Creative Writing and Plot: How Does Urgency Affect Suspense?

pocket-watch-2-746930-mThis week we’ve been discussing suspense in creative writing. Today, I thought it would fun to explore the topic of urgency in creating and maintaining suspense.

How necessary is urgency to keep readers flipping pages? What role does genre play in whether readers will feel bored if you don’t give your characters a sense of urgency?

URGENCY AND TIME

The first thing a writer realizes when thinking about urgency is its relation to time.

Something urgent doesn’t have to be important (though it can be). Importance doesn’t factor into how urgent something is.

No, urgency is all about time and timing: a great example to demonstrate this is the third episode of the BBC show “Sherlock.” (No spoilers ahead, I promise!)

In this episode, someone is kidnapping people, one after another. Sherlock is given a number of hours–varying from 8 to around 12–to solve a crime, or a time bomb strapped to the current victim will go off.

The time bombs–the countdowns, the deadlines to give a solution–create a real sense of urgency for the viewer by throwing time into the equation. Sherlock doesn’t merely have to come up with the right answer. He has to come up with the right answer BEFORE THE BOMB BLOWS.

Could the writers have used a similar plot, but without the bombs? Could the villain have kidnapped these people, one by one, and instead of strapping explosives to them, have said he would release his victims after Sherlock has proved his brilliance?

Yes. But the episode’s tone would have been different. The storyline would have been less gripping. Rather than a few hours, Sherlock could have taken his merry old time. As long as he solved the crimes before the kidnapped people starved or died from dehydration, he’d be fine.

DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE URGENCY TO HAVE SUSPENSE?

Urgency can certainly add to suspense. It can be a large factor in crafting suspense, as in the example above. But is it a requirement?

How much your readers will expect urgency, will be disappointed or bored if you don’t provide it, depends largely on your genre: a thriller needs LOTS of suspense, much more than a standard murder mystery a la Agatha Christie.

You can write an epic fantasy and include a plot with an aspect of urgency, but you can also craft a brilliant fantasy without much urgency at all. The same goes for historical novels, for all kinds of genres.

The best current example I can think of that demonstrates suspense without urgency comes from “Once Upon a Time,” a retelling of classic fairy tales on ABC. (Again, I won’t give spoilers).

In one episode, the Evil Queen, determined to kill Snow White, disguises herself with magic as a peasant and goes out to find Snow, so she can kill her unawares.

There is no time limit to the spell or the queen’s plan. When the queen does find Snow, there is no sense of urgency: there is nothing requiring her to act quickly, to kill Snow NOW or lose the chance to kill her.

Even though there is no urgency, there is still a lot of suspense. The viewer knows the queen is Snow’s companion, while Snow is oblivious (dramatic irony at its best…. We discussed dramatic irony yesterday).

The viewer keeps wondering: when will the queen act? Will she act? Will she change her mind? What is going on, and how will this all end?

The funny thing is, the scene is a flashback. It has a lot of tension even though the viewer knows Snow survives the encounter…. No matter what the queen might attempt, Snow has to survive because she’s still alive in the present day.

The entire time Snow was with the queen I found myself tense and engaged, even though there was nothing urgent about it, and even though the suspense was subdued because of the known outcome.

Even if you’ve never seen “Once Upon a Time,” I hope you can envision the moment that drags on for a good ten minutes: Snow facing her deadly enemy, thinking the queen is a woman she rescued and is utterly harmless.

SOMETIMES, IN A TENSE MOMENT, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT CAN TAKE PRECEDENCE OVER URGENCY

All writers understand that when action is required, plot and action take over. They become the focus.

When a problem or threat turns urgent, character development generally takes a back seat. There are some exceptions to this, of course–Harry Potter refusing to ever cast a killing curse, even at Voldemort, characterizes him in the midst of climactic action scenes– but generally, urgency means ACTION.

The scene I described above from “Once Upon A Time” is a great example of cutting out urgency to throw focus on character development, while still maintaining tension and suspense of a type.

Since the queen has no urgent need to kill Snow when she finds her, she can take things slowly. Snow has a chance to talk to her. A chance to perhaps touch her heart.

You see, Snow’s heart is always pure. So just by talking to the queen, Regina,Β  in disguise, that purity comes out. This allows a great chance for writers to develop the queen’s character.

Will Regina change her plans? Will Snow touch her heart? What does it say about Regina if Snow does, or doesn’t?

The viewer knows Regina doesn’t kill Snow…. But why not? Does the queen change her mind, or does Snow stop her? Does Snow realize who she is and escape, or does Regina leave her in peace? Might Regina try, and fail, to kill her stepdaughter?

THAT is what the viewer doesn’t know, and how Snow’s survival comes about has large implications for Regina’s character. Perhaps, for her future chances of redemption.

