Bait and Switch Tactics

Bait and Switch Tactics are a means to keep your reader on the edge of her seat with gripping fear for your characters’ lives. What you’ll want to do is isolate your characters, then write scenes in each person’s viewpoint with a cliffhanger at the end of each sequence. This only applies if you are writing from two or more characters’ points of view.

In SILVER SERENADE, my current science fiction romance, Silver is an assassin whose assignment is to kill Tyrone Bluth, the leader of a ruthless band of terrorists. Jace, a hunted criminal, needs Bluth alive to prove his innocence. In addition, Bluth has kidnapped Jace’s sister and so Jace must learn her location from the man.

Silver promises to help Jace before she kills the monster who destroyed her family. Whether or not she will hold to this promise is the basis of the romantic conflict. Silver and Jace are both after the same target but for different reasons.

In one scene, Silver and Jace confront the terrorist leader in his lair. The purpose of this scene is to deliver important information and propel the action forward. To rachet up the suspense, I’ve isolated my heroes. Here is how the scene breaks down [Spoiler Alert!]. It shows how this technique can work for genres other than mystery/suspense/thriller.

1. Jace’s viewpoint. Jace and Silver, in disguise, present themselves as new recruits for Bluth’s terrorist network. They look for their contact, Gruber, at a saloon on the planet Al’ron. While sitting at the bar, Silver shrugs off a roughneck patron who makes a play for her. The fellow insults Jace, who kills him. After this display, their contact approaches and introduces them to the bandit leader. Impressed by Jace’s quick response, Bluth says they passed the first test. He’ll take Silver with him to his headquarters, but Jace must follow them alone in his ship. Jace fears for Silver’s safety. Or worse, will she use this opportunity to assassinate Bluth and leave him behind?

2. Silver’s viewpoint. She is on a firing range at headquarters for Tyrone’s Marauders, being tested for her skills as a sharpshooter. She passes the test. Her supervisor marches her to the detention center where the evil Bluth snatches a captive child from his mother’s arms and demands Silver shoot him. Tempted to aim her laser rifle at Bluth instead, Silver manages to demonstrate her skill in a less lethal manner. During their dialogue, she learns a piece of important information. Bluth leads her away, while she wonders what’s happened to Jace who has failed to show up. Has he been caught?

3. Jace’s viewpoint. Jace’s cover has been blown, and Bluth arrives to torture him in his prison cell. Bluth questions him about his contact, Gruber. Was Gruber duped by Jace, or is he a willing accomplice? Jace turns the interrogation around when he learns where his sister is being held and also gains news on urgent political issues. What chills him more is Bluth’s boast that Silver waits for him in his chamber, unaware the pirate knows her true identity.

4. Silver’s viewpoint: Silver seeks to rescue Jace. In the hallway, she hears approaching footsteps. She opens the nearest unlocked door and slips inside a stranger’s quarters. He turns out to be a financial officer for Bluth. After rendering him unconscious, Silver copies data from his computer. This information may help prove Jace’s innocence and may also help them cut off Bluth’s funding at its source. But this data will only be useful if she can escape the complex. How can she reach the detention center and free Jace?

5. Jace’s viewpoint: Guards arrive to march him from his cell, and he figures he’s marked for execution.

And so on. You get the idea? When I began this scene, I had no idea how it would play out. The sequences developed as I wrote, but each time I was in one character’s head, I left them at a critical juncture. Hopefully this will induce you, the reader, to keep turning pages to see what happens next.

In summary, to increase suspense, isolate your main characters and leave each one in jeopardy or fearing for the other’s safety at the end of each sequence. Switch back and forth, until they meet again. This technique has been used successfully in many thrillers, and you can deploy it for your story as well. Hook your readers and reel them in!

For more info on Silver Serenade, go to‑j‑cohen‑m‑831.html

5 thoughts on “Bait and Switch Tactics

  1. Great info thanks. Can I ask the next question though? How do you do a variation on this theme for first person point of view? Does it work as well when you can torment only one person? Or, is there a variation that would work better?

  2. With first person, you can use foreshadowing, as long as you’re careful about author intrusion. This means avoid phrases like “If only she’d known what waited around the corner” or “She missed the shadowy figure watching her from across the street” because you can tell the ominscient author is hovering in the air describing this scene. Certainly your hero/heroine can be worried about another character, can puzzle over a new finding, etc. but you must remain in her head at all times.

  3. A venerable technique from the old pulp days, Nancy, and it still works. The best example I can think of is Koontz’s STRANGERS, which was a 50 page SF story stretched to 700 by using multiple characters this way.

    Chaco, you can use “time lapse” in first person, if you use it judiciously. In time lapse, you bring the narrator to a cliffhanger. Then open the following chapter later in time (making the reader wait to find out how he got out of it).

    You can also use a “reflection.” Cliffhanger, then begin the next chapter with the narrator reflecting on some past event or present circumstance, so long as the reflection eventually relates to what happened to him in the cliffhanger. Again, the effect is to make the reader wait to find out exactly what happened.

  4. This is gold! Thanks. I’m revising and this will help me to re-examine and tighten my pacing. This is coming on vacation with me for the next couple of weeks. Perfect timing, great topic.

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