I’ve learned so much about suspense since writing my first book. One thing I’ve learned in fiction, and movies, is that surprise can be overrated.
Surprise is two seconds of “Boo!” Suspense is ten minutes of “Oh, No! Will she die or not?” We’ve all heard go for suspense when you can--and for a reason. It keeps the reader turning pages. This means the reader needs to know a few things (without giving it all away) so they can predict what will come--and feel smart about it. Readers love feeling smart. Don’t we all? ?
I’ve discovered that if we meet the reader in the middle and let them feel smart, they will stick with us.
But how can we, as writers, meet the reader in the middle to create suspense? Here are 7 ways:
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we all know what Hogwarts Castle looks like, don’t we? But if you go through the book, there are very few descriptions about it. It’s introduced only as a vast castle with lots of turrets and towers. When Harry enters it, we’re teased with brief images of flaming torches and a magnificent staircase. That’s it. The reader must fill in the rest with imagination.
By giving the reader flashes of the setting here and there, we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and … build suspense.
Not just one, but many. Drop them here and there. Don’t make it tidy. Make it mayhem with meaning. But make sure those drops do have meaning.
If a knife appears hanging on the wall in the beginning, the reader will question why it’s there and believe that the knife has importance down the road. (So, make sure you show its reason later.)
Make the reader ask: What happens next? In Watchers by Dean Koontz, we witness a depressed man who goes off to commit suicide at a canyon. Will he or won’t he go through with it? Then he meets a highly intelligent dog and fears for his life from an unknown stalker. Through the dog he meets a timid woman who intrigues him.
Now we have more questions. Who is this dog? Who is this stalker? How are they connected? Who is this woman? Why is she so shy?
New novelists can often be afraid of revealing their best stuff early on. Fear can make a writer hoard their best stuff for a surprise later. But the reader can get bored with waiting, and surprises are overestimated.
Hitchcock, the Master of Film Suspense, used this to build his tension in his movies. He gave the audience information the characters knew and also didn’t know, such as the bomb located under their desk.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
Yikes! We’re given all the information we need to suspect death is looming. Now we wonder, will the character die? So, what makes this suspenseful? Because we spend ten minutes hoping beyond hope the character we love doesn’t die! In the movies or on the page.
Movies can provide great visuals for how writers can create suspense. Multiple setups can lead to one big suspense payoff. It’s the knowing what’s about to happen, and then it happens.
In The Godfather, Michael Corleone plans to kill two mob leaders he meets for dinner. We see the murder planning. The discussion of where to meet. The finding of the gun in the bathroom as a weapon. The wondering of whether Michael will or won’t do it. The knowing that his life will be forever changed if he does.
Creating suspense with a big picture buildup can also create surprise. Here is where surprise can work if everything that led up to the surprise is exposed in a new way.
The big moment at the end in The Sixth Sense isn’t just a surprise--it rearranges everything we know about the events we’ve seen beforehand in a new way. Did you guess it coming or were you totally surprised?
Provide a suspense setting that creates feelings of heightened anxiety. Give the reader the portent of doom. The setting of a scene can have a significant impact on its mood. Use sensory details to build on those feelings–a sudden wind, a stormy sky, a rising stench, a jarring noise. Use world building to create suspense.
Here’s a scene example of how I aimed for this in my suspense novel, A Human Element:
The sky darkened suddenly. She looked up. Black clouds, thick and angry rolled overhead. Her heart raced faster. The bad feeling screamed again inside her.
“Let’s go inside for now.” Laura tugged on her mother’s sleeve. They would be safer in the house. She just knew it.
“But we can’t let our chores go.” Fanny’s fingers flew across the peas.
Slit. Pop. Slit. Pop.
Wind whipped around the corner of the house. It knocked over Laura’s basket.
So … do you think something bad is coming?
I know, you’re saying whaaat? But, yes. Slow down real time to show the full 360 degrees of the scene. In real life action happens fast. But it’s our job as writers to not show real life. That would be boring and over with in a flash. Show all the angles of the scene to build suspense. Use all the senses. Add complications.
In Robert Goolrick’s, A Reliable Wife, he moves achingly slow to build suspense. In the beginning scene, a man waits at a train station. Nothing is happening. But so much is happening. And so much is to come.
