I’m always fascinated with how other authors add suspense to their work. Ever since I became a full time author in 2002, I’ve made suspense a subject for study. My focus, of course, is on mystery authors but I don’t omit others genres. Suspense is present in every piece of fiction. Anytime you have conflict or a relationship, you have suspense. Will it get resolved, will it have a happy ending?
Suspense is kind of like what the Supreme Court said about pornography – they know it when they see it. When we get to that page with suspense we can’t wait to turn to the nest. We must see what happens. An author once said, “The definition of suspense is time for a commercial.” I wish I could remember who that was, and give him or her a big slap on the back. The phrase says it in a nutshell.
Recently I gave a two-week online class for the Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal group of the Romance Writers of America. Sometimes suspense was equated with action. Wrong, but easy to do. I did exactly the same thing when I first began to write. Fortunately a great writer, William Kent Krueger, pointed out my mistake at the first writer’s conference I ever attended, and the light bulb popped on. I was lucky to get that perspective early on.
Here’s a summary of one of my sessions:
Notes on Suspense
Not professing to know everything there is to know about suspense, here are some tips and tricks I’ve gleaned, stolen, borrowed, and heard. I’m still learning, and adhere to the cliché that the more I know, the more I don’t know. If there were a mathematical formula, or we could wave a magic wand and poof – we’d know how to do it- wouldn’t it be wonderful? But in reality that can’t happen. We are, however, able to learn a few basics, guiding us to a better understanding of what makes up suspense.
1. Time constraints. I liken suspense writing to blowing up a balloon. You realize that too much air will cause the balloon to burst. But how much is too much? You don’t know. The more air you blow, the closer you are. Each breath adds suspense. You see the balloon’s skin getting thinner. It can’t take much more. One more breath – not yet. Bang!
Suspense in a novel is built the same way. How long will it take to save the world? Will the big bang happen before the heroine saves the day? The TV show 24 is a perfect example of suspense. You know the clock is ticking. They show you. And the neat thing for the writers is, they don’t have to introduce the time constraint in every show. It’s built in.
2. Kick it up a notch. Chef Emeril Lagasse loves to add spices. Suspense should be spiced as well. Once you’ve built the plot and developed the time constraints, add pressure. When the odds are insurmountable, make it worse. The protagonist has skills and strengths. Stretch them, weaken them. Have that heroine bend, but never break. Feel the sweat on the palms, the catching of her breath, the heat on the forehead, and that’s from the reader. She should be almost shaking, itching to turn the page. You don’t have to have the world coming to an end for good suspense. It’s only necessary that the crisis would be devastating to your heroine. And she must be willing to do anything to keep it from happening. With romance, the imminent loss of a lover or family member qualifies.
3. Create believable and sympathetic characters. The quickest way to stall or destroy the credibility of your novel is to have an unsympathetic heroine. If your reader has not connected with her, you’ve lost the battle. I’ve read stories where I actually started pulling for the bad guy. The protagonist had done something so moronic I felt she deserved to be punished. Your reader has to believe in and care for the heroine. When she is in peril, the reader is in peril right along side. All heroines must have weaknesses that can be exploited. These are overcome, and the protagonist grows from her experiences.
4. Create believable villains. In a suspense novel, the villain is known, unlike in a mystery, where we wonder who the villain is. You need a well-developed bad guy, one the reader dislikes. The days of the Snidely Whiplash types are gone. Villains today are smart and motivated. They are equal in ability to the heroine – a worthy opponent. Many times they are stronger, but still can be defeated by tenacity and guile. Fully develop the villain. Let the reader know why he is causing mayhem. Maybe something in his childhood, a perceived wrong done to him. The reader must fear him, just as the heroine does. By the way, villains and protagonists can be of either sex. It’s a good idea to play against stereotypes.
5. Complications. Throw in problems. Just when it seems a solution is near, give ‘em the monkey wrench. Remember James Bond. He is always getting caught at the wrong time. If he doesn’t get loose, Spectre wins, and he dies. A huge asteroid hurtles toward Earth with disastrous consequences. Our hero has developed a missile that will break up the asteroid. It’s fired, and success, the asteroid is broken up. Whoops, now it appears that instead of one asteroid coming there are three, which will create more devastation. Now what? The reader is slammed back into a terrible predicament. It’s been said that suspense is filled with peaks and valleys, and each peak is a bit higher than the last, each valley is a bit deeper. Absolutely.
6. What’s next? Plans often go astray. We can’t imagine what could go wrong, but something does. Just by our heroine’s presence, the bad guy’s plans are disrupted. He’s going to need to come up with a new plan and eliminate the obstacle – the heroine. The disturbance of a plan doesn’t always have to be by the protagonist. Outside circumstances can be the culprit. Acquaintances, the mailman, Mother Nature, a parade - all can be distractions, causing the bad guy headaches. Unpredictability can be a key element, and it can disrupt either the bad guy or our heroine. I’ve often put my main character in a desperate situation, exchanged that situation for a more desperate one, and wondered how the hell am I going to get him out. It’s the old murder in a locked room scene where the only visible evidence is the corpse. Be inventive and throw ‘em a curve.
7. Point of view. In suspense, the reader can see ahead, whereas the heroine might not. In fact, the reader often gets to peek inside the mind of the villain. The plan is laid out and plain to see. Our heroine goes blindly forward while the reader squirms, yelling in her mind for the heroine not to go into that room. The trouble is coming, and the reader is aware the bad guy and the heroine are going to meet with much peril for our protagonist. The longer you build tension and delay the anticipated meeting, the more suspense you create. Hold off the confrontation. Add some complications. This is where it gets fun for the author. Creating mayhem.
8. Values. Our heroine has a set of values that she will not compromise. But what if there is no other choice? What if she must sacrifice someone to save her child? Or sacrifice a loved one to save the world? Difficult choices heighten suspense. The antagonist will cross the line, fully aware of his actions. Not so with our heroine. Questions arise which must be answered before she can act. How can she knowingly allow someone to perish? Would she even hesitate if the bad guy were in peril? Would she think about saving him? In that split second, the villain could turn the tables, putting her into danger.
This is in no way a complete list, merely my observations and what I’ve learned so far. I still examine how other authors develop suspense. I marvel when I see different ways to accomplish the desired result. And I can’t wait to try out my take on how it could be done. We need to keep blowing into that balloon. Building the pressure slowly, steadily.
I love to give short or long session classes to let others in on the secret. Not how to do it, but what it is so they can add suspense themselves. Not that I’m an expert, but I have documented how to recognize suspense.
My main recommendation to all who listen is to read the masters and watch how they do it. The Stephen King’s of this consortium of purveyors of fiction. Learn their techniques and adapt it to your style. Take notes as you read. Watch where your blood pressure rises, and the hair on the back of your neck bristles. What did he or she do to make that occur? And, as with everything in life, it takes practice.