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How to Write Suspense Like Stephen King

Aside from the fact that no less an authority than William Faulkner recommends reading widely in different styles and genres, there's still another compelling reason why you might want to study Stephen King's novels no matter what kind of writing you do. King is the number one horror writer in America, but you don't have to like horror to learn from him, you don't have to like thrillers, you don't even have to like modern American fiction. The key reason for reading Stephen King is suspense, and as we'll see in a moment, in this excerpt from Fiction Writing Master Class by William Cane, suspense is one of the most important tools of the storyteller.

In your development as a writer, you've likely been told to develop your own unique writing style, as if it were as simple as pulling it out of thin air. But finding your voice isn't easy—it requires time, practice, and a thorough understanding of how great fiction is written.

Fiction Writing

Fiction Writing Master Class analyzes the writing styles of twenty-one superior novelists, including Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Franz Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Ray Bradbury, and many others. This fascinating and insightful guide mines the writing secrets of these exceptional authors and shows you how to use them to develop a writing style that stands out in a crowd.

You'll discover how to:

  • Create characters as memorable as Herman Melville's Captain Ahab
  • Master point of view with techniques from Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Pick up the pace by keeping your sentences lean like Ernest Hemingway
  • Incorporate sensual details like James Bond creator Ian Fleming

Analysis reveals that there are three steps that Stephen King invariably employs to create suspense. First, he mentions or provides hints about something that can produce either reader curiosity, or 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, since 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.

Remember that in Stephen King’s novels, suspense is usually centered on creating reader worry. Put more simply, he wants the reader to feel that something bad is going to happen to some character the reader cares about. For example, the situational suspense in Misery (1987) is clear from the moment readers realize that Paul is imprisoned in Annie’s house and is at her mercy. Much of the worry is created by the thoughts of our imprisoned hero: “She’s going to go out now. She’s going to go out and I’ll hear her pouring the rinse-water down the sink and maybe she won’t come back for hours because maybe she’s not done punishing me yet.” Paul’s worrisome internal monologue continues throughout the entire book; whenever something bad might happen the hero worries about it, and as a result (since readers sympathize with him) readers worry about it too.

The setup of the story in Misery is a device that creates a pattern of continued suspense. Of course the situation is revealed to us largely through the viewpoint character’s thoughts, but the situation itself is a separate device used by King to create suspense. The physical confinement of the hero and the fact that he is partly paralyzed is, in itself, enough to create worry. Add to this the fact that his caretaker is a sadist and you have the setup of a situation that is highly fraught with danger. Anyone in (or reading about) such a situation would feel apprehension about what might happen next. The callback technique is brought into play whenever Annie says, “Now I must rinse.” The first time she says it, she tortures Paul; the recurrence of the phrase reminds readers that more punishment is on the way. The payoff and highpoint of the suspense occurs at the end of the novel when Paul finally attacks and burns Annie from his sickbed, managing to kill her at last through herculean effort.

In The Stand (1978) similar apprehension is created after the virus claims its first victims. The first part of the novel centers on the effects of the virus, and during this introductory section King lets us know how bad things might become, it is partly through internal monologue. For example, Stu Redman thinks: “It hit you like the flu or a summer cold, only it kept on getting worse, presumably until you choked to death on your own snot or until the fever burned you down. It was highly contagious.” In the second part of the novel, the suspense increases as a group of people struggle to save and rebuild the world after the destruction wrought by the virus. During these two sections, the virus itself functions as a callback, reminding readers that more destruction might occur at any moment. And the third part of the story provides the payoff as readers witness two political factions in a final apocalyptic confrontation.

Suspense is one of the most powerful tools a writer has for captivating readers—but it isn't just for thrillers. From mainstream fiction to memoir, suspense creates the emotional tension that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plotis your hands-on guide to weaving suspense into your narrative. Award-winning author Jane K. Cleland teaches you how to navigate genre conventions, write for your audience, and build gripping tension to craft an irresistible page-turner.

suspense, structure, plot

In this book, Cleland will show you how to:

  • Implement thirteen no-fail techniques to construct an effective plot for your story
  • Use Jane's Plotting Road Map to add elements of suspense like twists, reversals, and moments of danger
  • Write subplots with purpose
  • Improve your descriptions, character development, sentence structure, and more

Carrie, King’s first novel, shows him already a master of suspense, using anticipatory hints, callbacks, and payoff to increase reader worry. Throughout the novel we wait in anticipation for the heroine to use her telekinetic powers to exact vengeance on a town for the humiliation and ostracism she has endured. Suspense is increased when the girl’s overly pious mother reacts antagonistically after her daughter has been invited to the school ball: “Momma was staring at her with wide my-ears-are-deceiving-me eyes. Her nostrils flared like those of a horse that has heard the dry rattle of a snake.” A moment later, in disgust, the girls’ mother “threw her tea in Carrie’s face.” This is one in a series of humiliations that Carrie experiences. The reader expects there to be some reaction, but the rage that erupts during the payoff section, leaving many dead in town, is certainly the kind of overreaction that no one could predict.

By now it should be clear why King did not describe how to create suspense in On Writing: The method varies from book to book. What could he have said, after all—“Create suspense by having a character humiliated”? There’s no way that such a specific direction could come close to explaining all the artistry that goes into making Carrie work. For example, the main character has to be sympathetic, the bullies have to be real, the mother has to be motivated to be mean, and the reaction of rage has to be deftly drawn and hammered home during the payoff. In truth, it’s more helpful to be less specific and simply say you create suspense by making readers worry about something. It doesn’t have to be humiliation they’re worried about, either. The cause of worry, apprehension and anticipation will, of course, be unique to any particular story.

The best way to learn what Stephen King is not to read his book on writing but to read one of his novels … with a pen in hand. Circle sections that suggests a problem later down the line, such as The Shining, with 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 nights.

William Cane has had a distinguished career as a professor of English at CUNY and Boston College, where he helped a generation of students improve their prose by imitating great writers. Cane is the author of six books, including the international bestseller The Art of Kissing (St. Martin’s 1991; revised editions 1995 and 2005), which sold more than 100,000 copies in the U.S. and was translated into nineteen languages. The tremendous popularity of this title launched a series of successful follow-up books with St. Martins: The Book of Kisses (1993), The Art of Hugging (1996), The Art of Kissing Book of Questions and Answers (1999), and Kiss Like a Star (2007). Cane’s self-help title The Birth Order Book of Love was published by Da Capo / Perseus Books in 2008.


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