His first paragraph tells us:
It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o’clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children.
Oooh, right? Look at his words. Bitter. Electric. Dead. Still. Frozen. Besides going slow he’s also setting the mood with his word choices. These are not soft words. We have a sense of doom. For eleven pages at the train station, Goolrick goes slow to build suspense and tension all by focusing on one man’s thoughts and the people who flow around him.
Think that’s going slow? The master of suspense, Dean Koontz, builds suspense over seventeen pages in Whispers with an attempted rape scene.
This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be flawless. Giving them flaws makes them more appealingly human, but you won’t create suspense if nobody gives a hoot about your characters.
Suspense is emotional. It’s about revealing some, but not all.
And if the reader cares they’ll go out on that limb and meet you in the middle. Build it halfway to create suspense, and they will come.
What techniques have you used to build suspense in your writing? What memorable examples have you read in a book or seen in a movie that represented great suspense building to you?
Donna Galanti is the author of the bestselling paranormal suspense Element Trilogy and the children’s fantasy adventure, Joshua and The Lightning Road series. She is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc. Donna is a contributing editor for International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine and regularly presents as a guest author at schools. She’s lived from England as a child, to Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer.
Donna has long been a leader in the Mid-Atlantic writing scene as a workshop presenter and is a writing contest judge at nycmidnight.com. Donna also loves teaching writers about building author brand and platform through her free training series at yourawesomeauthorlife.com. Visit her author website at donnagalanti.com.
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Thanks so much for having me on today! I love sharing techniques about building suspense and am always looking for new techniques to practice as well. Would love to hear everyone's ideas on this!
So much great info! Thanks for being here, Donna.
Thank you Donna. I really enjoyed your post. I can see your seven points can be applied to pretty much any genre. I would not say my novel is suspense fiction, yet this is my aim - to make the reader care, drop them into scenes that will make them squirm, and keep them wondering right to the end how my characters will fare.
Jay, even though you wouldn't say your story is suspense fiction you nailed it with a good point - that you can have suspenseful elements in any story. Making them squirm and wonder is right one!
I agree, in that even my contemporary YA can have better tension using Donna's ideas!
Great tips, Donna! Just wanted to add a note that the interplay between raising questions, answering them, and then raising new questions is key to creating story movement. Raising the story question from the outset is key to creating the psychological tension that will keep the reader engaged with your protagonist (will she be able to get away from her captor?), but suspense ebbs and flows in smaller arcs as scene goals with high stakes emerge (she hears the key in the padlock, the turn of the knob, and his footsteps on the stairs as he returns). The “suspense novel” genre aside, suspense isn’t so much a full-novel technique as one to consider using on a scene-to-scene basis. We need ebbs and flows to recharge, right?
Thank you, Kathryn, for sharing. Enjoyed reading your comment.
Kathryn, right on! We absolutely need ebbs and flows. Raising questions is key to creating story movement while also adding intrigue and suspense - and driving the reader on to keep turning the pages. Tension is also key for suspense but also for any story no matter the genre and audience. I like the idea of considering that suspense is not a broad sweep for your novel but rather as needed on a scene-by-scene basis. We need those "down times" as well for the storm to calm and the characters to reflect, digest, then make decisions and keep moving forward.
I agree, Kathryn, that the suspense ebbs and flows. Some of these moments Donna highlights are ones ripe with questions and tension, but in a more subtle way.
This is a really great post. I'm not that great at suspense and I found these tips very helpful. Thank you for sharing, Donna.
Thanks Maggie! What I find about suspense techniques is that you can use them in any kind of novel from women's fiction to middle grade fantasy to horror. It's a way to draw the reader in to keep reading to find out what is going to happen - and allow them to play a part in the story to guess what will happen based on the clues we leave behind building to a reveal. Glad this was a helpful post for you!
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Maggie! Love Donna's follow-up comment...so true.
"Go slow," is my new motto. Thanks for a great post with helpful tips!
Glad that's a takeaway for you Vanessa! I have to remind myself of this to "go slow" as well. When I'm writing an exciting scene for the first time I tend to race through it as my characters are often racing along, but then I know I must go back and slow things down and layer in tension and suspense if needed.
