(Foreshadowing has been moved to Week 34 - Suspense seemed like a natural precursor.)
"To propel readers, make them wait." Roy Peter Clark50 Strategies for Every Writer
So what exactly is it that makes us want to know what happens in a story?
In How to Write Damn Good Fiction, James N. Frey suggests that readers need to be concerned about bad things happening to characters they feel sympathy for. He adds that suspense that causes readers to feel anxious or apprehensive is more powerful than just curiosity alone.
Okay, so build strong, identifiable and sympathetic characters, and then have bad things happen to them. Sounds easy enough.
So what are some of the techniques we can use to do that?
In the October edition of Writer's Digest Magazine, Jeff Gerke provides great pointers for building suspense:
- Clearly define what's at stake and what happens if a character's goals are not met, i.e., the or-else factor;
- Include a ticking time bomb, or in Frey's words, light the fuse;
- Heighten sensory details to make unthreatening things seem menacing, e.g., a car backfiring, wind through the trees.
- Slow down time to allow imagination freer rein;
- Vary intensity so that the reader does not become frustrated with prolonged suspense (or prolonged lack of suspense);
- Plant the seeds of the ending throughout the story by foreshadowing, rather than blatantly telegraphing the outcome;
- Always reward the reader, both along the way, and at the end.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner has some excellent technical advice on using delaying tactics to create suspense. If a writer can artfully hold interest using rich descriptions, creative metaphors and the like, the reader's anticipation has a chance to grow. He also suggests stylistic juxtaposition as a delaying technique, i.e., a scene about a young couple hiking followed by a scene about a serial killer has the reader anticipating that the two will meet up sometime during the story. Gardner also reminds us that suspense pertains not only to action, but also to the moral implications of action (or inaction).
In Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills recognizes that suspense need not always be that nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat stuff that thriller writers strive for in every scene.
Hills proposes that suspense can be in the form of mystery, conflict or tension, and to be effective, each must progress through three steps: preparation, suspension, and resolution, as follows:
- Mystery, evokes curiosity, and is resolved by explanation;
- Tension, evokes anticipation, and is resolved by fulfillment;
- Conflict, evokes uncertainty, and is resolved by decision. (Suspense created by conflict is what Jessamyn West supposedly called "willy wonty," that is, it requires a decision, and for it to be suspenseful, the values on each side of the conflict must be balanced.)
Okay, so perhaps I'm getting into semantics now.
As always, the best way to learn about building suspense is to look for it in the writing of others, and to practise. Next week I'll expand on Foreshadowing.
Exercise 65. Write a piece where the outcome is deliberately delayed. Reveal events slowly, mislead, incorporate the unexpected, then build to the final outcome. (From Rosier-Jones, So You Want to Write.)
Exercise 66. Write a paragraph that would appear just before the discovery of a body. It might describe the character's approach or location or both. The purpose is to hold a reader and propel them to the shocking event that follows. (From Gardner's, The Art of Fiction.)