Suspense Writing

Part II

In part one of this article we talked about physical fight scenes. In this section, we are going to discuss other techniques for turning up the heat in your stories.

For starters, let's think about what makes a story a page-turner. What was the last story you read that seemed to grab you by the throat and not let go? What exactly made it gripping? Did you feel the excitement from the first pages? Were the characters captivating? Was it the heart pounding events that took place? More then likely it was all of these things combined that made the story exciting. I always judge a book by how late I stay up to find out what happens next. If I'm in bed by ten o'clock, it's not that great, but if I'm still wide awake at two in the morning, that's a darn good book. So, how do we keep our readers up to the wee hours of the morning? We just gotta get 'em hooked.

Let's take a minute here to list some the things that keep us reading a book. This list has a lot to do with my personal preferences in a book, but yours should look pretty similar.

First, the characters, if I don't like the people who populate the book, then I could really care less what happens to them. Second, the book proposes questions that need to be answered; a mystery that drives me to find out the ending. Basically, a hook that doesn't let go. Third, emotional intensity; anything from being scared out of my wits, to heart-breaking loss. So, what does all this add up to? Conflict and tension. Now, let's break these elements down one by one.

Characters

The single most effective way of creating suspense is to give us a character we can care about. By making us care, you give us a reason to go on with the story. We want to find out what happens to this person you've created, and the wanting is going to keep us reading.

We've talked a little bit about characters already, but we'll touch on a few basics here. The first, and only, cardinal rule of building characters is, make them real. Easier said than done, I know. If you use a character trait sheet (like the one available through Legends of Druidawn), you're part of the way there. Those lists will start you thinking about your character's motivation, or why they do the things they do. It will also help you set up their weaknesses and strengths, because we all have them, and a writer has to learn how to use them. If you aren't the type to fill out a form on a character, then just try doing an "interview" with your character. Think up questions to ask him/her and write down the answers in first person perspective. Think of yourself as Barbra Walters, or, if you prefer, Jerry Springer. An interview might look something like this.

Q: What do you think your greatest achievement in life has been? A: Oh, gee. That's a toughie. Well, last summer I won the County Fair bake-off with my raspberry coffee cake. Marge Johnson was so jealous I thought she'd pop a button on those tight little sweaters she wears. I mean, really, have you seen those sweaters? And she wears them to teach Sunday school! You'd think a woman her age would have a little more decorum. But I suppose that's what happens when you're raised the way she was. It's a shame really.

That came right off the top of my head. Notice how I let my character ramble a bit, allowing her take over and get off the subject. The trick here is to just get those characters started with a few questions, and then sit back and see what comes out.

If you try these techniques, you'll find that you can hear your character's voice very clearly. I know, it sounds crazy, but eventually you'll get to the point with a character where you can hear her speaking in your head. Now, don't freak out, that's perfectly normal. Well, maybe not PERFECTLY normal, but you get the point. On any given day, I have at least three characters, from several different stories, chatting it up inside my head. Some of my best one-liners come from these imaginary conversations. Sometimes the characters fight, sometimes they discuss the weather, but I always get a valuable glimpse into their personality when I take the time to listen to them. When you start thinking up conversations involving your characters, try writing them down as fast as you can. Even if you don't use it in a story, it will help you see them more clearly.

Once you have a good idea of who your character is you need to think about how she might respond in different situations. Take for example the woman I was interviewing above. We'll call her Julia. Just from that one question I asked Julia, I have a decent idea of how she might respond to certain types of people and in certain environments. Julia strikes me as the judgmental type, the town gossip perhaps. She's probably closed- minded, and doesn't like change. Now, given these basic traits, how do you think Julia might react to…oh, say a Goth teenager moving in next door? Would she appreciate his liberty spikes as a statement of his individualism, or would she proclaim him a freak without even getting to know him? My guess would be the second one. But let's go deeper. What if she were put in a situation where she had to rely on this kid for help? What would she do then? I'm not sure yet, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Do you see what I'm doing here? I've set up the basics of a character, and now I'm asking myself a series of what-if questions to figure her out. Asking questions like this will help you delve deeper into your character's thoughts. You can also try writing journal entries for your character, or, if she's Catholic, put her in a confessional and see what her gravest sins are, eavesdrop on her secret conversations… whatever it takes to find out what makes her tick.

