Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Paint by numbers: suspense!

I'm working on beefing up the suspense in my WIP. As many of you know, I've been revising this thing for years. YEARS. I've concentrated on the characters and the relationships and the angst . . . but this is a romantic thriller, and so far all my focus as been on the romance side, rather than the thriller side.

So I need to add more thrill. Or more specifically, I need to add some false trails. The thriller plot is good, it's just obvious. There are no clues to lead them the wrong way, paths with dead ends, or red herrings.

Think about some good mystery plots (either mystery/thriller novels, TV shows, or the mystery plot inside a good romantic suspense). They all have red herrings: those clues that pop out and scream "I"m important! Follow me!," but then don't actually lead to the truth.

For  instance, it's pretty obvious, early on in my WIP, that the bad guy is a middle-aged white guy. The problem? There's only one of those in the book. Obvious, right?  It's clear early on that a military general with a lot of power is pulling the strings. My villain is called "the General." Obvious, right?

So now I'm going back through and adding red herrings. Another middle-aged white guy, this time a gun-runner from South Africa, who is charming and funny . . . but could be the bad guy.

Another army dude, this time from the Spanish military instead of British. Easy to confuse the uniforms if you're not familiar with them. He could be the bad guy.

A thug named Neil who is also middle-aged and white, a driver who people talk in front of without thinking, who fixes problems for his bosses and is loyal no matter what he's ordered to do. He could be the bad guy.

It's all very fun to add in these characters, to weave their stories through the narrative, and mix them in with the more primary characters. And seeing how I was about 15,000 words short anyway, this is good. On the whole, I'm very pleased with these decisions.

But I can't help but feel like I'm cheating. Like this is a paint-by-numbers set, and I'm just filling in with the right color. I worry that it won't come together organically, that it will be obvious that these characters were tacked on at the end in order to throw off the reader.

Have you ever tried to add whole threads, plot-lines, and new characters to a finished book? How'd it go? Ever read a book where you could tell that's what had been done? Do you add red herrings to your suspense? Any suspense or thriller plot that particularly stands out in your mind as one where you didn't figure out the bad guy until the very last second?

36 comments:

Marnee Bailey said...

I haven't tried to add in an entire plot line/thread at the end. But, I have tried to string red herrings through books. :)

What I prefer is when you think it's one guy and then it turns out to be something else. So the whole time they're chasing one guy and then it turns out to be something else. In fact, I think most suspense novels are like that. Where they're thinking it is one thing and then it turns out to be something else entirely. I think it only works, though, if the author has trailed the hints throughout. Then the reader can go, Oh! Of course!!

As to suspense when I didn't know the bad guy.... I admit I'm annoying about this. I can usually pick out the bad guy pretty quickly. But in the movie "The Usual Suspects," I was completely fooled. You ever see that? Such a good movie!!

TerriOsburn said...

I admit, the idea of adding this many characters to a finished book makes me a bit queasy. More power to ya. I did finish an MS once and then realize I had to completely change one of the characters. What he looked like, his last name, his behavior and motivations. The changes made the book way better, though other parts still need work.

I don't have much suspense in my plots, but I find in the movies I like when it's the last person I would have suspected. Often someone who has appeared to be working on the good side the entire time.

Kiddo and I have a good time watching Castle and trying to figure out the mystery. We're often right, but then they'll throw a twist and we doubt our first guess.

Watched a Masterpiece mystery not long ago where the detectives didn't even figure it out. They just stumbled on the bad guys at the end who totally confessed. That was annoying, because there was no way to have guessed since the major details of the crime were kept a secret until the confession.

TerriOsburn said...

All that babbling and I didn't answer the questions! I do NOT think this sounds like paint by numbers. Let's get over that right now. We do what we need to do for the story. If your story needs these people, then you weave them in. The reader won't even notice.

If you do it well enough. ;)

haleigh said...

Marn, I love that movie! It's one of those that the moment you get to the end, you have to rewind it and watch it again just to see all the clues you missed. Brilliant suspense! I do agree that there must be clues left behind - the reader has to have had the *chance* to put it all together, otherwise the author isn't playing fair.

haleigh said...

Thank you Ter - I love your encouragement. It is a lot of characters to add.

I love Castle - such a fun show, and great who-done-it. And stumbling on the bad guy? No go for me either. Totally unfair!

Marnee Bailey said...

Hal, are you shooting for the GH this year?

By the way, I liked all these characters. I think they sound like fun. :)

MsHellion said...

I think there are a ton of books where things were woven in later and still came off as organic. I don't think it will come off as paint by numbers, any more than thrillers already are in a sense. Basically we know it's never going to be the guy you think. That's nearly always true, right? That's what makes thrillers "predictable"--you know it can't be the guy you're thinking so you look for other clues instead.

