Suspense by  L. Ron Hubbard

     Those who have been at this business until their fingernails are worn to stumps are very often overconfident of their technique. I get that way every now and then, until something hauls me back on my haunches and shows me up. You just forget that technique is not a habit, but a constant set of rules to be frequently refreshed in your mind.

     And so, in the scurry of getting a manuscript in the mail, it is not unusual to overlook some trifling factor which will mean the difference between sale and rejection.

     This suspense business is something hard to remember. You know your plot (or should, anyway) before you write it. You forget that the reader doesn’t. Out of habit, you think plot is enough to carry you through. Sometimes it won’t. You have to fall back on none-too-subtle mechanics.

     Take this, for example:      He slid down between the rocks toward the creek, carrying the canteens clumsily under his arm, silently cursing his sling. A shadow loomed over him.

     “Franzawi!” screamed the Arab sentinel.

     There we have a standard situation. In the Atlas. The hero has to get to water or his wounded legionnaires will die of thirst. But, obviously, it is very, very flat except for the slight element of surprising the reader.

     Surprise doesn’t amount to much. That snap ending tendency doesn’t belong in the center of the story. Your reader knew there were Arabs about. He knew the hero was going into danger. But that isn’t enough. Not half.

     Legionnaire Smith squirmed down between the rocks clutching the canteens, his eyes fixed upon the bright silver spot which was the water hole below. A shadow loomed across the trail before him. Hastily he slipped backward into cover.

      An Arab sentinel was standing on the edge of the trail, leaning on his long gun. The man’s brown eyes were turned upward, watching a point higher on the cliff, expecting to see some sign of the besieged legionnaires.

     Smith started back again, moving as silently as he could, trying to keep the canteens from banging. His sling-supported arm was weak. The canteens were slipping.

      He could see the sights on the Arab’s rifle and knew they would be lined on him the instant he made a sound.

      The silver spot in the ravine was beckoning. He could not return with empty canteens. Maybe the sentinel would not see him if he slipped silently around the other side of this boulder.

     He tried it. The man remained staring wolfishly up at the pillbox fort.

     Maybe it was possible after all. That bright spot of silver was so near, so maddening to swollen tongues....

     Smith’s hand came down on a sharp stone. He lifted it with a jerk.

     A canteen rattled to the trail.

     For seconds nothing stirred or breathed in this scorching world of sun and stone.

     Then the sentry moved, stepped a pace up the path, eyes searching the shadows, gnarled hands tight on the rifle stock.

     Smith moved closer to the boulder, trying to get out of sight, trying to lure the sentry toward him so that he could be silently killed.

     The canteen sparkled in the light.

     A resounding shout rocked the blistered hills.

     “Franzawi!” cried the sentinel.

Suspense continued...


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