Showing posts with label suspense. Show all posts
Showing posts with label suspense. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 7

Review: Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins



I began reading The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins in part because it was compared favorably to Gillian Flynn's spellbinding novel, Gone Girl, and partly because many of the reviews I read described the story as Hitchcockian. When I was a kid I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock's movies with my dad. He loved those movies like some love fine wine. My affection for Hitchcock's movies soon mirrored his own, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

And I was not disappointed!

By now I'm sure you're familiar with the plot. The protagonist, Rachel Watson, has been fired from her job for alienating a client because she was drunk, and yet she continues to take the train into London every workday, often taking advantage of the journey to drink herself into oblivion.

On her way to and from London the train passes the house where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband, Tom. Tom has married Anna, the woman for whom he left Rachel, and they have a child.

To distract herself from the painful reality of her life, Rachel fantasizes about another couple who live just down the street from Tom and Anna. In her imagination they are a lovely couple, upstanding citizens and very much in love. Their lives are perfect, they are perfect. This is the life she wanted, the life (or something like it) she believes she once had with her ex-husband Tom.

Of course the rest of the book systematically, relentlessly, painfully, dismantles her fantasy and forces Rachel to let go of her illusions and face the reality of her life with Tom. Somewhere along Rachel's path of self-revelation a killer is exposed in a rather delicious twist (I won't spoil it!).

My thoughts on Girl on the Train:


Rachel is about as likable as she is reliable, which is to say not much. She has her share of glaring faults—as do we all—but her life is melting down around her and, in her own confused and confusing way, she tries to grope her way through.

Strangely, I ended up relating to Rachel in part because of her unreliability as a narrator. What I found appealing was the way Paula Hawkins deftly prises apart two reasons for Rachel's unreliability. Often Rachel is unreliable because she tries to live in a fantasy but she is also occasionally unreliable because she honestly believes—and has more-or-less good reason to believe—something that is not true.

Part of the task Hawkins sets the reader is teasing those threads apart.

All in all, a wonderful—and wonderfully addictive—read.

I'm giving Girl on the Train 4.5 stars out of 5 because some (many?) of Rachel's actions appear bizarre or unmotivated. Sure one can say, Well, she's melting down, she wasn't in her right mind, but that's the thing. In real life that sort of reason might work, but this is a story. It is (in my humble opinion) supposed to make sense.

But, still, this was a wonderful book and a mesmerizing read. Highly recommended.

That's it for today! I'm trying out a new blogging schedule where I post something Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (Do you prefer only two posts a week? Three? Four? Five? Six? Seven? More? Please let me know!) So, I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Other articles you might like: 

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery
Three Ways To Create Suspense
Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict


What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes


To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question


When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary



Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.

Tuesday, April 29

Parts Of Story: How To Create Suspense



What is suspense and how is it created?

Lee Goldberg once said that, "Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one." Either way, the reader asks: What's going to happen next?

In what follows I look at what suspense is and then, in the next chapter, turn to examine the preconditions for suspense. Namely:

a) A real danger to the hero. 
b) The possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time, sometimes called a ticking clock.

Dramatic Irony


Dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

There are many kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational. Here, though, I'm only going to discuss dramatic irony.

Dramatic Irony And Suspense: An Example


Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deadly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

Some Aspects of Dramatic Irony


a. Surface meaning vs underlying meaning


Dramatic irony occurs when the surface meaning of an utterance is at variance with its deeper meaning. 

Meanings don't exist in a vacuum. It's people who understand utterances, it's people who understand meaning, whom things matter to. 

Dramatic irony depends upon certain people knowing more than others. Some who hear the utterance will be stranded at the surface while others will understand the deeper meaning.

Let's look at the possibilities.

a.i. The audience knows less than one or more of the characters.


For instance, tension, suspense, can be generated when we see a character's reaction to, for example, the contents of a suitcase even though we never find out what it contained.

This example comes from Pulp Fiction. Vincent Vega looks into the suitcase, it's eery illumination playing over his face. For a moment he seems lost in whatever he sees. Stunned. Overwhelmed. The viewer doesn't know what's in the suitcase, but Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield do. Vega is looking right at it and, damn him, he's not telling! 

a.ii. The audience knows more than one or more of the characters.


I think this is the far more common scenario. It happens on almost every show I watch, nearly every episode.

A character knows less about something than another character or the audience, and they don't know they know less.

For example, a couple of months ago I re-watched the scifi/horror classic Alien, a movie that has aged remarkably well. At one point one of the characters--Brett--searches for Jones the cat. Everyone on the ship is going back into stasis and that includes Jones, but Brett needs to catch him first. Yes, sure, the alien is on the loose too, but in this scene Brett isn't overly worried about meeting the alien since he knows Jones is in the area and, therefore, attributes any weird noises to the spooked feline.

Brett hears a noise, looks beneath nearby machinery, and spots the recalcitrant feline. Brett tries to coax the cat out of his hiding spot but, just as the cat walks toward him, we see a tentacle unfurl behind the man. Jones hisses and darts away. Brett is stunned. He thinks the cat hissed at him. Puzzled, he keeps calling Jones, trying to coax the cat out of hiding. While Brett does this we see the alien slowly, silently, unfurl behind Brett. 

At this point in the movie, if you're anything like me, you gripped the cushion you had a strangle hold on and screamed: Turn around!

And, of course, Brett does but it's too late. He's monster chow.

This is the kind of thing we mean when we say that in dramatic irony "the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play." In this scene both the cat and the alien had more information than Brett did and, as so often happens in horror movies, Brett paid for that inequality with his life.

b. Unwise behavior.


When a passage contains dramatic irony, the character from whom information is being kept usually reacts in a way that is inappropriate and unwise.

In the example from Alien, running away and hiding would have been both appropriate and wise. Standing in front of the alien calling out "kitty, kitty," ... not so much.


Summary: Irony occurs when there is an incongruity, or contrast, between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case.

(Note: This post is from one of the chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story.)

Friday, April 18

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose

7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose


Did you know that, since 2001, James Patterson has sold more books than any other writer? Apparently 1 out of every 17 hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Patterson's writing, there is no arguing with his popularity. So, how does he do it? Here are seven tips Patterson gave to those who want to write suspenseful prose.

(This blog post is based on the article, World's Best-Selling Author James Patterson On How To Write An Unputdownable Story, by Joe Berkowitz.)

1. Fast Paced: Cut out the parts people skip.


James Patterson says:

"I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip.[*] I used to live across the street from Alexander Haig, and if I told you a story that I went out to get the paper and Haig was laying in the driveway, and then I went on for 20 minutes describing the architecture on the street and the way the palm trees were, you'd feel like "Stop with the description--what's going on with Haig?" I tend to write stories the way you'd tell them. I think it'd be tragic if everybody wrote that way. But that's my style. I read books by a lot of great writers. I think I'm an okay writer, but a very good storyteller."

I think that's what many writers on the bestseller lists would say, that they identify themselves primarily as a storyteller. Their prose may not be as poetic as some, but they can tell an suspenseful, absorbing, story.

* Elmore Leonard also gave this advice.

2. Make it intimate.


James Patterson says:

"I try to put myself in every scene that I'm writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason."

I think this is the key to good storytelling. I know Stephen King doesn't think a whole lot of Patterson's books, but one thing both men are know for is a) selling a lot of books and b) being good storytellers.

Personally, I think that King's prose is every bit as good as his storytelling. But, putting that aside, look at the first sentence of Stephen King's book, The Shining: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick." (I discuss this further in Parts of Story.) That sentence is angry and shocking but, above all, intimate. And it raises the question: Why does Jack Torrance think that and whom does he think it of?" Storytelling at its best. 

3. Short chapters.


James Patterson's books tend to have short chapters. I did some calculations and, from the four books I looked at, the average chapter length was about 640 words. That's only about three manuscript pages! Wow, that is short.

4. Outline.


Patterson says that outlining saves time (a view which Chuck Wendig shares). Patterson creates a fairly extensive outline; each chapter is summed up in about a paragraph of text. He says:

"Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it. But you're gonna get the scene, and you're gonna get the sense of what makes the scene work."

If, as I said above, Patterson's average chapter is about 640 words long and if we say that a paragraph of text is about 100 words, then it would appear that those 100 words make up about 1/6th of a chapter.

5. Outlines can and should change so be flexible.


When Patterson writes, his characters speak to him and ruin many of his plans. They can even change the ending!

Patterson says: "One of the drafts I do, I'll decide that okay, it went this way, but it doesn't feel very interesting--what if this happened instead of that? And rarely do I know the ending. Occasionally, but mostly not."

That's a little scary! When I sit down to write I like to have an ending in mind, I like to have a destination. But the ending can--and occasionally does--change.

6. Fake it till you make it.


When he was 26 years old, Patterson won an Edgar award for best first mystery. That book was The Thomas Berryman Number.

"I felt like there might have been a mistake. That’s the kind of lack of confidence you can have early on. You're writing this thing and you hope people like it. You're rewriting and rewriting and get lost in the sauce. Confidence is a big thing."

7. Know your readers.


Patterson says that writers should know who they're telling their stories to and then ask themselves: "What have you got for them?" He says:

"It’s useful that if you tell somebody in a paragraph what the story is and they go, “Ooh ooh, I can’t wait, tell me more,” as opposed to they were just kind of nodding politely. Well, then that just puts so much stress on the writing. That means that the style has to overcome the fact that you don’t have much of a story."

Patterson also mentions that readers want suspense and that the essence of suspense, of creating suspense, is to get the reader to want the answer to a question your story has raised. He says:

"I try to pretend that there's somebody across from me and I'm telling them a story and I don't want them to get up until I'm finished."

Good tips.

Thanks to +Elizabeth S. Craig for sharing a link to Joe Berkowitz's article through Google+. 

Photo credit: "Sondershausen Castle" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, April 4

Generating Suspense Through Conflict

Generating Suspense Through Conflict


Suspense. Every story needs some. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." Suspense enters with the question: Will the character get it?

Suspense is an emotional state created in a reader/viewer when an obstacle is put in the way of a character, one they care about, achieving something they desperately want or need. 

In Gravity (2013) Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) wants to return to earth. Alive. A number of complications put this outcome in question. At one point in the movie:

"High-speed debris strikes the Explorer and Hubble, and detaches Stone from the shuttle, leaving her tumbling through space. Kowalski, using a Manned Maneuvering Unit, soon recovers Stone and they make their way back to the Space Shuttle. They discover that it has suffered catastrophic damage and the crew is dead. They use the thruster pack to make their way to the International Space Station (ISS), which is in orbit only about 1,450 km (900 mi) away."[2]

Unfortunately "As they approach the substantially damaged but still operational ISS, they see its crew has evacuated in one of its two Soyuz modules. The parachute of the remaining Soyuz has deployed, rendering the capsule useless for returning to Earth."[2]

In my previous post, Three Ways to Create Suspense, I mentioned that Lee Goldberg held that three things were needed for suspense:

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Gravity has all three. The space debris provide a cascading series of dangers to Ryan. Usually, though her situation is desperate, one feels there's a chance--perhaps a vanishingly slim one, but still a chance--to escape the danger. Also, there is a finite amount of time in which to do so because she is running out of oxygen.

Great setup.

I think this shows us something else: Suspense (a state created in the reader) is created through conflict. That is, suspense is created through a character's efforts at getting what they need/want being blocked. 

So lets look at the different kinds of conflict we can set up in our stories. What kind of conflict do we want? Is conflict 'one size fits all' or are some kinds of conflict compelling and other kinds less so?

Before I go on to examine that, though, I'd like to take a step back and quickly point something out about MacGuffins.

The Care and Feeding of MacGuffins


If you're not familiar with the term "MacGuffin" see my article The MacGuffin: A Plot Devise from Screenwriting or go to the article on tvtropes.org.

