Key Elements of Suspense:
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Place can play a big role in building suspense. The overall “mood” of the story can often be built from the setting. Think about the typical poker scene in a western. A smoke-filled saloon filled with a bunch of drunks who are all carrying guns. The background murmur of voices and music in contrast with the clipped and suspicious conversation at the poker table. The smell of cheap whiskey and perfume. A big pile of money or chips at the center of the poker table. The shifting glances of the players and the occasional worried or curious looks from bystanders who just know something is about to happen.
At times, place can be used as a ruse, establishing an idyllic setting where the reader expects nothing to happen and calamity strikes from out of the blue. Use all SIX senses in creating and describing place. What does the place look, smell, taste, sound and feel like? And what does the character’s sixth sense—their gut, their intuition, tell them? What is the ideal position to be in? (the lucky seat at the poker table.)
Creating strong, believable characters the reader can identify with is critical. The reader must feel they know the protagonist and must identify with him or her on some level for tension to work at its best. It’s the difference between driving by a horrible car accident where you don’t know anyone involved, and driving by one where you recognize one of the cars as belonging to your loved one. The protagonist should be both unique and universal. Unique in that she is different enough from the reader that she becomes a “real” person, an individual. Universal in that she must experience the same emotions, the same thoughts, the same basic goals and needs of the reader, so that the reader can relate to what the protagonist is experiencing. Protagonists should also possess the necessary traits and/or talents to emerge triumphant in the end, but these must be carefully built, established early on in the overall story.
In poker, it’s the deal that essentially sets the scene, creating the situation that must be (excuse the pun!) dealt with and laying down the groundwork for tension. What cards are you going to deal to your protagonist? Your antagonist? How quickly will the entire hand be revealed? And will the reader know what cards are held in each hand? (point of view) Can the hand be improved upon? And if so, what decisions, what actions must be taken to do that?
This is about conflict. Everyone wants to win, but only one person (or side) can. The question then becomes how much each character is willing to “bet” or risk in order to assure they will win. What is the protagonist’s ultimate goal? The antagonist’s? What steps must they take to reach those goals? What obstacles or threats must they beat to achieve those goals? And what does each risk in the process? When do you up the stakes? Are the stakes global in nature or individual?
First, you must establish the rules of the game. Cheating is allowed, but do too much of it and the reader will catch you and you’re out of the game. Fate or luck can play a small role, but play should be more about finessing the game, gaining the psychological edge. The pace of the game is also important. You want to move from tension to high tension quickly, and then sustain the high tension as long as you can. If too much time occurs between the two, the reader forgets what created the tension in the first place. If too little time occurs between the two, tension never has a chance to build. Use the structure of your writing to build tension. Shorter, more hard-hitting sentences, strong active verbs, and fast-paced action all contribute to the reader’s sense that something big is about to happen. Bluffing is an option, of course, but use it sparingly or the reader will catch on. Bluffing can take the form of red herrings, or use of the “sigh, then die” technique where the protagonist anticipates a threat, the tension builds to its maximum, and then nothing happens. As soon as the protagonist (and the reader) are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking the threat of danger has passed, that’s when the danger hits. Careful and sparing use of this technique will keep your readers on their toes and wary. That keeps them turning the pages.
WIN OR LOSE
Contrary to the saying, winning or losing does matter, just as much if not more than how you play the game. If your protagonist doesn’t emerge triumphant in the end, the reader will generally feel cheated. But that doesn’t mean the protagonist can, or should, win every hand. In fact, people love to root for the underdog. The protagonist needs to reach an “all is lost” moment when things seem too far gone to ever be turned around. But if the protagonist has learned from his losses, studied his opponent, and adapted to the situation, he will find a way to win in the end. It may mean the ultimate gamble—winner takes all.
Psychological – James Patterson, Dean Koontz
Medical – Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen
Political/Espionage – David Baldacci, Tom Clancy
Science Fiction/Horror – Michael Crichton, Stephen King
Legal – John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline
Romantic – Sandra Brown, Mary Higgins Clark
Developing Suspense – The Five Ws and that pesky H
Who is involved?
What is at risk?
Where is it taking place?
When will it occur?
Why is it happening?
How will it be resolved?
Letting the reader try to figure out any one of these elements can create suspense. Trying to guess how it’s going to be done can be just as much fun as trying to guess whodunnit.
Some General Rules
Conflict leading to confrontation is the basic skeleton of suspense.
Use strong, active verbs.
Show, don’t tell—use dialogue and action to convey the story.
Don’t insult the reader with quick, unrealistic or contrived solutions.
Know your facts and do your research.
The reader must care about whomever and whatever is at stake.
Threats can be physical, emotional, or psychological.
The antagonist should be fascinating, riveting, fun to watch (Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs).
The pace of suspense is like a roller coaster ride—first the build up, then the exciting plunge, then another build up….