I'm totally the reader you want because I never figure this shit out until the end. It makes me crazy. And I even know how it works and I still don't figure it out.

What I have noticed also is that you meet this guy--or the hero usually meets the bad guy--early on, in the first 10-25% of the book. Even Harry Potter met Professor Quirrell at Tom's bar when he went to Diagon Alley. But you never think of it until the end when he's revealed because we're too busy looking at Snape the whole time.

I think you'll be fine. I think this is normal. Magicians do a LOT of work to make it all look effortless and doing all the work sorta loses the magic for them--and I think this is what it is. When you write and get better at writing, it takes more to impress you when you read other writers, I think.

P. Kirby said...

Even Harry Potter met Professor Quirrell at Tom's bar when he went to Diagon Alley.

J.K. Rowlings in really good at the misdirection thing. E.g., she introduced one baddie, Peter Pettigrew, aka Scabbers, in book one, and didn't let him get into mischief until Prisoner of Azkaban.

For me, plotlines that limit the "obvious" suspects to two, maybe three, characters work best, possibly because of my limited capacity for detail. There may be a other peripheral suspects, but usually there are two who I think must be the perps. Ultimately, the villain may be someone else, but mystery/suspense/thrillers work better if the story isn't throwing too many characters (and red herrings) at me.

I think it's possible to generate suspense even if it's screamingly obvious who the villain is. The suspense can be derived from a "how in the hell are the protagonists going to prevail?" aspect. Impossible odds and whatnot.

But romantic suspense may require a certain structure. (?) Either way, I don't see any problem with heavy revision, including the addition of new characters and plotlines. Whatever works.

haleigh said...

Great example of misdirection, Hellie! And I agree that it's never the most obvious person, so we do already have some sense of who it is (or isn't).

I love your point about magicians losing the magic in all the work to make it look magical. I think it's a quite similar thing. I was actually worrying that maybe if they're "meant to be in the book" you'd think of their character early on, that I'm just over complicating the matter. But sometimes, it just needs more work to make it look magical.

MsHellion said...

Takes a lot of work and practice to make something look simple. Even cooking or sewing can give that illusion. There are things I do now that I take for granted that others would be impressed by--"Dude, I just fried an egg." "But it was the BEST egg!" It's still a skill; there's still a learning curve. Maybe inserting characters automatically comes later after you've made a lot of omelets, you know?

haleigh said...

Pat - I agree. I get confused with too many characters, and don't appreciate the villain being some guy who walked on stage for five minutes 23 chapters ago.

And I think you're absolutely right that you can have suspense, even knowing who the bad guys is. You don't know how far he'll go, or how far the protagonists will go, so there can still be tons of tension and suspense. As long as the reader is still turning the page, right?

MsHellion said...

Pat, I was so impressed with JK Rowling when I realized she introduced the broken cabinet in Book 2 and used it again in Book 6. I was like, "Did she know she was going to do that the WHOLE time?" I can't think she knew at book 2, but maybe it came up later as a viable option. Or maybe she knew it the whole time. She did spend several years writing the first one and creating the world.

Janga said...

What you're doing just sounds like revisions to me, Hal, and your eyes are probably the only ones that will be able to detect the changes you made.

No suspense in my stories either, although I appreciate the skill in other writers. I thought the ending of Nora's The Witness was brilliant, and that was one where the reader knew the bad guys. One of the villains in Manda Collins's latest, How to Romance a Rake, caught me totally by surprise.

haleigh said...

Maybe inserting characters automatically comes later after you've made a lot of omelets, you know?

I never thought of it like that, but you're right. Building a cast of characters is a skill that grows with practice, just like writing dialog or sex scenes.

Or hell, maybe I'm just the kind of writer who needs to start with the two main characters, write their story, and then branch out and build in other characters. Maybe it's just a kooky process and I shouldn't get worked up about it :) (not that I easily get worked up about things that aren't really things at all . . . no one would do that . . .)

haleigh said...

Thanks Janga. I love your recommendations - I haven't read that Nora book yet, so I should if it'll give me a good sense of how to stay suspenseful, even if the identify of the villain is known. I'll have to look for that one of Manda's too!

TerriOsburn said...

Great point by Pat that you can build suspense and tension even if the bad guy is obvious. Though Nora threw a twist into one of her suspense where the reader learns at the very end that the bad guy isn't really caught and moves on to continue the evilness. I think it's Divine Evil. Or Carnal Innocence. Janga will know!

I think it's often the case that the main characters come to us and give us hints to their stories, and then along the way we realize there are other characters that we need. So long as you get them on the page, doesn't matter when they show up.

haleigh said...

You're so right, Terri! I always start with the main characters, so it's no surprise that the very minor characters (like the ones I'm adding now) don't come to me until much later in the process.

Maureen said...

I think you might be mixing up straight mystery and romantic suspense. Most of the romsus I read, you do know who the baddies are. It's more the tension is how the hell are they going to survive the baddies, then a who dun it. I read a ton of mysteries and they are centered around who dun it.

Well, the reader knows who dun it, but the main characters don't always...but with mystery usually no one knows but the writer...

As for adding stuff? I added 20k of a side story to my first completed book. It was too short, I needed something to connect 'home' to what was going on at sea, because in later books this 'home' would be important, so I set a side story at home. Is it obvious I added it on? I really don't know. I've read the whole book thru a few times and I think it worked...

Maureen said...

I killed the blog again! What is it with me? I have the Midas death touch?

There it was ticking along and I open my big mouth and *bam!* ...

TerriOsburn said...

Relax! It's only been 20 minutes since your last comment. Sheesh. We gots stuff to do, ya know.

But I do think she's right. Thinking back to when I read a lot more RS, I almost always knew who the bad guy was, but the characters didn't. Or didn't know how to stop them, hence running for their lives.

You have more of a thriller element, right? Don't read much of those but I'd think the evilness of the bad guy would be much more important than keeping him a secret.

haleigh said...

Haha. It's lunch time on the East Coast. Or at least, my excuse is that I'm eating lunch.

You are right that mystery and suspense are two distinct genres with a lot of differences, and mine is most certainly a suspense. Even still, I'd like to keep the villain's identity hidden as long as possible - I want it to surprise the reader. We'll see if it works!

Maureen said...

Nothing wrong with mixing things up... I'm trying to really think about what romsus I've read... I think part of the suspense involved being in the villains POV and knowing how diabolical he/she was...what they planned, etc, upped the suspense and tension.

Kudos to you if you can do that and keep that identity a mystery to the reader!

P. Kirby said...

Of the two--mystery vs. suspense/thriller--suspense has the most leeway with the perp reveal. As in, you can have a straightforward, here's the baddie, here's the ticking clock, stop him/her before times runs out, approach. Or the perp's identity may be part of the race against time. Or...as Terri mentioned upthread, the perp may be someone else--misdirection.

But any genre can have an element of suspense/mystery. My WIP is a romantic space opera with superhero elements. There's a mystery element in that the hero was betrayed years before and is still being manipulated by that person. So basically, he can't trust anyone. And yeah, I'm tying myself in knots trying to get this plot to behave. There will be revision; it will be ugly.

Janga said...

It's Divine Evil, Ter. The ending creeped me out so much that I took the book to the UBS immediately. I didn't want it in my house, and it's the rare NR I've never reread. The baddie in Carnal Innocence was a shocker too.

TerriOsburn said...

That's what I thought. Went and checked out the blurb for Carnal Innocence to make sure I have the right one and I think I actually figured that one out. But it was still well done.

Maureen said...

A romantic space opera with superhero elements.

Is there anywhere else but in writing, or comic books, that can be stated with a straight face and no one raises an eyebrow?

The agent I queried about Almost Human said it sounded like a space opera but one that takes place on earth. There is a ship, but it's an underwater ship...

I do agree, Pat. I sorta need some mystery in most everything I read, personal, private or public.

MsHellion said...

See, I understand that, but I need some romance in most everything I read: personal, private, or public. *LOL* :)

Maureen said...

Yeah, that works, too, Hel!

haleigh said...

haha. this must be why I write so much romantic suspense - I want them both!

Marnee Bailey said...

haha. this must be why I write so much romantic suspense - I want them both!

I love both too. For me, I feel like the stakes have to be high. Like, I'm about to die, high. Or something like that. :)

TerriOsburn said...

Funny. I never feel that.

Maureen said...

You're not going to start putting down your genre, are you, Terri? You know, because you're not fighting aliens, or dodging bullets or about to die with your characters?

*glares

Dont. You. Dare.

TerriOsburn said...

No worries. Not doing that at all. I'm much more interested in broken hearts than broken world-saving plots. :) Not to say there's anything wrong with those...

Maureen said...

Good. Because a world is a world, whether it's a planet sized world or a small town sized...

Maureen said...

Oh, yeah...and Hal? No, I don't think it's paint by numbers to fiddle and add and revise like this... No more than any other writing is!

Marnee Bailey said...

I agree with Mo, I don't think adding characters, especially when they're interesting like this, is paint by numbers either. It's enriching and adding depth.