Monday, May 16, 2011

Mind of Babes

I and many of my fellow writers are afflicted with a terrible disorder:  writer-side-stuck-onia. That is, the inability to shut off the writer half of their brain in any situation--be it serious like a funeral or mundane like a hard day at work. 

Raise your hand if you've ever caught yourself dissecting a book's plot, a movie's plausibility, someone's conversation as inappropriately-worded dialogue. Go on, raise your hands.

Yep. I'm sorry, but most of you are already terminal.

In that train of thought, about a week ago, I was babysitting a toddler boy around three years old. We had played a few games already with bubbles, Play-Doh and the like. I ran out of games, of course. Mostly because I was bored, not the boy. 

One of his playsets is a castle, with multiple doors, gates, and trapdoors. Since this child loves peek-a-boo, I put my hands at the back of the castle, scratched at the doors, and then poked my fingers out of the opening with fake growling sounds. The boy squealed of course as any child abruptly "booed" and then grinned. He liked being scared, as most of us do.

No, this is not a foray into Family Files. I'm going somewhere with this. Promise.

Since I have writer-side-stuck-onia, I of course thought of this situation with my writer's side murmuring.

My fingers were not scary, per say. In the situation, the boy was perfectly safe and in no danger. Why did it startle him? The actual "monster" was nothing at all, but the tension built before the monster appeared with my scratching (foreshadow) and the anticipation (suspense) of my fingers' reappearance.

Hmm. Looks like a writer formula for success.  If you warn the reader of impending doom/danger for the character, and then mingle it with the villain/monster/obstacle's arrival, you create tension.  Using it in scenes that need tension should then allow each scene to draw the reader forward. Breaking it down:

Foreshadow + Suspense = Tension.

And any good formula can be tested. Let's see:

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship

Foreshadow: Gandalf warns of Black Rider arrival +
Suspense:  Black Rider appears on the path =
Tension:   Race to the dock with Black Riders chasing. (My  heart was pounding)

Firefly: Bushwacked

Foreshadow: Wander through derelict ship, everything left behind +
Suspense:  Find a host of dead bodies =
Tension:  Someone/something jumps out at one of the characters. (I nearly screamed)

This formula seems to work for me. Check out your favorite books or movies, and the scenes that left you feeling bound up in knots of dread and fear. Dissect them. I'll bet you can find the same formula. 

Prove me wrong.