Friday, November 9, 2012

Five Things NOT to Do in Suspense or Speculative Fiction

I've been reading more lately and I've noticed some things that turn me off of suspense/speculative stories. Both lesser-known and bestselling authors have used these tricks, so it's not just a newbie thing at all.

1. Don't hide things from the reader just to make up for a slow-moving plot.

While it's true we don't want to tell our readers everything that's coming before it happens, at the same time if there is something they need to know that DID happen, tell them. When I was in college, my writing professor called this "false suspense."

Example: A spy novel where a package is delivered, its contents examined, and great hullabaloo ensues, but we are not told for five chapters what those contents actually are. I, for one, stop caring.

2. Don't jump around in time and POV too much just to make up for a slow plot.

I suppose I could call this "false excitement" but it really is "disorientation." Back and forth we hop, from the action from the hero's point of view, to a few months earlier from the spy's point of view in which he is contemplating a run-in with a Columbian drug lord that has nothing whatsoever to do with the current situation (trust me, it really has nothing to do with it), back to the girlfriend's point-of-view in the action, then to her reliving a conversation with the hero at lunch last week.

I could see maybe in a very tense, critical moment when you need to diffuse things or the characters really are caught up in their own heads in order to avoid dealing with the crisis in front of them, but not as a regular pattern through the whole book.

 3. Don't make your hero so troubled that I don't like him or her.

This seems to be a trending fault in fantasy, and probably science fiction as well though I don't read much of it. In the effort to be gritty, authors create protagonists that come off as selfish and unlikeable. I don't care how bad his childhood was or how much danger he's in, if he acts like a jerk he's a jerk. Which leads me to the next one.

4. Don't give your protagonist such a gruesome backstory that it distracts from the current situation.

Again, the effort to be "gritty" has produced some really, really horrible setups. Am I the only person left in the world who is not immune to the horrors of rape, incest, torture, brandings, beatings, severe emotional abuse, abandonment, etc. etc. etc.? If you bring these things into the story you have to deal with them, and that means your reader must as well.

Your characters also have to deal with them, and if the characters are dealing with them, they're not able to function well. I get that not functioning well is the purpose; that you're challenging them. Okay. But when everyone is running around all traumatized and bloody before the story even really gets going, then it's not a place I want to be for 300 pages.

Maybe that's just a matter of personal taste, but if everyone in your story is tense, cranky and miserable, then I'm tense, cranky and miserable. At least put in a character for comic relief to break the tension. 

5. Don't make the pace so relentless that I stop caring what happens

There is a difference between an exciting read and an exhausting one. Something that good writers do well is pacing. Break things up with a little humor or romance between the confrontations. It doesn't have to be a lot. I'm not suggesting that you turn your hero into a sissy or your heroine into some jokey schoolgirl, but humor and affection are how real people cope with life. If your book doesn't have that, then your characters stop feeling like real people to me.

Do you agree or disagree? What are your pet peeves in genre fiction?


  1. Great list. I like it when the protagonist has a gruesome backstory. Those are the kinds of books I read and write. But like you said, not everyone should be like that. And you need to find a balance between the dark and hope, or else I won't keep reading.

  2. Pretty good rules.
    Of course, rules are always made to be broken ;)
    My fave is #1. I used to hide a lot of things. In fact, in my current WIP, my MC is dead and slowly remembering his past. The trick is really figuring how and when to reveal backstory.
    In previous works, I've hidden things that then become ridiculous (like the fact that 2 girls were identical twins).
    By revealing it earlier, it made things work better.

  3. Andrew, backstory is one thing. I agree that takes some - no, a lot of! - finesse.

    What I'm talking about here is plot points that there really is no reason to conceal other than stringing the reader along when the rest of the story is weak.


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