Conflict and Suspense

“Conflict and Suspense” gave aspiring writers the opportunities to talk to a variety of sci-fi writers about how they give their stories punch and keep their readers involved.

The panel, led by moderator Ann C. Crispin, included Robert Asprin, Andy Duncan, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Rebecca Moesta, Jody Lynn Nye, and John Ringo. Representing a variety of styles from humor to military fiction to comics, the panel had several key suggestions that any aspiring author would do well to heed:

Don’t pull a rabbit out of a hat: “Include elements of the final resolution throughout the book, so the reader can see the conclusion come naturally from the story”, said Asprin. Without this, the reader feels cheated.

Whatever can go wrong, will: Create suspense by putting unexpected impediments in the way of the protagonist. “Ask, ‘What can go wrong?’ and have it go wrong,” suggested Moesta. For example, critical equipment fails at the wrong moment, or people who can’t know what’s going on impede the hero’s flight from an enemy.

Love them, but let them go: Characterization is important to create sympathy with your character. If you are not interested in what happens to your characters, how will anyone else be? But be careful not to go too far in the other direction; a character you love too much to see hurt will never change or grow.

Use internal struggles to reflect outer conflict: Characters should never be too perfect; it is their needs that put them in conflict with their environment. Neither should they be too corrupt, or readers will find them unsympathetic. When a character changes their response to a situation, they are changing psychologically, which adds to the depth of the character and the interest of the plot.

Build and release tension in increasing cycles: A series of smaller conflicts can lead up to the big finale. Ringo called it “pulling a rubber band back–and snapping it” to create emotional catharsis.

Don’t give away too much: The reader should have some doubt as to the outcome of the story. There should always be the risk it won’t turn out the way they want. “Better to keep ’em guessing,” said Crispin., saying she’s killed off several protagonists. A protagonist may overcome his obstacles, whether internal or external, or his character flaw may lead to his demise.

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