When to Switch Out

One lasting legacy of The Da Vinci Code is the prevalence in thrillers of vigorous intercutting between very short scenes. Dan Brown isn’t entirely to blame. This technique is borrowed from film, particularly television, in which a mere one-second shot can speak volumes about a character from an alternate plot line. That technique does not always work as well in literature, however, and here’s why.

Reading a book is a process of immersion. Because words on a page do not provide the variety of stimulae that a photographic medium does, the reader must supply her own imagination to help fill out the fictional world. The primary advantage of a novel over other art forms lies in its ability to manipulate emotions. A short scene can sway the reader, but not if a vital ingredient is missing: the reader’s participation. If the reader does not know a character in a short scene very well, she will be less moved by what he does. In some cases, she may spend most of the scene trying to remember who the heck he is. That should be the first principle governing how short to make a scene. If you have instant familiarity, you will garner immediate emotional identification.

A second important consideration is: does the scene advance its plot line? Showing a mysterious character stalking a heroine may work once or twice, but if the stalker does not raise the stakes by the second or third scene, he will become relegated to the category of characters that don’t produce excitement for us. That includes friendly Auntie Jo, Kris the cat, and others that add atmosphere but not drama. We should get a payoff by the scene’s end.

That’s the key to building suspense. You want to alternate when you’ve reached a tense point. Turning to another plot line merely for the sake of reminding us that Character B is lying in wait is a faulty strategy. Make sure she has something to do. And remember, the longer you stick with a scene, the more cumulative power you create, because you are continuing to immerse the reader in the action you are creating. So why not mount a satisfying amount of tension in the plot line you have running before breaking away?

Exercise: Review the manuscript, and when you come upon a short scene, ask yourself: at this point, what is the level of tension in the novel overall? If the story is near the climax, a short scene can add to the tremendous amount of tension already mounted. If the novel is in its early stages, however, you’ll find that joining a number of short scenes into a longer unit creates more suspense, because you’re using their combined power.

“I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I'm able to conceal the information I'm trying to conceal. And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.”
—Dan Brown

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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