Tension, Conflict, Suspense: How Harlan Coben does it

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It’s Tension, Conflict, Suspense week, and today we’re looking at how Harlan Coben milks the tension, conflict, and suspense in No Second Chance.  I guarantee that I did not pick up on all of his uses and manipulations, but here’s what I did spot:d

Levels of Tension

Macrotension:  No Second Chance is the story of Dr. Marc Seidman, who is shot in the opening scene.  He wakes up 12 days later to learn that his wife was also shot and didn’t survive, and his daughter is missing.  The Macrotension question that spans the whole of the novel is:  What happened to his six month old daughter?

Section Tension: Mr. Coben has several points of tension that span sections, but the main section tension  follows the suspects and asks: Who did it?  The first possible suspect is Dr. Seidman’s drug addict sister.  When she’s found dead, Mr. Coben focuses us on a potential second suspect, a child actress and current has-been who’s working with an oaf.  When their dialogue tells us they’re not the original kidnappers, we’re left wondering, again, who, who, who?  And Mr. Coben focuses us on a third suspect: Dr. Seidman’s old college girlfriend, an ex FBI agent who’s currently helping Dr. Seidman find his daughter (potentially putting the doc in danger–more tension).  The old girlfriend didn’t do it either, but we’ll leave the real culprits to next week’s post about Setups and Payoffs, Foreshadowing and Reveals.

Scene Tension:  Here are some examples of how Mr. Coben does it.

In the first scene (after a summary), Dr. Seidman is in the hospital.  He can’t move or take any action, but he does have a goal:  he wants to know about his family.  We do too, and we’re left in suspense until we find out…. which takes awhile because the nurses and doctors have their own goal which is in conflict with Dr. Seidman’s: to keep Dr. Seidman calm so he can heal from his gunshot wounds.  Which means they ignore his questions about his family.  The suspense about his family is eventually relieved when a detective comes to talk to Dr. Seidman.

In a later scene, Dr. Seidman is answering the phone to take the ransom call.  It’s been 18 months since the first ransom, and this time Dr. Seidman wants assurances that his daughter is alive.  This goal has many conflicts.  One is within Dr. Seidman: He doesn’t want to piss off the ransomers and not hear from them again for another 18 months, and he fears asking for assurances will do just that, but he does it anyway.  A second is Dr. Seidman’s old girlfriend, the ex FBI agent.  She insists that he act like his daughter is dead, because this is probably a hoax, and doc’s already lost 2 million to these guys.  The third is the kidnappers, who want the money (but don’t have the kid, and can’t/ ) don’t want to fully comply with what Dr. Seidman wants.  In this scene, the kidnappers hang up on him without settling the ransom drop.  Dr. Seidman’s Fears are realized.

Paragraph Tension:

He stared down at his hands. Then he said: “I want to show you something.”

I sneaked another look at Uncle Carson. His jaw was set. I thought I saw a tremble. I turned back to Edgar. “Okay.”

Edgar opened his desk drawer, reached in, and pulled out a plastic bag. He raised it into view, gripping the bag at the corner between his forefinger and thumb. I took a moment, but when I realized what I was looking at my eyes went wide.

Edgar saw my reaction. “You recognize it then?”

I couldn’t speak at first. I glanced over at Carson. His eyes were red. I looked back at Edgar and nodded numbly. Inside the plastic bag was…

Hah!  Are you in suspense?  How’s that for the stretch technique?  He goes through the scene beat by beat, from opening the drawer, to reaching for the bag, to how he’s holding it, to Dr. Seidman’s beat-by-beat reaction.  Mr. Coben uses the stretch technique quite a bit.

Oh… did you want to know what was in the bag?

… a small swatch of clothing, maybe three inches by three inches. The pattern was one I had seen two weeks ago, moments before being shot. Pink with black penguins.

Here’s another example of Stretching.  It also uses Danger:

We had only driven maybe twenty, thirty yards. With my face against the glass, my nose bouncing against the window, my body and face scraped and battered, I looked at the child in the front seat and a crushing truth pried my hands off the car window.

Again the mind works in odd ways. My first thought was classical doctor: The child should be sitting in the back. The Honda Accord has a passenger-side airbag. No child under the age of twelve should ever sit in the front. Also, small children should be in a proper car seat. That was, in fact, the law. Riding out of a car seat and in the front . . . that was doubly unsafe.

Ridiculous thought. Or maybe natural. Either way, that was not the thought that ripped the fight out of me.

The flannel-shirted man yanked the steering wheel to the right. i heard the tires squeak. The car jerked, and my fingers slipped away. My grip was gone now. I went airborne. My body landed hard, skidding across the pavement like a stone. I could hear the police sirens behind me. They would, I thought, follow the Honda Accord. But it wouldn’t matter. i had only gotten brief glimpse. But it had been enough to know the truth.

The child in the car was not my daughter.

And here’s a short example (probably closer to microtension… but it doesn’t really matter what we call it; it matters that we do it):

And that was when I noticed something odd.

Suspense Techniques

When dealing with the suspects, Mr. Coben also uses The Puzzle or Mystery by giving us incongruent clues:

  • Dr. Seidman and his wife were shot with two different guns.  One of them belonged to Dr. Seidman.  He kept it in a lockbox.  How did the bad guy know about it and get it out of the box?
  • The window was broken, but Dr. Seidman doesn’t remember hearing it.
  • His wife was found naked.

And here’s a long example of tension occurring in the character’s Worried Mind:

Was there a chance my daughter was still alive?

That was the only question here. If she was, then I had to resort to our original plan. Confiding in the authorities, especially with their fresh suspicions, would not work. Suppose there was, as the ransom note said, a mole? Right now, whoever had picked up that bag of money had no idea that Rachel was on to them. But what would happen if the cops and feds got involved? Would the kidnappers run, panic, do something rash?

There was something else here that I should be considering:  Did I still trust Rachel [his old college girlfriend]? Those photographs had shaken my faith. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. But in the end, I had no choice but to treat those doubts as a distraction. I need to focus on one goal. Tara. What would give me the best chance of finding out what really happened to her?

Mr. Coben also uses Dramatic Irony by showing some scenes from the perspective of the bad guys.

He also uses The Dilemma in conjunction with The Backfire:  At one point, Dr. Seidman receives a ransom demand, and he’s told that if he contacts the police, the kidnappers and his daughter will disappear.  The kidnappers have a mole, so they’ll know, so they say.  The dilemma is whether or not to tell the police.  Dr. Seidman chooses to do so, and this backfires when the kidnappers call him to say they know he’s contacted the police.  They then hang up, and Dr. Seidman doesn’t hear from them again for 18 months.  (!!!)

There are also Secrets galore.  I think everyone has one except Dr. Seidman.  The photographs, mentioned in a quote above, are part of the college girlfriend’s secret.  Dr. Seidman’s dead wife has a lot of secrets that surface, including that she was seeing a psychiatrist, hired a private detective, had become friends with a weird old high school classmate of Dr. Seidman’s and never told him.

I marked plenty more examples as I read, but they weren’t as suspenseful taken out of context, so hopefully the above will do.  Or… go check out No Second Chance (or any of Coben’s standalones) for more.

Well that’s it for me

Have you read this story?  What suspense techniques did you find?  And what are some of your favorite examples of masterfully-crafted suspense?

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Up Next, on Friday

Tension in our own work.  See you then!

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