Creating Suspense, Part 2

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.

Here's the first, to refresh everyone's memory:  Creating Suspense

So this is my number one overall recommendation:

DO A DEDICATED SUSPENSE PASS.

After I've written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it's amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes of you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense.

Unlike the techniques I discussed in that first post on suspense, which are more structural in nature, you don't have to get all of the following ones into your first draft – in fact it's probably more effective to use techniques like this after the structure of your story is solid.   A lot of these tricks are REWRITING techniques to keep in mind for your suspense pass.

KEEP THE READER OR AUDIENCE OFF-BALANCE.

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.”

Devastating. 

(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. 

USE PREMONITIONS.

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!

– Alex

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Previous articles on Story Structure:

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method 

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Creating Suspense

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

What Makes a Great Climax? 

Fairy Tale Structure and the List


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Story Structure Workshop:

I’m going to be teaching an online workshop of these techniques we’ve been talking about, for the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, during the month of February.   If you're interested, you can learn more about it here.

29 thoughts on “Creating Suspense, Part 2

  1. Allison Brennan

    Brilliant, as always Alex. I write romantic suspense, so I use sex . . . and water . . . or sex in water . . . to release tension, build emotion, and increase stakes. One thing I learned in the book STORY by Robert McKee (which I otherwise didn’t care for because it was so cumbersome and structure-orientated) is that to increase suspense (and not just in suspense, but in any genre) you raise at least two questions and answer at least one one in every chapter (and that one answer may not be from that chapter’s questions, and the answer itself may lead to more questions.) You need to give your reader something because you’re keeping them in suspense about the big questions. So in SUDDEN DEATH, my upcoming book, I just re-read the first chapter . . . I raise several questions. I have a dead body. He appears homeless. His murder is similar to like crimes in other states. These are obvious questions. Why would a killer target a homeless man? How is this murder (same MO) linked to two other crimes — a black, small businessman and a white, blue collar mechanic? Then we learn that the victim is wearing dog togs and may be a veteran. We now have a name and something to track. This also gives me the opportunity to get into my heroine’s past, as her father was a soldier who died in battle. So right away, this is more than just another homicide–this homeless man could have been her dad or anyone like him. Then as the crime scene techs go through the scene, we learn that there is evidence of two killers. My heroine (Megan) is thrilled because there appears to be a preponderance of evidence and she expects to catch the killers Then the cliffhanger–a use of author intrusion (or foreshadowing, which I love at the right moments) — “Megan didn’t know that in twenty-four hours, they’d have nothing. No tapes. No evidence. No body. And no jurisdiction.”

    Cornelia and I are in the same time zone . . . why are we up so late? Oh, right. WORK.

    Back to it. Tomorrow’s Saturday (or today?) and my kids (usually) will let me sleep in. So I can give it another hour . . .

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You two are up frighteningly late. I guess I’m up frighteningly early.

    Cornelia, I’m so glad it helped!

    And Allison, I just love you – THANK YOU for all those specific examples. I’d never heard that McKee – “raise two questions and answer at least one” trick – and I’ve taken his class. But that makes a lot of sense.

    That is a great hook for SUDDEN DEATH. and the line you quote is a perfect example of author intrusion (didn’t know that was what it was called!) and foreshadowing. (Or would it be called telegraphing?).

    I’m going to quote it again just to make sure people are getting this:

    “Megan didn’t know that in twenty-four hours, they’d have nothing. No tapes. No evidence. No body. And no jurisdiction.”

    That is SUCH a simple trick and it’s hugely effective to keep the reader turning pages. You read that and you know that something is going to go horribly wrong and you can’t wait to find out what happens.

    Reply
  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Brilliant post, as always. I’m so often working away at weekends and don’t get to read your posts until it’s a bit late to comment, but they’re invariably invaluable, if that isn’t too much alliteration.

    I LOVED this one about doing a suspense pass. Terrific idea and I’ll certainly be doing one if I EVER finish the current WIP. Argh!

