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How to Use Surprise to Build Suspense

This guest post is from Jane K. Cleland, author of Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Writing Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats, the award-winning Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series, and four nonfiction books.

suspense, structure, plot

Cleland chairs the Black Orchid Novella Award, one of the Wolfe Pack’s literary awards, granted in partnership with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and is a past chapter president of the Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter. She is also the host of the Writer’s Room, a series of interviews with authors and industry professionals that appears on cable television and online (BronxNet).

In addition, Cleland is a member of the full-time faculty of Lehman College, where she is also the Director of the Program for Professional Communications. She mentors MFA students in the Western Connecticut State University MFA in Creative and Professional Writing Program and facilitates writing workshops, including Aspiring Writer’s Weekend and Memoir Writing, both sponsored by MIT/Endicott House.

Today, she shares her insights on using surprise to create suspense in any genre.

In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut discussed their work during a marathon lasting fifty hours over five days. The two great directors and their French/English interpreter barely paused for meals. It was during this conversation that Hitchcock gave his famous surprise versus suspense example—the bomb planted in the café. He used this example to demonstrate that contrary to popular belief, suspense is far more engaging than surprise.

Say you have a scene where two characters are talking in a café, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table—the audience experiences surprise. Your readers’ emotional and physiological reactions are likely to be similar to the heart-stopping adrenaline rush a child feels the first time he opens a jack-in-the-box. Can you remember your first time? If you’re like most people, you were startled, and for a few seconds, the experience was all consuming. You didn’t think of anything else; you didn’t notice anything else. Your entire focus was on processing what had just happened. That’s the power of surprise.

Contrast that experience with this one: You witness a man approach a café where two people are drinking coffee while enjoying a pleasant chat. You see the man step behind a column and turn an old-fashioned alarm clock to one o’clock. The clock is taped to a bomb. A clock mounted on a nearby wall informs you it’s 12:45. You watch as the clock ticks down the time. It’s 12:49. The people keep chatting. It’s 12:52. The woman laughs. It’s 12:57. They finish their coffee. It’s 12:59. How do you feel now? If you’re like most people, you’re holding your breath, waiting for the explosion—or for a hero to rush in and save the day. This approach, showing the viewer or the reader what’s going on, translates into fifteen minutes of suspense; all the immediate explosion bought us was fifteen seconds of surprise.

The difference between the immediate explosion and the one we anticipate is that in the latter example, we were fully informed. While the surprise flared up, catching you unaware, the suspense slowly burned, drawing you in.

This asks the question, of course, that if suspense is so much more gripping than surprise, and if the effect is more lasting, why use surprise at all? The answer provides a twofold peek in the writer’s toolbox. First, surprise can delight on its own, and second, it is one of the most reliable ways to launch your readers into situations fraught with heightened tension—a cornerstone of suspense.

The best surprises add significant insights to the characters involved in that surprise, while setting up future suspenseful situations. For example:

As my 83-year-old mother and I inched across the mall parking lot that winter, she confided that she hated walking like an old lady, always on the lookout for black ice, always wearing sensible shoes. She wanted to stride along with the movers and shakers wearing the high heels that showcased her million-dollar legs.

A week later she slipped on a patch of ice and crash-landed on the sidewalk.

That my mother slipped is a surprise. I foreshadowed it a bit, but there was no particular reason for you to see it coming. That unexpected turn of events is a hallmark of surprise and helps differentiate it from suspense. To keep your readers on the edge of their seats, you need to integrate surprises that lead slowly, inexorably, and with deadly calm, to suspense. In order to do so, you need to understand what makes a surprise effective.

The Anatomy of Surprise

There are good surprises, like an unexpected visit from a much-loved distant friend or relative, and bad surprises, like an unexpected cancer diagnosis. Good or bad, all surprises share one key characteristic—they’re unforeseen. Integrating surprises into your stories can delight, intrigue, captivate, titillate, move, worry, and/or inspire your readers. The trick is to set them up so they feel fitting, not merely plunked down for effect. You’ll notice that I set up my mother’s fall by showing (not mentioning) her fear of falling. The surprise felt appropriate because it was logical given the situation.

