We often think of suspense as the province of the thriller, where a nuclear bomb is about to go off in downtown Los Angeles and the guy who’s defusing the bomb is stuck in traffic. But suspense is an important part of almost all novels, as well as memoirs and nonfiction narratives.
Alfred Hitchcock said, “Suspense is the state of waiting for something to happen.”
You want your readers to keep reading because they can’t wait to find out what happens next.
One way to create that suspense is by weaving multiple storylines together. That’s what I’ll be talking about on October 22 at Book Passage.
If you read novels or watch movies or TV shows, you already know this formula. It’s used extensively on crime shows — think “Law and Order.” The show starts with a couple of unrelated stories, but you know the stories are going to bump into each other.
What I’m doing in this workshop is taking this colliding-plot formula apart and putting it back together in a step-by-step way so you can deliberately weave multiple storylines to maximize suspense.
I’ll be mapping out the plotlines of Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s brilliant 1987 novel about New York City, and my own novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico. (You need not have read either of these books.)
The protagonist in Bonfire of the Vanities is Sherman McCoy, a white, late-thirties bond trader who makes a million dollars a year, but is hemorrhaging money — on his Park Avenue coop, his wife’s extravagant decorating, his daughter’s private school, his Mercedes. The story kicks into high gear when he drives that Mercedes to JFK to pick up his mistress and they get lost in the Bronx. He has to get out of his car to move a tire in the road, and sees two young black kids approaching. One asks, “Yo, need some help?” Assuming they’re predators, he throws the tire at them, jumps in the car — his mistress has taken the wheel — and as she fishtails away, she hits one of the boys. Or does she? Sherman hears a thunk. They escape.
Back home, Sherman sweats over the next few days, checking the paper for news of an accident, wondering if he should go to the police.
Meanwhile, in Harlem, a black minister named Reverend Reginald Bacon is feeling the heat because the Episcopal Church has given him $300,000 to build a daycare center and the money’s gone and construction hasn’t started. So when Annie Lamb, the mother of Henry Lamb, the hit-and-run victim, comes to him for help, he sees an opportunity to change the conversation, call attention to racial injustice.
Annie Lamb is afraid to go to the police because she has parking tickets, but her son is in the hospital in a coma and he got a partial license plate on the Mercedes that hit him. Reverend Bacon gets up on his soapbox. “Suppose Henry Lamb was a white man, struck down by a black driver,” he asks.
There’s an old storytelling adage that you should get your protagonist up in a tree and then throw rocks at him. Keep the trouble coming, and your readers will keep turning the pages. The crux of this plot-colliding strategy is that you’re throwing rocks at the protagonist even when he or she is not on stage. It’s as if your protagonist has a musical theme, and when you’re following other characters’ stories, you hear a faint refrain of that riff.
Here’s Sherman’s storyline mapped out.
Then we add Reverend Bacon’s story.
And then there’s a third storyline — Bronx Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer is still high from a recent conviction and he’s lusting after one of the jurors, the woman with the brown lipstick. He and his boss are on the lookout for the “great white defendant” — black victim, white assailant — to help make them look more evenhanded to their primarily black and Latino constituency. Kramer learns from the police about the Bronx hit-and-run victim in the hospital and then goes to Bacon and promises they’ll track down the Mercedes.
At this point, Sherman does not know about Reverend Bacon or Larry Kramer or Henry Lamb, the hit-and-run victim, or that his license plate was partially ID’d, but the reader does.
One more layer. A drunk, broke has-been British reporter, Peter Fallows, whose main goal every day is to figure out who he can cadge drinks and dinner from at his favorite watering hole, interviews Annie Lamb, the mother of the hit-and-run victim. It’s a front-page story in his paper, the City Light.
Sherman reads the story in the paper and he panics.
What’s so powerful about this colliding-plot formula is that you’re telling two stories at once. When we’re following Peter Fallows, we’re seeing him find his journalistic footing again, and write some compelling stories. Redeeming himself. That’s one story. At the same time, he’s pushing the Sherman story forward, even though he doesn’t know who Sherman is.
Peter Fallows, Reverend Bacon, Larry Kramer — they all have their own hungers and hurdles. They don’t know or care about Sherman McCoy per se, but the more trouble they cause for him, the brighter their star shines.
It’s enough to make the reader sympathetic to an arrogant bastard like Sherman McCoy, or at least want to know what’s going to happen to him next.
Hope to see you on October 22. You’re welcome to bring your own plots. We’ll have some time to brainstorm about ways to amp up the suspense in your narrative by weaving in additional storylines.