IN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about how to write gripping scenes.
I find it helpful to organise the functions of scenes into separate layers. On one level a scene must showcase the hero’s actions such as a response to some challenge aimed against him. Actions fuel the so-called outer journey of the story—the plot.
But on an underlying level a scene ought to contribute to the hero’s inner journey. In other words, show how action arises from the values, beliefs, and background of the hero.
These layers make up a single dramatic unit—action and its motivation. But there is something else the writer can do in a scene to make it even more effective. The writer can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.
“One way to write gripping scenes is to reveal something dangerous your protagonist is unaware of.”
Suspense is ramped up if the hero is deprived of information available to the audience or readers. If the audience is aware that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, it generates tension which is partly dissipated only when the hero learns of this himself.
Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.
In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.
Not all scenes are candidates for this sort of treatment. Strategically chosen, however, this technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps readers and audiences engrossed.
Write gripping scenes by presenting well-motivated action. When appropriate, sprinkle such action with suspense.