Friday, January 11, 2013


Suspense is that quality that makes you stay up way past your bed time to finish a chapter--or an entire book. It's what puts you on the edge of your seat and makes you want to yell at the characters and warn them. It's also that quality that had me plowing through the entire first season of Revenge on Netflix over Christmas break. (So addictive!)

Hitchcock made a differentiation between mystery and suspense. In mystery we often know what's happened and the role of the protagonist is to find out how. In suspense, the reader is constantly wondering what's going to happen next.

Perspective, especially third person or alternating perspective, lends itself very well to suspense writing because, then, the writer can tell the reader something that the main character doesn't know. It's the "bomb under the table" scenario, as Hitchcock has described. For example, if two people are eating dinner at a diner, that's not suspenseful. However, once we're shown a glimpse of the ticking bomb under their table we suddenly have time against them and danger is near. As the two characters leisurely browse the dessert menu and discuss whether they should order, we want to scream to them, "No! Get out while you still have time!" We're privy to information that they're not and we're helpless as we watch them but we can't turn away, we have to know: do they make it out of the diner alive or not?

Suspense, when done well, also plays upon basic fears. That's why darkness is so common in suspense writing. Intrigue, as in leaving the reader with questions, is also important in suspense writing. For example, take a basic sentence and keep building upon it with more detail until it's clear to the reader that something is wrong.

Sentence 1: Toby looked in the mirror at at his long, lanky body. (Statement, nothing suspenseful here.)

Sentence 2: As Toby looked in the mirror, he noticed for the first time a bruise to join the others along his long, lanky body. (Okay, we're getting there. Definitely some intrigue about the bruises and a sense that maybe there's some kind of abuse or bullying here since it says there are multiple bruises.)

Sentence 3: What scared Toby the most as he looked in the mirror was that this bruise he had no recollection of getting--and no way of hiding. (Definitely stronger and lends itself to more questions. Why doesn't he know how he got it? Was he unconscious? Is abuse that frequent? What's at stake if he can't hide it? And, in case the reader didn't know to be scared, we've told them that Toby is and so they should be too.)

Suspense writing is also given an additional layer when the hero isn't inherently all good and the villain isn't inherently all bad. For example, in Revenge we all want to cheer for the real Amanda Clark. Everything she's ever had has been taken away from her. We see moments of vulnerability and caring BUT, overall, she's not an entirely sympathetic character. She does some really awful things. Her entire revenge vendetta is based on having a flexible moral compass and the idea that retribution can be something that she doles out rather than the authorities. However, each time we question her we're given reason to get back on her side. Either the Grayson family has done something far more despicable than Amanda that overshadows her action or Amanda plays into our emotional vulnerabilities, crying while she watches the video of her father, learning that her mother is still alive, etc. And every time we think we can't hate Victoria Grayson any more, she'll look at a picture of her one true love David Clark and choke up and beg her husband that they come clean about their faults. For those brief moments we sympathize with her. We see glimpses of her vulnerability--her humanity. But just when we start to forget all the bad she's done, she comes back and does it again and the hero/villain balance is righted.

Even if you're not writing a true "suspense" novel, small elements of intrigue can be added into your manuscript by taking these lessons into consideration. When the reader feels emotionally on edge, they flip pages--and that's always a good thing, right?

So tell me, what are some of your favorite suspense reads or movies and why?

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