Techniques for Building Suspense

There are a range of techniques for creating suspense, and then manipulating that feeling, ratcheting it down and up, and then releasing it. The author's goal is to subtly create a feeling of unease in the reader. Suspense is about disequilibrium.

In some kinds of books — horror and thriller novels, for instance — a more heavy-handed approach to creating and sustaining suspense is expected. For others a much lighter touch is in order. There are many different ways to create suspense.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” — H. P. Lovecraft

Create a Mood of Unease

Mood is in the pit of the stomach of the beholder. In a novel, there are two beholders: the viewpoint character in a scene and the reader. If the viewpoint character feels uneasy, her thoughts and feelings should convey that unease to the reader.

For example, mood might be conveyed simply:

When Marie returned to her car, she started to turn the key and stopped. Something felt off, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what. She turned on the dome light. …”

Or the writing might be more explicit:

When Marie returned to where she thought she'd left her car, she was thoroughly spooked. That car that had tried to run her down had looked just like her car, right down to the dented front fender. But there her car was, parked in a shadowy corner of the parking lot right where she'd left it. She rested her hand on the hood. Did it feel warm? Maybe. A little. Or, no. Not at all. She leaned against the car and surveyed the empty parking lot around her. She was being a jerk. No one had tried to run her down. No one had stolen her car. Still, she got out her flash-light and checked out the back seat before she got in.

Remember, your viewpoint character is fallible, and you can play with that fallibility and create an “unreliable narrator.” Maybe she's shown herself to be paranoid, seeing danger where there's none. Maybe she's the oblivious type, ignoring all the shadows and sounds while the reader wants to shout: Would you stop and pay attention to that thing lurking in the corner!

Harness Setting to Create Suspense

The same setting can be described so it feels bucolic and harmless or fraught with hidden danger. If you emphasize the sunlight streaming in through the windows, the smell of laundry detergent and baking cookies, and the sound of wind chimes tinkling, then a setting feels welcoming.

What if instead you create a slate gray sky, and what oozes in through the windows is frigid air and dampness, and the smells are mildew and overcooked cabbage? We get a feeling of unpleasantness and possibly impending doom.

If you're trying to create suspense, then you want to charge your setting with dark forces. You can do this by creating a slight disconnect: everything seems okay at one level, and at another everything seems increasingly fraught with peril.

When writing suspense, start slowly, subtly; give yourself somewhere to build. If you pull out all the stops at the beginning, you'll have no-where to go; worse still, your reader will turn numb to the nuance you are trying to create.

For instance, a bookcase feels as if it's about to topple over. A dark sky looks as if it's about to explode with lightning. There's an odd smell, a layer of antiseptic over sweet, nauseating putrescence. The setting is utterly silent except for a ticking clock, or a dripping faucet, or the ever-so-faint sound of distant footsteps growing louder.

Taking it a step further, what if the sky goes black and winds howl, lightning flashes and thunder crashes, and then the lights go out? Okay, that might be a bit much. But you could write the scene full out and then dial it back to create a suspenseful mood without going quite so over-the-top.

Make the Ordinary Seem Ominous

Alfred Hitchcock was a master at endowing ordinary objects with menace. There's a famous scene in his movie Suspicion where Cary Grant (the husband) is bringing a glass of warm milk to Joan Fontaine (his wife). Slowly, Grant climbs the stairs and the camera focuses on the milk, and the moviegoer wonders: Is it poisoned?

The moment is full of suspense, and Hitchcock milks (ahem) the moment, slowing down time and adding some eerie music. You're not imagining it if you think that the milk itself has an eerie glow. Hitchcock rigged a light bulb in the glass of milk. As a result, this normally harmless thing, a glass or milk, feels menacing. As a writer, your job is to do the literary equivalent of putting that light bulb into that glass of milk to create a feeling of menace in ordinary objects.

J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts) does it in her novel Salvation in Death. It's the story of a Catholic priest killed during holy communion by poisoned wine. In one scene, the characters are in the rectory of a church — normally a place of solace and salvation. But notice how menacing the setting is made to feel in this excerpt.

“I can't decide,” Peabody said as they walked around the rectory, “if the statues and candles and colored glass are really pretty or really creepy.”

“Statues are too much like dolls, and dolls are creepy. You keep expecting them to blink. And the ones that smile, like this?” Eve kept her lips tight together and she curved them up. “You know they've got teeth in there. Big, sharp, shiny teeth.”

“I didn't. But now I've got to worry about it.”

Through dialogue, Robb plants the idea that the statues are menacing. Their closed mouths are hiding teeth, and this idea immediately conjures childhood fears of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.

Here's another example. Read it and think about the unsettling way in which Stephen King describes a doll in this excerpt from novel Night Shift.

The doll was on top. The Elizabeth doll.

