Suspense is an important element of any story. So you're not writing romantic suspense? That doesn't matter. All writers should work suspense into their stories. Suspense doesn't have to involve car chases and psychopaths stalking your heroine. There is suspense in everything from a tense boardroom meeting to a Regency ball where the heroine risks being compromised by a cad to a frontier heroine facing off alone against a dust storm. Lives don't have to be at stake. You, as the author, can generate suspense out of relatively mundane things, as long as they are important to the story, such as whether the stuffy hero will walk under the door just before the pail of water falls down.
Foreshadowing is one tool you can use to heighten the suspense. It gets a separate section because it can get pretty complicated, and it can be hard to foreshadow events just right.
Some writers have described suspense as being like a roller coaster. The trip up to the top is the suspense, and the fast trip down the hill is the pay-off. I prefer to think of suspense as being like the Thursday of a working week. The week's almost over, you're looking forward to Friday night and the weekend.
If the suspense is good enough, readers may forgive a relatively weak ending. However, they may be less likely to pick up your next book. The best writers of suspense know that they can get away with teasing the reader for only so long. Eventually, there has to be a pay-off.
There's nothing more annoying than stories where the suspense comes about because the heroine walks into a parking garage alone even though there's a serial killer out to get her. Or, leaving aside the world of romantic suspense, suspense can be created artificially in other stories as well. For example, when a heroine in a historical romance decides to do something that will get her in deep doo-doo, such as making out with the hero, and even worse, refusing to marry him when they are caught in a comprising position. However, all too many books try to stretch out the suspense by making the heroine decide that she doesn't want to marry the hero, no matter what the risk to her reputation. She wants to remain free, like the birds. Of course, eventually she'll realize that she has to give in, and they'll marry, until the next silly obstacle. If the heroine has a reason to do these things, that's fine. Otherwise, readers might feel manipulated. Characters need reasons to act a certain way. Not just curiosity. If they're in mortal danger, most people will wait to find an answer instead of cavorting in a deserted building or other creepy place.
Avoid throwing in random obstacles that don't stem from the plot or characters. That's fake suspense, and well, it sucks. Let's take this scenario. The hero is trying to get away from murderous drug dealers. He runs across the parking lot -- whoops, someone nearly runs him over, and he has to stop. As if that weren't enough, when he gets to his car, he can't find his keys. All those obstacles exciting? Sure. But you can do better. Instead of relying on random problems, why not use your villains to make his life harder? If they know who he is, they can damage his car, forcing him to find another way to get away. Now that's more interesting than some numskull who suddenly can't find his keys.
Don't you hate it when movies make you think something important is about to happen, and then the "prowler" turns out to be the heroine's cat? Luckily, writers know better than to put scenes like this in their stories. Still, there are ways writers can end up creating false suspense. The frontier heroine can hear a wild animal growling outside and scratching at the door, only to learn that it was the hero's dog. The old Nancy Drew books were classics at this. Every chapter ended with something shocking. For example, Nancy would hear footsteps coming up the stairs in the middle of the night. The excited reader would turn the page to the next chapter, only to learn that it was her father, coming home late. Argh!
Avoid inflicting scenes like this on your audience. Too many "false alarms," and readers will give up.
Suspense is like many other important elements of fiction writing -- it should come out of the characters as well as the plot. If you're not comfortable with the ways your characters are acting, then that's a sure sign that something is wrong. It could be a logic hole in the plot, or maybe you have to work on your characters.
Keep in mind that not all characters will react to anxiety and crises in the same way. Spend some time figuring out how characters react to suspense, anxiety, and fear. Try to avoid the usual descriptions, such as "her pulse raced..." If you're at a loss for descriptions, remember the last time something scary happened to you. What happened the last time you stepped on the breaks and your car tried to skid? Did your stomach feel like a brick? Did you shriek, or swear? Or did you steer yourself out of the skid and only respond to the stress after you were safe? Use those experiences to color your characters' reactions.
Remember, not everyone reacts the same way. For that matter, not all suspenseful situations are the same. A cop hero who is calm and collected in a shoot-out might feel his stomach clench with anxiety when he has to give a talk at the local high school. The Regency heroine who acts like the perfect Regency miss at a ball might find that she is no longer so calm when the hero dances with her for the first time.
Movie makers have a lot of tools we don't. They can play spooky music, change the lighting, tell the actors to look scared, and use a lot of other effects to generate suspense. Most writers can't include CDs of spooky music with their books. We have to stick to using words.
On the other hand, words are an extremely powerful tool. Years before the first movie was made, writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu evoked shivers of horror with "mere" words. For example, take a look at this excerpt from The Haunted Baronet. Although the style is very much a part of the past, I find it scarier than much of the suspense I read today.
As the candles burn blue and the air smells of brimstone at the approach of the Evil One, so, in the quiet and healthy air of Golden Friars, a depressing and agitating influence announced the coming of the long-absent Baronet.
Maybe the most important thing to remember about evoking suspense is that there are no overriding rules. One writing style doesn't work for every writer, nor does the same style work for every scene in a book. Try to avoid overwriting suspenseful scenes, however -- this is not the time to have characters notice pretty sunsets. However, if you can invoke suspense with a florid writing style, then go for it. Not every suspense scene should be written in terse concise terms and choppy sentences.
Read suspenseful books to see how other authors do it. Reread books you remember as being page-turners. What writing styles and tricks did the authors use to create suspense? Or did they rely on style? Sometimes the most suspenseful writing style is the one that doesn't get in the way at a crucial moment.
