Building Suspense: Meeting Readers In The Middle

When thriller author Donna Galanti contacted me about guest posting here at The Bookshelf Muse on building suspense, I was all over it! As a writer on the dark side of Middle Grade and Young Adult, suspense is as alluring to me as the scent of bacon in the pan. And suspense isn't only about Thrillers and Who-dun-its...every book and genre has it's own brand of suspense, meaning catching and keeping the reader's attention requires some serious skill. Donna has 8 great tips for building suspense...I hope you enjoy this post as much as I do!

Writing Suspense: Meet Them in the Middle and They Will Come

I’ve learned so much about suspense since writing my first book. One thing I’ve learned in fiction, and movies, is that surprise can be over-rated.

Surprise is the two-seconds of “Boo!” Suspense is the ten-minutes of “Oh, No! Will she die or not?” We’ve all heard go for suspense when you can–and for a reason. It keeps the reader turning pages.
This means the reader needs to know a few things (without giving it all away) so they can predict things, and feel smart. Readers love feeling smart. Don’t we all?

I’ve discovered that if we meet the reader in the middle and let them feel smart, that they will stick with you. 

But how can we, as writers, meet the reader in the middle to create suspense?

Tease them with only a few descriptive details

In Harry Potter we all know what Hogwart’s Castle looks like, don’t we? But if you go through the book there are very few descriptions about it. It’s introduced only as a vast castle with lots of turrets and towers. When Harry enters it we’re teased with brief images of flaming torches and a magnificent staircase. That’s it. The reader must fill in the rest with imagination.

By giving the reader flashes of the setting here and there we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and…build suspense.

Introduce questions early on

Not just one, but many. Drop them here and there. Don’t make it tidy. Make it mayhem with meaning. But make sure those drops do have meaning.

If a knife appears hanging on the wall in the beginning, the reader will question why its there and believe that the knife has importance down the road. (So make sure you show its reason…later.)
Make the reader ask: What happens next? In Watchers by Dean Koontz we witness a depressed man who goes off to a canyon to commit suicide. Will he go through with it? Then he meets a highly intelligent dog and fears for his life from an unknown stalker. Through the dog he meets a timid woman he is intrigued by.

Now we have more questions. Who is this dog? Who is this stalker? How are they connected? Who is this woman? Why is she so shy?

Provide readers with knowledge

New novelists can often be afraid of revealing their best stuff early on. I used to feel the same way. There are tons of pages to fill, after all. That fear can make a writer hoard their best stuff for a surprise–later. But the reader can get bored with waiting, and surprises are overestimated.

Hitchcock, the master of film suspense, used this to build his tension in his movies. He gave the audience information the characters knew and didn’t know, such as the bomb located under their desk.

Tick tock.

Will the character die? Yikes! Maybe, if we’re given all the information we need to suspect death is looming. What makes this suspenseful? Because we spend ten minutes hoping beyond hope the character we love doesn’t die! In the movies or on the page.

Look at the big picture

Movies can provide great visuals for how writers can create suspense. Multiple setups can lead to one big suspense payoff. It’s the knowing what’s about to happen, and then it happens.

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone plans to kill the two mob leaders he meets for dinner. We see the murder planning. The discussion of where to meet. The finding of the gun in the bathroom as a weapon. The wondering of whether Michael will or won’t do it. The knowing that his life will be forever changed if he does.

Creating suspense with a big picture buildup can also create surprise. Here is where surprise can work if everything that led up to the surprise is exposed in a new way.

The big moment at the end in The Sixth Sense isn't just a surprise–it re-arranges everything we know about the events we've seen beforehand in a new way. Did you guess it coming or were you totally surprised?

Set the mood

Provide a suspense setting that creates feelings of heightened anxiety. Give the reader the portent of doom. The setting of a scene can make a large impact on its mood. Use sensory details to build on those feelings–a sudden wind, a stormy sky, a rising stench, a jarring noise. Use world building to create suspense.

