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Foreshadowing and Suspense
by Anne Marble
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.
Leaving Your Readers in Suspenders
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.
Make the Climax Live Up to the Suspense
As we all know, sometimes the anticipation is more exciting than the actual
event. A nice sunny Thursday can turn into a rainy weekend filled with
chores. A suspenseful novel can sputter out when the solution is unfolded.
How do you plant the best ending for your story? Start by thinking of the
reader. What would interesting, shock, and shake the reader? Is the
resolution too pat? If so, make it harder for your characters. Oh, think of
your characters, too, of course. Do they have enough obstacles? Are they
reacting in character to what happens. Oh, and make sure the villains get
an appropriate comeuppance.
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.
Avoid Contrived Suspense
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.
Avoid False Suspense
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 Should Come Out of the Characters
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.
Use Mood to Evoke Suspense
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
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
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.
Don't Make Things Too Easy
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.
Real Life Should Intrude
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
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.
Copyright © 2004 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
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