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Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part III

Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense

 

* Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music; harsh, stark, or very low lighting; strange camera angles; or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…

* Mood and pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.

* Compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.

* Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)

* Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?

* Add obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.

* Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…

 
* Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?

* Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?

* Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. A phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast, etc.

* Use the occasional omniscient tip-off. The author (omniscient narrator) steps in to clue the readers in on something unknown but ominous that’s about to happen, with a statement something like, “If Henry had known what lurked in the house, he never would have gone in,” or whatever. Can be very effective, but use this one sparingly, as it’s kind of “cheating.” Best to stay in the story world, in the point of view of the POV character for that scene/chapter.

But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins.

Resources:

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

See also: 20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller; Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part II

Techniques for Building Suspense
As I mentioned in part I of this article, all genres of fiction need some suspense, not just thrillers and action-adventures, to keep the reader interested and turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to amp up the suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.

 

 

After revealing your intriguing story question and showing your inciting incident, you can continue to build suspense throughout your story by using a number of techniques, such as:

* building the sense of danger slowly

* sprinkling in some foreshadowing (teasing) as you go along

* withholding information (revealing critical info bit by bit)

* using a tense mood and fast pacing

* adding ominous details to your setting (environment, weather, etc.)
* using compelling, vivid sensory imagery to bring your story world alive
* adding time pressures (a ticking clock) for your protagonist
* piling on new obstacles and complications that get in his/her way
* narrating the story through several different viewpoints
* giving the protagonist some inner conflict and tough decisions
* introducing a few surprise plot twists

* writing in some cliff-hanger scene and chapter endings
* creating a riveting, “close call” ending
General “big-picture” techniques for writing suspense

* First, make your readers care about your protagonist, by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart and resourceful but vulnerable character. If readers haven’t bonded with your main character, they won’t become emotionally invested in what happens to him or her.

* Start gradually, and let it build. When writing suspense, start slowly and subtly — give yourself somewhere to build. As Hallie Ephron says, “If you pull out all the stops at the beginning, you’ll have nowhere to go; worse still, your reader will turn numb to the nuance you are trying to create.”

* Create a mood of unease, by showing the main character feeling uneasy, worried about something or someone, or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions. Maybe, instead of anxious, your heroine is oblivious, but because we’ve just been in the viewpoint of the villain, we know the danger that’s about to threaten her.

* Use the setting to create suspense. To describe the surroundings of the character in jeopardy, use vivid details and sensory imagery that reflect or add to his angst or fears, and bring to life the dangerous situations he’s confronting. (More specifics on this in Part III.)

* Foreshadow trouble to come. To pique the reader’s interest and keep her reading, hint at dangers lurking ahead.
* Pile on the problems and continue to raise the stakes. A complacent hero is a boring hero. Keep challenging him, to amp up the plot and build a character arc in which circumstances force him to be stronger, cleverer, and more resourceful.

* Use delay and subterfuge: Either we know something the hero doesn’t, or the narrator-protagonist has crucial info he’s revealing little by little, doling out to us gradually — the clever author’s way of keeping us on our toes, anxious and questioning, eager to keep reading to find out more.

* Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. This way the reader finds out critical information the protagonist doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about! And getting into the head of the bad guy(s) always enriches the story.

* Write in cliff-hangers.  Jessica Page Morrell advises us, “To amp up suspense, orchestrate your scene and chapter endings so they don’t wind down, but instead keep the reader hanging. …endings are the perfect places to create cliff-hangers, revelations, and surprises.” But do vary your chapter endings.

* Create a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected.

* Add in difficult decisions and inner conflict. These will not only make your plot more suspenseful, they will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and interesting.

Part III of this series will cover some specific techniques for ratcheting up the suspense in your thriller or other crime fiction.

Resources:

 
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes

 

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel


 

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

See also: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Heightening the Suspense, Part I

Today begins a new three-part series from Jodie Renner on heightening the suspense in your stories. Thanks, Jodie.

 

 

Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic suspense, mainstream novel or any other genre of fiction, your story needs plenty of tension and conflict, and also a certain amount of suspense, to keep the readers turning the pages. As Jack M. Bickham says, “In fiction, the best times for the writer — and reader — are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst.” And all this curiosity and worry keeps him turning the pages, of course.

 

What is suspense, anyway? Hallie Ephron relates this story: “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a café. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.”

 

And as Steven James said in his excellent workshop at Thrillerfest, “Suspense needs apprehension. Apprehension is suspense. And impending danger creates apprehension.” James says that suspense is about first “making a promise” (setting reader expectations that your characters and story are going to intrigue them) and then providing a payoff. “The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff,” says James. “Give the reader what he wants or something better.”

 
What are the main elements of suspense?

 

Jessica Page Morrell likens writing suspense in fiction to dancing a striptease, because effective storytelling requires teasing the readers initially with a tantalizing opening, an intriguing story question and an inciting incident, followed by hints and foreshadowing of trouble to come, which creates a feeling of unease. Then add in some delay and subterfuge to keep readers on edge, waiting for the layers to be peeled off to find out what’s going to happen next, or what that deep, dark secret was. Of course, you need to seduce the readers first by piquing their interest in your protagonist, so they’ll start identifying with him — otherwise, they won’t really care what happens to him. As William Bernhardt says, “If people don’t care about your characters, nothing else matters.”

 

Tantalize, but build slowly. This initial delay, according to J.P. Morrell, “creates unbearable suspense, and suspense manipulates readers’ emotions. Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong this trepidation for as long as possible.” As a result, “suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”

 

Suspense is about exploiting the readers’ insecurities and basic fears of the unknown, their inner need to vicariously vanquish foes, thwart evil, and win over adversity. The readers, if you’ve presented your protagonist effectively, are in her head, fighting right in there with her against her cunning adversaries and other dire threats.

 
Hallie Ephron outlines a typical arc of suspense. As she says, “You can build it gradually, teasing the reader with possibilities. The climax and resolution should feel worth the anguish of getting there.”

 

Here are the stages of the suspense arc, according to Ephron (my comments in parentheses):

 

1-Establishing and foreshadowing (set the stage, hint at danger to come)

 

2-Suspense begins (conflict and action start)

 

3-Tension escalates (danger looms), then loosens (slight reprieve, breather)

 

4-Turning point (critical point — can increase or release tension)

 

5-Sometimes a false payoff (false alarm)

 

6-Payoff (good or bad: resolved, moves to the next level or “to be continued”)
Repeat as needed throughout the book, always providing some reprieve between these tense, nerve-wracking scenes.

 

As Ephron says, “Think of a suspenseful scene as if it were a pressure cooker. First you increase it a little, then release it a bit, giving your readers and characters a little breathing space, then tighten again, raising the pressure even higher. Repeat until cooked.”

 

Part II of this theme will discuss a number of specific techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel.

 

Resources:
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
See also: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I, Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II, and Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III

 

 

Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, visit her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com

 

 
9 Comments

Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 
 
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