Monday Motivation: Six strategies for generating drama and suspense
The most successful drama series of the year in the UK offers us a number of insights into the variety of means writers have at their disposal whenever they need to raise the stakes, heighten the suspense and tantalise their readers. Conceived by Tom Edge, who writes most of the episodes, Vigil is a tense and thrilling ride.
I’m going to list some of the strategies Edge employs, together with the examples from which I’ve drawn them:
- The series opens with a scene of a fishing trawler somewhere inside English territorial waters off the coast of Scotland being dragged down into the sea when its trawling nets are snagged on something – presumably a submarine – deep underwater. The fishermen aboard are all cast into the water and drown. It’s a dramatic, even a shocking scene.
The lesson: Begin a thriller with a hook and a promise – and introduce into your readers’ minds a question that burns to be answered.
- Half of the drama is set on board a nuclear submarine, tasked with maintaining, along with a number of other subs, a non-stop nuclear presence in case a nuclear strike is launched against Britain by an aggressive enemy. The subs are capable of retaliating in kind. In fact, such a strategy has been in operation since 1969. It’s a fantastic set, (despite the criticism of nit-pickers who object to all sorts of details, including the level of lighting) which offers the director endless opportunities for surprising reveals, dramatic confrontations, paranoid suspicions – and an abiding sense of suffocating claustrophobia.
The lesson: Look for settings – yes, we know you’re writing for the page and not for a production budget of millions! – that give you dramatic opportunities and lend themselves, believably, to thrilling situations.
- The story proceeds in two threads: one, on the sub, the other on land where the one-time romantic partner of the on-board detective pursues leads to solving the crime under investigation.
The lesson: Being able to intercut between two parallel storylines gives the writer immense flexibility in devising cliff-hangers, contrasting pacing, and in generating anticipation and therefore suspense.
- The submarine’s communications with the outside world are limited to daily bursts of encoded information. At one point, communications between the two lead detectives – one on board, the other on land – is cut off completely.
The lesson: In our era of instant and universal communication via cellphone and social media, it is often useful to find credible means to interrupt this flow.
- The series is peppered with cliff-hangers. We are aware of the artificiality of these – but this doesn’t blunt their power. The current cliffhanger that has the millions of people following the show on the edge of their seats involved the detective on board the sub being trapped in a torpedo tube which is rapidly filling with seawater. There are only seconds remaining before she is ejected into the freezing North Atlantic. We all know it’s a trick – but like all great dramatic tricks it works.
The lesson: Cliffhangers work. Use them, whether you’re writing an international thriller or a gentle portrait of village life.
- The series features a number of antagonists and shape-shifters: allies who might be enemies, enemies who might be friends. These range from the shadowy killer on the sub, to his supporters on land; from the rigid hierarchy of the naval authority unwilling to admit the existence of deviance on their vessel or in their institution, to the fraught complexities of the submarine detective’s own history and insecurities.
The lesson: You can never have too many forces of antagonism! Give your hero mountains to scale, chasms to leap across, pits to plunge into – and all the while remember that the highest mountains, the widest chasms and the deepest are all internal.
We’re only up to the end of Episode 5 – but already it’s clear that we’re in for a roller coaster ride of rare distinction.
P.S. For those of you interested in the progress of the Priory Marina Lake cygnets, here’s the latest: all seven cygnets are already seasoned fliers.