However, when you find a great technique, proceed with caution. Just because a style worked great during that thrilling shoot-out you just read, that doesn't mean it will work for you. When I wrote one of my first suspense novels, I experimented with fascinating techniques I read about in Dean Koontz's How to Write Best Selling Fiction. I was still very much a novice, so I didn't know when to experiment and when to give up and write a scene in normal English. At the end of my story, I ended up with a shoot-out that switched viewpoints at least six times. I still get dizzy when I reread it.
If you have the chance, listen to classic radio suspense dramas, especially Arch Oboler's famous Light's Out series. The people who created these shows had to generate suspense by relying on scripts, sound effects, and casting. With those tools, they managed to find suspense in outlandish plots. Also, watch spooky movies that rely on atmosphere rather than gore, such as the famous Curse of the Demon and the original version of The Haunting.
Where's the suspense if nothing really goes wrong for your heroine? I really enjoyed Kay Hooper's romantic suspense novel Finding Laura, but I would have loved it if the heroine had been given a harder time. She found the information she needed too easily, and that took away from some of the suspense. This was too much like mystery novels where the detectives just about stumble on the solutions rather than having to work through obstacles to find out what they needed to know.
This problem reared its ugly head for me just the other day. I was writing a ghost story, and when the character first came back as a ghost, he was angry and creepy. Then, he disappeared, and in the next scene, while he was a little creepy, he soon became... nice! After writing several scenes that followed, I realized something was missing. Suspense! Conflict! Interesting stuff! So I changed the order and tone of one of the scenes, and the effect was terrific -- or was that terror-ific? My hero was scared out of his wits for several pages instead of just a few paragraphs. Heck, so was I, even though I knew it would all turn out all right.
Yes, romances are often fantasies with larger-than-life characters and fairy tale plots. Yet when suspense is involved, real life should intrude. Adding plenty of real-life details makes the suspense feel closer to home. A heroine running down the street might latch on to one or two tiny concrete details as she tries to get away from the stalker. Maybe someone is playing "Every Little Breath You Take" too loudly from their car radio, and she realizes the lyrics makes her think of stalkers. Or take a different contemporary situation, not romantic suspense at all. A heroine who owns a restaurant is worried that the new restaurant down the street will take away some of her business. What might she notice as she walks through her restaurant, making sure it's ship-shape. She won't just notice how clean it is, she might notice things like the way her chef's hat is a little crooked or the waitresses are talking about a new TV show they like.
You don't have to be writing a contemporary novel to use real life in your story. Your Regency heroine isn't eating Milky Way bars, but she should be existing in a concrete world, full of material things we can relate to. Even heroines who wear white dresses and meet Prinny have to worry about their shoes being too tight or feel how hard the floor is when they're especially tired. Those little details are going to be more noticeable to them when they are worried -- just as when you're stressed at work, you can suddenly overhear every conversation, microwave beep, fax machine, and building noise near you.
A master of using real life to make a fantasy world real is Stephen King. One of the ways he scares his readers is by telling his stories in a world of Slim Jims and Kool-Aid and pop culture references. Take The Stand, where the lethal plague seemed like a summer flu at first. It's easy to get swept up into that story because it's in a world we all know. While none of us have experienced a plague that will wipe out billions, we've all gotten head colds. We can relate. And then, WHAM, incredible, scary things happen, and they're all the scarier because we have been there before. We've had chest colds and eaten Milky Way bars and listened to rock music.
An important element of suspense that is often forgotten is foreshadowing. It is also one of the easiest elements to mess up, and I speak from personal experience here as I have messed it up often. As the writer, we usually know how everything is going to turn out. It's all too easy to drop hints and think we are being subtle and clever. Sometimes the problem is that the hints are as subtle as a piano falling on your reader's head. This is the sort of foreshadowing done in many soap operas and movies. People joke that when a soap opera character has a stomach ache, you know they will end up in critical care before long.
On the other hand, sometimes the hints are so vague that the only person who "gets" them is the author. That has happened to me more times than I care to admit. One time I will confess was when I had written a story about a character who was being poisoned. I went to the trouble of researching the effects of arsenic, and I gave him many of the symptoms, including pain in his hands and feet. What I forgot was that most readers don't know that those are symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Whoops! So when they read about how the hero had trouble walking because of the pain in the soles of his feet, they were confused and wondered if it meant he had been burned in a fire. Whoops. Foreshadowing should not make you readers go "What?" or "Huh?" or worst of all, "Who cares?!"
Sometimes, the problem is that there is no foreshadowing. Everything is going along, and BOOM, a character does or says something outrageous, without any precedent. Such as a secondary character who suddenly turns into Psychotic Stalker Man, or a heroine's mother who suddenly decides that she doesn't want the hero to marry her daughter. In those cases, foreshadowing the event would have kept the readers interested ("Oh, when is he going to go nuts?!" and "What will happen when Lady Fortescue refuses to let them marry?"). On top of that, it would have kept the readers from muttering "Yeah, right."
This what happened to me with one of my first stories, a short story about a man who started to think he was Sherlock Holmes. The scene had some suspense -- it was rainy and he was worried that his wife might have gotten into an accident. Then, when he learned that she had died, he suddenly went into a shock and said, "I'm Sherlock Holmes." Whoa there! There was no reason for this guy to decide he was Sherlock Holmes, other than "because I'm the writer and I say so." A very helpful mentor figure pointed that out to me. Luckily, it was also easy to fix. I revised the beginning. In the new version, it is made very clear that the hero is a Sherlock Holmes fan. He even reads a Sherlock Holmes story to get his mind off his concerns about his wife. That way, when the shock comes, when he decides he's Sherlock, it's not out of thin air.
Whatever type of book you write, keeping your readers in suspenders will ensure that your readers keep turning the pages. You might write that book that makes their rainy, chore-filled weekend livable. Heck, if you're good enough at creating suspense, maybe you will be able to keep them reading even when it's sunny outside and all the chores are done.
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