July 23, 2015
I had an interesting conversation yesterday afternoon with a Swedish agent who has, somewhat to her surprise, become a big fan of romance novels. She’s in town for a Romance convention, and is particularly looking forward to the panels on writing; she says she hopes to learn how to help non-romance writers achieve in their books what good romance writers do – with such apparent ease – in theirs. And what’s that?
High stakes. The sense that THIS person is the only person in the world for you, that without THIS person you will be miserable forever or at least condemned to live a life that is thinner and emptier than the true life for which you are destined. And the further understanding that if you miss THIS train, if THAT letter is delivered, if Benjamin cannot stop the wedding, if Sam doesn’t play “As Time Goes By,” if Bridget doesn’t stumble out into the snow in her sneakers and terrible sweater, all will be lost. Those stakes create suspense; they make the reader care, sometimes care terribly, about the outcome of each event: They keep the reader reading.
In theory, mystery writers should have no trouble creating this kind of reader engagement. After all, the genre deals with life and death, with freedom and imprisonment — how much higher can the stakes get? And yet, when I’m reading manuscripts, what I find myself scribbling in the margin, so often, is “Make it more important!!!” It’s as though having decided to deal with the big, suspenseful issues – will the character live or die? – the writer figures the suspense is taken care of, and none of the plot-points along the way need to carry any of the burden.
Not true. I don’t mean to ding mystery in particular for this – we certainly don’t have a monopoly on the problem – but it’s the genre I know best. And I know that the agent is right: We could indeed benefit from taking a leaf from Romance. Make EVERY choice count. Modulate the mattering, of course – outside of a heavy-metal concert, there’s nothing duller than relentless top volume. But it might be useful to start by ratcheting it up. I suspect that suspense is the opposite of salt: It’s a lot easier to dial it back, if you’ve got too much going on, than it is to add savor and excitement to something that was bland from the git-go.