Funny how we home in on what we need to take away, Vanessa! Because #2 (Introduce questions early on) hit me more intensely. Glad you got something from Donna's wonderful post!
Wonderful information that can be used in any genre. Thanks so much for sharing.
Agreed! Thanks, Christine.
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Such a wonderful post. I loved the title of meeting your readers in the middle and when I read the title I thought about those messy muddled middles of stories and adding these techniques of suspense at that turning point would be an idea. Thanks for the inspiration.
Hi there, yes those muddled middles! This might be a good spot to look to add suspense and in doing so it may take your story in a new direction that raises it above the muddle. 🙂
Great point! That's a wonderful application of Donna's thoughts here. 🙂
Great post. I think suspense, those questions that you need to have answered, is what drives you to read a book again and again because they take on a new meaning and you get a whole new thrill.
I was surprised at the end of The Sixth Sense although I seem to be one of the few.
I love your comment here! I too love to re-read books or watch movies to experience a different reaction the second or third time. I also love to dissect the scenes to see how it worked. Whenever I'm stuck in my own story I often pull down books with similar themes/scenes by acclaimed authors to see how they did it. Often this sparks my own creativity to figure it out. (And the end of The Sixth Sense surprised me too and I'm glad I was!).
You know...I've never seen The Sixth Sense. And part of the reason is, by the time I could see it (it released when I had a 2-year-old and another on the way), I already knew the ending, and then it felt like I'd be cheated to watch it and never get that *gasp* moment other people talk about. Oh well! Maybe someday...
And besides, I've been nicely surprised by many a well-written novel with great suspense!
I was stunned by the end of the Sixth Sense, Littlemiss! One of my all time faves now. Julie - do not sleep. Do not pass go. Do not breathe until you watch that movie!!! Sucks that the ending got ruined for you, but still well worth the watch.
Nice work, Donna. I write narrative nonfiction that without suspense would fail.
Bryan, thanks for putting this out there! I agree. I feel that one of my favorite non narrative writers, Jon Krakauer, does this well in his books. When it comes to real events, adding suspenseful elements can draw us in and keep us reading the pages just like fiction. I think it's even more exciting because we know the events are real and therefore have that added excitement to them. My favorite of his with this is Into Thin Air.
Love that application to narrative nonfiction, Bryan!
Oh Donna, this is brilliant! I love suspense, but never thought about all the ways it can be revealed. 'Mayhem with meaning'. Saving this one!
Laura, glad this resonated with you! It can be super fun to drop in these suspenseful elements that can seem like mayhem to the reader but all build to a deeper meaning.
Thanks for an excellent post, Donna. During the rewrite of a short novel, I'm practicing offering questions and as the story progresses, dropping in bits of backstory to answer them & create new questions. Your post provides useful tips.
Nan, thanks for sharing! Raising questions and dropping in backstory as you go is a good plan. Knowing the right questions to raise and the right backstory at key moments can enrich your story. When I go through revision passes I often notice repetition with backstory so then I must decide where are the best places to reveal such information just once. Good luck!
A timely post for you then, Nan! Good to hear.
I know I'm reading a good suspense novel when my heart is racing. I love when an author can write with that much passion. Will they survive, be caught, find the suspect, find the missing in time...
That is a great way to know gauge your response! I find my heart racing too and reading faster and then go back and slow down and often re-read my favorite parts. I love when an author builds then shocks me so I must re-read to let it sin in deeper. Nancy Pickard did this for me in a very early scene of The Virgin of Small Plains (great read!)
Interesting about gauging your heart racing. I find my fists clenching. 🙂
Me too Julie! I am known to rip pages a bit - LOL!
Truly a wonderful post, Donna. Thanks so much. I've logged these tips away and also shared the post online. It's always about the writer being in control of her story and having the reader ask the right questions and not be totally lost within your story.
Thanks for sharing Victoria! And you make a wonderful point about the writer being in control of the story! I make reference to this in my school visits with young students about how if something isn't working in their story that they can change the setting, or dialogue, or, plot. They can mix it up and add to it - just like we grownup writers can. We are in charge of our words and evoking the response we aim for from our readers. 🙂
This was a great post! So many points to keep in mind. Thanks!