I’m a night owl. Most evenings I stay up to the way, way past my bedtime. Some nights I sit on the couch scrolling through Youtube, nothing but the blue glow of the t.v. to keep me company. Other nights, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling fan whirling around, wondering what exactly I’m doing with my life. I’m starting to think I have a little anxiety. But, that’s beside the point.
About a week ago I had one of these ‘staring at the fan’ nights. It was, like, a Tuesday. Everything sucks about a Tuesday. And, I was just trying to fall asleep. That’s when I heard it. A thump. Very clearly, it was a thump. What kind of thump? I didn’t know. But I knew it came from the living room.
Okay, I thought. Just the cat messing around. But, that wasn’t right. I felt the warm little lump of fur nestled beside me. He was wedged comfortably between me and my wife. And there it was again. Another thumb. Again from the living room. But this time the thumb had a companion, a rattle. Then a bullhorn was blasting. The burglar alarm.
I jumped out of bed and crept into the living room. I’ll be honest, my wife led the way. We were met by darkness and another thumb…
Turns out, it was our pet rabbit. She was out of her water and very keen on letting us know. The plexiglass of her hutch rattled enough to set off our alarm. It’s not a great story, I know, but it got me thinking about suspense.
Suspense is an amazing way to keep your reader engaged and keep them reading! Don’t believe me? You’re still reading, right?
Suspense- What it is, and what it’s not.
Let’s get one thing straight, Suspense is not synonymous with horror, or thrillers. It’s also not the same as a mystery. Suspense is a pivotal aspect of all storytelling. Suspense drives stories, all stories. Whether your writing a romantic comedy or an epic fantasy, Suspense is a required ingredient of every genre.
Think of it as salt. Every recipe worth its salt… calls for salt (God, that was dumb). For real though, you wouldn’t think you need salt to bake a cake, but you know what? You need salt to bake a cake. And you need suspense to write a decent romance. Suspense is the salt of your literary spice rack.
Now that’s a loose explanation of what literary suspense is so let’s get to the meat and potatoes. Suspense is…
Your Story Question
Did you ever watch reruns of The Dukes Hazzard? If not, it was a show about two cousins that drove around in a ‘69 Dodge Charger with a questionable paint job. The premise of the show was to find ways to force the Duke boys to jump things in their Dodge. Like small ravines or a truck carrying hay bales.
Every time they were about to make a jump the frame would freeze. The car was left hanging in the air and the narrator, Waylon Jennings, would come on and say something like:
“Long about now, I bet them Duke boys are wishing they had parachutes.”
Then they’d cut to commercial. And you’d watch all those damn commercials. Even the super long ones that started with, “Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with Mesothelioma?”
Why? Because you couldn’t get up. What if the Duke boys didn’t make that jump? I mean, it’s never happened before, but what if it happened this time? And you missed it?
That’s about the most basic example of a story question I can think of. A question you pose at the beginning of your story like- who murdered the elderly museum curator, and why?
Or, will the Duke boys finally meet their firey doom?
A good story question will keep your reader turning pages. They’ll have to know the answer. It’s human nature.
Use Dramatic Irony
This is the secret that every horror movie director knows. Think of the last slasher movie you saw. The scene usually goes something like this- the two teenage lovers sneak off to a secluded space to get frisky. They think they’re alone, but the audience knows otherwise. We’ve already seen the masked killer creeping around in the darkness. The teenagers are too amorous to notice anything besides each other as the killer sidles up to them. Meanwhile, we’re in the audience screaming:
“HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU, YOU IDIOTS!”
That’s dramatic irony. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t. And it’s an excellent way to build suspense.
Create a Ticking Clock
Ticking clocks are a common plot device. You see them in movies all the time, and for one reason. They work. Ticking clocks usually come in the final act of a story. The writer will set up a set of terrible consequences. If the hero doesn’t achieve their goal in a certain time frame disaster strikes. This increases the pace and ratchets the tension of the final act.
There are plenty of examples of this in literature and film. Most of the time the writer, or director will insert an actual ticking clock. A great example comes from a movie I watched endlessly as a child. The classic James Bond film Goldfinger.
In Goldfinger, the titular character’s goal is to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox with an atomic bomb. The final scene sees Bond in a life or death battle with Goldfinger’s muscle Oddjob.
We see the timer on the bomb slowly click down to catastrophe. Of course, Bond cuts the right wire with a mere seven seconds left, as the timer reads 0:07.
Setting & Imagery
If you want your reader to feel unsettled start with your setting, and the imagery you use to describe it. Personally, I’ve always been bad at this, but you know who kicks ass at writing suspenseful settings? Edgar Allan Poe. Want an example? Thumb through the pages of one of my favorite short stories, The Cask of Amontillado.
“We had passed through long walls of piled skeletons, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the innermost recesses of the catacombs.”
Skeletons, catacombs and a feeling of impending doom. As Montresor lures Fortunato into his tomb the setting becomes more foreboding. Which brings us to our next point.
Suspense is best when it’s hinted at early. That’s where foreshadowing comes in. There are a number of clever ways to hint to your reader that all is not right, during the exposition of your story. Let’s take another look at how Poe describes our poor Fortunato:
“The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting, parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.”
He’s literally dressed as a clown. And our protagonist, Montresor wears, “a mask of black silk and drawing a roquelaire closely about my person.” He is the embodiment of death, foreshadowing, the fool, Fortunato’s imminent demise. Poe really knows what he’s doing.
So, there are a few words on suspense.
Oh, wait. One more thing.
Do you want to know the ultimate secret to becoming a successful writer?
Great! Come back next week.
I’ll tell you then.
Child, Lee. “A Simple Way to Create Suspense.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Dec. 2012, opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/a-simple-way-to-create-suspense/.
Eshbaugh, Julie. “Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock.” Let The Words Flow, 6 Mar. 2015, letthewordsflow.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/narrative-tension-and-the-ticking-clock/.
“Imagery In The Cask Of Amontillado.” Enotes.com, Enotes.com, www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-might-incident-descirbed-page-352-have-280928.