I FINALLY got my galley corrections in for THE UNSEEN. I know I grumped here about having to do that over the holidays – it seemed especially hard. But there was a silver lining under all the tediousness: I was surprised, even pleased, at how well the suspense was working in that book. And that reminded me that I never did post a follow-up post on specific suspense techniques, so that's what I'm going to do.
This is a huge overall suspense technique and there are many ways to achieve it.
Ask a question that you leave hanging. “But why does that mild mannered librarian have duct tape in the back of his car?” “But why won’t his stepmother let him go in that back room?” It will remain in the audience’s or reader’s mind and chafe. That sense of discomfort is a crucial element of suspense.
Another variation of this is: let a character, or many of them, lie.And then don’t have any other character call them on it. Let the reader notice the lie, let it bother them, and leave it hanging.
Use PLANTS – like showing that gun early on. Audiences and readers subliminally know that you wouldn’t be showing that gun if it wasn’t going to be used, so you set them up to expect violence.
Any twist or surprise will off-balance the reader/audience and keep them off balance. Set them up to expect one thing and give them something from left field.
LOWER THE READER’S/AUDIENCE’S DEFENSES
A classic suspense trick is to use water or sex or a combination of the two to get the audience or reader to unconsciously relax so you can really dial them up with the attack that’s coming. We’ve all seen this a million times, so much so that it’s often now played for comedy when a character gets into the shower or bathtub in a horror movie. But again, if you do it with a little imagination, it does work for a reason. A great example is in the first ALIEN, where Harry Dean Stanton is off on his own, searching for the alien in the bowels of the ship, and stops under a broken water pipe to wash off his face. He takes his time (and so do the filmmakers) enjoying the water… we feel the heat of the steamy tunnel, and the cool of the water ourselves. It’s as hard to resist as a neck massage, and our defenses go down. Same with a sex scene. This is a big example of why sensory detail, and sensual detail, is so hugely important in creating suspense.
USE THE PAVLOV EFFECT
Within the course of your own book or film, you can literally train your reader or audience to be scared on command.
JAWS does a great thing in the first act that establishes the white-knuckling suspense that film is famous for. Spielberg kills off two people in rapid-fire succession – the girl in the opening scene, the little boy on the beach. Spielberg is quickly and efficiently training us, Pavlov-style, to expect bloody mayhem any time anyone goes near the water, and he does it so well that after those two deaths, the whole film can slow down considerably and become more about character and theme. No one dies again for more than a half hour, but we’re still on pins and needles the entire time in anticipation of the next attack.
The other classic Pavlovian technique in that film is John Williams’ now iconic score – Da dump Da dump Da dump…. Every time we hear it our own blood pressure skyrockets, because we know it signals the approach of the shark.
Note that Spielberg and Williams don’t cheat with that technique, either. When the two boys manage to scare the bejesus out of the entire swimming community with their plastic fin, there is NO shark music underneath the scene; it’s a subtle invitation to the audience to figure out the shark is a fake.
I saw another good example of that Pavlovian association recently and it is driving me crazy that I can’t remember what film it’s from. It was a low-budget J-horror, and it’s probably better for you that I don’t Google it and give you the name, because you definitely don’t want to waste your time, but it does use this technique effectively. It shows a female character with long dark hair from behind, and when she turns, her face is hideously disfigured, and we jump. Yeah, yeah, what a cliché, right? Not to mention a total ripoff of RINGU! But it works – so that every time we see a shot of this woman from behind, we freeze up in anxiety, thinking we’re going to get another view of her face.
If you set up a negative association: linking a certain shot, or location, or person, or situation, with a bad scare, then you can keep your reader/audience unbalanced by the mere suggestion of that situation or person – or shark.
USE FALSE SCARES
One of the rules of comedy is: Always go for the joke. Well, likewise, one of the rules of suspense is: Always go for the scare.
How many times have we seen a bunch of birds fly up in a hero’s face, or a cat drop off a refrigerator (in TERMINATOR it was an iguana), freaking the heroine and audience out with a false scare? Well, while you do run the risk of cliché or outright stupidity, false scares are a staple of suspense for a reason, and if your story has gone too long without suspense, I suggest you try putting in a false scare – mainly for this reason: Very often brainstorming on a false scare will give you an idea for a real, organic, scare.
