Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: 5 Tips for Writing Chair-Gripping Suspense

Some of us love surprises. Others would be mortified if their friends threw them a surprise birthday party. Regardless of your stance, however, you can’t deny that the element of suspense plays an important role in our lives. Few things peak our interest like the thrill of the unknown.

Likewise, few things draw readers into a story faster than suspense. Whether you write mystery, thriller, supernatural, or fantasy, no genre is untouched by some element of suspense. Below are five simple tips that can help you craft hair-raising, page-turning apprehension.

1. The Power of Imagination and the Unknown
Growing up, our imaginations were almost always active. We were very good at “pretending” to be things we weren’t and played with our imaginary friends. However, this imaginative power could also take the form of monsters and other less favorable creatures that lived in our closets at night. Even as adults, several years later, an unexpected bump in the night can send our hearts racing.

This natural fear of the unknown is basic suspense at its finest. If you hear something strange, or catch a fleeting glimpse of a shadow, your mind instantly strives to discover its origin (and often comes up with several frightening options in the process). The versatile imagination that you developed as a child continues to feed your brain with possible, and often far-fetched, answers to the unknown things around you.

When you write suspense, use the power of the unknown. Shadows aren’t frightening if you reveal what is casting them. If something, or someone, is stalking your main character, for example, don’t reveal who or what it is. Keep your readers in the dark. Suspense is only suspense until you know the source of it. Once you reveal the source of the suspense to your readers, it ceases to be suspense. At this point, it may take another form—horror, relief, or perhaps even a new form of suspense—but the original suspense that you built up will have dissipated.  

2. Fulfill your Promises
Sometimes suspense is not as literal as a “bump in the night.” Sometimes it’s a long-term unknown.

In The Scarlet Letter, for example, a sort of long-term suspense runs throughout the length of the novel: will Dimmesdale be found guilty of adultery? Will Chillingworth find out Dimmesdale is guilty? A lot of this suspense stems from the fact that Chillingworth has sworn to find his adulterous wife’s partner-in-crime. The author has promised the reader that Chillingworth is set on finding the truth, and his vengeful nature could cause several consequences for Dimmesdale, should he be found out. Once the author makes a connection between Chillingworth’s desire for revenge and Dimmesdale’s guilt, the reader is given a promise of ominous things to come. The result: long-term, page-turning suspense.

To create effective, long-term suspense, it is important to make promises to your readers. But it is even more important to fulfill those promises in a more-than-satisfactory manner.

For example, if you promise your readers that your villain is a master thief who is willing to go to any length to procure treasure, then you had best fulfill that promise. Put him in the middle of his greatest heist. Show off his desperation—or his ruthlessness—in getting past all those who stand in his way.

A promise isn’t usually something that you alright state to your reader. It is something that you hint at through your plot, characters, and dialogue. Most importantly, though, don’t let your readers down. Fulfill their expectations and exceed them if you can. It will keep them coming back for more, and you will have gained their respect for having their best interests in mind.

3. Lead, then Mislead, then Lead Again
How many times have you read or watched a scene where one character is hiding from another? 

Usually, it goes something like this:
(1) Character A hides behind something as Character B comes in looking for them.

(2) Character A holds their breath and freezes as Character B paces around the room.

(3) Character B freezes and regards Character A’s hiding spot.

(4) Character A prepares to panic, but just as the tension is about to break Character B decides there is nothing of interest and moves on.

(5) At this point, Character A may be in the clear, but oftentimes Character B will double back and discover Character A’s hiding place after all.

Sound familiar? This creepy hide-and-seek game is an oft-used scene of classic suspense. But what I want you to notice in this example is not the literal “hide-and-seek” match, but the principle that is at work here. The Lead-Mislead-Lead (or MLM) principle says that keeping your readers guessing is the key to golden suspense. Like a teeter-totter, this concept reels unsteadily between one outcome and another. This leaves your reader cringing as the balance tips first one way, and then another, uncertain which outcome will occur.

Of course, the “hide-and-seek” example represents this principle at its most basic level. A great example of this concept occurs in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The battle for Minas Tirith wages relentlessly back-and-forth: Mordor attacks the city, the city retaliates, Rohan arrives to reinforce the city, an army of Mumakil arrive to reinforce Mordor, an army of undead warriors arrive to reinforce the city, etc. The battle becomes a heart-stopping balance where evil prevails one moment and good triumphs the next. This uncertainty creates tremendous suspense, which keeps the viewers tuned in to the on-screen action.

4. Alternate Between Short and Long Sentences
Sentence length is key to setting a suspenseful mood. Shorter sentences are generally used to create quick images that convey action, fear, or sensory input. Longer sentences can convey moments of false calm, contemplation, or uncertainty. To get the most power out of your suspenseful moment, it’s important to alternate between these two sentence types. Here is an example:

Elena forced her shaking limbs to be still. Hidden beneath the table in the deserted training room, every breath sounded like a geyser rushing from her lungs.

A heavy foot creaked against the floor. Closer now. Another step. Another. She could hear the rattled breathing of her foe as it prowled the grounds, searching.


She locked her eyes shut. The creature sniffed for her scent. One more step and its claws would find her.

5. Focus on the Senses
Think back to a time when you felt you were being watched. Maybe something startled you. Maybe you were extra paranoid because you were alone. Relive that moment. What did you focus on visually? Your attention likely shifted from shadows to low foliage or other places where something could hide unnoticed. What startled you? It may have been leaves scraping on the sidewalk, the scurry of a small animal, the shadow of a bird flying overhead, or something else.

Regardless of the circumstance, looking back at your own tense moment, you will realize just how perceptive your senses became. The fear of the unknown likely triggered your flight-or-fight response, which enhanced your vision, hearing, and overall sensitivity.

When you write in-the-moment suspense, especially from a first-person viewpoint, pay close attention to what your character is sensing. All of your character’s senses should be sharpened by the uncertainty of the moment. Be sure to hone in on those and weave them into your scene as necessary. These details will add to the realism and credibility of your suspense.

The Best Advice? Read, View, and Practice!
The best advice I can give anyone who wants to write suspense is to saturate yourself with suspense. Try a variety of mediums. Pick up the latest thriller from a popular author. Watch an old “who-dun-it.” Play a first-person video game like Slenderman. Listen to suspenseful sound effects and music. Recall a personal experience that triggered your flight-or-fight response and put it into words.

And, most importantly, practice. Write, edit, rewrite, repeat. 

And keep an eye on the shadows.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool post. ^ ^ I've never read one quite like it. Good show. I love suspense.

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