On Building Suspense and Creating Tension

Hi Folks,

I recently listened to a 6-week classic workshop from WMG Publishing titled “Adding Suspense.” It was a useful workshop, but it became much more useful once I subsitituted “tension” for “suspense” as the instructor, Dean Wesley Smith, spoke. The substitution enabled me to separate the suspense that is an aspect of fiction from the suspense that is the old genre (think Alfred Hitchcock) and that morphed into the modern thriller genre. Suspense remains also a tiny subgenre loosely bundled under mystery.

But aside from genres, suspense also has always been an important aspect of fiction. Maybe the most important aspect.

Because I enjoy living in the POV character’s head as I write, I (and the reader) experience not only the character’s thoughts and reasons (motivations) for doing things, but his or her psyche.

That alone creates “psychological suspense,” and those two words comprise an internet search tag for almost every book I’ve written.

That is why I never tell writers to “get deep into the POV character’s head.” Such advice presumes that you are external to the character. It sets you a chore, gives you a task. You have to “get into” the POV character’s head.

Of course, that’s all silliness and it requires an extra, unnecessary step.

The character already lives inisde your mind. So you don’t have to “get into” anything. You only have to get out of your own way. How?

Forget that you’re a writer. Forget that you’re telling a story, and even that you’re recording your character’s story.

Instead, BE the POV character in every scene.

Don’t try to figure out (critical mind) who the character is. Just BE the character, go with the flow, and let him write through your fingers.

What does this have to do with building suspense?

Building suspense is all about pacing, grounding the reader, and information flow (how and when you dole out information to the reader).

Maybe more importantly, suspense is all about when to suddenly STOP the information flow (with a cliffhanger) at the end of each scene.

Then there’s white space.

But if your pacing was right as you led up to the cliffhanger, and if the cliffhanger was strong enough, and if you ground the reader again in the opening of the next scene on the other side of the white space—

The reader will flash past the white space and keep reading. The ability to have that effect on the reader constitutes writing a “page-turner.”

But how to do all of that?

As I’ve written here before, most importantly,

1. Take. Your. Time.

Allow your POV character the time to describe the setting and his opinion of the setting. DON’T worry about whether what he’s describing is important to the scene. If the POV character notices (sees, smells, feels, etc.) it, it matters. Don’t argue. Just write it.

In the novella I recently finished, a reader emailed me to point out several details I’d written in the scene. Those details, he wrote, were “just enough to keep me on edge; to keep me reading; to cause me to tighten up my groin, to curl my toes, to turn the page.” (Thanks, S.T.)

That’s suspense.

To drill down just a little by way of example, in one scene early in that novella the POV character observed a man:

The man lay flat on his back, arms splayed. He was huge with a big square head. An angry red scar ran from the corner of his right eye almost to his mouth. His hat and a beat-up Winchester lay a few feet away. His black vest hung open, revealing a rough-cut thin silver star on the left chest of his sweat-stained white shirt. And he was very dead.

From a strictly Author perspective, I might have written “The man lay flat on his back, arms splayed. And he was very dead.” It still probably would have been a good story. It would have created a little tension, maybe, but no suspense. And it wouldn’t have been a page-turner.

But I took my time. I let the POV character observe, and I wrote down everything he observed and his opinions of it. Again, if the POV character notices it, it’s important.

In the excerpted paragraph above, the man, the fact his arms were splayed, the red scar, his black vest, the thin silver star and the sweat-stained white shirt were all details. The man’s hat and his Winchester were additional details.

That the man was “huge, with a big square head,” that the red scar was “angry,” and that the thin silver star was “rough-cut” were the POV character’s opinions of the setting.

Those miniscule details added an extra layer of depth to the scene and, as it turned out, foreshadowed events yet to come.

Notice, I wrote “as it turned out.”

When I wrote that scene, I had no notion of what would happen later in the story. None.

And I didn’t cycle back from a later scene and add those details. I didn’t have to because I trusted my POV character to tell his own story. I trusted him to know why those details were important even though I, as the writer, had no clue.

In other words, I wrote off into the dark.

2. Use appropriate pacing.

The scene I mentioned above was written in two paragraphs. The first was 69 words and four lines on the page (medium length) and contained five sentences, each focused on a particular view. You can see that in the excerpt above.

The second paragraph of that scene was 65 words and contained four sentences. The final sentence in both was a stunted mini-cliffhanger. The first consisted of five words: “And he was very dead.” The second consisted of only four words. Here’s the second paragraph of that scene:

The top of his forehead lay open with a wide black gouge, brain matter and blood mixing with the dust on his face and in his brown, stringy hair. His worn, brown-canvas pants were topped with a leather belt darkened by sweat. Below them, his scuffed brown boots moved once, first one, then the other, as if trying to walk away. Then they lay still.

In both paragraphs I used longer sentences to convey the rush of information the POV character was taking in, followed by a very short, terse sentence to put a cap on it. The longer sentences in each paragraph enabled the reader to take-in the details in the same way the POV character took them in.

The short, terse final sentence in each paragraph added tension. The details and POV character opinions in the paragraphs themselves added suspense.

3. Trust. Your. Character.

Trust your character. All the way through the story.

I didn’t write this story, folks. My POV character wrote it, albeit through my fingertips.

The two paragraph mini-scene above was only the fourth mini-scene in the story, and the POV character wrote all of it.

The mini-scene that opened the story was calm and mild, even serene; the second was exciting, with the POV character sensing danger and averting and resolving the danger; the third ramped-up the excitement and tension with the POV character approaching a large rock (behind which he found his would-be assailant) to see whether he’d resolved the danger; and the fourth mini-scene was the two paragraphs above.

For instructional purposes, I’ve decided to send you a PDF copy of the whole story if you want it.

I ask only that you read it through the first time for pleasure, then go back and break it down if you want to see the settings, pacing, POV character descriptions and opinions, etc.

If you’d like to see the importance of pacing (as a writer) and enjoy a good story (as a reader), email me at harveystanbrough@gmail.com.

In the odd way that certain things seem to run in cycles, James Scott Bell, over at the KillZone blog, posted “Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched.” Take along a salt shaker.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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