The article Sequence of Events in a Story: How to Order Scenes That Build Suspense appeared first on The Write Practice.
Have you ever felt cheated when reading a book? Like the author held back information that would have enhanced your reading experience? Or neglected to include all the relevant details that would have allowed you to solve the mystery? Did the sequence of events in the story feel…off?
Think about this:
What if J.K. Rowling neglected to have Hagrid tell Harry about his parents’ deaths until the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone?
What if the writers of Die Hard had let Hans Gruber discover Holly was John McClane’s wife right up front?
What if Suzanne Collins had forgotten to alert readers to a rule change allowing tributes from the same district to win as a team in The Hunger Games?
Leaving out these vital pieces of information—or putting them in the wrong place—would have robbed these stories of a full measure of suspense, dulling the impact of their final scenes.
As a writer, you never want readers to feel cheated or disappointed by your book. But how can you make sure you include all the relevant pieces of the puzzle, in the correct order, to sustain suspense and satisfy your reader?
Sequence of Events in a Story Make a Difference
The chronological order of events in a story is not always the best way to deliver the information to the reader. I remember reading passages in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily in a college literature course. I felt struck by the way Faulkner moved his narrative around in time, creating a complex, multi-dimensional reading experience.
Faulkner was a master, and worthy of study, though I’d be leery about trying to imitate the advanced technique he used in A Rose for Emily. He began his narrative at the penultimate moment of the story—Emily’s funeral—and then used flashbacks, jumping back and forth in time, letting his viewpoint character relate the series of events until the final, revealing scene.
My main takeaway from this was that writers are unstuck in time, able to move around and present the events of a story to the reader in various ways. I became fascinated by the subject.
Since then, I’ve studied and experimented with various methods for delivering information to the reader. In this article, I’ll share ways you can develop your own techniques for making sure your reader gets all the pieces of the puzzle, in optimal order, to achieve the effect you desire.
Please keep in mind that all the skills and techniques of being an effective writer are intertwined, impossible to fully isolate.
I’m attempting to pull out the various topics for the purpose of teaching. The proper sequencing of events in a story is very tied up with using engaging deep POV details, developing a sympathetic character, establishing identifiable stakes, and foreshadowing.
The Reader as an Active Participant
Readers get the most satisfaction from reading a story when they are engaged as active participants. Many factors go into making this happen. One of the most critical components is information flow—when a writer delivers everything the reader needs to know, in a timely fashion.
Given the right information, at the right time, readers should be able to follow the rising action, gauge significance, and predict possible outcomes, letting them interact with story events and characters in a real way. This is important, whether you’re telling a joke, restyling a fairy tale, or writing a complex novel.
An effective flow of information allows readers to forget they’re reading, and just be inside the story. Because everything they need is delivered just as they need it, nothing boots them out of the fictive experience.
It’s imperative to establish depth, characterizing scene and setting from inside your viewpoint character’s head, rather than describing from an external perspective. Also, make sure you engage your reader’s emotions with a main character they can support and something crucial at stake.
You might think of these steps like fastening the seatbelt that straps readers in and prepares them for the twists and turns ahead.
Let’s take a look at how sequencing events in a story will allow you to engage the three modalities that entertain readers and move the story forward.
Suspense, Surprise, and Curiosity
How a writer orders the events in a scene can determine a reader’s response to the story.
There are three main responses a reader could feel: suspense, surprise, or curiosity. Let’s examine this by changing around the order of the following four events in a scene:
- Darren cuts the brake line on Flora’s car.
- Flora leaves the house and climbs into her car.
- Flora starts the car and steers it down the mountain pass.
- Flora’s car jumps the guard rail and she crashes to her death.
Suspense depends upon providing something for the reader to worry about and delaying the outcome, giving them time to agonize and anticipate. So, one way you might order events to foster suspense by going right down the list, events one to four.
As readers, we see Darren tamper with the brake line and we feel Flora’s peril as she leaves the house and gets into the car, unaware of what awaits her. As she starts down the mountain pass, our worry and anticipation grow. What will happen? Will she find a way to stop the car from careening over a cliff? Right up until the moment the car plummets over the edge, we wonder if she’ll throw herself clear or stop the car somehow.
If you’re going for surprise, however, a better presentation would start with the second event.
We see Flora leave the house and drive down the mountain. We’re surprised when the car picks up speed, veering out of control, and Flora discovers the brakes don’t work.
Depending on how long you give Flora to wrestle with the car, we either don’t have time to prepare for the shock as Flora sails over the cliff, or we get a little buildup of suspense as we hope she finds a way to save herself. Either way, the story situation resolves when the information in the first event is revealed to the reader.
On the other hand, you could leverage curiosity by starting with the fourth event.
We see Flora’s car crash and explode into a fiery ball. We ask why did this happen? Was it an accident or murder? Who is responsible? How did they accomplish it? A reader’s curiosity rises and carries them forward while suspense blossoms as the answers—revealed in events one, two, and three—are delayed.
It’s a good idea to incorporate a few surprises into your story, and to use curiosity to perk questions in your reader. But suspense makes the best mainstay. The anticipation of danger is more emotionally involving than the danger itself.
Sudden violence electrifies but can’t sustain an emotional effect and diminishes with repetition and duration. Curiosity will waver, if it’s not backed up by suspense. These three modalities together make a great team, but let suspense be the primary driving force in your story.
Whichever you choose as your main modality for handling each scene, suspense will play into it as readers receive information and use it to formulate predictions about what will happen next.
Don’t Withhold Important Information
Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story, is structured on a Myth/Reality basis. Here’s one of the Myths she puts forth: