This week has had a lot of waiting. Waiting for the agent to get back to me to confirm receipt of my manuscript. Waiting for the Finalists call on Monday, on the off-chance I get it. And all the tension, the suspense, the wondering – all this waiting has got me thinking about how to build suspense into fiction.
One of the best parts of a good story, in my opinion, is the suspense. Not knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s the question, the wondering, that makes you keep turning the pages. A good writer builds suspense into the story little by little, until you literally can not walk away without finding out what happens. But how is it done?
The first and best way to build the suspense, of course, is to build a story whose outcome is uncertain. Or, in the case of romance and action movies where the ending is known from the beginning, make the path to getting there as rocky as possible. Imperil everything your character is fighting for. Raise the stakes. Make your villain stronger, your obstacles bigger, your internal struggles more cutting. Make it possible – even likely – for your character to fail. But once you’ve done that – twice – what next?
That’s where the tricks come in.
1. Delayed Information –
An easy way to build suspense is to withhold information from the reader. Start in media res, in the middle of things. Leak out only the critical information for that particular moment, and watch the reader’s interest spike. Drop in hints to the character’s background that you don’t reveal until later. Or, let us experience the scene with new, fresh eyes. Just because your character knows she’s going into the bank to rob it doesn’t mean the reader needs to know until she pulls the gun. Make her appropriately nervous, of course. Put obstacles in her path. But withhold what’s coming until you get there. Then – after she’s nearly gotten caught by the cops – have her meet back up with the guy who kidnapped her daughter and is holding her ransom. You could put all of the backstory in the first part of the story, of course. Show us the setup. But it’s more suspenseful if the information develops slowly. It builds the tension and the surprise at every reveal.
The danger in this approach, however, is what my parents call the Perry Mason reveal. If you withhold too much information from the audience, you end up with a big reveal scene in which your main character (“Perry Mason”) shows how smart he is at the expense of the audience and the other characters. He knows everything, the audience, nothing. It’s an uncomfortable position to put an audience in, and should be avoided if at all possible. Even a few subtle clues thrown in along the way makes the reveal more poignant, because the audience makes the connection with what they already know. Don’t play Perry Mason. Give the audience all the information they need – but not before they need it.
2. Jump Ahead –
This one’s an old school trick and can come across as campy in the wrong setting. Still, there’s a reason it’s lasted as long as it has – because it works. Jump ahead to the most suspenseful scene or the biggest action moment (before its resolution), then add a scene break and write the words Three Days Earlier (or whatever the appropriate timeline is). Even the most everyday of actions occurring after that famous “three days earlier” will seem suspenseful if your big action moment is interesting enough. The audience will be constantly wondering how the big scene will get here.
For examples of how to do this well (in a slightly campy setting), check out the Fox series The Good Guys, which starts with a “Jump Ahead” moment with every episode. I’ve also found for very dark or serious topics (such as someone’s family dying and him vowing revenge), this method of flashing back or forward can be highly effective as well.
3. Leave ‘Em Hanging
Sometimes sneaky is better. As a writer, you can structure your book however you like, right? Right. So if you choose to end a scene right before the big reveal and pick it up later, that’s your business. If your chapters all end on cliffhangers or moment of great tension, well, the poor schmucks who can’t put down the book will just have to keep reading, right?
Try increasing your suspense throughout the book by taking a longer, high-stakes scene and splitting it up into two parts: the lead-up, the Big Moment (can have more than one), and the resolution. Most beginning writers (heck, even intermediate ones) write the scene all the way through, from its logical beginning to its logical ending. I still do this – a lot – but it’s a first draft shortcut. In later revision, ask yourself, can this be split into two parts? Can I end a chapter on the Big Moment? Then move your words around and polish so both parts stand on their own.
If you do it well, you can interrupt the scene with another and leave your audience waiting with baited breath for the conclusion. See? Instant tension. Just don’t overdo it too early or you’ll exhaust your audience before the climax.
This idea from the incomparable Eric Witchey at a conference class. We’ve all seen this before in fiction and on the screen, but Witchey’s way of explaining it makes it easy to use. A “rachet” is a device by which emotional pressure is increased slowly on a character throughout the story. In other words, the bomb on the bus we see ticking away while the old woman sits unaware. The lack of water in a three-day hike through the desert. Or the money pressure on an already difficult marriage as the wife makes incrementally larger purchases.
The cool part about a ratchet is that it’s not that big of a deal at the beginning of the story. It’s an irritant, or a problem, but not one with an immediate solution. What makes it great for suspense – and for the writer – is that, the more it’s repeated, the bigger the deal becomes. It’s like the car jack you use to change a flat tire – every time you as a write push the lever, the tension increases until a two-ton car rises under the pressure. The key is to keep working it just enough to keep the tension high without exhausting the reader.
So the next time you need a slow build of tension, try the slow-burn story device called the ratchet. Add an impending deadline, or an increasing pressure, and sit back happily as the tension builds.