In literature, there is a concept called to place “a bear on the beach.”
The origin of the expression is said to come from a silent film where the director wanted a couple of lovers to kiss on a beach, but in order to keep the kiss scenes from being boring, the director cut in shots of a bear on the same beach. The audience waited breathlessly for the kissing couple to discover the bear.
The technique of placing a bear on the beach is about displaying a threat or future problem that the characters are not aware of. This problem or threat then creates tension and makes it possible to lower the pace some and go into important details such as the background of novel characters, details of the story world or other background information.
You’re able to slow down the tempo without reducing the tension.
The reader knows that the threat is there and every delay until the confrontation becomes like pushing a needle against a balloon that refuses to burst.
The difference between placing a bear on the beach and letting the protagonist confront the bear is that when the protagonist does not know about the threat, it is possible to do other things than to wrestle with the bear.
Examples of “a bear on the beach”
The antagonist plans to kidnap, rob or murder the protagonist, while the protagonist is happily and ignorantly going through their everyday life.
The protagonist has tea with the killer, plans to go on a date with the killer, or visit the psychopath in his cabin in the forest for an exclusive interview.
Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs can be seen as a bear on the beach. Somewhere we understand that if he will continue to be imprisoned throughout the book, he will become a rather flat character. Will he get out, or will Clarice stumble into his cage? As the book progresses, Harris spreads more and more details about Hannibal’s ruthlessness, increasing the tension more and more.
Another example is the White Walkers of Game of Thrones, at least as far as they allow an introduction of Ned Stark et al. In this case, though, the threat is not as much unknown as ignored. Or ridiculed. This stretched reader anticipation so far some commentators felt the characters of Westeros really, really should check up on that White Walkers thing. Unfortunately, at least in the TV adaption, the threat did not entirely live up to its potential.
In general, situations, where the reader knows that the protagonist is unaware of a dangerous person or situation, can be an example of “a bear on the beach.” Or the protagonist is entering a situation that is dangerous, preferably by deliberately planning to do something that for the protagonist does not seem so dangerous.
To consider when using “a bear on the beach”
This technique can create excruciating excitement if used properly, but there are a few things to pay attention to.
The more the reader is aware of the antagonist’s plans, the more urgent it is that the protagonist also becomes aware of these. Otherwise, there is a risk that the protagonist is perceived as stupid. But, if you want to do comics, there may also be a point in that.
However, this problem can be remedied with some subtlety. You don’t have to show the whole bear on the beach. Maybe it’s enough with fresh bear tracks? When the bear is more subtle, it becomes more ambiguous what is actually going on. It is not at all as obvious that the protagonist should know exactly what is going on because the reader may not be sure of it.
For example, we never get to know which flight plans Hannibal Lecter has in Silence of the Lambs. We never hear his thoughts and it is just before the flight that we understand that he is about to put his plan into action. Even then, Harris pushes the story even further, all the time not revealing more than that a deadly psychopath is about to escape.
The example of the White Walkers, at least the version of them in the TV adaption, also raises another flag. The longer you have that bear on that beach, the more the reader will anticipate it has some serious bite and consequence to the overall story.
Using eight seasons, as in Game of Thrones, to then just undo the whole threat with the equivalent of a glass jaw will make it feel more like a gimmick than a real part of the story. And whatever threat you use, it should definitely be part of the story. The longer you use it, the more significant.
Placing a bear on the beach, you make a promise to the reader of future drama, and you should absolutely keep that promise.
Using a bear on the beach can definitely draw out the excitement, but it must be done with finesse. Just because you have a bear on the beach does not mean that you can spend page up and down with backstories, information dumping or other prose that lacks action. The story still has to move! But it can move at a somewhat slower pace.