Intensity Part II: The Epiphany That Took Too Long

I was commenting on Amanda Stevens' blog about dolls when the windows of my brain finally clicked together into something that is so obvious, it's embarassing that it took me so long to put it together.

It's not so much that I didn't know what I was thinking. It was a matter of putting it into perspective - a good example to illustrate what I'm thinking.

Recently, I told you that many books I've reviewed have lacked the intensity expected in thrillers. I've been disappointed several times in the past - even before I added book critic to my resume - by books labeled thrillers that were a far cry from thrilling.

When I was little, I watched the Twilight Zone - both reruns on Sunday afternoons and the second generation show that lasted maybe half a season. I watched Tales from the Crypt and creepy movies like The Omen. I also watched Freddy Krueger cut people up during all-girls sleepovers when I was in elementary school.

Freddy was gross. Period. Oh, there were a few good bumps and thumps that had me jumping in my seat. But that's it. Once the movie was over, it was done.

Then, there was the TZ where a porcelain doll came alive at night to murder people. Never showed anything. No blood. No gore. Just close up shots of the doll's face with intense music reminiscent of a Hitchcock film.

Scare. Me. Silly.

It wasn't the lack of gore so much as the attack on my imagination. Without knowing details, my brain filled in the blanks with the most horrific things I could think of - and a few more after that.

These shows never gave away the twist until the final 30 seconds. The entire time these shows were running, my brain was batting ideas back and forth as to how things happened and who would die next and who might or might not be behind the craziness. I could not move from my seat until the very end. I couldn't miss a minute - I might miss something important.

Like in film, authors who withhold information from readers create intensity and tension. Engaging their brains in the mystery your character is in adds to the drama; the readers create their own suspicions and tension and conflict by trying to figure out Whodunit with the protagonist.

If you get stuck, watch some incredibly suspenseful films and TV shows and see if that sparks some creativity in the intensity department. If you do film, best ones are the old ones - before Hollywood wowed us with their Hershey's chocolate blood baths. (I still can't believe chocolate looks like blood on screen.) Vincent Price, Bella Lagosi (probably spelled wrong). Go to Universal Films' Web site. They have all the old Draculas and Frankensteins and Mummys. Find creepy movies that don't show a thing. Get recommendations from friends and sites like Flixster.

And have a Hitchcock library handy. He was the ultimate storyteller. Read up on what he believed made a good story.

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Comment by Kathryn Lilley on July 4, 2007 at 5:52am
You are so right about less-being-more in terms of building suspense! I remember the old "Cat People" film, where for lack of budget for decent costumes, they didn't show the cat actually attacking person. Left it to the viewer's imagination, with sound effects. It was *so* much scarier than the remake, which showed some kine of puma (or whatever it was) ripping people to shreds!

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