Here, cutting back on urgency throws focus on heart, goodness, and character. That episode of “Once Upon a Time” is one of my favorites, and for good reason.

So, what are your thoughts about urgency and suspense? How much tension do you like or need, as a reader, to stay engaged? When, in your mind, does a surplus of action, and forced urgency, begin to feel gimmicky?

If you enjoyed this post, you can read part one of the suspense series (discussing two kinds of suspense) here.

If I can think of a way to continue our discussion on suspense, I’ll write another post about the topic for next time (Sunday). Oftentimes your comments get me thinking from a different point of approach and expand my horizons.

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24 responses to “Creative Writing and Plot: How Does Urgency Affect Suspense?

  1. Urgency in a scene can be a great tool to impress drama and suspense on the reader but if it is used too much it can leave the reader feeling like they are trying to watch a movie that’s going in fast forward. Writers should use urgency as a tool to enhance suspense and drama, but there is a line when it becomes too much.

    • So, so true!!! I touch on that in a post I wrote yesterday, the next in a series: it’s all about the gimmicks that make suspense not work as well as it could. Overuse is definitely one of them. πŸ™‚ That’s so important for writers to realize!

  2. You have given me a good idea here, had some trouble with character development as the book is more action packed, and the re-write seemed like a humangous mountain of a task… but now… I think I may have an approachto my problem.

  3. Miss Alexandrina

    Really interesting post πŸ™‚ As a murder mystery writer (like you, I got hooked on Agatha Christie’s Poirot as a child), I really appreciate that you’ve tied the urgency to tone here. One of the things I find hardest when writing mystery is that the tone often doesn’t fit. I don’t really write thrillers, so I have to find the right ‘softer’ mystery without removing the urgency.

    In the Once Upon a Time episode, I think there was possibly more tension because we knew Snow would survive; I tend to sit on the edge of my seat waiting for the pivot moment leading to the end of the flashback.

    • That’s a great point: the tension is “what event will bring all this back to how we know things are now: Regina and Snow both alive, still hating each other?”

      It’s a very unique and enthralling kind of suspense, I agree! Man, I LOVE that show!

  4. Very informative. I do notice that urgency tends to be associated with time, but from what you’re saying it has more to do with a looming threat. That threat can be taking its time to appear or have no actual schedule. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of ‘Jurassic Park’ where they have to get off the island and it’s more a matter of doing it ASAP than by a certain time.

    I think suspense can be great for character development. You get to see what characters do under pressure or in tense situations. Do they break or rise to the occasion? I love it when situations like this test the morals of a character to the point where the reader doesn’t know if they’ll break their personal code or not.

  5. This has made me think about a simple tool I was taught for prioritising tasks, in which you treat urgency – how soon something needs doing – and importance as separate things. The reason for teaching this is that we often confuse the two, focussing on things that are immediate when it might be better to focus on less urgent, more important ones.
    The thing I’ve taken from this as a writer is that either the importance of something or its immediacy can motivate a character, and so create tension. When the two come together that can create greater tension, because something is both important and immediate. But there’s also a tension that can be built in setting the two against each other, in showing the hero responding to immediate events rather than looking at the bigger, slower, more important picture, or letting things that need immediate attention slide by because they’re grappling with some greater task.

    • that’s a fantastic point. i too was taught to evaluate tasks based on urgency and importance, because they are very different and mean distinct things. Making them coincide is a really great way to amp up tension! So is forcing them apart…. I love that point! Make a hero pick importance or urgency…. WOW.

      That goes back to the “family vs work” dynamic that appears in lots of movies…. will the workaholic dad miss a deadline, or push one back, to attend his son’s baseball game?

  6. Excellent post. Tweeted

  7. you definitely had me curious, almost urgently so πŸ˜‰ from here –

    “Something urgent doesn’t have to be important (though it can be). Importance doesn’t factor into how urgent something is….”

    a nice distinction i hadn’t been able to formulate; glad you had lots of examples! particularly in re to “knowing” who Snow’s friend was (Regina) and, that Snow would survive, yet still remain anchored, as a reader/viewer into the story, because of wanting to know how and why

    so, i wanna know, is your “maybe” having another article in this line, “if” you think of something, part of the suspense?

    best wishes πŸ˜‰

  8. For the record, I loved that episode of Sherlock. And yes, urgency creates a great read if it’s written write. Thanks for talking about that here!

  9. I really enjoyed reading this blog. It answered lots of writing questions for me and I think suspense that builds to a sense of urgency really makes a novel exciting.

    • Glad you liked the post! I think you hit the nail of the head when you talk about “building to a sense of urgency.” That’s really what it’s all about and one of the ways suspense works best.

  10. Pingback: Creative Writing Reflection: Suspense Gimmicks to Avoid | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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