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Monday, June 10, 2013

Adding an Element of Suspense

Picture Credit: http://www.onfiction.ca/2013/03/research-
First I have to apologize for not posting anything last week. I've been very busy with house hunting since I sold my house before I found one to buy. Nothing motivates you like wondering where you're going to live. The good news is, I'm now under contract to buy a new home. Now I'm packing and getting ready for the move that's just a few weeks away. Then my life will hopefully settle back into my normal routine.

You may be a Hitchcock fan, or you may not. But he has become known as an icon when it comes to suspense and horror.

I don't have any experience writing horror, so don't expect to see any tips from me on writing it. Suspense, on the other hand, is useful in every genre.

So what is suspense? The Encarta Dictionary defines it as:

  1. Uncertainty- the state or condition of being unsure or in doubt about something
  2. Enjoyable Tension- a feeling of tense excitement about how something such as a mystery novel or movie will end
  3. Anxiety- a state of anxiety or intense worry about something
What story doesn't need uncertainty, tension, or anxiety on behalf of the characters?

There are a few ways to build suspense in your novel:
  • If multiple viewpoints are used, give the reader a key piece of information that the main characters don't know. Think of Psycho's shower scene. The viewer watches Norman Bates enter the bathroom and come up to draw back the shower curtain. Meanwhile Marion Crane isn't doing much. Her shower under different circumstances wouldn't be anything memorable, but because of what the viewer knows, her mundane task is suspenseful.
  • If a single point of view is used, try giving readers little hints so that they begin suspecting danger before the main character does.
  • Race against time- if characters have a time constraint, tension will build as the time slowly slips away--especially if it seems impossible for them to make it. 
  • Try/Fain cycles- there won't be much suspense if the main character gets everything he or she wants on the first attempt. Add tension by having the character run up against obstacle after obstacle before you give him or her a hard-won victory.
  • Pacing- keep action going. That doesn't mean your book has to be one that is considered high action, but the character should be doing SOMETHING. If you have large blocks of nothing but conversation or thoughts, then consider chopping some of them out. Readers want to feel like the plot is always progressing.
  • Dilemmas- struggles over dilemmas (especially moral dilemmas) add suspense. It is easy for characters to chose between something they love and something they hate. But what about when neither option is what they want?
  • Make the worst fears come true- establish early in the story what a character fears or dreads, but try to do it in a way that doesn't advertise that you are foreshadowing. Then as the story progresses, one bad twist after another will slowly bring the reader to the awful realization that the worst is about to happen.
  • Make the danger real- if page after page you show that the main character's life is threatened, but every single time he or she gets out without a scratch, your readers aren't going to get too concerned the next time you threaten the character's life. Sorry to fans of The Hobbit (spoiler alert), but this point is one of the big things that ruined the movie for me. The threats against Bilbo and his friends kept increasing, but not a single one of them died. By the end of the movie I had a hard time drumming up any worry when they were surrounded yet again by the bad guys. Try seriously wounding or even killing one of your main characters--it will get readers' attention and your threats will suddenly be very real.
  • Do not use false alarms- okay, maybe once or twice is fine. But it gets old very fast when every time the characters are sure a burglar is in the house it turns out to be the pet.
  • If a 5-minute conversation would clear up the suspense, then it is not going to grip your readers. Think of some of the cheesy romance movies or books you have watched or read where the main characters are certain they'll never see eye to eye until they find out they never actually disagreed--they only misunderstood each other. Don't think I'm opposed to anyone who likes romance--far from--but every genre (including romance) should use a plot and suspense that is more complex.
  • Using the word "suddenly" doesn't make anything happen faster. If someone jumps out then just say it. Trying to use key words that will tell us something is unexpected or happens quickly is clogging up your suspense. If your main character is wandering around a meadow thinking about how happy life is, and a hand reaches out of the ground to grab her, you don't need to say that she didn't think the hand would be there. The hand will get your readers' attention better without the added explanation.
Well, that's all for tonight. Happy writing!


  1. Ah suspense that tricky thing. I like using it, but it can be a pain and a half to use properly! It also drives me crazy when the "threats" aren't real, hopefully your tips will help me avoid too many fake threats! :D

    1. I agree! It's so much easier to pick out poorly-done suspense than to actually do a good job in your own work.