Here’s an example of how I aimed for this in my suspense novel, A Human Element:

The sky darkened suddenly. She looked up. Black clouds, thick and angry rolled overhead. Her heart raced faster. The bad feeling screamed again inside her. 

"Let's go inside for now." Laura tugged on her mother's sleeve. They would be safer in the house. She just knew it. 

"But we can't let our chores go." Fanny's fingers flew across the peas. Slit. Pop. Slit. Pop. Wind whipped around the corner of the house. It knocked over Laura's basket.

Do you think something bad is coming?

Go slow

You’re saying whaaat? Yes. Slow down real time to show the full 360 degrees of the scene. In real life action happens fast. But it’s our job as writers to not show real life. That would be boring and over with in a flash. Show all the angles of the scene to build suspense. Use all the senses. Add complications.

I just read Robert Goolrick’s, A Reliable Wife. In it he moves achingly slow to build suspense. In the beginning scene a man waits at a train station. Nothing is happening. But so much is happening. And so much is to come.

His first paragraph tells us:

It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o’clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children.
Oooh, right? Look at his words. Bitter. Electric. Dead. Still. Frozen. Besides going slow he’s also setting the mood with his word choices. These are not soft words. We have a sense of doom. For eleven pages at the train station Goolrick goes slow to build suspense and tension all by focusing on one man’s thoughts and the people who flow around him.

Think that’s going slow? The master of suspense, Dean Koontz, builds suspense over seventeen pages in Whispers with an attempted rape scene.

And don’t forget to create characters to care about

This doesn't mean they shouldn’t be flawless. Giving them flaws makes them more appealingly human, but you won’t create suspense if nobody gives a hoot about your characters.

Suspense is emotional. It’s about revealing some, but not all.

And if the reader cares they’ll go out on that limb and meet you in the middle. Build it halfway to create suspense, and they will come.

Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense novel, A Human Element, called “a riveting debut that had me reading till the wee hours of the night” by international bestselling author M.J. Rose.

She’s lived from England as a child, to Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer. Donna lives with her family in an old farmhouse in PA with lots of nooks, fireplaces, and stinkbugs but sadly no ghosts. Visit her at her website, and on Twitter!

About A Human Element

One by one, Laura Armstrong's friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her special healing powers, there is nothing she can do to stop it. The killer haunts her dreams and leaves cryptic notes advising her to use her powers to save herself...because she's next.

Read a sample
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Your turn, Musers! What techniques do you use to build suspense? Is there an author you love because of their skill at drawing the reader in and keeping them guessing? Let me know in the comments!

ALSO, I hope you'll sneak over to the ever-awesome Shannon O'Donnell's  Book Dreaming where I'm chatting about Staying Motivated. I promise you will LOVE some of the links I'm sharing at her blog!

34 comments:

DonnaGalanti said...

Angela, thanks so much for having me on! This was a fun post to write. I found so many examples of movies and book passages I wanted to add them all. I got sidetracked and would sit down to read once flipping through my books for examples, so it took me awhile to write! (not to mention watching movies)

I love, as a reader, to ask: What happens next? Two of my other fave examples are in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Will Scarlett O’Hara survive the Civil War, save her beloved Tara, win Ashley’s heart, and finally give in to love with Rhett?

In Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris will Clarice Starling be able to match wits with Hannibal and can she do it in time to save a life?

Becca Puglisi said...

These are excellent tips, Donna. Suspense can add so much to the story, but we don't see a lot of information on how to write it well. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise!

DonnaGalanti said...

Becca, thanks too for having me here!

I think learning to write suspense well is a constant process. We may have a great idea but unless we carry through with the craft to make the story as powerful as it can be, we aren't doing our job as a writer, right?

I find when I am stuck on a scene, I pull down books from my shelf that have similar situations to see how the "masters" worked the scene. It always help drive my own creativity and often breaks down my wall to move forward.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is one of the BEST posts I've read on writing suspense. Thanks, Donna. And yes, that scene in Whispers is very suspenseful. My heart was pounding the entire time.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Donna, great job. I like the way you set the point and follow it with an example.

