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Easily the most chilled out panel from the first day of DLF had to be the craft-oriented one on writing suspensefully, held at the Brac stage, called Crime Pays: The art of suspense.
Moderated by Kelly Falconer, it featured Richard Beard, Anthony McGowan, and Leonora Christina Skov.
The writers exchanged witty banter, eliciting laughter from the packed room, as they broke down the techniques for writing thrillers and creating dramatic page turners, explaining common tropes and discussing the effectiveness of said techniques.
“Tell your characters not to do something, and then have someone do it anyway” advised Richard Beard, author of six novels, including Lazarus is Dead and Dry Bones and Damascus, diving straight into the subject of using the unexpected to create surprise. His other suggestion was to start with significant dates as subtitles, so that the audience is primed to expect certain events.
Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency in Hong Kong talked about ways to build sympathy for a story’s protagonist, naming techniques such as “pat the dog” whereby early on, the lead character can be seen performing some act of kindness towards a helpless animal or child; or “undeserved suffering”, which is basically to put the protagonist in unwarranted hot waters. Anthony McGowan, author of two literary thrillers and several books for young adults and children, chimed in by advising an attempt at heaping undeserved advantages upon the antagonist. He cited the example of US President-elect Donald Trump, to uproarious laughter.
Danish novelist and literary critic Leonora Christina Skov talked about her personal struggles with creating likeable characters, to which Richard Beard quipped “If you don’t like certain characters, try killing them and see what happens.”
McGowan then went on to talk about his experience of children’s literature, and the importance of isolating the lead character, in order to create what is called the “hero’s journey”, as evidenced in Ludlum’s Bourne books.
Leonora Christina Skov took this opportunity to segue into the problem of creating isolation, novels set in contemporary timelines, in a world that is increasingly connected. The question was raised as to whether the proliferation of cell phones and text messaging actually reduced the scope for creating dramatic suspense. Examples of BBC’s series Sherlock were raised to show how one can use the nature of technology to create a new kind of suspense.
The panellists also talked about the role of red herrings. Richard Beard is of the opinion that these tools are merely used to mask plot holes, while Anthony McGowan believes that red herrings have their usefulness, particularly in “country-house murder” genre.
The session wrapped up with a Q&A round, where audience members got to mine further nuggets of wisdom about the craft of writing.