Friday, January 02, 2009

Creating Suspense, Part 2

All right, holiday’s over, back to work.

Hmm. Maybe I’m a little surly because I’ve had to work all through the holidays, doing galley corrections on THE UNSEEN. But there is a silver lining underneath the tediousness – I’m being pleased – even surprised - with how well the suspense is working in that book, and it reminded me that I never did a follow-up on specific suspense techniques. So now I will.

Here’s the first, to refresh everyone’s memory: Creating Suspense

So this is my first overall recommendation:


After I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense.

Unlike the techniques I discussed in that first post on suspense, which are more structural in nature, you don’t have to get all of the following ones in to your first draft – in fact it’s probably more effective to use techniques like this after the structure of your story is solid. A lot of these tricks are REWRITING techniques to keep in mind for your suspense pass.


This is a huge overall suspense technique and there are many ways to achieve it.

Ask a question that you leave hanging. “But why does that mild mannered librarian have duct tape in the back of his car?” “But why won’t his stepmother let him go in that back room?” It will remain in the audience’s or reader’s mind and chafe. That sense of discomfort is a crucial element of suspense.

Another variation of this is: let a character, or many of them, lie. And then don’t have any other character call them on it. Let the reader notice the lie, let it bother them, and leave it hanging.

Use PLANTS – like showing that gun early on. Audiences and readers subliminally know that you wouldn’t be showing that gun if it wasn’t going to be used, so you set them up to expect violence.

Any twist or surprise will off-balance the reader/audience and keep them off balance. Set them up to expect one thing and give them something from left field.


A classic suspense trick is to use water or sex or a combination of the two to get the audience or reader to unconsciously relax so you can really dial them up with the attack that’s coming. We’ve all seen this a million times, so much so that it’s often now played for comedy when a character gets into the shower or bathtub in a horror movie. But again, if you do it with a little imagination, it does work for a reason. A great example is in the first ALIEN, where Harry Dean Stanton is off on his own, searching for the alien in the bowels of the ship, and stops under a broken water pipe to wash off his face. He takes his time (and so do the filmmakers) enjoying the water… we feel the heat of the steamy tunnel, and the cool of the water ourselves. It’s as hard to resist as a neck massage, and our defenses go down. Same with a sex scene. This is a big example of why sensory detail, and sensual detail, is so hugely important in creating suspense.


Within the course of your own book or film, you can literally train your reader or audience to be scared on command.

JAWS does a great thing in the first act that establishes the white-knuckling suspense that film is famous for. Spielberg kills off two people in rapid-fire succession – the girl in the opening scene, the little boy on the beach. Spielberg is quickly and efficiently training us, Pavlov-style, to expect bloody mayhem any time anyone goes near the water, and he does it so well that after those two deaths, the whole film can slow down considerably and become more about character and theme. No one dies again for more than a half hour, but we’re still on pins and needles the entire time in anticipation of the next attack.

The other classic Pavlovian technique in that film is John Williams’ now iconic score – Da dump Da dump Da dump…. Every time we hear it our own blood pressure skyrockets, because we know it signals the approach of the shark.

Note that Spielberg and Williams don’t cheat with that technique, either. When the two boys manage to scare the bejesus out of the entire swimming community with their plastic fin, there is NO shark music underneath the scene; it’s a subtle invitation to the audience to figure out the shark is a fake.

I saw another good example of that Pavlovian association recently and it is driving me crazy that I can’t remember what film it’s from. It was a low-budget J-horror, and it’s probably better for you that I don’t Google it and give you the name, because you definitely don’t want to waste your time, but it does use this technique effectively. It shows a female character with long dark hair from behind, and when she turns, her face is hideously disfigured, and we jump. Yeah, yeah, what a cliché, right? Not to mention a total ripoff of RINGU! But it works – so that every time we see a shot of this woman from behind, we freeze up in anxiety, thinking we’re going to get another view of her face.

If you set up a negative association: linking a certain shot, or location, or person, or situation, with a bad scare, then you can keep your reader/audience unbalanced by the mere suggestion of that situation or person - or shark.


One of the rules of comedy is: Always go for the joke. Well, likewise, one of the rules of suspense is: Always go for the scare.

How many times have we seen a bunch of birds fly up in a hero’s face, or a cat drop off a refrigerator (in TERMINATOR it was an iguana), freaking the heroine and audience out with a false scare? Well, while you do run the risk of cliché or outright stupidity, false scares are a staple of suspense for a reason, and if your story has gone too long without suspense, I suggest you try putting in a false scare – mainly for this reason: Very often brainstorming on a false scare will give you an idea for a real, organic, scare.


This is something I usually do in my dedicated suspense pass when I see a scene that’s just flat or too expositional. Say I have a character who needs to get some information out of a library, or from someone at an office, or in a hospital. I can have the character simply ask the appropriate personnel for help, but there’s not much suspense in that. How much better is it to have the character have to break in somewhere, or sneak in, to get that file or that book? Suddenly you have stakes, suspense, jeopardy – in a scene that could have been just flat exposition.

