How to Build Suspense

Suspense is the essential ingredient in all successful novels; it’s what makes the reader unable to put down your book. But what, exactly, is suspense? And how can you exploit it to captivate readers?

The essence of suspense is anticipation, says Brian Klems, a Writer’s Digest blogger (May 9, 2013). The writer creates a sense of foreboding through sensory detail and pacing.

To intensify the sense of menace, heighten select details in ordinary objects, says Klems. Continued focus on detail before anything bad happens slows down the pacing and sustains suspense.

Klems uses an excerpt from his novel, Amnesia, to make this point:

Tall bushes shrouded a shadowy front porch. Only a sliver of light between drawn drapes suggested anyone was home. . . . Beside the front door, barely visible in the shadow, a scarecrow dummy wearing a cowboy hat was slumped in a chair. . . . At every step, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot seemed thunderous.

In addition to sensory description, the use of complex sentences and internal dialogue slows the pace and helps create suspense. Effective pacing, then, is critical to suspense building, so escalate the tension, position exposition strategically, and crosscut between past and present for suspenseful effects.

The classic devices, of course, include ticking clocks (time is running out to catch the villain before he strikes again!), unsolved mysteries, undiscovered secrets, and dramatic irony (the reader knows what’s going on and holds her breath till the heroine finds out: there’s a monster at the top of the stairs she climbing!)

Foreshadowing is another device in the suspense builder’s toolbox. You can use a suspenseful scene that ends harmlessly as a foreshadowing of some later sinister action. A floor lamp that earlier projects a falsely ominous shadow could later turn out to be a piece of furniture the villain hides behind before pouncing.

But there’s an important distinction, Klems warns, between foreshadowing and telegraphing, which spoils the suspense. Here are the distinctions he makes:

It’s foreshadowing if Tom offers to walk Mary to her car because of some muggings in the neighborhood, or if Jack’s eyes linger on Ellen’s neck when they’re introduced.

It’s telegraphing if Ann notices the stranger’s briefcase contains a role of duct tape and handcuffs, or if the hulking Mr. Smith reminds Jane of the football player who tried to rape her in college.

No less a master than Lee Childs has a lighthearted essay entitled “A Simple Way to Create Suspense” that presents some weighty thoughts on the subject. It deserves to be quoted at length:

How do you create suspense? I’m asked that question often. . . .

But it’s a bad question. Its very form misleads writers and pushes them onto an unhelpful and overcomplicated track.

Because “How do you create suspense?” has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” And we all know – in theory or practice – how to bake a cake. We need ingredients. . . .

So writers are taught to focus on ingredients and their combination. . . .

But it’s really much simpler than that. “How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?” 

And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.

As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer. . . .

The principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line – even within single sentences – imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable. . . .

Someone killed someone else: who? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something weird is happening: what? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something has to be stopped: how? You’ll find out at the end of the book.

. . .The big answer is parceled out slowly and parsimoniously. I remember doing that in “Killing Floor,” my first novel featuring Jack Reacher, a drifter and ex-military policeman. Something weird is happening in a small Georgia town. O.K., great, but what? Well, it seems to be something to do with money. Fine, but what exactly? Well, it seems to be about getting hold of perfect blank paper for counterfeiting purposes. Wonderful, but where the heck are they getting it?

. . . The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.

So don’t bake cakes. Make your family hungry instead.

Food for thought, yes? HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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