So last week I talked about doing a specific, dedicated pass through your manuscript to emphasize your key genre elements, and this week I'm going to talk about my favorite genre pass.
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.
And anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know what I'm going to suggest next.
MAKE A LIST.
Sit down and 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.
And now make a list of ten specific SCENES that really do it for you.
And now - take a look especially at the Act and Sequence Climaxes of each of these stories (or at least your favorite three!). I am willing to be that in a good movie or book, every act climax and sequence climax delivers on the specific genre promise of the film or book.
In a story like NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the sequence and act climaxes are action sequences. In stories like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS OR RED DRAGON, the climaxes are both suspenseful and horrific.
But if you actually look harder at what great stories do at their climaxes, you'll see some very complex things going on as they deliver on their genre promises.
For example, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS does double climaxes at each Act break, including the Midpoint. First there is a specifically psychological suspense scene between Clarice and Lecter. These are intense, confined scenes that are all about dialogue and psychological gameplaying, because SILENCE is a psychological thriller.
But it's also a horror movie, and right after each climax between Lecter and Clarice, the film cuts to Mr. Gumb and his own horrific game plan. It's a unique structural technique that delivers on BOTH kinds of suspense, and has the added brilliance of making Lecter look omniscient, because whatever he predicts Mr. Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is doing, that's what we see him doing in the next scene.
That is a great example of a storytelling trick that you can pick up by doing your homework and really breaking down the movies and books that work for you.
So what are some other tricks? 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 for those of us who write 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'll go on and discuss some more specific techniques in the next post, 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?
More articles on story structure
What's Your Premise?
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Elements of Act Two, Part 2
Elements of Act Three, Part 1
Elements of Act Three, Part 2
What Makes a Great Climax?
Fairy Tale Structure and the List