Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Art of Suspense

What makes a reader spend their time turning the pages of a book? In one form or another the story is compelling, it makes them want to know what happens next. The opposite is true for why someone would put down the book and go do something else. In the fiction genre category of Mysteries and Thrillers that compelling force in many instances will be suspense. Suspense can make you believe that anything could happen including the loss of a main character. Good suspense should make the reader decide to stay up reading for another thirty minutes because they have to find out what happens next. If a chapter ends and everything is okay and there is no suspense then a rewrite may be in order. That does not mean it has to be a nonstop thrill ride where your characters can't even catch their breath, but by the end of the chapter there needs to be good suspense, compelling the reader to move forward.

Now I am not the master of suspense, I believe that title still belongs to the amazing filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would I bring up a filmmaker in a blog about writing books? It's my belief that there are many elements that can be taken directly from a visual story telling medium such as film and be placed directly into writing. If you look back to my previous article, Devils in the Details, I talked about watching clips of dance movements to better describe a scene in my novel so that it would have a more fluid movement. The same principle could be used in creating good suspense. Of course I'm not suggesting that you lift a scene from a thrilling movie and drop it right into your novel. Instead watch closely to how a film builds suspense. Film directs the viewer to very specific things, it leads the viewer to see and experience exactly what the filmmaker wants them to see and experience. A good author can do the exact same thing.

I've been reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear. As I'm sure you know many of his books have been turned into films and it is very easy to get wrapped up in his books as you continually get pulled forward by that feeling of suspense. In one section of State of Fear his main characters are in Antarctica and they are being briefed on all the dangers of being caught out in the frozen cold and how each of the vehicles they will be driving hold a number of survival gear items. Instead of just telling the reader there is survival gear, Crichton goes into detail of the type of gear so that you see it. And what do you suppose happens? That's right, the characters get trapped out in the ice and begin to panic. As a reader you think "Go to the box with the survival gear!" The character finally remembers the gear in the back and they get to the chest and find that in the crash it's been damaged and won't open. SUSPENSE. The character finds a screwdriver and hammer and begins to break the box open. It takes agonizing minutes. MORE SUSPENSE. When the box is finally broken open it is empty! EXTREME SUSPENSE. As you can see I have to continue reading. 

When I sat down to write Loves Deception I had a clear outline of what I wanted to happen. I wrote the first five chapters and sent them to my wife to read. I eagerly waited for her to praise me on my extensive writing prowess. Unfortunately it seemed I was found lacking. Although the characters were a bit interesting there was very little compelling her to care about what would happen next. I was writing a Thriller and was delivering a boring commentary on the action. The chapters were also very short in length, roughly 1500 words (not that a small chapter can't make a big impact). So I took those five chapters and sat back down with the goal of making the story have suspense, to make my reader care about the characters and want to know what would happen next. I nearly tripled the length of the chapters and created a rich tapestry of the world I was placing my characters in.

So this week look through the chapters of your own work and ask:
  • Where is the suspense?
  • How can I point my reader to see what I want them to see and remember it for the future?
  • Is the end of the chapter compelling enough to keep them reading. Will the reader lose sleep because they have to keep reading?
Make changes that will give you a more suspenseful result.

The first chapter of the Tale of  Doug Martin will be out this week!


  1. Great post! I'm working on edits right now and will be asking myself these questions! :)

  2. Just made it over from GoodReads, and I'm looking forward to exploring your blog some more! Great post, and I'm off to read some more right now... :)

  3. Hey man, long time no talk. This is a great post. I miss chatting about writing with you!