She looked at it and began to shudder.

The doll was dressed in a scarf of red nylon, part of a scarf she had lost two or three months back. At a movie with Ed. The arms were pipe cleaners that had been draped in stuff that looked like blue moss. Graveyard moss, perhaps. There was hair on the doll's head, but that was wrong. It was fine white flax, taped to the doll's pink-gum eraser head. Her own hair was sandy blond and coarser than this. This was the way her hair had been —

When she was a little girl.

She swallowed and there was a clicking sound in her throat. Hadn't they all been issued scissors in the first grade, tiny scissors with rounded blade, just right for a child's hand? Had that long-ago little boy crept up behind her, perhaps at nap time, and —

King is an expert at figuring out what kinds of images creep people out. Some objects from childhood — dolls, clowns, portraits of people whose eyes seem to follow us around, costumes and masks — are particularly potent at generating this kind of uneasiness.

Use whatever makes you squirm. Chances are the image will make the reader squirm as well. Here are some tips for making ordinary objects feel menacing:

  • Link the object, in the narrator's mind, to a frightening image or memory from the past

  • Make the object appear to stand out from its surroundings

  • Put the object in shadow

  • Make the object broken or just slightly mutilated or stained

  • Have a dog (or horse or cat or child or …) shy away from it

  • Give the object an unusual smell

  • Another way to create suspense is to plant something that feels out of place or just slightly off. Seeing it raises a question for the readers and the viewpoint character: “What's going on here?”

    Suppose, for example, that from a distance through a picture window, your character sees a crowded living room in which people are dancing. He comes closer and closer until he should be close enough to hear the music. Only there is none. “What's going on here?” the reader asks.

    Here are some examples of “just off” situations that will trigger the reader to ask that question and feel a sense of unease:

  • Pills spilled on a baby's blanket

  • A phone that is off the hook

  • A car alarm that keeps on ringing

  • A broken window

  • A shoe rack with only left shoes on it

  • Water left running

  • A broken child's swing

  • An overturned chair

  • Broken glass

  • Once again, be wary of overdoing it. You don't need to hit your readers over the head with blood-spattered towels and used condoms. More subtle touches like these can as effectively suggest menace. Trust the reader to get it.

    Use Multiple Viewpoints to Create Suspense

    Authors use multiple viewpoints to create suspense by allowing the reader to know more than any individual character knows. One way to do this is by allowing the villain to narrate some of the scenes.

    If Maggie is walking in the park on a sunny day, there's probably no suspense. But what if the previous scene was written from the viewpoint of a man obsessed with Maggie who was stalking her, following her from her home, through the park, and now waits for her to reach a secluded spot by the lake? Maggie's walk in the park becomes shaded with menace because the reader knows something the character doesn't — that she's being stalked by someone who may want to hurt her. The closer she gets to the lake, the more tension the reader will feel, knowing that danger lies waiting for her there.

    Multiple viewpoints can create suspense, but they can rob your story of its surprises, too, because you've revealed to the reader what's coming. So choose carefully which is more important to the story you are trying to tell: surprise or suspense. Sometimes you can't have it both ways.

    Romance writers often switch back and forth between the viewpoints of the hero and the heroine. This allows the reader to be in on it, for example, when one character misinterprets another character's actions, or tries to hide his true feelings, or lies. You can show the hero hurrying to meet his beloved and getting in a car accident; then show his beloved waiting and waiting, becoming angrier as she convinces herself that he's deliberately stood her up. Misunderstandings create suspense-like tension, as they cause the reader to wonder how in the world everything is going to get untangled.

    Many authors feel that by adding multiple viewpoints, they add depth to their story. And it certainly creates many opportunities to create suspense. To see the technique in action, here are a few books that harness multiple viewpoints to create suspense:

  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

  • The Last Spymaster by Gayle Lynds

  • Carrie by Stephen King

  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

  • Using multiple narrators, the author can cut away from one to the other and leave the reader hanging at a key moment. It has the added advantage of showing how one narrator might see menace in a situation where another narrator does not.

    The Omniscient Tip-off Creates Suspense

    Another way to create suspense — though not the most elegant solution — is to simply bring an omniscient narrator in (or let the viewpoint character take a step into the future) to tell the reader something that the characters don't yet know. For example, suppose you end a chapter with a cliffhanger moment when your character reaches for the doorknob. Instead of saying whether she opens the door, or what she finds when she does, the chapter ends with a line like this:

    If Dahlia had known what lay beyond the door, she never would have opened it.

    This is an omniscient narrator speaking directly to the reader from the novel's future and telegraphing that something unknown but ominous is about to happen. Is it heavy handed? Extremely. Can it work? Occasionally. Delivering a warning from the future is not a particularly elegant or literary technique, but writers have made it work.

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