Drawing out Suspense

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Halloween may be over, but we still love spooky stories. Nothing ramps up the fear like taut suspense, but it’s a tricky narrative element to master. Here are some quick and dirty tips to build, and maintain, suspense throughout your story.

Layer Your Threats

Really good suspense stories have more than one threat. Maybe more than one character is at risk. Maybe there is more than one killer. Some threats may seem fairly mundane, like an old house with structural integrity issues. Each threat builds suspense.

Even climactic fights should layer threats. In addition to the man with the ax, maybe the hero is clutching a wound from a trap that may bleed out. Maybe they’re in dangerous terrain. Maybe the racist next door has a shotgun, and your POC hero isn’t sure if it’s safe to go them for help in an emergency. Vary your threats like you expand your vocabulary.

Less Blood – More Worry

A stalker is scary because of the threat of violence. Think of the difference between a horror film and an action flick. The stalker lurks, leaves notes, and appears in the background, ramping up the audience’s fear and expectation. In an action flick, people start shooting early and never really stop until the credits roll.

Take some cues from the movies when you’re writing suspense. Show clues, hints, or even character perspectives your primary hero does not notice or have access to. If you open your chapter with a few paragraphs from a serial killer trucker’s point of view when he rolls into town, then the audience worries for the safety of your characters. Even if your characters engage in fairly innocuous activities, like checking the mail, going out to dinner, or lounging on the back porch, the threat follows them.

Keep Your Promises

Follow the principle of Chekhov’s gun. If you put a gun on the wall in the first act, then it needs to go off in a later act. This means you need to create very intentional scenery, but it also means you need to follow through on implicated threats. This is especially important in the world of suspense. If you introduce a serial killer, they better try to kill someone. If someone says they love their significant other to death, then somebody better die. Guns go off, knives stab, and poison goes down the hatch. Take your time getting there, of course, but once you reach the climax, gather all those threats and worries you’ve cultivated throughout the narrative and make them explode.

A favorite trick of many great suspense writers is to demonstrate their commitment to their promises early in the story. Think of It. The story opens with the gruesome death of a child, and then it builds suspense around the fates of the story’s other children throughout the rest of the book. We worry, because we already know Mr. King won’t hesitate to kill the innocent.

Remember, suspense isn’t just for horror. The same principles work in all genres, whether you’re forecasting the end of a life or a relationship. Build layers, be patient, and always keep your promises.

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