I know you're thinking; "Why do I have to go to all this trouble?" Good question. And the answer is, because it will make a better story. Any good story will take a character to places they've never been before, not just physically but emotionally as well, and we have to know how those characters will respond in those situations. If we're not sure how the character handles everyday life then how are we going to know how they'll handle being held at gunpoint, or being chased by demon dogs? We won't.

We not only have to know how they would react, we have to know how they wouldn't react as well. I know, that sounds redundant, but it's a common mistake that writers of all skill levels make. They take a character and force them into being something they are not to fit the plot, or to fit what the writer thinks should happen.

Confused yet? Let me explain what I mean. Have you ever seen a horror movie? Even if you haven't, chances are you know about those famous horror movie scenes, where the heroine hears a noise out in the deep, dark woods and is compelled to go out there and see what it is. Even though she was warned that a serial killer recently escaped from a mental institution and is believed to be hunting down victims in the woods. Now, on the surface this heroine seems to be reasonably intelligent, but she still goes out in those woods (usually in her night gown and bare feet) with no weapon and no flashlight. That, in my book, is stupid. Yet, almost every cheesy horror movie has a similar scene. Why do you think this is? Because the writer of the movie NEEDS the heroine to act like a complete moron in order to put her in a situation where the bad guy can scare the pants off her. Starting to get my point?

If you have a smart, self-assured heroine, don't try to insult her intelligence by sending her into those woods without so much as a frying pan to defend herself. Better yet, let her lock all the doors and try to call the police. The bad guy can still come to her, the effect is still the same, but she doesn't look stupid in the process.

This problem crops up in other types of stories too. Characters who are unemotional and stoic suddenly bawling like babies. Squires too afraid to pick up a sword in battle suddenly finding a backbone with no apparent motivation. All of these things will make your characters unbelievable. That doesn't mean you can't make them do unpredictable things. The trick is to make the unpredictable believable. If the unemotional character wants to grieve for a recently lost friend, show that grief in other ways besides shedding tears. If the coward needs a reason to fight, give him one. Don't expect the readers to buy a dramatic change in the character without some kind of advanced notice or logic.

A catalyst for change can be the situation they find themselves in. Learning how to balance a character, plot, and setting come with practice, along with reading other authors who are good at it. I want to give you an example from the book "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck, in my opinion, reached the pinnacle of characterization and change due to the situation in this book. If you haven't already read it in your English classes, chances are you will eventually have to. The passage I am about to quote comes from the end of the book where one of the characters, George, must make a decision concerning his friend Lennie, a man with severe mental disabilities, who has gotten himself in a whole lot of trouble. I want you to pay attention to the clues that are given about George's character as he deals with the situation before him. I'm not going to give away the ending here, for those of you who haven't read it, so don't worry about that. In this scene, Lennie and George are talking as George comes to a very hard decision. ~~

The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of men sounded again, this time much closer then before.

George took off his hat. He said shakily, "Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine."

Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.

Lennie said, "Tell how it's gonna be."

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. "Look across the river Lennie, an' I'll tell you so you can almost see it."

Lennie turned his head and looked off across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. "We gonna get a little place," George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson's Luger; he snapped the safety, and the hand and gun lay on the ground behind Lennie's back. He looked at the back of Lennie's head, at the place where the spine and skull were joined.

A man's voice called from up the river, and another man's answered.

"Go on," said Lennie.

George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.

~~

If you've never read this book you're probably wondering what drove George to the point he is now, and what Lennie did to make shooting him preferable to whatever punishment he is going to receive at the hands of the men crashing through the bush. All I can say is; read it for yourself and find out. There is a lot of conflict in this book. Conflict between migrate farm hands and the landowners, between George's desires in life and his loyalties to Lennie, between dreams and harsh reality. The point of my showing you this small passage is that it is a prime example of a character reacting to the circumstances he finds himself in. George doesn't want to shoot Lennie, you can see that by the way his hand shakes, and the way he "says shakily." You also get a sense of the danger Lennie is in as George notices the sound of the men coming after him. If you were to read the entire book, you would also see how Steinbeck gives hints—or foreshadows—what is to come. Steinbeck is also an expert at drawing out the relationship between man and his environment. The time and place of this story, mid 1930's, has a huge effect on these men and their reactions.