LAYER JEOPARDY INTO A SCENE
This is something I usually do in my dedicated suspense pass when I see a scene that’s just flat or too expositional. Say I have a character who needs to get some information out of a library, or from someone at an office, or in a hospital. I can have the character simply ask the appropriate personnel for help, but there’s not much suspense in that. How much better is it to have the character have to break in somewhere, or sneak in, to get that file or that book? Suddenly you have stakes, suspense, jeopardy – in a scene that could have been just flat exposition.
It’s a very simple trick, but hugely effective, and you’ll find that once you start brainstorming about why that particular file is lo
cked up and what the danger is to the heroine if she’s caught while sneaking in to get it, the scene will come alive and possibly give a whole new layer of meaning to the story.
Again, go for the scare.
LET THE READER/AUDIENCE IN ON SOMETHING THE MAIN CHARACTER DOESN’T KNOW.
You’ve seen and probably used this yourself this a million times – a film cuts away to the killer coming back to the house when the hero is searching it. But always be looking for interesting variations on this technique. One of the most awful and heartbreaking examples I know is in PET SEMATERY, in the beautiful scene when the father and son are out flying a kite for the first time. At the end of the scene, in a simple sentence that you might miss if you’re a skimmer like I am – I’m paraphrasing because I couldn’t find the book this morning – “He had no idea that at that moment Gage had only two weeks to live.”
(Of course, I could do a whole post, and just might have to, on the structure of fate in that book. Every single thing about it leads inevitably to that horrific conclusion.)
USE INNER MONOLOGUE –
The easiest way to make a reader feel unease is to let her or him in on the character’s unease. Let her imagine a shadowy stalker behind her (whether it’s there or not). Take your time to put your character through the physical sensations of fear, and let the reader experience the physical sensations of fear with her.
A variation on inner monologue, but very effective, when a character has a premonition of danger to come.
Again, PET SEMATERY has a great example of a premonition, when early in the book the father is carrying his son up the stairs and has a moment of sheer, unfocused, primal terror. (It’s also important in a book or film like that to warn the audience or reader that this is not going to end happily, otherwise they will feel ripped off when things go to such dark places in the end. PAN’S LABYRINTH did this well in the beginning, too… you’re prepared for the girl to die, even though you forget the beginning.)
Let’s face it, most of us do have moments like this once in a while, and premonitions are realistic in the context of a thriller because danger heightens ALL our senses and makes us more perceptive to clues around us. I very, very strongly recommend that every suspense and thriller writer read Gavin deBecker’s THE GIFT OF FEAR. It’s a non-fiction book by security consultant to the stars deBecker which provides fascinating accounts of ordinary people’s lifesaving perceptions. Unmissable, and not just for writers – it's essential self-defense stuff for all.
END EACH CHAPTER WITH A CLIFFHANGER
This may be as simple as asking a question that is set up but not answered, but you should strive to make every one of your chapters or scenes end with some sort of cliffhanger that makes that reader have to turn the page.
If you find your chapters are NOT ending with cliffhangers, then you may be breaking the chapter or scene at the wrong moment. Go back through it and see if there’s some other logical break that will create the suspense you’re looking for: break when the doorbell rings, but without revealing who’s behind the door, so that the reader will turn the page to find out who’s at the door. It really can be that simple.
Another way to amp up the urgency and make the reader want to turn the page is to have the character voice a question, either silently or aloud, that s/he really wants the answer to. If the character wants it, the reader or audience will likely want it, too.
STATE WHAT THE CHARACTER IS LOOKING FOR
– the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the Maltese Falcon, the file, the book – and state it often. If there’s not a specific object, have the character repeatedly ask the question that s/he wants the answer to. It may not be suspense, exactly, but it builds emotion by creating impatience and urgency and a desire in the audience to get the answer, and when the character finally finds the – whatever – the reader or audience will be just as excited as the character.
Suspense is emotional manipulation, so manipulating ANY emotion will increase the suspense of your story.
In fact, besides doing a suspense pass, I also find it hugely useful in the later stages of revision to do an EMOTIONAL PASS, in which I read a script or a manuscript putting myself into the frame of mind of the reader, and just thinking of what I want the reader/audience to be experiencing in every scene.
These are just a few specific techniques, and once you start looking for them, you’ll notice all kinds of great tricks. Why not start a section in your personal story structure workbook just for notes on suspense tricks?
And fair’s fair – share!