Suspense is emotional. The writer builds it by setting a mood with careful word selection that the reader's mind absorbs and and then provides the emotional response to what is being read. In movies, words play into it--the inflection and tone--but movies rely on setting visual atmosphere (and the musical score helps). But both need the participation of the reader/viewers emotions. Success is engaging those emotions.

Sia McKye OVER COFFEE

DonnaGalanti said...

Stina, so glad you enjoyed the post. I believe Whispers was Koontz's breakout novel too - now we know why!

Sia, thanks for stopping by!

I am all about the characters. SO if I dont care about the characters then the suspense has far less impact on me.

And funny, you mention music as there is one suspenseful movie I just cant watch. It's Misery. I fidget and feel all anxious inside. And no, its not the bad stuff that happens - its because I realized there is practically no music during the movie! It made it TOO real for me and made my skin crawl as if nails on a chalkboard were screeching away. Perhaps that is the intention the director had. We get so used to music being in movies, that it becomes part of the experience without overwhelming it.

Angela Ackerman said...

Donna, thank you for such a great post. And you picked perfect examples, because even if a person hasn't read a book or watched a movie, you provide enough so that they understand what made the suspense so compelling. I agree with all of these--great build up through stakes and planting doubt in our minds if the character will succeed in their goal, or circumvent an obstacle.

I never realized that about Misery either! Next time I watch it, I'll pay attention to the lack of music. Kathy Bates was so amazing in that movie--a totally new breed of Psychopath in my mind!

Thanks everyone for the comments! I hope this post will make a good bookmarking source to come back to when you're amping up your suspenseful moments!

Angela

http://www.samposey.com/ said...

Thanks for the tips, Donna. And Ooh, your book sounds wonderful. I looking forward to reading it.

Marsha Sigman said...

Great post! And so funny because I was just reading up on this subject.

It's like you read my mind...ha

Donna K. Weaver said...

I LOVE this post! I'm going to copy and paste it to save for reminding later on. "Mayhem with meaning" Awesome!

Kathryn Craft said...

Donna, great post. As a developmental editor, I see examples of your third point, "Provide readers with knowledge," all the time. Sometimes rookie writers don't realize that raising expectation is everything in writing. To the point that when a character shares the thought, "I felt so safe in his arms," the savvy reader knows that is fiction speak for "danger is imminent." So I guess that's an additional suspense technique, in which you meet the savvy reader halfway: set the opposite expectation and you'll have them looking for trouble around every corner!

DonnaGalanti said...

Marsha, I always wanted to read minds! LOL. Glad to help.

Donna K., that 'mayhem with meaning' just blasted into my head one day writing this. Not sure where it came from but its fun. Hope some tips help you.:)

DonnaGalanti said...

Kathryn, thanks! I love your term "fiction speak" and its a good way to look at a lot of our writing in dialogue, action, and internal thoughts. What are we REALLY saying with our words? And what will the reader understand from them? And is there a different, unique way to say it? (rather than "I felt so safe in his arms.") Plus it leads into foreshadowing.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips Donna. And I loved how you showed everything with examples. I hadn't realized that in Harry Potter we only get a great snippet of description and not much more later. But it totally sets up an image of the Castle which of course is filled with secrets and suspense.

Amanda Hopper said...

Thanks for the post! I will try to use fewer descriptive details! You're right, the reader needs to have space to fill in the blanks with their imagination instead of me telling them exactly what they should see.

nutschell said...

What an awesome post! Super helpful tips and techniques here. Definitely bookmarking it.

Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Aimee Katherine said...

Brilliant post, bookmarked it. I have trouble building up suspense so this should be helpful in the future.

Diane Fordham said...

Excellent info - so very useful. thank you :-)

DonnaGalanti said...

