Ah, suspense. Probably the most frequent murder victim of bad fantasy, aside from common sense.
1) Restrict the reassurances from the other characters.
I’ve read several amateur fantasy stories lately where the protagonist starts worrying that she can’t accomplish her task, and the other characters tell her, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right/the gods are with us/you’re going to conquer because destiny is on our side.” And the protagonist believes them, and stops angsting. And all tension the story had managed to gather dissipates like so much smoke.
The fuck, people.
Now, you don’t have to unseat prophecies and destiny from the center of your stories (though I think it would be a good idea; I hate both of them with a holy passion). But they shouldn’t be a guarantee of victory. Nor should whatever godly help your heroine has, or whatever powerful mentor is on her side. There has to be some room for uncertainty, for what I call “suspension of disbelief as to suspense.” I might strongly suspect the heroine will survive the story and be crowned queen, but I have to hold out some doubt as well, or why read? All the punches telegraphed in the first 100 pages, or even in the first two if the prophecy spells everything out clearly, means that I can put the book down after that, already knowing everything that happens.
The heroine’s companions also shouldn’t have that much room for certainty. After all, where does this faith come from? Usually the god is distant, the prophecy is obscure, the heroine is a callow maiden at the time. On the other hand, why are they rushing around training the heroine and trying to get her ready to face apocalypse if they “know” they’re going to win? The two ideas cannot coexist when faced with each other, and trying to have them both at once in the same story is a sign of sloppy writing.
If you want to ratchet up the tension, don’t drop a big blazing neon sign that says “EVERYTHING WILL BE OK” into the middle of it.
2) At least try to leave the fate of some characters obscure.
Ever been able to go through a fantasy story and say, “Yep, he’s going to die, she’s going to live but be sorry about it, she’s going to learn a moral lesson, he’s the long-lost brother, she’s the princess in disguise, he’s not a peasant at all but the heir to the kingdom?” I have been able to do that, and it’s no fun.
I will contend to my dying day that any genius author can take any fantasy plotline or plot device, like the bildungsroman or typical fantasy elves, and breathe new life into them, and have you enjoying them even as you recognize the formula. A lot of people aren’t geniuses, though. If they want to use old formulas, they’ll have to obscure them somewhat.
Resist the temptation for what I call “coy” foreshadowing (see point 3). Don’t equate your heroes with phoenixes, or some famous dead hero in the book’s world. Don’t mention some proverb and look meaningfully at the person it applies to. (I will never forgive Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis for revealing in the first book of their Chronicles trilogy that a character was going to die like this). Don’t give your clairvoyants visions of skulls floating over the head of one person and crowns over another. Such actions violate the International Treaty for the Preservation of Suspense, and your audience has every right to beat you to death with golf clubs.
3) Use foreshadowing wisely, and coy foreshadowing not at all.
I’ve given some examples of coy foreshadowing. Any foreshadowing where the main point is to laugh up your sleeve at the audience, in the (mistaken) impression that they won’t get it, or to go “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” at them, is coy. The author isn’t using it as part of the book’s point, or theme, or to deepen characterization. It’s purely a step away from the narrative and a demand that the reader admire her. “Aren’t I grand?”
No, you aren’t. Shut up, and get back to telling the story.
Even normal foreshadowing should be used sparsely. The author might want to cushion the blow or heighten anticipation for her audience, but too often the effect is the opposite: the reader can see what’s going to happen, so why should he care? In the worst extremes, if, say, he can see that a character he likes is going to die, he’ll put the book down. Even in the best extremes, he’ll read the story without some of the pleasure and breathlessness he would have otherwise had in it. Try trusting your readers instead. They’re big boys and girls, and they can take things. As long as they can “see” the happening coming from the events of the plot—as long as a quick rethink or a rereading of the book’s vital scenes would show why this is the way it has to be—they’ll most often forgive you.
