Monday, November 03, 2008

Creating Suspense

I know that technically I should be pushing on through the Elements of Act Two, but I decided I would backtrack this week and talk about some other story elements that you need to be building from the very beginning of your writing - and I mean from the outline.

For those just finding these articles, here's what we've discussed so far:

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

So, Creating Suspense.

Huge topic.

And I’m sure many others have done it better, but I’m not being satisfied with what I’m reading, so I’m blatantly using my post today partly to beg links to good articles (compile links, I mean...) and attempt to discuss what I myself know or suspect about creating suspense.

This is the first thing I tell people who ask me about suspense:

You have to study, analyze and teach yourself to write the kind of suspense YOU want to create.

Because there are all kinds of suspense. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of suspense. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, too, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the puzzle out.

So to create suspense, the first thing you have to identify is what KIND of suspense you want to create. Most stories use all three kinds of suspense I just talked about (and others - really I’m just scratching the surface), but there will be one particular kind that dominates.

A useful thing to do is to make yourself a master list of ten books and films that are not just in your own genre, but that all create the particular kind of suspense experience that you’re looking to create yourself. There are particular tricks that every author or screenwriter uses to create suspense, and looking at ten stories in a row will get you identifying those tricks. If you’re reading a particularly good book, you get so caught up in it that you don’t see the wheels and gears – and that’s good. So read it to the end… but then go back and reread to really look at the machinery of it.

What tricks am I talking about? Well, let’s see.

To my mind, the most basic and important suspense technique is ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story.

Of course, every good story is inherently a suspense story, because every story is predicated on the storyteller creating the desire in the reader or audience to find out What Happens? And writing mysteries as we all do (mystery/thriller/suspense), our genre has a built-in suspense element by its very nature – the built-in question – “Who done it?” (Or in my case, as J.D. Rhoades says, “What done it?”)

So the very first place that a book creates suspense is on the meta-level: in the premise, that one line description of what the story is. That story line (flap copy, back jacket text) is what makes a reader pick up a book and say – “Yeah! I want to know what happens!”

- When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

- A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

- A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Any one of the above can also be phrased as a question: Will Clarice get Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills Catherine? That’s what I mean when I say the central question of the story.

Now, there’s a whole hell of a lot of suspense in that story question - unlike in, say, the movie we saw last night: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Does anyone going into that movie think for one single solitary second that Cameron Diaz is not going to end up with Ashton Kuchner? No suspense in that premise at all (but the structure of the movie, as in most stories, was built on the obstacles that MIGHT keep these two apart, if it weren't, you know, a Hollywood love story).

But in a mystery, or thriller, or horror story, someone could die. Anyone could always die. Even the main character can die – at least in a standalone. And I would argue that third person narration in a mystery/thriller is always going to be more suspenseful than first person, because even if your first person narrator DOES die in a surprise twist at the end, the reader hasn’t worried about it for the entire book.

In that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS story set up, we know Catherine could die – in fact, any number of additional victims could die – because it’s a thriller and we’ve got a particularly monstrous killer holding her. Clarice could die, too – in fact, throughout the story, we are always at least subconsciously aware that Clarice is disquietingly similar to Buffalo Bill’s previous victims: she is young, white, Southern, from a struggling family.

All this is STAKES – a critical element of every story. What do we fear is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear – from the very beginning of the story. We know right up front in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character. Harris makes us perfectly, acutely aware of what the stakes are. The story ups the ante when a particular victim is kidnapped and we get to know her – we really don’t want THIS particular, feisty victim to die.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government agent who comes to hire Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant says that Hitler is after it, and Indy and his colleague, the archeological experts, tell us the legend that the army which has the Ark is invincible. That’s really, really bad. Huge stakes. And it is spelled out with crystal clarity, in dialogue, with accompanying visuals of ancient text – in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

It might even be the number one rule of suspense - You need to tell your reader what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Not just scene by scene – but in the entire story, overall. You need to let the reader know what the hero, or another character, is in for – or the whole world is in for – if the hero doesn’t do something about it.

And if that’s the number one rule, then the photo finish number two rule is – You have to make the reader CARE. Because if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

No, I’m not going to go into all the techniques of creating a character that readers will care about – different post!

