“I’m a writer and, therefore, automatically a suspicious character.” — Alfred Hitchcock
As many of you who read my blog know, my fictions tend toward the mysterious and occasionally dark. The hardest part is to build the atmosphere of suspense. What words will tweak a reader’s interest? What words will spark a reader’s own sense memories and bring them into your world? How do we foreshadow without giving away the twist at the end? And who can we look to for the answers to these questions?
First I must look to the master of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock.
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” — Hitchcock
And, of course, once one has looked at Mr. Hitchcock for ideas, the next person must be Edgar Allen Poe. Both men have a uniquely creepy view of the world. They invite you into their world to share that view, be it on paper or 35mm film.
Poe slowly builds tension, winding it tighter and tighter. “His techniques are, use of repetition, punctuation, how he uses first person, sound, imagery, tension, his use of time and finally in addition, how Poe uses italics and similes.”* The interesting thing about Poe is that everyone loves him when they first read him. Then we get to college and learn he isn’t “real” literature. Personally, I think he is definitely literature. Rereading his stories is an excellent way to learn some new tricks for building suspense.
If we are going to talk about dark and suspenseful, we can’t stop before we talk about Stephen King. We could (and people have) write a treatise on his art. But I will pick the the two who made the most impact on me. In The Shining, the slow descent of the writer into madness is exquisitely shown. In Cujo, the point of view from Cujo as his confusion grows is a masterful way to show progress of the rabies and build the realization that there is no good way for this to end. For decades King has been a leader in unique perspectives that add suspense to his stories.
A key point in building suspense can be gleaned from this quote:
The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.–Mary McCarthy**
If you don’t care about your character, why will the reader? While not every character we write is special, it is the ones who talk to us at night that will be the most readable. We will be exceedingly clever in keeping them alive, and give them the best twists. We plan the best friends for them and the worst villains. The deeper the suspense, drama and love, the deeper your audience will be drawn in.
If you want the technical nuts and bolts of building suspense, the Writers Digest has a great article. As a reader, however, I love reading masters of suspense and figuring out what the authors did that worked so well to draw me in. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I feel no guilt if I occasionally borrow a technique!
I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I’m able to conceal the information I’m trying to conceal. And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.–Dan Brown**
Although the writers I have chosen to highlight are from the horror and mystery genre, suspense is useful for every writer. Suspense doesn’t always have to mean a mystery is solved or a villain is caught. It can mean an issue your character has been struggling with is resolved. The will he/won’t he overcome the issue is the suspense you build throughout the story. Finding your way of writing that suspense is a key part of finding your voice.
This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. –Oscar Wilde**