Analysis reveals there are three steps that Stephen King invariably employs to create suspense. First, he mentions or provides hints about something that can produce reader curiosity, a problem or a worry somewhere down the line. Second, he mentions this worrisome thing or idea a number of times after he first introduces it, and before the payoff. I refer to this second step as a callback because it’s similar to the way accomplished stage comedians refer to an earlier joke during the course of a set. Third, King brings suspense to a peak during the payoff, the section of the story where the horror is most intense.
The best way to learn what King does is not to read his book on writing but to read one of his novels … with a pen in hand. Circle sections that suggest a problem down the line. In The Shining, you might flag Hallorann’s warning about the Overlook Hotel, or Wendy’s worries about her husband’s drinking. Then, as you read the book, wait for the callbacks and mark them as you find them. This would include the sections where Danny passes Room 217 again, or where Wendy wonders about her husband’s drinking again, and so on. Finally, circle the payoff where the suspense is highest, such as where Danny enters Room 217, or where Jack’s madness causes him to attack Wendy with a roque mallet.
In this way you’ll learn the three essential steps for creating suspense: hints about worrisome things, callbacks and payoff. And before you know it, people reading your books won’t be able to sleep at night.
Excerpted from Write Like the Masters (Writer’s Digest Books) by William Cane. Grab your copy here.
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