I really hope everyone gets some use out of this. Once I discovered the technique of dropping tid bits of info to leave a reader wondering and weave it in later - I found what fun it is! To be going along and then BAM hit them with something and keep trucking. I clap my hands and mutter "heh heh heh."

This happens in The Virgin of Small Plains in the beginning. I was sailing along and then I literally did a double take and went back to read this scene to indulge myself again - like NO WAY. Then I had to wait for answers to what happened and wondering the entire time as other pieces fell into place. (no spoilers here) Fun fun fun! Now everyone go have fun with it!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

What a super post! Sometimes it is hard to slow down when you are writing the first draft, but during revisions it's easier (for me) to add in all the details that slow the story down.

Catherine Stine said...

All good tips to remember. Building suspense should be wicked fun for the writer too!

Traci Kenworth said...

Thanks for the tips!! Suspense is a big part of horror and that's what I write. I will have to try to apply the advice to "slow down" in story mode during the surprise. I don't want to rush things, when taking my time will reveal so much more.

Sarah Hood said...

In my writing, I try to build suspense mostly in the language I use and the set up. But I guess I've never really consciously made an effort to do so. For that reason I found this post very helpful! I just finished reading The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and she's a master at building suspense. It's amazing how she makes it absolutely impossible to stop at the end of a chapter. :)

Stacy Green said...

Great tips, Donna. I love books with lots of suspense, and I work hard to keep my own novels as suspenseful as possible. Lisa Gardner is a master of suspense and a great teacher to learn from.

Martha Ramirez said...

What great tips. Thank you so much!

John said...

This is really worth reading, it has too much details in it and yet it is so simple to understand
Accredited High School Diploma Online

DonnaGalanti said...

Appreciate the great comments everyone!

Sharon, its funny you mention slowing down when revising as I do too. I wrote my first novel draft too slow (125K words - eek - had to trim nearly 25K) and just clocked 92K on the sequel draft. I love I wrote this 2nd one so much tighter and faster as now I can go back and polish it and have room to add in the icing that drips down it all together to make it sweet.

When fast-drafting we can rush through as we so eagerly want to get through this scene to the next and next. (at least I do) Going back and revising is the slow-down process for me to see what scenes I do need to slow down and drag out the suspense, almost painfully so.

One book I use for revisions that is fantastic is James Scott Bell's Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict & Suspense.

He truly simplifies the process of how to do this.

Stacy, YES Lisa Gardner is another great master of suspense to read to see how it can be done well.

LynNerdKelley said...

Sixth Sense totally caught me by surprise! Great excerpts as examples, Donna.

Thanks for hosting Donna. "A Human Element" sounds chilling!

Jack Dowden said...

I wouldn't say I follow a specific this to a "t," but I tend to follow the Mystery Box approach.

I generally start off with something having just happened. Someone kills someone else. Why? Who is he?

I also like to use words to imply or show the background of the character in the context of the situation. For instance, after said man shoots the other man, "His hands shook. His hands never shook during the other times."

What other times? Has this man killed before? Why was he so calm the other times? What made this time different?

I like the pepper my stories with stuff like that.

Christina Farley said...

Fantastic tips. It's hard to keep the middle from sagging and to keep the reader invested in the story and characters.

Bish Denham said...

You always have such great advice, Angela. Thanks for these wonderful tips. I was surprised by the end of Sixth Sense, but a friend of mine said, he figured it out early on because the MC always wore the same clothes! Just goes to show you how we need to learn to become more observant.

DonnaGalanti said...

Bish, that is so interesting about Sixth Sense. How we need to be more observant..in many events. If I had noticed that about the clothes that would have been a dead (ha ha) giveaway too. Thanks for sharing that!

Tracy Campbell said...

I so loved this informative post.
Donna, thank you for sharing.

Madeleine Sara said...

Fabulous advice. Thank you so much. I wrote my first 3 suspence short stories last month and really enjoyed them. I wish I'd read this first though!

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