Last summer I wrote a guest post for the wonderful group blog, Jungle Red Writers. Now, because I frequently get asked about how to write scenes of suspense, I’m going to repost the entire article here. It’s a how-to. Or rather, a how-not-to.
Five Ways to Kill Suspense
Suspense is vital to storytelling. It keeps readers turning pages, desperate to learn what happens next. As a building block of drama, it’s as old as literature itself—Aristotle said suspense consists of having some real danger looming and a ray of hope.
The word comes from the Latin suspendere—to hang up—and writers are the hangmen. We keep readers dangling. But if we do it wrong, we kill the story.
Here are five surefire ways to do that.
1. Sacrifice tension for surprise. Unexpected twists can delight or terrify readers. But if you don’t build up the tension beforehand, readers will be bored senseless long before you get to Boo.
Hitchcock put it this way: an audience experiences suspense when they expect something bad to happen and know more than the characters do—but can’t intervene to stop it. Say characters are talking in a restaurant. If all the scene shows is their chitchat, it’s tedious. But if the audience knows that a ticking bomb is planted beneath the table, it’s suspenseful.
The writer’s job is to create tension and then let it build for as long as possible. Be cruel. The page is the one place where cruelty’s a good thing.
2. Commit howlers. I don’t mean minor errors about arcane facts. I mean clanging mistakes about common knowledge. Writers should know that the capital of Brazil is not Rio de Janeiro. That the president’s airplane does not have AIR FORCE ONE painted on its flanks. That Interpol doesn’t strafe fugitives from fighter jets. (To name three errors I’ve seen in books or movies.) Ludicrous mistakes kill suspense by pulling readers from the story, thinking: Oh, come on. Do your research. And after you’ve done it, have knowledgeable people check it.
3. Write idiot plots. Plots that depend on characters acting like idiots kill suspense faster than cyanide. You’ve read this story: an unarmed woman fails to call SWAT and instead wades into the swamp alone, at midnight, in heels, to rescue her best friend from the maniac with the chainsaw. Go on, honey. Readers will be cheering—for the maniac.
4. Mistake mystery for suspense. Mystery propels our genre. But withholding facts from readers doesn’t always increase suspense. Sometimes it just annoys. Say the hero keeps everything he’s learned to himself until the final pages, when he reveals all. This is meant to make him sound brilliant and the revelation seem huge. But if the audience hasn’t struggled along with him as he digs for the truth, they haven’t experienced the story. They’ll feel shortchanged. (This is another reason to show, don’t tell.)
Or say you hide the identities of characters in a scene. “Two men sat at the dingy bar, scowling.” Maybe the scowlers are assassins, circling for a kill. But if they’re your hero and his brother—and it’s the tenth time you’ve used this ploy—it’s not suspenseful. It’s a cheap trick.
5. Put the main character in a tight situation where the only question is whether she’ll survive. Here’s the problem: Readers figure that in mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist is going to live. If your novel’s in first person, they know it. So don’t have the bad guys abandon the heroine in the desert, then spend 50 pages depicting her trek back to civilization. There’s no question she’ll make it, so her tough slog to town contains no suspense.
But what if you truly want to abandon your protagonist in the desert? Then create real, looming danger… to other characters. And put a clock on it. The heroine must get to a phone by sundown—or the puppy farm will be blown up. Otherwise, cut everything after the bad guys dump her in Death Valley. Skip to her stumbling into the 7-11, dehydrated, covered in cactus needles, and hauling the corpse of the rabid skunk that attacked her.
Now, a confession: I’ve committed all these sins.
Sometimes I’ve caught these mistakes when revising. Sometimes an editor has noted, “Tiresome…” And sometimes I’ve decided a cheap trick is exactly what I need.
In my novel Ransom River, a juror finds herself fighting for her life when gunmen storm the courtroom. Then Rory Mackenzie discovers the attack is connected to an old case that was never solved. It’s connected to her, and dark skeletons in her family’s history. And bringing the truth to light might destroy her and those she loves.
My first draft opened with a long, procedural courtroom scene in Rory’s point of view. Then, boom—gunmen burst in. (Hello, surprise without tension.) I rewrote it to add scenes in a gunman’s POV. Now, while Rory hears testimony about two cops gunning down a teenager, the attackers circle the courthouse, arm themselves, and stalk toward the building. Readers know something bad’s coming, but they can’t tell Rory: Get out of there.
Then, to create a sense of real danger that would loom over the whole book, I revised again—so the story doesn’t open in the courtroom. It opens when Rory is nine years old. Late one night, she and her best friend see something they shouldn’t—something that scares them. They don’t understand it. They only know something’s wrong. Something bad. But what—and how does it come back to haunt her twenty years later?
I’d tell you, but I’ve gotta keep you in suspense.