A while ago I read through the articles in Uncle Orson's Writing Class (I highly recommend it) and--though I can't remember which article I read it in--came across something to the effect that a MacGuffin was a thing that one's characters cared about (and, of course, something that doesn't need much of an explanation; treasure, jewels, and so on). 

The only reason I, as a reader, care about whether the character gets the MacGuffin is because I care about the character and the character wants it. 

Granted, if you're anything like me, many times the MacGuffin takes on a life of its own. For instance, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the golden falcon in The Maltese Falcon. But that's beside the point. Those movies work because what I care about is the character achieving their goal. I'd care about that even if I had no interest in that goal for myself.

Kinds of Conflict: Complex vs Simple, Unique vs Common, Interesting vs Boring


I made that digression--the one about MacGuffins being something that the character cares about--because I think it lies at the heart (or at least very near the heart) of what Lee Goldberg says about suspense. 

In a recent Google Chat Lee Goldberg said:

"You have to be careful that you're not going with easy conflicts. It's easy to have someone with a gun walk in, it's easy to have a hurricane or earthquake or monster. Those are cheap conflicts. The best conflicts are the ones that truly come from character.

"A cliched version would be the guy who is afraid of heights and has to go to a high building to rescue someone. You want a conflict that is based on character not conflict that could arbitrarily be applied to anyone and would work for anyone. You want conflict that is unique to the characters that you are writing about. That's how you want to invest the audience in what happens to them [the characters]. You don't want a conflict that is wholly exterior and homogenous, a conflict that anyone would find [scary]." (Lee Goldberg)

At first I was surprised. We don't know who our readers are going to be so it would seem a good idea to find a conflict that anyone could relate to: one's spouse and children being killed by a bomb that a terrorist set off, for example. Who couldn't relate to that?

Here, though, Goldberg argues the opposite. Later on in the talk he uses Monk, a character with an obsessive compulsive disorder who is afraid of ... well, pretty much everything! ... as an example. Not everyone is terrified of walking through sewer water. Yes, this is something we'd like to avoid; the idea is revolting; but for Monk it is terrifying. 

My point is that Monk has desires and goals and fears that no normal person--and certainly the lion's share of the series' readers--have. And yet it was a popular series, filled with suspense. 

Here's the key, the takeaway: Remember what I said about MacGuffins. We, readers, don't need to care about what the character cares about. (There's probably a better way of putting that!) We only need to care about the character achieving it. And if the writer has gotten us to identify with the character, we will. (I've written about how to get a reader to identify with a character here and here.)

A Technique To Build Conflict: Cross-Cutting And Point of View


Before I end this post I'd like to talk about a practical technique Lee Goldberg mentioned for creating suspense.[1] 

Third Person

Imagine a camera cutting between the hero and the villain, then between the villain and the hero. Cross-cutting in third person allows a writer to share information with the audience--in our case, the reader--that other characters don't know. Lee Goldberg says "You can control point of view to create suspense."[1]

First Person

Lee Goldberg continues:

"When you write a book in first person the essential element of suspense is understanding the conflict within the lead character. You have to establish who he or she is, what they want, what they're afraid of, what they stand to lose. And then create a situation where all those fears and risks come to a head. So if you are in the heart and soul of the hero or heroine and you see the events that are happening around him or her you feel the suspense that they feel.

"There it's a manipulation of the information you share about your hero combined with the conflict you put them in that's going to make that information have relevance.

"That's a harder thing to pull off. Suspense--I believe--is much easier to do third person than it is first person."[1]

Lee Goldberg


Lee Goldberg recently teamed up with Janet Evanovich to write the New York Times bestselling books "The Heist" and "Pros & Cons" and is now a #1 New York Times bestselling novelist. 

Lee Goldberg is a rare find, a senior writer who has done it all, and who still takes the time to pass along his thoughts on the craft of writing.

Well! That's it for now. If you'd like to sample Lee's writing wares, sign up for his newsletter and he'll send you a free electronic copy of "McGrave." It's a fast paced, engaging, and (of course!) suspenseful, thriller. 

Links/References:


1. Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:
2. Gravity, Wikipedia.