Let's look at how Steinbeck used description to set the mood of this piece too. George and Lennie stand in a protected little area, where the breeze is gentle and there is a serene pool of water. Yet danger is coming, rummaging through the woods, looming closer. By describing the approaching evening, the blue of the shadows, there is a certain symbolism there. No matter how secure you think you are, something is always coming after you. There are always wolves at the door. Now there are many symbols in this book that could be picked apart. In fact, for a volume a little over one-hundred pages, there is a lot to be learned from the way Steinbeck constructs this story. Symbolism, first class description, and excellent characterization ooze off every page. I would highly recommend reading and studying the techniques Steinbeck uses. But for our purposes today, I hope you see the balancing act between a character's emotional reactions and his environment.

If you want to read an excellent example of characterization, not to mention a great character-driven story, I would also suggest "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens, the book's main character, pops off the page in vivid color, even though he is, by nature, an unassuming man. This is may not be the typical kind of story you'd read, heaven knows it wasn't something I ever thought I'd read, but I find it's good for writers to read everything they can get their hands on, even if it is not in their genre of choice.

A final note on characters. I think many writers forget that suspense, at its most basic, is simply wanting to find out what happens next to the characters. The well-being of the entire world dosen't have to be in danger, and the characters' lives don't have to be on the line. Suspense can be as simple as wanting to know if the main character gets to go to the dance with the girl of his dreams, or if he will get turned down. Some of the best stories I've ever read had relatively small stakes like this. It's all in how you tell the story and portray your characters.

Now, onto the next aspect of tension filled writing; the hook.

The Hook: Reeling Them In, Keeping Them on the Line

Having a compelling character is a must for any kind of book, but different genres will have different kinds of hooks. What exactly is a hook? It's a common term in the writing world for the plot twists or initial ideas that "hook" the readers to the story. Think of it like fishing; you dangle a piece of bait in the water and when a fish bites you start reeling it in. The trick with a good hook is not only to get the readers past the first few pages, but to keep them going all the way through the book (that's the "reeling them in" part). This is done in several ways.

Starting the story out with a bit of a mystery is the most common hook. Even if you are not writing a mystery using the same techniques that a mystery writer does; like providing clues, keeping a villain secret, or keeping their motivation secret, can up the suspense.

In a traditional mystery, the story starts with a cop or detective appearing on a crime scene who immediately begins to gather clues. This is the first hook. In a fantasy, the hooks vary. Sometimes the hooks are just intriguing characters and worlds, sometimes it will be the bad guy himself. It all depends on the type of fantasy you're writing. In a traditional mainstream fiction story, the hook is usually the characters themselves, sometimes facing unusual situations. Let's take a look at some examples of different openings, and hooks, from various kinds of stories.

"Winter Rose" a fantasy by Patricia A. McKillip

~~

They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood.

I was kneeling at the well; I had just lifted water to my lips. The well was one of the wood's secrets; a deep spring as clear as light, hidden under an overhang of dark stones down which the brier roses fall, white as snow, red as blood, all summer long. The vines hide the water unless you know to look. I found it one hot afternoon when I stopped to smell the roses. Beneath their sweet scent lay something shadowy, mysterious: the smell of earth, water, wet stone. I moved the cascading briers and looked down at my own reflection.

Corbet, he called himself to the villagers. But I saw him before he had any name at all.

~~

In this example, the hook is the strange man, mainly, but there is also an element of foreshadowing here. When the narrator, Rois is her name, describes the secret well, it foreshadows the themes that run throughout the story. A secret world hidden below the surface of normalcy, the lure of the unknown and the wild. By taking the time to describe the well, McKillip is setting the stage for the conflicts to come.

Now, on to the next example. A short story titled, "On a Rainy River" by Tim O'Brien. This story is taken from a collection called "The Things They Carried," a fictional memoir. Tim O'Brien is an author who studied quiet a bit in advanced high school Language Arts classes and in collage, so becoming familiar with his work now is not a bad idea.