It’s a very simple trick, but hugely effective, and you’ll find that once you start brainstorming about why that particular file is locked up and what the danger is to the heroine if she’s caught while sneaking in to get it, the scene will come alive and possibly give a whole new layer of meaning to the story.

Again, go for the scare.


You’ve seen and probably used this yourself this a million times – a film cuts away to the killer coming back to the house when the hero is searching it. But always be looking for interesting variations on this technique. One of the most awful and heartbreaking examples I know is in PET SEMATERY, in the beautiful scene when the father and son are out flying a kite for the first time. At the end of the scene, in a simple sentence that you might miss if you’re a skimmer like I am – I’m paraphrasing because I couldn’t find the book this morning - “He had no idea that at that moment Gage had only two weeks to live.”


(Of course, I could do a whole post, and just might have to, on the structure of fate in that book. Every single thing about it leads inevitably to that horrific conclusion.)


The easiest way to make a reader feel unease is to let her or him in on the character’s unease. Let her imagine a shadowy stalker behind her (whether it’s there or not). Take your time to put your character through the physical sensations of fear, and let the reader experience the physical sensations of fear with her.


A variation on inner monologue, but very effective, when a character has a premonition of danger to come.

Again, PET SEMATERY has a great example of a premonition, when early in the book the father is carrying his son up the stairs and has a moment of sheer, unfocused, primal terror. (It’s also important in a book or film like that to warn the audience or reader that this is not going to end happily, otherwise they will feel ripped off when things go to such dark places in the end. PAN’S LABYRINTH did this well in the beginning, too… you’re prepared for the girl to die, even though you forget the beginning.)

Let’s face it, most of us do have moments like this once in a while, and premonitions are realistic in the context of a thriller because danger heightens ALL our senses and makes us more perceptive to clues around us. I very, very strongly recommend that every suspense and thriller writer read Gavin deBecker’s THE GIFT OF FEAR. It’s a non-fiction book by security consultant to the stars deBecker which provides fascinating accounts of ordinary people’s lifesaving perceptions. Unmissable, and not just for writers - it's essential self-defense stuff for all.


This may be as simple as asking a question that is set up but not answered, but you should strive to make every one of your chapters or scenes end with some sort of cliffhanger that makes that reader have to turn the page.

If you find your chapters are NOT ending with cliffhangers, then you may be breaking the chapter or scene at the wrong moment. Go back through it and see if there’s some other logical break that will create the suspense you’re looking for: break when the doorbell rings, but without revealing who’s behind the door, so that the reader will turn the page to find out who’s at the door. It really can be that simple.

Another way to amp up the urgency and make the reader want to turn the page is to have the character voice a question, either silently or aloud, that s/he really wants the answer to. If the character wants it, the reader or audience will likely want it, too.


– the Lost Ark of the Covenant, the Maltese Falcon, the file, the book – and state it often. If there’s not a specific object, have the character repeatedly ask the question that s/he wants the answer to. It may not be suspense, exactly, but it builds emotion by creating impatience and urgency and a desire in the audience to get the answer, and when the character finally finds the – whatever - the reader or audience will be just as excited as the character.

Suspense is emotional manipulation, so manipulating ANY emotion will increase the suspense of your story.

In fact, besides doing a suspense pass, I also find it hugely useful in the later stages of revision to do an EMOTIONAL PASS, in which I read a script or a manuscript putting myself into the frame of mind of the reader, and just thinking of what I want the reader/audience to be experiencing in every scene.

These are just a few specific techniques, and once you start looking for them, you’ll notice all kinds of great tricks. Why not start a section in your personal story structure workbook just for notes on suspense tricks?

And fair’s fair - share!

- Alex


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.

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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.

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Bobby Mangahas said...

I guess class is back in session. Thanks for the info here, Alex.

Pavlov Effect, huh? I may just have to try that. Does it require a bell?

Anyway, looking forward to UNSEEN.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, back in session, but at least with online classes you can just bookmark and show up when you want to. Or attend in bed, which might even put you in the frame of mind of the teacher, who often is teaching from bed.

As for the bell, you know my mantra: Whatever works.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

One book that floored me with the suspense was Samuel Fuller's THE DARK PAGE. It wasn't just that the main character was doomed, he was actively pursuing his doom.

(The editor of a newspaper pushes a reporter to solve a crime the editor committed. The editor can't stop himself; it's a great story and selling papers.)

So I guess the suspense is is watching the editor, knowing that every move he makes will be the wrong one.

Will he be able to overcome his journalistic hunger, or will he send himself to the chair?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, you have the art of the pitch down - I am now desperate to read that book.

Sounds like terrific suspense. I really love stories about characters who are actively pursuing their own doom.

Troublesome, really, when you think about it.

Gayle Carline said...

I was recently watching an episode of The Avengers and the camera sort of lingered on a huge table with a wine bottle on it. When the good-vs-evil fight broke out, I expected Mrs. Peel to grab the bottle and hit the villain but she never did, and I kept thinking, what a waste of foreshadowing.

