One of the things writers struggle with in their stories is how to build suspense. The definition of suspense is a mental uncertainty, a pleasant excitement to a decision or outcome (Thank you, Merriam-Webster).
So, how does one go about creating suspense? I will list several methods for your consideration.
- The unreliable narrator. This is number one on my list because I love reading books where the author does this well. Some typical tropes are the state of a character- the narrator is unreliable because they are a child, or mentally incapacitated (every soap opera ever has used this one), or have a limited perspective to an outcome (a large-scale battle uses this frequently). Many a horror story revolves around this concept, my favorites being The Haunting of HIll House by Shirley Jackson, and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
- Create dilemmas. The secretary in Psycho could not stay at a more traveled hotel because of her concern about being recognized. The Bletchley Park codebreakers had to break the Nazi code before worse casualties. The bus in Speed cannot drop below a certain MPH or the bus will explode, killing everyone on board. The kids stumbling around in the woods in The Blair Witch Project have to find their car to return their borrowed equipment before they get in trouble.
- Make people care. No matter how good a writer you are, if your character is weak or flat, no one cares about what happens to her. In Peter Straub’s novel, Ghost Story, he paints a town full of real people terrorized by a supernatural force. Some folks get what’s coming to them, because they are unlikeable or despicable characters, whilst some you are chanting, No, no, no as you turn the page and they meet their doom.
- Make the reader know the stakes. If the character kidnaps mother and child pairs, and then does horrible things to them in the basement of an alternate dimension, like in NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, then when the main character is taken, guess what needs to happen? In Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, the whole town is haunted by a 300 year old witch. We are shown very early what happens if you cross the witch, raising the stakes when a group of villagers taunts and humiliates her, breaking all the rules of survival.
- Know your genre. Sounds simple, but this in many ways is the most important rule. Let us assume a weapon is stolen from a secret government lab. In a spy novel, you would know exactly who stole the weapon and its capabilities to set the stakes for the reader to understand why it is so important for our spy hero to get it back. In a mystery, the entire novel will evolve around uncovering the mystery of who stole the weapon and why. In a horror story, we know what the weapon does (turns people into vampires, ala The Passage by Justin Cronin), and the rest of the novel is about stopping the scourge.
I hope these tips help, and give you some insight and guidance into your own writing. I leaned heavily on the horror genre to illustrate my points today, but they are applicable to any genre.
Until next time-