Hunting for Suspense

Anyone who’s sat in an outhouse in the Yukon, has frozen their backside reading the Outdoor Edge. It’s a quarterly magazine for hunters and anglers in Western Canada mailed to every fish and game association member west of Ontario.

In those pages, we’ve read work by members of the Outdoor Writers of Canada (OWC). Short, punchy stories, in plain English, about life on the land.

This year, OWC held its annual convention in the Yukon, a place many of them have been to on previous adventures. In Whitehorse, the host city, OWC’s one-day session of workshops was open to Yukoners.

Topics included understanding copyright, creating saleable photos, digital media and partnering, along with Al Voth’s session on how to create suspense.

A lifelong hunter and novelist, Voth knows if you only have 500 words to tell a story, it’s tough to build suspense.

His example of a deer hunt demonstrated his point.

Begin with a character who lives life in public: a woman wins a spot on a televised hunt, let’s say.

Create a personal interest: will she bag her first deer?

“Reveal the stakes up front – they don’t have to be big, but they do need to be stated,” said Voth.

The hunt is on the move and problems arise, each worse than the last. That’s the middle of the story, said Voth.

He reminded writers of “reader attachment” to the rhythm of threes: The friendly cumulus clouds frothing the mountains this morning have bloomed into thunderheads and now it’s pouring.

The hunters lost a half day fixing a flat when the driver forgot the tire iron and the guide’s a lousy cook.

He gave tips on how to hide information. Use the limited perspective of one character who doesn’t know everything. Have them reveal only what they know. As they learn, so does the reader who is rewarded with an “aha” moment: After a day of hiking, glassing, and blowing the shot, the guide tells the wrangler he needs help to turn this around.

The writer can also “hide” with a quick scene break, to another technique.

Foreshadowing is the hint of something to come. As Voth puts it, it’s the art of not saying. “Most writers blow this by hitting the reader over the head with it.” The best, he says “is when foreshadowing does double duty. When it builds suspense and establishes a scene or a complication, the article is that much stronger.”

In the end, the biggest obstacle is overcome.

“Put the power at the end of the sentence, paragraph and structure.”

Voth says this is the place to use short words, short sentences and resolve everything: The hunters were heading out, empty-handed, when the buck of her dreams parted the willows. She sighted in. Breathed. Squeezed. In one shot, he dropped.

Writers can measure their success at building suspense. The reader indicates emotion or a physical reaction. They may change their behaviour.

Or, says Voth, “They keep reading.”

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