~~

This is one story I've never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife. To go into it, I've always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession. Even now, I'll admit, the story makes me squirm. For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams. Still, it's a hard story to tell. All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit. Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968….

~~

This is a mainstream piece, and is therefore more character driven than a fantasy piece, but fantasy can rely just as heavily on characters. The hook here is obvious; what secret is he about to share? In the above paragraph, O'Brien mentions that confessions make people want to be elsewhere, and that may be true in real life, but in fiction a confession of this sort can lure readers on. Why else do people read character driven stories like this if not to spend some time walking in someone else's shoes?

The next example is from a popular suspense novel entitled: "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown. This book falls under traditional suspense or mystery.

~~

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Sauniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

~~

The first question most readers are going to ask is: "What the heck is going on here?" All the elements for a robbery are there, but we can't be quite sure. And that's good. That's exactly what a writer wants, to keep people guessing for as long as possible.

There is a catch to this technique, though. If you keep the readers guessing for too long without giving them any hints to the mystery, they will become frustrated and might give up on the story. Our job is to drop breadcrumbs as we go, leaving satisfying hunks of information in strategic areas, and luring the readers deeper into the world we've created. So, how do you know when to give a clue away and when to hold back? A lot of it is based on instinct, and on practice. No one can tell you exactly where to give up a clue; you have to feel in your gut when the right moment is. Put yourself in the reader's place as much as possible, especially when you're editing a story. When you read a story where do you want to find clues? As a general rule I like to give tiny clues in almost every chapter, and larger clues at major plot points every few chapters. If your story isn't broken up into chapters, then do it in different scenes. Reading a lot, and in different genres, will help you get a feeling for the pace at which information is given. Too much at one time and you've lost all the tension, not enough and you've frustrated the readers.

One cautionary note. All writers, no matter what they write about, make in implicit promise to their readers. Say you have a loaded gun in your story—or a vial of poison, or an unopened envelope, or a killer on the loose -- you had better use that element at some point in your story. If you do not, you break the "promise" you've made to the readers. By opening a story with a mystery, that mystery has to be solved, the questions answered. Look at the example above from Patricia A. McKillip's "Winter Rose." In that example, the hook is a strange man coming in to the village. Now, what would you think if you found out in the following chapter that this mysterious man was nothing more than a life insurance salesman? You'd probably feel kind of cheated. As if the writer was just playing with you. No one likes to feel cheated. Chances are you will lose your readers if they feel this way. In short, don't give us a mysterious situation just to get us hooked, especially if it has nothing, or very little, to do with the story as a whole.

There are other hooks, though all of them are founded on the "keep your readers guessing" school. We'll briefly cover various other ways to keep your readers going past the first page.

First, immediate action and/or violence. Many fantasy, suspense, or thriller novels begin this way and will have numerous action scenes throughout. The excerpt from the "Da Vinci Code" I showed you is a prime example of this. But strong action is not just for beginnings. Well-placed scenes involving violence, chase scenes, people hanging onto cliffs by their finger tips, all of that keeps the readers going through the middle and climax of a book or story. Keep in mind that -- just like everything else in writing -- it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Moving your characters from one outrageous action scene to the next will stretch the believability of a story. There has to be room for both the characters and the readers to breathe.

Another common hook, especially of the character driven story, is starting with strong, vivid emotion, something the reader can immediately sympathize with. The trick with emotions is walking that fine line between dramatic and melodramatic, especially at the beginning of a story when we don't know the characters very well. Also, the emotions don't have to be violent, or passionate, just vivid and relatable. Here is the opening passage to the fantasy book Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn. The opening passage resonates with the simpler, but no less powerful emotions of love, and family. There is also a touch of foreshadowing for the violence that comes later in the chapter.

~~

My mother used to threaten to tear me into eight pieces if I knocked over the water bucket, or pretended not to hear her calling me to come home as the dusk thickened and the cicadas' shrilling increased. I would hear her voice, rough and fierce, echoing through the lonely valley. "Where's that wretched boy? I'll tear him apart when he gets back."

