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On Writing Rules: How to Build Suspense the Right Way

As Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe have both toiled to teach us, suspense in storytelling mostly comes from the things you don’t say. However, as I pointed out yesterday, every storyteller has a stern obligation to provide readers with everything they need to know to understand what’s going on.

Walking the thin line between those two goals can be tricky.

Creating Concern

Good suspense doesn’t need to come from a surprise, though. Often it’s not a matter of concealing from your readers what’s going to happen, but of hinting to them what will happen.

For that to work, though, you’ve got to create compelling characters. If you can do that, if you can make characters that your readers connect with emotionally, then the simple promise of bad things to come — bad things, incidentally, that you absolutely need to make your story work — is enough to keep your audience on the edges of their seats.

They may don’t have to wonder what’s in store, or what’s lurking around the corner. If your characters are dear enough, all you have to do is spell it out clearly, and let your readers wonder just how your protagonist is going to survive.

Laying Foundations

In fact…yesterday I spent a few hundred words telling you not to withhold information, but the real key to good suspense is in the information you provide. You’ve got to build characters for your readers to care about, and you’ve got to build scenes that evoke that concern.

The easiest way to do that is with foreshadowing. Know where your story is headed, know what’s really going to scare your protagonist (or, if he’s enough of a battle-hardened soul, what would scare his mama if she knew he was caught up in it), and start dropping hints.

You’ve always wanted to do some good foreshadowing anyway, haven’t you? Well here’s your chance. Interrupt the daytime television while your hero’s sitting at the cafe with a news report about shark attacks in the bay, and let your protagonist-slash-marine-biologist-slash-professional-scuba-diver comment that she’s always had a mortal fear of sharks.

Your readers will get the hint.

Two chapters later, when she’s out swimming, mention a splash that catches her attention, but she can’t quite identify what caused it. Give her a bump in the dark, alone, underwater. Maybe let her drop her flashlight….

The information you give is the information your readers care about. They want the story you’re willing to tell…not the one you’re trying to keep to yourself.

Building to a Crescendo (Creative Writing Exercise)

It’s been a while since I assigned a proper creative writing exercise, but this week you get one. If there are any creative writers still reading this…consider today’s exercise a challenge.

I want you to write a scene. I want you to create and convey a character in just a handful of paragraphs, and make me care. Focus on saying as much as you can, quickly, to build emotion from nothing but words.

After a couple full articles on the proper way to create suspense, it should be a simple matter to write a gripping page or three. In fact…maybe too easy.

So, to spice things up a bit, let’s start with an unlikely setting. Your protagonist is at the park, with a couple of close friends…maybe even a dog. It’s bright and warm, with nary a cloud in sight. Now make that scary, and do it in 900 words or less.

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