How to Build Suspense

How to Create Suspense and the Suspension of Disbelief

Story: “Farewell My Loveds” by Laura van den Berg, published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review

The story introduces a mystery right away: the hole in the street. But the exact nature of the hole is unclear. Is it bottomless as the little brother believes or simply a hole as his big sister, the narrator, suggests? In delaying the answer, the story not only makes the readers want to know the answer but also changes the readers’ expectations: perhaps the hole really is more than just a hole. In other words, when a story creates suspense, it also creates a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

How to Make the Reader Want to Know What Happens

Story: “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales, published by Guernica

To create suspense in the reader’s mind requires “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” To create the appetite, the writer first dangles a prize in front of the reader—saying, in effect, “You know you want this, reader.” Once the appetite is created, the writer delays handing over the prize as long as possible, introducing, “a temporary set of frustrations.”

How to Create Conflict with Subtext

Novel: Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez, published by Hatchette

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated.

How to Make the Impossible Possible in Stories

Story: “Housebreaking” by Sarah Frisch, published in The Paris Review

If a story is to keep its readers from walking away, it must do something unexpected, something that makes the reader say, “I didn’t see that coming.” These moments of surprise are what almost all stories are about—if we know how it will play out, why keep reading? The writer Richard Ford once put it this way: The job of fiction is to make the impossible possible. That’s fine to say, of course, but how do we do that?

How to Build a Tension Machine

Story: “Einstein’s Beach House” by Jacob M. Appel, published in Sonora Review

There is an often-taught writing rule that backstory should be integrated into the present action. Don’t lump it altogether. Usually, this is pretty good advice, though I’ve read enough lumped backstory in excellent stories lately that I’m beginning to wonder if this rule isn’t trying to fix the wrong thing. The problem may not be chunks of backstory as much as backstory that doesn’t clearly connect to and build toward the present drama.

How to Reveal Tension Indirectly

Nonfiction Book: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer, published by Simon & Schuster

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind). Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage.

How to Switch Gears and Increase Tension

Story: “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett, published in Pique

One of the easiest mistakes to make as a writer is to write the same thing over and over again. What happens is that we hit on a great idea to start a story (something spooky or funny or weird or sad), and then, when the story hits a lull, we double down on that idea to keep the story going (more spookiness, humor, weirdness, or sorrow). It’s the literary equivalent of saying, “More cowbell.” A better strategy is often to switch up what your story is doing, to step away from your great idea, and that stepping away (or switching gears, depending on your metaphor of choice) can actually increase the story’s tension.

How to Create Desire with Opportunity

Story: “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” by Maria Pinto

When I was a kid, my dad once claimed that if you left your car running while you ran into a store, it would be your fault if someone stole the car. It was an attractive nuisance, he said, a phrase that is usually applied to things that might prove both tempting and dangerous to children, like trampolines and pools. I’ve been skeptical of my dad’s claim for years, but sure enough, a Google search for “attractive nuisance laws” pulled up this stat: According to a study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, from 2012-2014, 126,603 vehicles were reported stolen with the keys left in the vehicle. Did the people who owned those cars get blamed for their theft? I don’t know. But the principle is a great one for writers to keep in mind. Instead of asking why a character has a particular desire, it’s sometimes better to simply put a desirable thing in front of them.

How to Create Tension by Using Character Stand-Ins

Story: “Man and Wife” by Katie Chase

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man. A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

How to Create Suspense in Any Story

Novel: The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense. The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

How to Use Readers’ Desire to Create Suspense

Novel: Grace by Natashia Deón

Anton Chekhov said that if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, then it needs to go off in the third act. This is good advice, of course, but it’s also pretty bare-bones. So much remains unaccounted for: Who gets shot? Who does the shooting, and why? Is the shooting on purpose or accident? Is it done out of rage, necessity, pity? Does the reader root for the shooting or against it? That final question can be one of the most powerful to answer. Writers sometimes talk about giving readers what they want, but it can be just as effective to give readers something they absolutely do not want.

 

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