Occasionally I talk to school children about writing. I begin by asking them how many sheets of paper it takes to write a novel. They guess, and suddenly they very much want to know the answer. No matter what their guesses are, they’re always shocked and horrified when I unveil the foot-high stack of handwritten yellow pages that make up the rough draft of one of my novels. They’ve just experienced suspense and a payoff in its simplest form.
This guest post is by bestselling author and writing authority Elizabeth Sims. She’s the author of seven popular novels in two series, including The Rita Farmer Mysteries and The Lillian Byrd Crime series. She’s also the author of the excellent resource for writers, You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, published by Writer’s Digest Books. Click here to order now.
When I ask what you need to write a story of suspense, inevitably one kid yells, “Put in a bad guy!”
Good advice, if obvious. The fact is, stories in all genres need suspense: Readers must stick with you to the end, and suspense is the foremost element that keeps them turning pages. Likewise, when you’re trying to write your way through to that teetering stack of a finished draft, a quick injection of suspense is a great way to keep your story’s engine fueled. Suddenly, you’ll very much want to write on to find the answer.
Here are a bouquet of ways to do just that, beyond the excellent suggestion of putting in a bad guy.
1. Point a finger.
Mary Renault’s historical novel The Persian Boy starts with a cataclysm: The death and destruction of the protagonist’s family and home. Before dying, his father screams the name of his betrayer. Well, guess who the Persian boy will meet up with later … much later?
This powerful scenario can work to create and maintain suspense in any genre. Any kind of betrayal will do: financial ruin, a broken heart, a lost opportunity.
2. Pull a false alarm.
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not only an instructive moral fable, it’s a nail-biter. As soon as you learn of the shepherd boy’s plan to get attention by screaming that a wolf is attacking the sheep, you just know a real wolf is bound to show up sooner or later.
You also know that the townspeople won’t like to be made fools of. Nobody does, which is why this technique works, whether in a sleepy town, a Wall Street office or an emergency room.
3. Build an oubliette.
Medieval lords would sometimes construct a simple pit below the castle floor, into which they would throw any captive they’d prefer to just forget. (Oubliette is French for forgotten place.) No screams could penetrate the heavy lid, and the screams were short-lived in any event.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” involves a blood grudge, settled when a man tricks his enemy into joining him in his wine cellar, then bricks him up in a cranny there. The suspense lies in wondering what Montresor has up his sleeve, as he lures Fortunato ever deeper into the catacombs.
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4. Plant a hazard, then wait.
Taking the concept of the oubliette a step further, in Charles Portis’s True Grit, outlaw Tom Chaney describes a snake pit into which he threatens to toss our heroine Mattie Ross. Then lots of other stuff happens. Eventually Mattie manages to shoot Chaney, but gets knocked backward by the recoil of her Colt.
The heart-clutching moment comes with the tumbling Mattie’s realization: “I had forgotten about the pit behind me!” The beauty is that the pit has been lurking in the back of readers’ minds all along.
Show us your hazard, then put time (and action) between its introduction and its use.
5. Make panic your friend.
Although causing a character to panic can be a cheap way to gin up suspense—the victim stumbles and falls, letting the killer overtake him—people sometimes do legitimately panic, and you can exploit that.
A believable way is to build a character who is flawed, especially a person who displays flawed judgment early on. Thus a panic move not only will be plausible, but somewhat expected. That anticipation alone can be suspenseful, and then when it happens the reader experiences a payoff—and a craving for more.
6. Water a plant.
Growth can be incredibly suspenseful. Think about it: You plant a seed and you water it. Will it be a stalk of wheat, or a vine of poison ivy? Horror novels from Rosemary’s Baby to The Bad Seed to Carrie and beyond have made use of this simple technique.
Watching a character develop over time can be suspenseful, especially if that character is a child with a pronounced pedigree: a mass murderer’s son conceived during a conjugal visit; a squeaky-clean politician’s daughter. Will this toddler turn out to be a drug-addicted prostitute, or a Nobel laureate?
7. Withhold the right stuff.
Keeping information from the reader can be a cheap trick, but there’s a right way to do it—by playing fair.
In his novella The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle keeps the secret of Birdy Edwards’ identity from the other characters and from the reader—but everybody’s given the same information. Characters and readers alike have a chance to interpret the clues, so when you come to the payoff, either you’ve figured it out already and your suspicions are satisfyingly confirmed, or it’s a breathtaking reveal immediately followed by, “Of course! I should have known!”
Withhold substance, but give tantalizing information.
8. Banish someone.
The ancients invented this one, which figures large from the Bible (God throws Satan out of Heaven) to modern tales (troublesome kid gets sent to boarding school, dysfunctional narcissist gets kicked off the island).
What’s so great about banishing a character? We know he’s still out there. The malefactor broods on his punishment, grinds his axe and plans his revenge.
If you use an omniscient narrator or multiple-character POVs, you can flip back and forth from the banished to the peacefully complacent tribe, ratcheting up the tension by contrasting what everybody’s doing and thinking.
9. Rip it from the headlines.
The daily news is a terrific place to get ideas for suspense. Recently at a writing conference session I brought the morning paper (yes, it was a town that still has one) to show how easy it is to get story ideas.
As we worked, I realized that you really can find suspense in practically every section. Will the local skating pair make it to the Olympics? What if one of them is having an affair with the coach? Here’s an ad for a lost camera. A reward is involved. What images might be on that memory card? A happy family picnic? Maybe. Maybe not.
10. Fray an end.
One of my Hollywood friends recently told me of a simple, much-used movie trick to create a mood of suspense in an interior shot: Leave a cupboard door open. This visual cue suggests that things are unsettled, not composed, in need of attention.
