Sunday, July 13, 2008

Creating Suspense

With the release of The Boxer and the Spy, his second book for children following Edenville Owls, award-winning mystery writer Robert B. Parker shows once again why he’s a master of creating suspense.

Parker introduces the mystery in the first chapter, showing readers how a nameless boy comes to his untimely death. But Parker doesn’t show the murder itself. Instead, he lets the reader eavesdrop on the scene.

Here’s what you’ll hear as the first chapter ends:
“You,” the man said. “You were there...”
The boy was frozen. He could hear the heavy rasps of the man’s breath.
“You heard everything,” the man said.
“I didn’t hear anything,” the boy said.
“Yeah,” the man said. “You did.”
And so the story begins with the reader wondering who killed the boy and why.

In the next chapter, the body washes up on shore, and we learn the boy’s identity. And when the boy’s classmates learn the “official” reason for his death–suicide caused by an overdose of steroids–two of the children, Terry (a ninth grader learning to box) and his girlfriend, Abby (who eventually helps him spy on the murder suspects), find it hard to believe the explanation and are told to stop asking questions.

For Terry, though, it’s as if the unsolved murder has upset the moral fabric of his universe. Only by fighting for justice can he help the universe regain its moral balance.

He must pursue the killer, if only to maintain his own moral equilibrium, even when a host of people–the school principal, the school’s top football player, his girlfriend, and his coach– warn him to stop investigating his classmate's death.

At every turn of the plot, Terry’s willingness to take risks heightens the drama. Each time he places himself in danger while getting closer and closer to the truth, the momentum of the story quickens, pulling the reader forward at a faster and faster pace. (It doesn’t hurt that Parker uses sharp, crisp dialogue to advance the plot, as well as short, snappy chapters.)

The pacing intensifies, especially in the fight scenes, each time Terry refuses to back off.

Here’s one of the fight scenes:
Terry went into his stance. Left foot forward. Hands high. He heard Carter laugh. It wasn’t about Carter now. It was about him and Gordon. They circled each other. Gordon seemed a little stiff in his movements, Terry thought. Maybe he’s a little scared too. Gordon lunged at him. Terry put a left jab onto his nose. It stopped Gordon. Terry followed with a straight right, again on the nose, torquing his forearm, turning his hip in, keeping his feet under him, breathing out hard when he threw the punch. Gordon yelped. The blood spurted from Gordon’s nose. Gordon put his hands to his nose, and Terry landed a heavy left hook on his cheekbone and Gordon fell down.
My nose,” Gordon said. “He broke my damn nose.”
When this attempt at intimidation doesn’t send Terry scurrying for cover, Carter takes things into his own hands. How could a puny freshman, after all, stand up to a varsity letterman with a full football scholarship to the University of Illinois?

Here’s how:
Carter tried to grab him with his right hand, but Terry stepped into him, which Carter didn’t expect, and turned and blocked the right hand hard with both of his forearms. Then he drove his right elbow up and across, catching Carter on the cheekbone. Carter staggered. He followed with his left forearm, turning with the natural torque of the movements, and Carter staggered backward. His arms dropped and Terry, his feet still under him, holding his stance, hit him in the middle of the face with a straight right. And Carter went down. A kind of sigh went up softly from the circle of kids.
Terry refuses to shy away from these challenges, despite finding himself overmatched again and again. In the end such scenes, as well as Terry’s courage and determination to keep to his plan until he finds the murderer, contribute to the story’s suspense.

Parker has learned over the years how to wind a story tighter than a tensely coiled spring.

If you want to learn how to create suspense in your story, you might take a look at The Boxer and the Spy to study a master at work.

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