To ensure surprises feel natural, while still astounding your readers, think opposites. What can your character do or say that is opposite to what is expected? My mother, you’ll recall, preferred high heels. The opposite is clomping along in sturdy shoes and slipping anyway.

Surprises delight readers, but they must be formulated with care. You need to maintain the integrity of your story and your characters. You also need to ensure you avoid out-of-nowhere situations. You can’t write a traditional mystery, for example, then change course and reveal that the killer is an alien, based on the idea that it’s a “surprise.” Neither can you write a romance with mysterious twins who suddenly appear for the first time two chapters from the end. That’s not a surprise; that’s cheating.

The principle of keeping readers as informed as possible not only applies to crime fiction, but to all writing, including memoirs, such as the one about my mom.

The call informing me my mother was en route to the hospital came from a firefighter. My mother fell in front of the firehouse near her Boston apartment. She was bruised and a little banged up, but otherwise fine. Mostly, she was tickled pink to have been ministered to by three handsome firefighters.

“They’re all so good looking,” she said as I drove her home from the emergency room. “Do you think it’s a requirement of the job?”

A week later we delivered thank you cookies.

The next Saturday, she fell again.

Ready to keep your readers on the edge of their seats? Check out Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot, available now in the Writer's Digest shop. 

The Difference Between Surprise and Suspense

Once you understand how surprise can lead to suspense, you can masterfully drop in moments of surprise without sacrificing the slow build-up of tension that is suspense. The following are three tried-and-true techniques: a first occurrence of an unexpected event, an anomaly, and the revelation of a previously unknown fact.

A First Occurrence of an Unexpected Event

Consider the famous spontaneous combustion scene in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In chapter thirty-two, a rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers named Krook (irony in his name intended), whose diet seems limited to gin, burns to ash through spontaneous combustion.

The novel’s primary plot revolves around a court case, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, in which the court must determine which of several wills is the valid one. With so many potential beneficiaries, the consequences of the decision reach far and wide. Krook’s demise, while shocking, serves an important role. It allows access to his papers and creates more than one suspenseful moment as characters search through his hoard. When they find a document that relates to the case, the payoff is clear. The surprise, the spontaneous combustion, is effective and appropriate because it leads to a suspenseful search.

An Anomaly

When children see a clown they expect fun surprises, so discovering that the clown in Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It, is not the benevolent character it appears to be, but the manifestation of evil, is an astounding surprise; it is an anomaly.

The novel is set in a small town in Maine and alternates between two time periods: the late 1950s and the mid 1980s. We learn that It, an apparently bubbly clown named Pennywise, has eaten children, his preferred prey, and adults, too, for hundreds of years. That Pennywise has succeeded in feeding on children for generations and has just awakened from its twenty-seven-year hibernation, creates a sense of impending doom. As Pennywise sets its sights on each new victim, tension ratchets up. What starts as a surprise morphs into suspense.

The Revelation of a Previously Unknown Fact

In Seconds, first published in 1963, author David Ely crafts a tale around the theme that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. A secret organization known only as the Company offers dissatisfied people an opportunity for a second chance. You can cast off your boring life and live the life you always dreamed of. The Company stages your death, including leaving behind a corpse that looks like you. They give you a fresh identity, complete with evidence of your accomplishments. Through experimental surgery, you’re given a new, younger, more attractive look. Life is, on the surface, perfect. Only later, when we learn how they harvest the bodies they need to stage their clients’ deaths, do we see what has been going on behind the scenes. This shocking revelation is a complete surprise; then as suspense mounts, surprise turns into dread, a by-product of suspense.

If you don’t use surprise to build suspense, you risk the unexpected event coming across as contrived. When you allow the stunning situation to contribute to a deeper story line, your readers will feel gratified.

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