Explosions are a great way to get your readers’ attention. They can move a story forward, push an unlikely hero into action, and usher in a perfect plot twist. But not all explosions are literally bombs going off. Some are just shocking bits of information or surprise events. Some are devastating revelations. And some are ticking time bombs counting down the seconds.
Enjoy my quick infographic to help identify the perfect points of impact!
One of my favorite things in the world is when you get to the end of a chapter, a TV episode, or a movie installment of a serial and your mind screams, “This can’t be the end!”
Watching he screen turn black as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia barely escape the grips of Darth Vader and regroup, knowing Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and on his way to Jabba, my heart breaks. I ache. It will be three years before the Jedi returns to save the rebels. I vow that I will be first in line on that day.
…Or it will be next fall before I see if Ducky survives his heart attack. Or it will be next week before I know if Monroe is executed.
That’s what I love about books. There is always “one more chapter” as I tell myself at 2:30 in the morning. After all, how can I sleep soundly when the heroine of the story is about to walk into the coliseum to face the lions? No matter how much faith you may have in the author, you have to see the poor girl through.
“Just because they’re fictional characters doesn’t mean they’re not real,” I told a reader friend the other day. We laughed. But we understand each other. Readers are invested.
My friend asked me about my writing, too. “So when you’re writing, do you plan out the chapter breaks, or do you go back and divide the story into chapters later?”
I told him that I love to write episodically. I work very hard to leave every chapter at the apex of the roller-coaster. That’s the tingly sensation I crave, and I’m not alone.
Yes, I meant to write it like that. I want you to get to the end of the scene and whisper, “Just one more chapter,” a dozen times a night.
“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” -Oscar Wilde
Or, How My Favorite Stories Have Ruined My Life
I recently took a trip to Dallas for a team training event. One afternoon our team was meeting in our hotel room for a quick chat, when it was discovered that our bathroom ceiling was leaking—a lot. We called down to the front desk and reported the situation, and the manager assured us that they were moving us to the room next door right away.
As my roommates and I began to gather our things, I quietly mentioned to one of the other women that I hoped someone was going to check on the guests upstairs. I told her that as a suspense writer, my brain immediately jumped to the possibility of a body in the bathtub above us. My friend agreed—her husband is a police officer, and she knew exactly what I meant.
Unfortunately, the very young hotel steward that arrived to move us next door overheard our concerns, and started to panic about the suggestion. My roommate volunteered to accompany her on the upstairs visit, and it was discovered that the guest above had over-filled his tub and the pipe at the over-flow drain had a crack in it. Everyone was fine. No dead body. That was last month.
This week I was watching an episode of one of my favorite TV shows, and as the story began to resolve, I kept my hands clutched together and held my breath. You see, they had solved the decades-cold crime, caught the bad guy they’d been chasing for several seasons, and all that was left was for the leads to kiss. So I waited for the sniper to strike, or the tables to turn, or the other shoe to drop, or whatever was about to happen to ruin everything.
My darling husband just looked at me and shook his head. “You can’t even enjoy this happy ending, because NCIS and all those other shows you watch have conditioned you to expect something bad at the end.”
He’s right. I never expect happy endings anymore.After all, how can the story go on if there is nobody in peril. My favorite books are Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Francine Rivers, Pamela Fagan Hutchins, and Terry Blackstock. My favorite TV shows are NCIS, Castle, Person of Interest, and the like. My favorite movie is Charade. I like cliff-hangers. I like twists and turns. I love the thing you don’t see coming.
I saw a quote the other day: The suspense is terrible; I hope it lasts.
Yes. This is my life’s motto now. It’s wonderful for a story, but terrible for day-to-day digestion.
That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors. His ability to pull his audiences to the edge of their seats always impresses me. He employed his understanding of basic human nature to raise our fears and speed our heart rates.
He mastered the art of mystery and suspense to the point of becoming the standard to which every director strives. He constructed his stories with the precise mixtures of humor, horror, and humanity to keep us all holding our breaths.
He had a theory that when you let your audience know a secret, they become engaged and involved. They cheer and hiss like the viewers of a melodrama.
I remember watching an interview with him, and he spoke about placing a bomb in a scene. He said that if you conceal the bomb under the desk, and have it explode without warning, you get a sudden reaction of terror and fear, but then it’s over.
However, if you allow the audience a peek under the desk so that they can see the timer counting down, the watchers now participate in the scene. They want to warn the actors to run. Now the suspense draws out over several minutes. The viewers struggle to focus on the dialog and the impending disaster at the same time.
Stress equals suspense. And in the words of Hitchcock himself, “The bomb must never go off.”
In the story lines that don’t involve bombs—honestly, most of his films don’t—he employs the same tactics to varying degrees.
In the real-time progression of the classic Rope, you know the identity of the murderers in the first five minutes. You spend the next hour and a half with your stomach in knots, as a dinner party plays out all around the concealed body of the victim.
In Dial M for Murder you watch the entire plot unfold, knowing a great deal more than any of the characters. The stress comes from worrying over whether justice prevails or Ray Milland succeeds in his devious scheme.
Some of Hitchcock’s best films use irony to plant seeds of suspicion. In Shadow of a Doubt Hitch brings a beloved relative home for a visit with his favorite niece. Teresa Wright plays the discontented teenager hoping that her handsome, sophisticated uncle, played by Joseph Cotton, will shake things up in her quiet little hometown. She soon suspects that he may be a serial killer, and the worries begin.
In Suspicion Hitchcock contrasts Cary Grant’s charm with a devilish murder plot that thrills to the last scene.
He used the concept of being trapped in several films to build tension, though usually Hitch places his victims in uncommon snares. In Lifeboat the characters play their roles while stranded in a small boat at sea.
In The Man Who Knew Too Much, the 1956 version, movie mom Doris Day gets sedated by her own husband, leaving her (and the audience) helpless to act against her son’s kidnappers.
Jimmy Stewart, limited to his apartment by a heavy leg cast, suspects murder from the vantage of his Rear Window. He cannot run to the aid of Grace Kelly when she encounters danger, nor can he fight off a personal attack by the villain. His helplessness keeps our guts twisting.
Alfred Hitchcock also wore our nerves thin with the ordinary. Using the backdrop of a beautiful New England hillside, Shirley McLain discovers The Trouble with Harry, her dead husband, is that he won’t stay buried. The characters in this film go about their business with such nonchalance that a constantly reappearing corpse becomes little more than an incidental nuisance. Their comical lack of urgency incites panic in the audience.
Hitchcock’s techniques in story telling remain nearly unchallenged, even decades after his death. Though most of his films avoided graphic gore and violence, his fear factor pushed the envelope for their time, and still encourage nail biting today. Movies like Psycho and The Birds always rate high on the Creepy Scale.
Hitchcock knew his stuff. If you haven’t seen any of his movies, let me recommend that you pick one up this month. The ones mentioned above are all sure to satisfy, but he created dozens more that will make you a fast fan.
Let me know your favorite!
That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!