a master, as is Richard (Duel) Matheson. I haven’t read John Grisham, but I imagine he knows a few good tricks.
Harlan Ellison wrote a highly suspenseful story, “Free with This Box!”, which demonstrates that these techniques can apply to less than life-or-death situations. In it, a boy is desperate to complete his set of cartoon character buttons. They’re giveaways in boxes of Pep cereal, and the offer will son expire. Though told by his mother to wait in the car, this eats at him. He sneaks into the store and starts opening box after box, the threat of discovery ever escalating…
In line with this, a secondary problem for Larry in Killer Smile is finding a chance to urinate after downing several diet Cokes. With a killer toying with him, he’s unsure whether asking for relief might prompt a bullet to his brain. Any way you can increase the pressure on your character – even if the threat is embarrassment – is fair game.
Suspense may not be the highest artistic aim of writing, but it is a gift to your readers. It’s one thing that keeps them turning pages to discover your other qualities – insight into human behavior, appreciation for beauty, wit, grace, style. Or it can simply be great fun. To paraphrase my friend Mark Verheiden, suspense may be a twinkie on the smorgasbord of literature – but sometimes you want a twinkie.