But when I did get back, muddy from sliding down the hillside, bruised from fighting, once bleeding great spouts of blood from a stone wound to the head (I still have the scar, like a silvered thumb-nail), there would be the fire, and the smell of soup, and my mother's arms not tearing me apart but trying to hold me, clean my face, or straighten my hair, while I twisted like a lizard to get away from her. She was strong from endless hard work, and not old: She'd given birth to me before she was seventeen, and when she held me I could see we had the same skin, although in other ways we were not much alike, she having broad, placid features, while mine, I'd been told (for we had no mirrors in the remote village of Mino), were finer, like a hawk's. The wrestling usually ended with her winning, her prize being the hug I could not escape from. And her voice would whisper in my ears the words of blessing of the Hidden, while my stepfather grumbled mildly that she spoiled me, and the little girls, my half-sisters, jumped around us for their share of the hugs and blessings.

So I thought it was a matter of speaking. Mino was a peaceful place, too isolated to be touched by the savage battles of the clans. I never imagined men and women could actually be torn into eight pieces, their strong honey-colored limbs wrenched from their sockets and thrown down to the waiting dogs. Raised among the Hidden, with all their gentleness, I did not know men did such things to each other.

~~

The initial emotion the narrator is playing on is all the comforts of home and family. The love, mild annoyance, and warmth of being surrounded by people you know so well, and who know you. Almost any reader with a family can connect with that. However, those emotions turn a little darker in that last paragraph, foreshadowing what is to come later in the chapter. Also pay attention to how the longer, meandering sentences in the first two paragraphs back-up that homey feeling, while the third paragraph has much shorter sentences by comparison. As a general rule, but certainly not always, shorter sentences help reinforce the feelings of suspense, while longer, more complex sentences echo a more relaxed, dreamy feeling. The trick is knowing when to use which one.

More powerful emotions can be used in this way as well, not only as the initial reason for getting the reader past the first page, but to also keep them interested. A story that doesn't take full advantage of the myriad of emotions a human being feels is not a complete story.

Everything from horror to love needs to be played up. The exerpt above from the book "Of Mice and Men" is a prime example. By the time you get to this passage in the book you are drawn into the characters' world. You truly feel for the decision George has to make.

Can you think if the last book you read that deeply affected you? Perhaps you shed a few tears right along with the characters, or laughed where they did? Can you remember what exactly caused this effect in you? The characters obviously, as we've already discussed, but what else? It's really a combination of many things; characters, timing, plot, believability. I would suggest re-reading a book or story that had a strong effect on you. See if you can figure out how the author accomplished this. Learning to read like a writer, in other words learning to read not only for enjoyment but in order to learn as well, is one of the most important things you can do to improve your writing. Besides actually writing, of course.

Giving you small examples like this out of context is a hard way to learn because a good book is the sum of its parts. So many different techniques go into a suspenseful book. So, the best thing you can do is read, and read a lot. Pay attention to those areas in the story that really hold your attention. Go back and reread those passages several times and pay attention to the different techniques the author used.

Now, I have a few prompts to get you started practicing suspenseful writing. I'm going to give you a few opening lines and I want you to try to finish them. Pay attention to the way you deliver information, never answering one question without posing another, at least until the end.

  • The first time I stared death in the face was in the Clearwater Mall bathroom; while my mother shopped for the perfect Christmas presents.

  • The stranger came into the village just as the first season snows began, snows that would cut off the mountain passes, locking the valley in a prison of ice and snow. The stranger's pale blond hair was crusted in blood, his mount so exhausted the poor beast fell dead in the center of the village, throwing his unconscious rider to the cobbled road.

  • The door stood ajar, a sliver of light cutting into the darkened hallway. Jacob could hear sobbing and muffled words through the door. He felt a sudden need to comfort the woman -- for he assumed that only women made noises like that when they wept -- who was grieving just beyond the door.

I hope these prompts inspire you at least a little bit. If these don't do anything for you, then make up an opening line of your own and see where it takes you.

If you have any more questions on suspense please post them. This is such a broad topic that several books have been written about and it's hard to compact all that information into a small space. So if I haven't answered your questions, or you need more examples, let me know.

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