    The only bit I might struggle to really adhere do is the “LET THE READER/AUDIENCE IN ON SOMETHING THE MAIN CHARACTER DOESN’T KNOW” as my series has a first-person protagonist. Any advice on that front?

    And I find that amping up the emotional content sometimes strays into the melodramatic. It’s a fine line I try not to cross ;-]

    Reply
  4. billie

    Yay – another installment. I just finished a suspense pass on a ms and it was invaluable to look at it from just that perspective. It’s always uncanny to me how many ‘seeds’ I’ve planted unconsciously that simply need a bit of tweaking.

    I wish you were teaching a class – a longer, full semester kind of class – where the students bring in their first (maybe second?) draft mss and work on taking it “to the next level.”

    Thanks again for the great info.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Z, I can see how letting the reader in on something the main character doesn’t know would n’t work in a completely first person book. I don’t do first person – not yet, so far – so I don’t know if there’s some equivalent.

    Certainly you can use it if you’re switching POVs, though, with a first person narration AND one or more third person POVs.

    But it’s a VERY common technique in film to break POV right before the third act to show the audience something the hero/ine doesn’t know – even if up until then the entire film has been from the main character’s point of view. VERTIGO is an excellent example.

    So if you look at it, you might figure out a way to do it with a first person protagonist – I don’t know!

    You can certainly use the technique Allison gave an example of above in first person, though:

    “I didn’t know that in twenty-four hours, I’d have nothing. No tapes. No evidence. No body. And no jurisdiction.”

    Reply
  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “It’s always uncanny to me how many ‘seeds’ I’ve planted unconsciously that simply need a bit of tweaking.”

    I completely agree, Billie – that’s why I love to do a dedicated suspense pass to bring those seeds out.

    As for teaching a longer intensive class, I appreciate the compliment… that would be in my vast available spare time, right? 😉

    Reply
  7. R.J. Mangahas

    As always, I get an education from these posts. I tried doing a suspense pass and it caused me to REALLY tighten the opening to my WIP.

    It went from a kind of drawn out bit to this:

    “As she watched from across the street, Sophie Carmichael kept thinking how surreal it was to be watching her own funeral.”

    Of course, things being as they are, this will probably change too. But at least now when I go back I have a better idea of what to look for when I do a suspense pass of the entire thing.

    Reply
  8. pam claughton

    Alexandra,

    Great post! I learn something everytime I visit this blog. Interestingly, I’m not writing a suspense novel, the current WIP is women’s fiction, but most of these suggestions for suspense are still helpful as I look for ways to up the stakes.

    Thank you, so much to think about now.

    ~Pam

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually, that’s a really good point, RJ – you can really amp up suspense by cutting non-suspenseful filler.

    Add that to the list: CUT, CUT, CUT.

    And Billie, I know, it’s a nice fantasy! I’d love to do something like that myself, but omg, my schedule….

    Reply
  10. Louise Ure

    Thank you, Alex. Great post and great examples and suggestions though I might quibble with two of them.

    “He had no idea that at that moment Gage had only two weeks to live.” Letting the audience know something the protag doesn’t has to be handled delicately, otherwise it becomes one of those trite “Had He But Known it Would Be the Last Time he’d See Sir Reginald Alive” moments.

    Same goes for cliffhangers. Done judiciously, they’re fine. On every chapter? No way. That would feel like clumsy foreplay.

    Reply
  11. Allison Brennan

    Louise, I completely agree with you and I do use the technique rarely–and not in every book. I can’t tell you how many times I got slammed in contests (RWA) for the opening line in what turned out to be my debut novel:

    “Rowan Smith learned about Doreen Rodriguez’s murder from the reporters camped out in her front yard Monday morning.”

    I loved that opening line and I wasn’t going to change it no matter how many judges told me it was 1) telling and 2) author intrusion.

