Friday, November 04, 2016

The Key to Creating Suspense Is...

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Suspense is an important element of any novel. Though we often associate it with characters in danger, it’s just the reader's anticipation of something: waiting for the killer to strike, hoping for that first kiss between beloved characters, wondering when a life-changing bit of information will finally be revealed—these are all things that pique a reader's interest and keeps them reading.

Which is what it’s really all about. A reader who doesn’t want to know what happens next won’t read on to find out. It's our job as writers to create a situation that’s so tempting, so exciting, so emotional, that readers can’t put down our books.

The key to creating suspense?

Pose questions, and make the reader wait for the answers.

“Questions” can mean any number of things however. It can be a literal question a character asks, a situation that suggests a question, a mystery that makes readers and characters wonder, the meaning behind an odd detail or bit of dialogue—whatever works for the story.

It typically doesn’t mean questions the reader asks because of confusion about what’s going on. Confusion does not equal suspense.

The Literal Questions

These are questions posed in the story by the characters. The protagonist might say or think, “Where is Papa going with that axe?” and readers want to know as well. Literal questions are designed to make the reader wonder the same thing as the character, then tag along to find out the answer.

It's not uncommon to see literal questions within goal statements, such as, "Did Bobby kill that boy? I had to find out." They're flashing lights that let readers know this is what the plot is going to focus on for a while.

(Here's more on using the rule of three to building suspense)

The Situational Questions

These are questions created by an unusual situation that draws readers in and makes them curious about what’s going on. Who are these people with guns lurking outside a school? Why is that woman agreeing to be put to death? The curious situation is clear, but the clues that provide the answers to these questions are missing, encouraging readers to read on to find out what it all means.

This type of “what’s going on?” is different from the confusing type, though. With a situational question, what is actually happening in the scene is clear, but the reasons behind it are a mystery. It’s more about discovering the who or why than the what. For example, readers might see two armed men are studying a high school, but who they are, why they’re studying it, and what they plan to do is uncertain. But the danger is clear and readers can see something is not right here.

A confusing "what's going on?" scene would be if you showed a bunch of people planning an attack on a building, but didn't mention it was a school or that they had guns. The compelling parts are missing, and there's not enough context to understand what's going on or pique curiosity. 

(Here's more on ways to build suspense like a master)

The Reaction Questions

These are questions created by emotions. Something is brewing in the story that will cause the protagonist (or another character) to react emotionally in a way readers anticipate—both negatively and positively. Dread is just as strong as hope in these types of questions. Readers might know Bob is in love with Jane, and are waiting to discover if he’ll finally get up the courage to tell her. They might also fear what will happen when Sally finds out her husband is in love with another woman. Soap operas and nighttime dramas excel at using reaction questions to create suspense.

The emotional suspense could also come from wondering what a character might do if/when certain circumstances occur. If the protagonist is clearly headed toward something bad (or even good), readers will be holding their breaths to see what will happen and how the character will react to it. Readers might even fear that outcome, knowing what it's going to do to the character they love.

(Here's more on the physiology of foreshadowing)

The Information Questions

These questions focus on the discovery of information. Usually the type of information the protagonist is looking for is clear, and revealing that information is the goal--such as the protagonist discovers a co-worker broke into his office and searched it, and he sets out to discover why. Sometimes it’s more subtle with clues dropped by the author that only readers see--such as hints that suggest the protagonist doesn’t know the truth about herself; perhaps she’s adopted, or unaware of the real identity of a parent, or she has a special ability or terrible illness.

How something came to be is another example, and one commonly seen in genre fiction. How does a world that forces its children to fight to the death on TV happen? Why is an ordinary man obsessed with killing the president? Why is everyone scared of an eight-year-old girl? Readers want to know how or why something is the way it is and they'll read on to find out.

(Here's more on working with dramatic irony)

The Teaser Questions

These are questions posed when answers to previous questions lead to other questions (still with me?) Sure, readers get an answer to something they’ve been dying to know, but it only opens the door to more mysteries, more delicious reactions, more unknowns. Perhaps the protagonist finds proof Howard shot the sheriff, but readers know Howard was in another state at the time. Or a teen girl wants to know why she keeps blacking out and fears she's dying, but discovers she's traveling to a parallel dimension during those blackouts instead.

(Here's more on using what characters don't know)

A word of caution about questions: When done well, questions add suspense and keep the tension high, but if used poorly, they irritate readers and make them impatient to get to the point. Questions that drag on and never get answered are frustrating and weaken the impact of other questions and even scenes--why worry about something if the author has proven they won't answer it? Too many questions can leave readers struggling to remember details. Questions left unanswered a little too long can fall flat because readers don't fully remember why they wanted to know the answers in the first place.

Consider how you space out your questions and how it affects your novel's pacing. The right balance keeps readers flipping those pages.

(Here's more on pacing)

No matter what genre or market you write for, suspense in all its forms will help keep readers hooked.

What are some of your favorite suspense novels? Or suspenseful moments in a novel, whatever the genre. 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. This is just what I needed today! My own WIP is boring me (ohnoohnoohno)... I think some more suspense and splashes of the unexpected will be just what it needs.... thanks for the post!

    1. Oh good! Hope you find the right thrilling splashes to add to your WIP.

  2. This is good stuff!!

  3. One of my writing buddies just submitted a draft in which the MC gets a mysterious ring. She goes from "I hope I make a C on this test" to being drawn toward certain answers...the correct answers. Now I want to see how the teacher's going to react (teacher doesn't like her), what she's going to do, how long it'll take her to connect this knowledge to the ring, and what the ring IS. All that with less than two thousand words!

    The Hunger Games was not what I'd describe as great literature (think LOTR), but it definitely kept me turning pages.
    "The Thief" series is a perennial favorite.
    That horrible moment in the Mines of Moria when drums begin to sound in the deep and the Fellowship realizes they're in trouble.

    1. A great example of dropping clues that demand answers.

  4. Does anyone else feel like if they don't visit daily your not doing your homework?

  5. It has been a long time since I read it, but The Heart of Darkness kept me on the edge of my seat.

    1. I haven't read that one since college :)