But here’s one technique that also goes to creating suspense: stack the odds against your protagonist. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

In SILENCE, the protagonist, Clarice is up against huge odds. She has many personal obstacles. She’s a woman in a man’s world, young, a mere trainee, she has big wounds from a troubled childhood. She also has many external opponents, like Dr. Chilton, the Senator and more minor characters within scenes – not to mention that Dr. Lecter is not exactly being cooperative – he’s got his own agenda, and he’s a master at playing it.

In RAIDERS, Indy is up against Hitler (through his minions). Indy is awfully heroic and expert and, well, hot – but he’s still the underdog in this particular fight.

A lot of suspense stories use children, women, or characters with a handicap to stack the odds against the hero. Okay, it sounds manipulative, but suspense IS manipulation. And just because a technique is manipulative doesn’t make it any less effective when it’s done well: Think of WAIT UNTIL DARK (blind protagonist) , REAR WINDOW (wheelchair-bound protagonist), THE SIXTH SENSE (I swear I went to that movie just to make sure that little boy made it out okay), THE SHINING.

Another suspense technique that can be built in on the premise level is the TICKING CLOCK. Building a clock into the story creates an overall sense of urgency. In SILENCE, we learn (very early) that Buffalo Bill holds his victims for three days before he kills them. So when Catherine is kidnapped, we know Clarice only has three days to save her. We know this because the characters say it. Beginning writers seem to be afraid to just say things straight out, but there’s no reason to be coy.

Harris does the same thing in RED DRAGON – that killer is on a moon cycle so the hero knows he has only a month to track this killer down before he kills another entire family. Again, we know that because the characters tell us so – repeatedly.

Harris is actually the master of the ticking clock – he has a particularly clever one in BLACK SUNDAY: a terrorist attack is being planned to take place at the Superbowl. Well, we all know it would take no less than the Apocalypse to get sponsors to cancel or postpone the Superbowl, so Harris has both locked his characters in to an inevitable event, and also created a clock – come hell or high water, it’s all going to come down on Superbowl Sunday.

Again, a ticking clock is manipulative, and you can make an argument that it’s a less effective technique these days because it’s been overused, but that just means you have to be more clever about it. Make it an organic clock, as in the examples above. In RED DRAGON, for example – having the killer be on a moon clock is very creepily effective, because not only is this a real characteristic of some serial killers, Harris has built a whole symbolic image system into this story – he uses animal imagery to depict this killer: describing him as a baby bat (with his cleft palate), emphasizing his biting, giving the character a desire to become a dragon. The moon clock is part of the image system, and the killer seems much more monstrous.

Now, all of the above are suspense techniques on the meta-level. Once you’ve created a story that has the elements of suspense built into the overall structure, you have to start working suspense on the scene level, moment-by-moment. And here’s where I find a lot of books really lacking in the kind of suspense I personally crave, which is about making me feel the physical and mental effects of wonder and terror. And that you have to do by working a scene over and over and over again. You need to direct it, act it, production design it, cast it, score it. What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience? How do you use pace and rhythm of language to create the equivalent of a musical soundtrack (the prime purpose of which is to manipulate emotion in a viewer?)

You have to layer in all six senses – what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like – as well as what your characters sense are there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. I think a huge weakness of a lot of writers is that they either don’t understand - or they’re too lazy to convey - the effects of adrenaline on the body and mind. You know how in a good suspense or action scene the pace actually slows down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete? Well, that writing technique is actually just duplicating the experience of an adrenaline rush – your heart is going so fast and your thoughts are coming so fast that everything around you seems slowed down. You react to things faster because your metabolism has sped up so you CAN react faster and possibly save yourself.

I’m realizing that this is going to have to be two posts – at least! - but here’s my last thought for this one. I think one of the best things a writer can do to learn how to write suspense is to take some acting classes. Learning to experience a story from INSIDE one of the characters – literally, inside that character’s body – will make you much more proficient at creating a physical, sensual experience for your readers.

So yes, if you have links to particularly good articles or sites on how to create suspense, please share!

Authors, what are your favorite suspense tips and techniques? Who did you study to learn the fine art of suspense? And readers, who are your favorite suspense authors, and do you have a favorite KIND of suspense?

(Next I'll talk about Visual Storytelling - also a story element that you need to be designing from the very beginning of the writing process.)


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


Carole McDonnell said...

The kind of suspense I like is where human nature prevents the protags from sharing their fears, and where I keep telling the main characters, "Please, share what you know! X won't think you're a nut. X'll understand." That element of fear of the other has to be crossed. -C

Jake Nantz said...

