Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Hang 'em High
The term "suspense" comes from the Latin word, suspendere, which means "to hang." (Yes, that's an elephant up a tree. Not exactly "hanging", but I do sense a certain amount of suspense, don't you?)
Readers of suspense enjoy the feeling of anxiety and apprehension they experience from the genre. How do they get there? Uncertainty.
The worst thing you can do as a suspense novelist is to bore your reader. Heck, the worst thing you can do as any kind of novelist is to bore your reader. And there are so many ways in which to bore . . .
Some ideas to keep your readers hanging:
Delete areas where you are supplying too much information. This often comes disguised as the internal thoughts of your POV character. Give your readers the opportunity to wonder and worry.
Foreshadowing is a wonderful tool, but remember it's a shadow and not a detailed picture. Don't be obvious.
Create characters your reader will care about. Then threaten them with something. It can be physical, psychological or emotional. Oh heck, why not all three?
Give your protagonist intense motivation. Connect to their basic human needs and understand what drives them. Your protagonist should be strong, not wussy. Their desire should be powerful, overwhelming, and completely believable.
Repeat the above for your antagonist. The more chance you give your villain to win, the more chance you have to build suspense.
Keep raising the stakes. Don't let up. Remember that elephant up a tree? Imagine a sleeping baby lying under the tree. And then, a poacher who sees some easy prey in an unlikely spot. And then . . . you get the drift. Never make things easy. (For more, see my post on the science of scenes.)
Give the reader more information than you give your hero. This is done by using multiple points of view. Your reader will have the sublime pleasure of worrying about things even more.
Build the momentum by winding up the ticking clock. Urgency fuels suspense. Make sure your reader understands the race and everything that's at stake.
Did you hear that limb crack?
It's all better with friends.