Sunday 15 November 2020

Back to basics: suspense - by Rowena House

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.’

The value of this advice from thriller writer Steven James came home big time the other day as I yawned my way through a film on Netflix featuring a young Laura Croft overcoming one gigantic calamity after another without the benefit of an actual plot.

IMHO, the scriptwriters should have taken note of Mr James’s view that, ‘Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”’

Personally, I’m going to nail ‘What can I promise will go wrong?’ above my writing desk. Here’s the link if you’d like to read his article for the Writers’ Digest in full:

As well as a planning tool, I found it an excellent checklist of techniques to shoehorn suspense into a dragging scene. For example...


Applying his advice to ‘include more promises and less action’ injected much-needed adrenalin into a reworked opening for the work-in-progress: a night-time chase through the moonless, torch-less streets of 17th century York.

Counter-intuitively, editing out most of the action and focussing on the protagonist’s psychological reactions to his sinister pursuer highlighted the drama of the moment far more than choreographing the pursuit itself.

Analysing why the edit worked better than the original plot- and setting-based scene flagged up an unexpected answer to a question that’s occupied me a lot this year. That is, what are the limits of intuition when planning and drafting a novel?

Specifically, at what point does the practical business of putting words in order demand answers to fundamental questions about genre, psychic distance, voice and point-of-view?

In practice, adding suspense imposed a voice on the scene, one that created intimacy with the protagonist and bought the psychic distance closer: we’re inside Tom’s head, experiencing his fear.

Was that planned or pantsing? Neither, really. It was a matter of making a creative decision, then seeing where it led. In this case, technique + intuition = an editable scene. Ye-ha.

Googling ‘suspense’ threw up more generic advice, like ‘building suspense involves withholding information and raising key questions that pique readers’ curiosity.’

A lot of blogs refer to Alfred Hitchcock’s model of suspense, a ticking time-bomb under a table, where the audience can see the bomb is about to go off but the characters at the table can’t. Here’s a nice piece using this model to talk about the difference between surprise and suspense:

Robert McKee in Story uses different terminology for these techniques. He says suspense builds when “characters and audience move shoulder to shoulder through the telling, sharing the same knowledge’ and neither knows how events will play out. This builds audience empathy with the protagonist; we care about the outcome of the story as well as being curious.

McKee calls the next step up (where the audience knows about a danger before a character) dramatic irony. ‘What in Suspense would be anxiety about the outcome and fear for the protagonist’s well-being, in Dramatic Irony becomes dread for the moment the character discovers what we already know and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.’

For film-makers, it’s relatively easy to share ‘hidden’ knowledge with an audience through the omniscient eye of the movie camera. For the novelist, this technique begs questions about viewpoint and the number of narrators, since a reader can’t know more than a first person protagonist, or a very close third, unless you allow for prologues or other ‘telling’ devices.

And there we are, back to the basic questions I’m still asking about the WIP.

At the moment, it’s being told in close third person present, with multiple viewpoint characters, so McKee’s dramatic irony is an option. More importantly, however, the opening scene must engage empathy and pique curiosity, and suspense was definitely the missing ingredient in its earlier iterations.

It’s been fun as well as useful to go back to basics this month, rediscovering things I’d forgotten and stumbling across the new. I’d love to hear how and where you use suspense, and if it comes naturally to your storytelling.

In the meantime, happy writing – if lockdown allows.


Twitter: @HouseRowena


PS I did a live interview about The Goose Road for Hillingdon Libraries on Armistice Day. If you fancy a gander, I’ve posted a copy of the recording onto my Facebook page:




Susan Price said...

Interesting post.
For me all story-telling boils down to: 'Pose a question. Make them wait.'
Your opening scene: 'Who is chasing? Why? Will they catch him/her?' -- Then make them wait to find out.
To increase suspense, up the stakes.

Stroppy Author said...

Interesting! There are other ways around this, though:
"since a reader can’t know more than a first person protagonist, or a very close third, unless you allow for prologues or other ‘telling’ devices."
You can make the narrator too naive to interpret the clues he or she recounts. I was reading something recently (can't remember what) in which the child narrator gave enough information about how his mother was always being sick and growing out of her clothes that we guessed she was pregnant long before he did.

Rowena House said...

Hi Susan, yes indeed. It's interesting isn't it, that idea of making the reader wait? I remember a Lee Child interview where he expanded on that concept of fiction writing. Personally, I worry a bit it can be overdone. I've abandoned books where it was too obvious. Maybe it's like reeling in a fish, you've got to give sometimes or you lose the catch!

Naive narrator a good addition to the options! I'm using a version of that, I guess: historic superstition rather that childish innocence. Have you used naivity as a technique? It woukd be interesting to hear how it works. I guess it's balancing reader empathy against potential superciliousness.