How to Write Suspenseful Fiction: My Favorite “Bit”

First a flash: Salon Magazine just featured my article, How will The World End?… incorporating excerpts from my latest novel, Existence: Does the universe hate us? How many pitfalls lie ahead, waiting to shred our conceited molecule-clusters back into unthinking dust? Shall we count them? Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad — though we at Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all!  So adjust your AI-ware, your im-VR-sive wraparounds, your omnivision eyeptics and dive right in.

My colleague Mary Robinette Kowal – an excellent writer and a leader in the Science Fiction Writers of America – has started on her site a series “My Favorite Bit” in which  of authors are invited to talk about some particular moment of scene in their latest work that made them especially happy.

At Mary’s request, I threw together a short essay.  But it is less about my own work than one of the core aims of good fiction writing.  How to torment your readers just right, so that your story “hurts so good!”

With Marry’s permission, I’ll reprint it here:

Before I tell you about my “favorite bit” from the new novel EXISTENCE (June 2012),   I’d like to offer an aside — one piece of advice that I often give students of writing.

No matter what genre or style they want to create for a living, I recommend that new authors make their first major project a murder mystery.

The reason is simple.  All other genres let the author get away with flaws in plotting and suspense, by distracting the reader with genre-specific  razzle-dazzle, e.g. romantic tears or dying dragons or scifi tech-speak. But in a murder mystery, just one question is paramount; did the dramatic, whodunit revelation pay off?  Was it simultaneously both well foreshadowed and surprising?

Does the reader experience a pleasurable moment of shock and self-loathing? “It was all there and I just missed figuring it out! I’m sooooo stoooopid!” If that’s how your reader feels, at the crucial moment of whodunit disclosure, then she or he will buy your next book. That’s the wonderful, ironic fact.

Having done a murder mystery as my first novel (albeit one wherein the first victim gets dumped into the Sun), I always try to have one or more suspense arcs in every book — sometimes half a dozen, running in parallel. I also circulate my manuscripts-in-progress through up to fifty harsh pre-readers, as quality control, before ever letting the publisher’s editors see it.  And achieving that special “aha!” moment is the one thing I fret over, above all else.

Which brings us to my “favorite bit” from EXISTENCE. In fact, there are several such moments and all have been fine-tuned to wreak maximum sadistic tension and release from the customer. But one of them stands out.  It occurs when a diverse team of investigators have been interrogating an “alien artifact” in order to determine whether its passengers — virtual beings who claim to carry a message for Earth — are for real, or an elaborate hoax.  And, if they are truly alien, how much of their message to believe. This process of peeling away layer after layer of deception and truth makes up one major theme.

My favorite moment… and that of more than a dozen pre-readers… comes when a Russian member of the commission has a sudden epiphany. “My God, I don’t believe it.!  It’s a…”

And no.  I will not finish that sentence here.  Nor did I give it away in the fancy-schmancy lavish premier-trailer that renowned web artist Patrick Farley made for EXISTENCE.  A gorgeous 3-minute taste of the book that doesn’t give away any major spoilers, nor will I do so here.

But I’ve explained WHY it is my favorite bit. And why I always tell myself — even plunging into the heart of the sun or a distant galaxy — to write a mystery whodunit! And to make the surprised reader shout:

“Dammit, I shoulda seen that coming, suddenly it’s soooo obvious!”

And a few items for lagniappe….

And what if we are genetically “programmed”? One of the most common of these epigenetic changes involves a methyl group — one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms—binding to a nucleotide, usually cytosine. In general, this binding, called methylation, turns off the gene in question. The linked study found a significantly higher amount of cytosine methylation in the newborn than in the centenarian: 80.5% of all cytosine nucleotides, compared with 73%. To look at an intermediate case, the team also performed WGBS on the DNA of a 26-year-old male subject; the methylation level was also intermediate, about 78%.  Moreover, in the centenarian: The team identified nearly 18,000 so-called differentially methylated regions (DMRs) of the genome, covering many types of genes. More than a third of the DMRs occurred in genes that have already been linked with cancer risk. In contrast, the small number of genes in the centenarian that had greater methylation levels were often those that needed to be kept turned on to protect against cancer.

What bugs me about the discovery described above is what appears (in my reading) to be a very non-random trend. A steady decline in the protections against cancer… in BOTH methylation directions.  Almost as if it were not the result of damage, but rather, systematic programming.

***

hmmmm then, swinging toward the ridiculous — but on a wry, cynical and raunchy note — Stuff that must have happened: L.Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand… how they started.

Here’s one of a dozen reasons why I didn’t buy – and don’t intend to buy – Facebook stock.  Can anyone say Yahoooooo?

2 Comments

Filed under science fiction

2 responses to “How to Write Suspenseful Fiction: My Favorite “Bit”

  1. To write a mystery or to put that element into a story, do you use an outline, or do you discover the story as it goes along and then go back and rewrite? Any writer who can honestly say “neither” has a greater share of genius than ought to be allowed.

    Regarding the Rand/Hubbard video, at least the world got the Rush album, 2112, out of objectivism.

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