Five sure-fire suspense-building techniques
Published: July 1, 2005
|[In our August 2005 issue, William G. Tapply described the basic elements that create suspense in writing. In the following sidebar, he offers five important suspense-building techniques you can put to work.]|
1. Short-term deadlines. Try to build a time factor into every scene. Keep the pressure on your hero and you'll keep your readers worrying. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo must slip out of Juliet's bed before the nurse comes to wake her up. In James Dickey's Deliverance (and the film version of same), Ed must climb to the top of the cliff before the hillbilly with the rifle gets there.
Natural, uncontrollable deadlines--the rising tide, the setting sun, an approaching hurricane--create tension, as do man-made deadlines such as ransom ultimatums, trial dates, airplane schedules and time bombs. Hints of an approaching crisis--footfalls coming slowly up a stairway, the muffled creak of an opening door, the crescendo of police sirens--all build a sense of urgency into a scene.
2. Foreshadowing. The casual appearance of a weapon--the handgun in the drawer, the butcher knife in the sink--in an early chapter leaves readers worrying about how and when it will be used.
Setbacks and failures early in the story portend even greater disasters to come. Silence of the Lambs is launched by the discovery of a woman's dead body, assuring readers that sudden, awful death lurks around every corner and could happen again, even to FBI agent Clarice Starling.
Early in Deliverance, Ed gets "buck fever" and his arrow goes wild when he tries to shoot a deer. No big deal. Except later, when he draws down on the hillbilly with the rifle, we remember his previous failure and worry that he'll lose his nerve again, this time when everything is at stake.
Another kind of foreshadowing, says Vicki Stiefel, author of The Dead Stone, is the ominous event that keeps recurring. When the first person is pecked by an angry bird in the Hitchcock film The Birds, Stiefel says, "You know--you just know--another attack is coming. But when? Where? As the event is repeated with increasing frequency and intensity, the tension becomes unbearable."
3. Omission. Incomplete information and unanswered questions create tension that keep readers turning the pages. What you leave out is as important as what you include. Don't explain everything. Be sure some pages are missing from the dead girl's diary--and don't tell us what they say. Let your suspicious character parry a question with a joke or a curse, and don't tell us what he's really thinking. When your heroine answers the phone, let her hear only a soft chuckle on the other end. Don't identify the blurry shadow she sees moving behind a window; don't interpret the muffled whisper she hears through a closed door. Leave it to your readers' imaginations, and they'll imagine the worst.
4. Cliffhangers. End the scene before it's resolved. Then shift to a new scene, leaving your reader wondering and worrying. In The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris ends this scene in the point of view of Catherine Martin, Buffalo Bill's captive:
"She knew who had her then. The knowledge fell on her like every scalding awful thing on earth and she was screaming, screaming, under the futon, up and climbing, clawing at the wall, screaming until she was coughing something warm and salty in her mouth, hands to her face, drying sticky on the backs of her hands as she lay rigid on the futon, arching off the floor from head to heels, her hands clenched in her hair."
End of chapter. The next chapter begins:
"Clarice Starling's quarter bonged down through the telephone in the shabby orderlies' lounge. She dialed the van."
By switching the scene and adopting a different point of view, Harris leaves us hanging.
5. Pace and tempo. "Suspense," says Hallie Ephron, author of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'em Dead with Style, "is all about heightened anticipation. Building suspense takes time." Build tension by slowing down time. Ephron suggests that an effective way to achieve this illusion is by focusing on and recording every specific detail ...
Your heroine opens a door. The room is dark. She hears a motor softly humming. A refrigerator, maybe. Otherwise, it's silent. She whispers, "Hello?" No answer. She steps inside. Her toe nudges something. She bends, picks it up. It's a shoe. Slick leather. Long pointed heel. A woman's shoe. "Hello?" she says, louder this time. "Miranda? Are you here?" Silence. She fumbles on the wall for the light switch, finds it, flicks it. But the light does not go on. She steps into the dark room, then notices an odor. It's familiar, but she can't quite identify it ...
And so forth, step by excruciating step, one specific sensory impression after the other. Time drags. Readers grow edgy. What's going on? What has happened here? What will happen next?
"Suspense should pay off," Ephron cautions. Suspense for its own sake is just a cheap trick. If you build tension that doesn't lead anywhere, you'll lose your readers' trust. If that scary room your heroine snuck into turns out to be empty, if there is no corpse in the corner, no bad guy hiding behind the sofa, no clue, nothing that advances the story, if you create that scary scene just to scare your readers, they'll feel betrayed and manipulated, and the next time they won't buy it.
But when suspense pays off, when the tension is real, when your readers understand that their worries are justified, they will keep turning the pages. And that's what makes bestselling novels.
--Posted July 1, 2005