Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Building Suspense One Delay at a Time

So many ways to build suspense …
The suspense genre is different from the mystery genre in that the reader already knows how the murder or heist went down in the beginning.  The rest of the story is the protagonist trying to solve the murder or run from the murder and eventually answer the question or defeat the enemy.  Suspense really is delaying the answer to a question posed at the beginning of the novel.  For instance, look at any Alfred Hitchcock movie and you’ll see perfect examples of suspense at work.  Hitchcock is the one who penned the famous quote about the “suspense bomb” and showing the difference between surprise and suspense.  If you haven’t heard about this quote, here it is:
Hitchcock said “There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
          We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is
surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.           The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
          In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of
surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
          I’m sure most people have seen Rear Window starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly.  In the beginning we along with Jimmy Stewart watch as the neighbor/murderer does away with his wife---at least he leaves an awful lot of clues for us to believe that.  So the question then is will Jimmy Stewart gather enough evidence and the ear of the police department to arrest the murdering neighbor.  That answer is delayed throughout the movie.  The police don’t believe him.  His colleague from work makes him feel like he’s crazy.  Grace Kelly is pawing him and trying to avert his attention to herself and their relationship.  Finally he wins Grace and a nurse over to his side when they too notice something peculiar about the neighbor and his apartment whose window backs up their window.  You can see how it all ends if you haven’t already seen Rear Window, but of course I’ll tell you that the answer finally gets answered at the end.
          Novelists and screenwriters use several devices and techniques to stir up suspense.  Here are a few of the old tried and true ones…
          *Use story structure to build suspense—You can tell a story from two different points in time.  You can tell a story through different switching points of view.  Both of these techniques delay the answer to the problem and creates suspense, and maybe a little frustration, too.  Also, chapter endings are great places to plant cliff-hangers or new developments in a story.  Just don’t go over-kill with this because then a reader could tire of too many and now predictable cliff-hangers.  Remember, always use a little moderation with everything. 
          *Use threat to build suspense—If the protagonist isn’t in danger or something that means so much to them is not at stake, then what do they have to lose?  Where’s the suspense?  Make sure you have a perilous journey ahead for your protagonist.  Feel free to give us a bit of the antagonist’s POV, so we’ll know what the protagonist is up against.
          *Use the urgency of time to build suspense—You know how you feel if you’re running late for an important event—transfer that same anxiety into your readers throughout the story.  Remember Hitchcock’s aphorism about the two people eating breakfast while a bomb ticks beneath the table?  There’s an urgency of time in that scene he’s created.
          *Use worry to build suspense—For a suspense to be really good, the reader needs to be worried about the person and the outcome of the story.  They’re wondering how in the world will this work out for the protagonist?  They’re up against so many obstacles.  When the reader really wants something to happen and it’s not yet happening…that’s good suspense.  By making the reader worry, you’re keeping the reader engaged, curious, and invested in the outcome of the story.
          When I look for a new suspense book to read, I look for these things and most of the time they appear in the story, but when they don’t it proves to be an unsatisfying reading experience.  And that’s probably because the writer hasn’t taken the time to understand what makes suspense tick and what draws readers to this genre.  Instead of asking what do my readers want to happen, maybe ask what do my readers not want to happen…just yet. 

--Lisa M. Logan is author of HOUSE OF MIRRORS

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