Photo credit: "The Race" by Vieira_da_Silva under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 18

Three Ways To Create Suspense

Three Ways To Create Suspense


What is suspense? That's the question I'll be looking at today. Specifically we'll cover the role of the following in creating suspense:

- Dramatic irony 
- Conflict
- Well-defined stakes 
- A ticking clock

What Is Suspense?


Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one. You (/the reader/audience) might know there's a giant monster at the end of the tunnel and our heroes are heading toward it. Or it's a ticking clock of what-the-hell's-going-to-happen and we don't know what's coming. Suspense is getting your readers to ask: What's going to happen next? [2]

So we need: 

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Further, dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

Dramatic Irony & Suspense


Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deathly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

The elements of dramatic irony:


In order for dramatic irony to exist there needs to be a difference in how much two characters, or a character and the audience, know. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

1. The audience knows more about the danger than the hero.

This is what was used to generate suspense in Scenario 1, above. You, the reader, know there's a monster lurking around the next bend but the hero doesn't. Perhaps the hero thinks the evil has been neutralized or he thinks it's somewhere else. But it isn't. It's lying in wait for him and as soon as he rounds the next bend it's going to attack.

Or perhaps the villain has set a trap for the hero that the hero is oblivious to. The hero is rushing headlong to help someone in need. We see the villain set a trap for the hero and watch as he runs toward the trap. We want to warn him, to shout out that it's a trap, to stop, to go another way, but the hero keeps running and we are helpless to prevent the outcome.

Or something like that.

2. The audience knows less about the danger than the hero.

There is a scene in the classic movie The Thing where one of the scientists (I believe it was Dr. Blair) looks through a microscope at a sample taken from a mutilated corpse. We don't immediately know what he sees or know what he knows ... but we want to. He has begun to understand the mystery and we want to as well.  

This short period of unknowing, between the audience seeing the character's reaction to the new knowledge and finding out what it is, creates tension. I wanted to take Dr. Blair by the shoulders, shake him, and say something suitably melodramatic like, "What is it?! Tell me!"

3. (No dramatic irony) The characters and the audience/reader have the same amount of information.

A scene can be tense even though it lacks dramatic irony. In this case the tension will be produced by other factors, factors like a ticking clock, a clear statement of the stakes, and conflict. Lets take a closer look at these.

Preconditions For Suspense


In order for a story/yarn/tale to be suspenseful, the following must be in place:

1. Conflict.


What is conflict? How is it generated/produced? 

It's simple.

Conflict = (a character's goal) + (opposition to that goal)

That is, conflict results from the clash of two things: 

(a) What the hero desires or needs. His/her goal.
(b) Something fearful that opposes the hero, something that can prevent him from getting what he wants/needs. [2]

2. Stakes.


In order to create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out well in advance. That is, before the hero is actually menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and they die.  

By the way, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's movie, The Cabin in the Woods, gives these stakes an ironic twist. It's a huge spoiler, so I'll talk about it in a footnote. Don't look if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. [3]

3. A ticking clock. 


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

You need to build up pressure/tension which means that, in some way or other, the characters must be racing against a clock. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, agonize and, finally, fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Lee Goldberg said:

"[To create suspense one needs] A ticking clock that escalates the conflict either within a person or between two characters, and that's an essential part of suspense, its the kindling that creates suspense, the conflict between two characters and the outside force or the outside pressure that makes that conflict even greater and then--boom!--you have the inevitable scary, frightening, exciting climactic verbal explosion."

An Aside: Another way to create suspense: raise a question


When we talk about creating suspense we (of course) are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero/protagonist. We make it clear what the protagonist wants/needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he/she tries to attain their goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

And you know what? He's right!

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where the suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, sure, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

That's it! Here's a writing challenge (I'm challenging myself with this as well): Build some suspense in your writing today. 

References/Footnotes


1. Suspense, Wikipedia.
3. In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed by the evil then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way.

Links


Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:

Guest post on Lee Goldberg's website about suspense. Post is by Libby Hellmann:

Photo credit: "Bern - Switzerland" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.