The best purpose of foreshadowing is to reveal the hidden things in the book’s narrative itself: the secrets of plotting nobles, the mysterious character’s dark past, history that the author can’t show beforehand without changing the hero’s whole perception. In such cases, it’s not so much foreshadowing as the author planting clues like a mystery novelist and seeing if the reader can work them out.
4) Silence != suspense.
Then there are the authors who don’t use foreshadowing at all, in the mistaken belief that what readers really want is information that comes from nowhere. Yeah, take that, readers!
Not so much.
The typical bad fantasy example here is the heroine who gets halfway through her quest and suddenly realizes she needs the help of X person/Y artifact/Z group of people, or that her goal so far wasn’t the “real” goal; instead of just trying to reclaim her throne, she’s really defending the world from invading demons, that sort of thing. The author produces this with a flourish, imagining that the reader will share the heroine’s surprise and disconcerted expression.
In this case, authors should trust their characters. The reader’s being disconcerted does not equal nail-biting tension. If there were no hints at all that the heroine couldn’t accomplish her quest alone, or that there were demons invading the world, the author has failed in her duty. Neither the character nor the reader can be blamed, because the author very deliberately kept knowledge from them. Not hidden, not peeking from the shadows, not mentioned with explanations that could have pointed to something else. Just off the table.
This is known by a much less glorious name than that of suspense—cheating.
It’s also a really good way to do something you don’t want to do, namely invaliding the story’s point so far. If the heroine should have been going north, why did the author spend 200 pages letting her walk south? Did she actually meet anyone she should have, learn anything vital, go through any experiences that will change her? If not, your book is 200 pages fatter than it needed to be, and the readers can now break out the flaying knives.
5) No false interiorization.
This involves the author creating “suspense” by hitting a character with blindness, a clout on the head, sudden motion sickness, fainting from exhaustion, etc. It creates frustration rather than anything else, particularly when the author uses it multiple times. Can’t think of what comes next? Make the character suddenly faint, and you’re right as rain! Unsure of how to describe an important conversation? Have your character fall asleep, especially if the conversation is about his secret powers and he should be striving to hear!
It’s lazy, overused, and, too often, impossible. Do you want to tell me why a character whose worst injury is a tiny little cut on his cheek would suddenly fall unconscious? I hardly think he would have lost that much blood unless he was a hemophiliac, in which case you have far bigger problems to worry about. Why is a character who’s gotten normal amounts of sleep and isn’t tired always falling asleep when someone else tries to tell him something important—and then always forgetting about it when he wakes up again? Because the author doesn’t think things through.
So: Stop it.
6) Don’t dissolve tension at a sudden blow - or, the confrontation should be worth the buildup you give it.
Another thing I’ve noticed with amateur fantasy I’ve read lately: the author can be good at making me wonder what will happen when one character faces another or finally reaches his destination, and then the whole thing slips away from her. The slip-away generally fits in one of three categories, sometimes more than one:
- The author comes up with something completely stupid and out of thin air, like the villain having repented all on his own and being a good guy so that the hero doesn’t have to fight him anymore. (Keeping readers totally in the dark is more purely evil than anything the villain did. See point 4).
- The author tries to rush through the climax, under the mistaken impression that speed is all you need, so that a scene or chapter that should span fifty pages at the least is over in five. Not the way it works. You still have to attend to all the ending material, however much you may not like it. And even more important than speed is relentlessness. By this point, the story should have your reader by the throat and be dragging her along, so that she can’t stop reading even if she starts walking over jagged lava rocks.
- The author pulls a Supreme Copout. Supreme Copouts include: the infamous “It was all a dream!” ending, the narrator so unreliable that he’s lied to the reader about everything and now suddenly decides to tell the truth, the author insisting that the narrator gets left behind or out of the action so that he can’t report what went on, or the author just skipping the confrontation altogether and jumping to the end with marriage and babies, a coronation, whatever. At this point, the readers have the right to impale the author.
Don’t do this, for the love of tiny tomatoes.
If the suspense in fantasy books ever did turn sentient and decide to sue the authors that had killed it numerous times, with malice, the list would be longer than most fantasy books I’ve read.