“Suspense is what keeps the reader needing to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen next,” says novelist Dave Zeltserman in Both Gut & Brain. “It doesn’t matter whether the story involves a couple whose relationship may be falling apart or a hero in deadly peril, if we’ve made it impossible for the reader to put down the book then as writers we’ve done our job in creating a strong sense of suspense.”
If we’ve made it impossible for the reader to put down the book… That’s a pretty big “if”. Below, on the day of release of Top Suspense: 13 Classic Stories, the first e-book anthology of the Top Suspense Group, six contributors to the anthology return to talk about how to create and sustain suspense—how to make it impossible for the reader to put down our book.
Stephen Gallagher is a novelist, screenwriter, and director. He is the author of fourteen novels, including Red, Red Robin and The Spirit Box.
Ed Gorman is best known for his crime and mystery fiction, but has written in just about every genre under a variety of names. His many novels include Black River Falls and Blood Moon.
Libby Fischer Hellmann is a broadcast journalist and novelist. Her seven thrillers include Doubleback and the recent Set the Night on Fire.
Vicki Hendricks writes noir novels, including Miami Purity and Sky Blues. She does for Florida what Loren D. Estleman and Elmore Leonard do for Detroit.
Harry Shannon is an actor, recording artist, counselor, and novelist. His books include Daemon and One of the Wicked.
Dave Zeltserman writes crime, mystery, and horror novels. His books include 21 Tales and Blood Crimes.
How do you effectively create and sustain SUSPENSE in fiction?
Dave Zeltserman: Very simply, by constantly tightening the noose. I’ll put my characters in a tough situation, and I’ll keep making the situation tougher and more impossible to resolve. Maybe I’ll give my characters a glimmer of hope before lowering the boom on them. Then at the end one of two things will happen—if I’m writing noir, my characters will be given that one last ray of hope to escape the abyss before falling into it, and if I’m writing something else, they’ll somehow claw their way out of the abyss.
A good example of this is Small Crimes. Right from the start my noir hero, Joe Denton, is put in an impossible situation, and every attempt he makes to rescue himself gets dashed, and leads him into an even more impossible situation. As a result, the suspense and tension throughout the book is palpable.
Stephen Gallagher: In the starkest terms, you set up an unfulfilled expectation — a hook, a tease, a mystery–and then you play on the reader’s sense of anticipation with narrative acts of bait and reward that raise the stakes at every turn. Your final payoff to that setup should be surprising, while feeling inevitable. It isn’t easy to pull off. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t so special.
Libby Fischer Hellmann: Suspense depends on presenting obstacles and complications for your characters. And when you couple those obstacles to a deadline, you have instant suspense. Will he rescue the girl in time? Will the bad guy get away? Can he defuse the bomb before it blows? Those are classic examples of suspense.
But there are other techniques, too. Presenting a character with a Hobbesian choice–i.e., forcing an alcoholic to drink after years of sobriety or forcing a pacifist to use a gun–those are quieter, but nonetheless effective techniques for building suspense. Creating a situation where there’s a price to pay in order for a character to get what she wants is also a good technique. And, of course, there’s “literary slow motion” where the author stretches time and delays the answers to questions as long as possible. Actually, I wrote a two part article on building suspense for Writers UnBoxed.
Ed Gorman: You have to be invested in the protagonist. You might not want Westlake’s Parker as a neighbor but you’d want him in an emergency–he’s competent at a number of skills including robbery on a grand scale. Mary Higgins Clark has given us dozens of more traditional heroines who give us, along with the mysteries they must solve, a stern look at the mores of the modern middle class. So then you ask What do they want? Do they want to clear their names of a murder conviction? Do they want to knock over a casino? Do they want to rescue their child from kidnappers? Their goal must be clear and compelling. Then they begin, step by step, to encounter problems that keep them from achieving their goals. One of my favorite suspense novels and movies is Derailed by James Siegel. Almost from the beginning you are presented with a situation that is mind-numblingly horrifying. And as the novels progresses it gets worse and worse and worse. You see the lives of two otherwise decent people fall apart–and an innocent family collapsing along with them. People you care about in an unthinkable situation. And then Siegel pulls off one of the most brilliant endings I’ve ever read/seen. If you want to see how suspense works pick up a copy of the novel Derailed and study it.
Vicki Hendricks: In a nutshell, as I see it, in order to sustain suspense there must be ongoing tension created, for example, by danger/stakes, struggles, close calls, surprises, betrayals, internal and external physical conditions, reminders of possible problems, and ticking clocks (meaning that something has to be done within a certain amount of time or the cost will be high).
Suspense scenes work on motivations and goals already established in the story. Motivations may be intensified or made more complex by extreme actions taken. The structure of a suspense scene is the same as any traditional scene or story, including action rising toward a climax and resolution, with some purposeful delay of the resolution through the devices mentioned above. Witnesses appear, plans change, fears and problems arise. Like a chapter, the scene usually contains a bridge to the next scene, e.g., an action needed to be taken or information to be learned.
It is important to note that the character must be active in trying to control his or her fate. As in any story, the character has made or makes choices which create consequences and affect the resolution. If things keep happening to the character and he or she is of no fault and has no control, the situation will be dull and the character pitiful.
The pace of a scene might be slow at first, but generally builds as the scene works toward the climax. Details of landscape or other necessary facts should be built early or in advance so the action need not be interrupted when the scene picks up speed.
The main characters can be perpetrators or victims. The perpetrators are naturally active characters, doing their best to control the situation. If the main character is a victim, the more active he or she is, the more respected, and the more interest the reader has in the outcome. Also, if the character has no chance of success, the outcome may be too obvious, on one hand, or unprepared for and, therefore, unbelievable on the other.
Credibility, or perhaps “the willing suspension of disbelief,” is established through use of understandable motivation, specific concrete details, natural dialogue, and realistic action: verisimilitude, the same as for any scene. John Gardner’s advice, in The Art of Fiction, to “create a kind of dream in the reader’s mind” and “avoid all that might distract from that dream,” always applies.
Harry Shannon: The stories that work the best can work devilishly slow or fiendishly fast, but must be well-paced and manage to sustain a sense of dread. The author should work towards a satisfying ending that feels both surprising and inevitable, one that is on the nose but was very difficult to see coming. For all that to happen, little clues and red herrings must be carefully planted throughout the telling, during story highs as well as in the lulls, so as to not slow things down or distract from the growing tension.
That sense of personal jeopardy is a major factor, as is the rich spice of mystery. We root for a human being who is fumbling through a complex scenario without enough information. Personally, I’m no fan of the superhero who has equipment or talents for all emergencies, I like the flawed protagonist whose faults end up as important to the solution as his or her gifts.
I’m also a sucker for language. Sometimes noir is pleasing because it is so lean and spare, but the best authors also have a sense of exactly when to use the perfect description. You know, that line you just have to read two or three times because it worked so perfectly. Those same writers effortlessly surprise us with broad humor or heartbreaking loss, sometimes at the very same moment, and always just when we were smugly certain we’d gotten ahead of the plot.
I guess great suspense is being in the hands of a master storyteller with something to say. Oh, and one who also doesn’t mind scaring you half to death…
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.