    There were two reasons. First, it was a great hook. It instantly opened up questions. Who’s Rowan Smith? Who is Doreen Rodriguez? Why did someone kill her? Why would reporters be at Rowan’s house? Is she a celebrity or a criminal?

    The second was because the next several paragraphs (many a page and a half in the book) I show her waking up to the sound of a car door slamming shut. She gets out of bed–but how she does it is important. (Again, more questions– Why does she sleep with a gun? Is she a cop?) and then some answers–that she’s a former FBI agent and has dealt with reporters in the past–and not with fond memories–and that she’s somehow involved in movie production (later in the chapter we find out she’s a crime fiction writer.)

    But those 6 or 7 paragraphs slowly build up tension, but without a hook–and I liked my hook. So I ignored the judges. But I do think it could be overused.

    Alex, BTW, I LOVE the POV shifts when you least expect it. I also love cutting from one “quiet” emotional scene (a sex scene is always good for this, or any other emotional moment) to the villain and what he’s up to, even if it’s a short, 2 or 3 paragraph scene. Like you, I don’t know if I can write in first. I tried once and it didn’t work out. I don’t think I have a first person voice. I have considered a first person villain. Tess Gerritsen has done this effectively. She’s a master at it. But good third person (deep POV) should almost read like first person. I read one book, REMAINS OF THE DEAD, a mystery by Wendy Roberts who is one of the best at deep POV. Her book is solely in deep, limited third–we only know what her heroine knows. I read the whole book and then had to go back when I was writing a blurb because I honestly couldn’t remember if it was first or third.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pam, thanks, I’m so glad it’s helpful, and you’re absolutely right that suspense techniques are relevant for ALL genres.

    Louise, yes, you’re right, that’s a technique that has to be handled carefully, as your “bad version” (as film execs always say) shows. But done well – it slays me, and I’m also very much for writing the bad version first and refining it until it works.

    Reply
  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, good for you for sticking to your – well, guns!

    “Deep, limited third:” is a great way to describe that POv, which is my favorite as well.

    I’m still terribly ignorant of novelistic terms. I’ve heard “close third”, too.

    Reply
  14. Fiona

    Alex,

    As always, great information. Since I started reading these posts, I can’t pick up a book or watch a movie wihtout thinking “Is that a plant?” & “Oh, that’s a reveal.”

    My Dh and I watched American gangster, and as soon as I saw the lit fire, I knew what was going to happen. And the dog house.

    I have a first draft of a short story almost completed. Off to review it and use this post to up the suspense.

    Thanks for doing these posts.

    Reply
  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yes, I am a psychic Pisces. Takes one to know one, Pari!

    Fiona, you made me LOL. Just wait till the first time you stand up and yell “Sex at Sixty!!! in a crowded theater.

    It’s fun to see the strings, isn’t it? You would think it would ruin the experience of watching a movie or reading a book to know how it’s done, but I find it just makes me appreciate the good stuff even more.

    Reply
  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah, I should have known you were a fish, C. And I don’t believe for a second you’re not psychic.

    Now THAT would be a great Murderati post – “What’s your sign?” I can’t believe we haven’t done it yet.

    Reply
  17. Stephen D. Rogers

    Letting a reader know more than a character when using first person POV….

    Although the method has hazards, what you can do is show the character realizing something but not realizing its importance. (One hazard is that the character may appear TSTL – too stupid to live.)

    I’m having trouble coming up with a suitable example but the following is an example of something similar.

    “After a soul-draining week that made me wish I’d never gone into this business, I decided to cut out early on Friday and treat my wife to a pleasant surprise.”

    The character doesn’t know what’s going to happen when he surprises his wife. We have a pretty good idea. 🙂

    Stephen

    Reply
  18. Stephen D. Rogers

    Actually, it wasn’t a well-written example. What I was quickly trying for was “bad day, can’t wait to get home” and so of course he arrives home before he’s expected and he’s the one surprised by what he discovers.

    Reply

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