I can’t remember where I read this anecdote. It was in one of the how-to-write books on my shelf, and illustrates how not to create suspense. This was back in the days of magazine serials. At the end of one episode, an author had trapped his hero at the bottom of a pit. (In the jungle, one must assume.) The pit was carefully described as having walls that were too steep and too high for the hero ever to be able to climb. That was the cliffhanger.
For a week, readers were chewing on their fingernails. How on earth was the hero ever going to escape? The author had finally done it. After numerous episodes and hair-raising dangers, he had finally trapped his hero in an absolutely impossible predicament. The pit had been carefully described: There was no possible way for him to escape.
When the new issue of the magazine arrived, the next episode began as follows: “With a mighty effort, he leaped out of the pit.”
Arrggh! This is cheating. No matter how dire a predicament you put your hero or heroine in, the method by which he or she escapes must be planted somewhere earlier in the story. You don’t get to just wave your magic pen and have the problem go away. Cutting corners is not allowed.
This anecdote came to mind today as I drafted what I hope will be a terrifyingly suspenseful episode in my soon-to-be-finished fantasy epic. I’m now 3/4 of the way through Book IV, and yes, the thrills and chills are mounting to an ever higher level.
My heroine has just fallen off of a cliff. Certain death, right? At the end of the scene, she is tumbling toward the sharp rocks below. And now I’m going to leave that scene for a few pages while I update you on the troubles some of the other characters are having.
Of course, readers will know she isn’t actually going to die. That’s a given. (Although, to be fair, two other good guys have died in the preceding scene. Bad things are happening.) There seems, as far as the reader can discern, to be no possible way for her to survive the fall. And yet, she will survive.
How? Do I want to spoil the suspense for you? You might read the book someday, so I’ll be a little coy. Let’s just say she has a super-power, but it’s a super-power she doesn’t even know she has. I’m going to pull a rabbit out of my hat. The origin of the super-power is clear back in Book II, and a few paragraphs before she tumbles off of the cliff she recalls the scene in which something unexplained happened. Specifically, there’s a scene in which several people were magically transformed, each in a different way, but it appears nothing happened to my heroine in that scene. Except, something did happen.
I’m hoping I can get away with it. But it makes me nervous. It smells a little bit like, “With a mighty effort, he leaped out of the pit.”