On the page, little odd things that are not quite in order can create a subtle sense of tension in any scene. Think dangling apron strings, a guttering candle, a loose window latch, a jammed copy machine.
11. Fake ’em out.
The guard steps away for an illicit smoke, and we just know the homicidal maniac will escape. You could write it that way, but how much better would it be to bring the guard back a few minutes later to find all is well? Perhaps the second time the guard hears something, goes, “Oh, my God!” and races back, only to find the prisoner lounging peacefully in his cell.
As in the related yet subtly different example of crying wolf, obey the rule of three. On the third go—gone! Better still, because readers might be ready for the fake-out, have the payoff up the ante: The guard returns to find not only the prisoner gone, but the cell full of the bloody bodies of the warden and his family.
12. Stash someone.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the nosy but basically OK guy Polonius hides behind a tapestry to eavesdrop; when
he makes a sound, Hamlet stabs the tapestry wildly, believing he is stabbing his enemy Claudius. The terrible mistake is one of the great heart-clutching moments
In the still-popular children’s classic Harriet the Spy, young Harriet discovers how useful simply hiding is: You can watch and listen, undetected. You must wait. Suspense is inherent in such a situation: What if you sneeze? What if a dog comes along and detects the candy bar in your pocket?
Hiding can, like many of the examples in this article, be used figuratively. A character can hide behind a stolen identity, a lie or even the fog of war.
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13. Seat a pigeon on a stool.
It’s no mystery why so many cop stories and thrillers feature informants. A change of heart or—more commonly—fear of jail has caused many a criminal to drop a dime. It gets most exciting when they hit the streets wearing a recording device, under orders to gather incriminating evidence.
A friend familiar with law enforcement tells me that today’s wires are essentially undetectable. But there is still excellent tension inherent in an informant trying, with all her sweaty-palmed guile, to get the goods on hoods.
14. Put a mask on it.
I love to use disguise and impersonation in my novels because: 1) Suspense begins to build the moment you show a character preparing for the ruse; and 2) It can be funny to construct a fish-out-of-water scenario where, for instance, a private detective brazenly impersonates a homeless drunk, or a reporter tries to pass as a plainclothes nun.
We expect a professional undercover agent to do pretty well at escaping detection. But when it’s an amateur entering a dangerous situation, your readers will be on the edge of their seats from the get-go.
15. Amp the unknown.
The unknown is a time-honored suspense component, especially useful for horror, sci-fi or paranormal. Stephen King, for one, has built a colossal career by using the unknown, primarily manifested by the paranormal, typified by his gripping novel The Shining.
But I think one of the greatest examples of the unknown as a suspense-builder is in Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance Jane Eyre. At last Jane has escaped the miserable Lowood charity school, to work as a governess in a mansion with a most sexy master. But—there’s something weird going on in that attic! And that drives the suspense all the way to the end.
16. Put a symbol to work.
I enjoy a good symbol or two in a story, and it’s even better if the symbol incorporates suspense. Look to nature: Natural processes are inexorable, and they’re understood by all humans instinctively. A beautiful lake can represent the water of life, or it can symbolize something more unsettling if, for instance, your story begins in autumn, the first frosts skimming the lake with morning mists, eventually to transform the water into something cold, hard and dangerous.
17. Flip the hourglass, then flip it again.
In his café-society thriller A Season in Purgatory, Dominick Dunne skillfully works with time for maximum suspense. From the start we know a murder occurred many years ago, and we know the murderer will be exposed, because the narrator is describing a criminal trial. But then we’re transported back to the real beginning, where everybody is young and cute and—notably in the case of the victim—alive.
How was the crime committed, how was it hidden, how was it exposed? We won’t be satisfied until we flash forward again to the conclusion.
18. Double down on debt.
Any good gangster knows that you do people favors before asking any from them. Because when people are in your debt, you can more easily persuade them to do something for you.
This technique can work in any scenario—a political boss and his constituents (or underlings), a nasty sibling rivalry, a group of friends on holiday at a health spa.
I kept your secret, now you keep mine. Capisce?
19. Isolate ’em.
Isolation of a select character or group of characters intensifies the most ordinary circumstances into suspenseful ones. Consider all those closed-room murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, as well as stuck-on-a-boat adventure tales such as Jack London’s The Sea Wolf and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
Plays can be great venues for the isolation breed of suspense—by default we have characters in close proximity to one another onstage, and we know rats in a cage will fight eventually. How else might you create isolation—which, by the way, can be temporary? How about a stuck elevator, a sudden storm, even a flat tire?
20. Throw a monkey wrench.
When you use an accident in an overt attempt to try to write yourself out of a jam, your readers will squawk. In public. In their reviews on Amazon. On Goodreads.
The fact remains, however, that accidents do happen. And a sudden, unexpected disaster instantly ramps up tension. Plausibility is the key.
It’s certainly plausible for a young, green getaway car driver to panic and crash into a hotel … maybe even the same one that’s hosting the police chief convention, forcing the gang to separate as they flee on foot. It’s plausible that the mob capo will insist that the assassination be moved up a day when his daughter goes into labor with his first grandchild, in spite of the fact that the groundwork hasn’t been properly laid yet.
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21. Get your head into it.
My routine for developing notes, ideas and a working outline for a Writer’s Digest article is to spend the day at a large urban library. In the case of this article, after completely losing myself in my subject of suspense, I broke for a nice little lunch at a nearby bistro. A fruit fly got too enticed by my glass of Rioja and drowned therein.
Fishing out the micro-corpse, I looked around furtively and wondered, “Oh, God, how will I dispose of the body?” I swear to you, for a moment I really felt I had something to hide.
This is exactly the frame of mind you as an author should cultivate, by living and breathing your writing. If you do it, you’ll have a great chance your readers will stick with you, breath bated, to the end.
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