Sunday, June 26, 2016

Four Ways to Create Suspense

You don't need to be writing a thriller to need a way to keep readers engrossed in the story. These techniques can help you plot your novel, and move your characters (and readers) to The End.

1. A gun on the mantle

Just about every writer has heard of Chekhov's gun: the idea that, if you introduce a gun in Act 1, it must go off in Act 3. Writers are often taught this so they don't leave any loose threads at the end of the story, and so that actions have time to build up so the resolution does not seem implausible or coincidental.

But foreshadowing is great technique to build suspense. You don't need to include a literal weapon to create tension: just a hint at a serious conflict that will affect your main character. For example, in A Doll's House, the "gun on the mantle" is a secret a character is keeping from her husband - one with psychologically explosive repercussions. The audience knows from discussions that the secret going to come out, and they keep following along with the main character until the truth is discovered. When it does, the character must act - and how she responds to the crisis defines the play.

2. Ticking clock

There's an old cliche of a character trying to deactivate an explosive device set to go off in 60 seconds. However, a ticking clock in fiction could be anything: a deadline for ransom, a deal that needs to close to save a business or career, or a character who must declare his love before his ex-girlfriend's plane takes off (or before she marries someone else, etc.).

When it comes to characters' personal ticking clocks, I often think of The Little Mermaid: the main character has until "the sun sets on the third day" to make her crush fall in love with her, or she becomes the sea witch's prisoner. Those stakes make most thrillers look tame. But to create suspense, main character just need to resolve a goal within a short period of time, and not take a backpacking trip through Europe while thinking over their life - while readers' interest wanes.

This can also combine with #1 - "I need to act BEFORE such-and-such happens." And you can also...

3. Make it personal

This can be anything as serious as a kidnapped family member, to a character's personal convictions being challenged. The hero may be righting a wrong, or a villain may have her own reasons for seeking revenge. If the audience understands the character's motivation, they'll follow along. If not, they'll wonder why the character is giving so much for so little in return.

4. Kill your darlings

This is put to great effect in Game of Thrones. With multiple characters, each with enemies and a potential to win or lose, it keeps audiences on the edge of their seats wondering who will be next.

Another famous example is Psycho, in which the main character is killed off early in the movie. Audiences were shocked by the move. It doesn't have to be that drastic, but killing off a character early sends the message to readers that anything can happen.

Realistically, if you have a main character narrating the story, readers know that he or she will likely survive to the end. But maybe another beloved major character is put in danger, and their future called into question. If readers care enough, they'll keep turning pages to find out what happens.

Twitter: @lauraebradford

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