Sol Stein relayed a story from Hitchcock in one of his books (STEIN ON WRITING, I think) about the suspense of a ticking clock. It was something to the effect of, "If a camera is on two people having a conversation while playing chess, you get to know them and care a little. Then a bomb under the table goes off. That may create excitement, but no suspense. First, show the bomb and timer counting down, then slowly pull out to show the two having the same conversation and the same chess match. The viewer knows time is running out. Will they finish the game in time? Will one of them reach down, scratch a leg, and notice the bomb? What's going to happen???"

I always kinda liked that point he made.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Carole, that's a great example of suspense and you're so right about that "element of fear of other" being the cause.

Margaret Maron told me just the other day that Agatha Christie wrote a whole mystery based on that idea, called WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS?

I really need to get hold of that one!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, Jake, that's classic Hitchcock - the difference between shock and suspense. No one knew how to milk it better.

Richard Cooper said...

I'm so glad you're doing this, Alex. Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Great post, again! Thank you so much for sharing this information. It's been a big help to me.

I am also a fan of the more subtle techniques of suspense. The unknown is more scary to me than anything else.

I think that Thomas H. Cook handles suspense really well in his books. He's one of my favorites.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank you, Richard!

Kristine, I've been meaning to read Cook. Thanks for the reminder.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I was re-watching JAWS last night and here's an EXCELLENT suspense technique that that film uses.

In the first half hour, first act, there are three horrible attacks and deaths in quick succession. It's excruciating - you think that every time anyone goes near the water there's going to be another horrible death. But then in the second act a whole half hour goes by before there's another shark attack... but every time someone sticks even a toe in the water your heart starts racing.

If you frontload a few scares, and condition an audience or reader to equate a situation (going in the water) with mayhem and anguish, then you don't have to keep delivering huge scenes - they're going to be scaring themselves all on their own.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,
great post! Suspense is so important. I did my master's thesis on it and there is a potted version here

the walking man said...

You pointed out some very interesting things that I never considered before Alexandra.

For me Dickens was masterful in making us care about his characters, who doesn't want an orphan (or the poor of a society), to do better? To have enough food and shelter. Who doesn't want to see the oppressor taken down a few notches?

While the suspense of his many books seems dated today they are still elemental and his technique of getting us to care about the characters first seems to be his major ability in the novels development. Once we like or dislike the actors we react on the emotional level to their circumstances.

I like this. I don't think it to be harmful to use the first ten thousand words, if done well, to get the reader involved by displaying the characters and their peculiar personality's.

After I have defined the characters emotionally then, to me, that is where true imagination comes to play in the park.

Once I believe I have a reader invested in the players then I can start the engine and lay the roller coaster track as I go along.

I suppose what I am saying is that I believe it better to get the characters well liked or disliked first, just giving a taste of the environment. Then define the circumstances of the literary present with the twists and turns that keep the reader with me as we walk through the story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Completely agree, Walking Man - why ever read or watch a story about characters you don't care about? Even with antihero stories, you need to empathize with the antihero/ine and his or her choices.

And you do need to start caring immediately, but it doesn't stop there. Because I've been watching JAWS again this week I can provide this stellar example: I wouldn't say that you CARE about Captain Quint when you first meet him. But over the course of the movie you come to like and understand him (Hollywood loves to call that "Peeling back the layers of the onion.) Quint really is one of those characters who takes root and GROWS on you.

Until it's pretty devastating when he's killed in the end.

Strongboy said...

Having been an actor helps me when I write. Regardless what gender my character is, I need to 'feel' as if I am in his or her body when I write. It's like living out the story. Lots of times this tells me what I a would like to have happen next. It works well when trying to find those vulnerable zones inside the character's web of fear. By acting out the role as I write it's like letting the story tell itself -- suspense comes naturally that way. At least that is how it works best for me.

Strongboy said...

Thanks for the interesting feedback, Alex.

Gene said...

Funny thing about Quint, though. I didn't really like him, either, at first. Not that much. But he was so fascinating, so significant, that I couldn't take my eyes off him. I found myself thinking, "Okay, this guy's going to do something big. I wonder what?" :-)

B.D. Knight said...

I like your thoughts on Jaws. Once you know something is out there that has already killed others, you have to naturally fear it from that time forward. As a writer it gives you an edge. You can add natural suspense without constantly having to set up your scene for suspense, if that makes sense the way I worded it.