I know you mention it all the time, but Mystic River (the book) really nails suspense for me. You know they will discover the girl, you know it will be grim, but the scenes build to a point, then switch POV and build again, until the actual discovery will do the most emotional damage to the reader. Brilliant.

I generally don't like the fake scare. In bad movies, it feels so telegraphed and cliched, it's kind of eye-rolling. Even in good movies, it's been overdone. I do like, um, misdirection? E.g., in Silence of the Lambs, when Clarice is in the basement fighting off the killer and the FBI is breaking in the house, but it's the wrong house. Gee, I may have to use that in my next book.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, that wine bottle thing sounds like an editing glitch. They shot it intending for Peel to grab the wine bottle, but the fight took a different direction, and there was not enough coverage or time to remove the wine bottle shot, or the continuity person just missed it, or various people were just high and thought it looked cool (well, it was the 60's, right?)

At any rate it gave you a great idea for a plant, and that's the kind of thing I'm talking about when I say keep notes in a suspense section in your structure workbook.

I really want to break down MYSTIC RIVER for structure, here, when I have some time. I'm with you - it's just unbearable.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late to class. Do I need a tardy slip? :-)

I love the idea of doing a dedicated suspense pass. After reading your list, I'm already coming up with ideas.

I'm also looking forward to THE UNSEEN. I am reading THE PRICE right now and Love, Love, Love it. Very dark but also compelling. Salk is one of the creepiest characters I've encountered in a long time.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

No tardy slips required, here - this class is scheduled in kairos, not chronos.

Yeah, the suspense pass works like a charm. You'll be really shocked how much more tension you can milk out of your scenes when you go through looking JUST for that.

And I'm so glad you're responding to THE PRICE. Yes, very dark... wouldn't you know that's what happens when you write about the devil?

My next two books aren't anywhere near that dark, emotionally. Scary, yes. Torturous, no. I need a break!

Gayle Carline said...

Alex - this is completely off subject, but it seems to be the way most people are doing this. I'm passing the Premio Dardos Award to you. Read all about it at

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BT said...

What the? Don't you just hate it when ads turn up in the blog comments - how rude is that?

Layers - and the light bulb has exploded from the moment of enlightenment - thank you.

I am only a creative person on the first draft, everything else only comes from working methodically and now you've given me the key.

I have been working through my current WIP and thinking something was definitely missing. I read your post and realised a couple of things that are either light on or almost missing, but with specific passes yet to come, I'm no longer worried. I'll get the story out of my head and then go back and do those specific passes. Love it.

Today I did the same thing with a short story. I wrote it out rough for first draft and then picked out the missing elements. I'm now planning specific passes to layer in those elements effectively.

Excellent - and it keeps me excited about the work.

As for layers, I'm sticking with "Somewhere in Time" for my examples. The coin which is the final undoing of the time travel experience and hence the lovers time together is foreshadowed early on. Comments about removing everything from the wrong era are continually thrown at the viewer.

We know the objects are the only possible way of breaking the situation - and yet he has been so careful.

False scares, menacing characters who really only have the best of intentions at heart, a story line we are fully aware of how it plays out only to be lulled into forgetting it and hoping for a different outcome, it has all these woven in.

And the score! Have I mentioned the score before...

I was lucky enough to catch Alien again on cable the other night and thought of you as I watched it. During the water scene you mention, I was wondering why you would have water splashing around like that in a future spaceship rather than relaxing. maybe it was part of the distraction qualities before the kill. The whole surprise for me was how he'd just found the shed skin, how small it was, and then the reappearance of something so huge - without a big meal in between - maybe I was just being too logical, but then I was watching it in a lesson of pulling things apart.

Excellent post again, Alex.

And thanks for the epiphany.

BT said...

Thought I'd missed something for a second there: hadn't before noticed the link to "Fairy Tale Structure and the List" so I figured I'd better do my homework and go and read that post--but it didn't go anywhere.

Thought you'd like to know ;c)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks for the catch on that link, BT - I fixed it. Now of course am going to have to fix it other places... (grrrrrrr).

"with specific passes yet to come, I'm no longer worried. I'll get the story out of my head and then go back and do those specific passes. Love it."

EXACTLY. I seriously don't know how anyone does all of those things all at once. And that's exactly right - when you know you're going to go back and work those specific areas, like suspense, you can relax and just move forward. Just get that first draft OUT and worry about mechanics and perfection later.

You can even make big bold notes for yourself in the rough draft like "NEED A SUSPENSE SCENE HERE."

Sounds like you've got a great template for yourself in SOMEWHERE IN TIME. That story really does do time travel and romance better than practically anything I've ever seen.

PonoBill said...

Thanks so much Alexandra. I found your site just after completing edit pass 2 on my first novel. My smooth but monotone book now lies in shambles, but I have an impressive stack of index cards, and there may be an actual premise, plot, tone and flow to what comes back together. I greatly appreciate your generosity in sharing all this information. I bought your book, and my wife is working her way through your novels.

When I become a famous author I will be compelled to say "Alexandra Sokoloff taught me all I know."