Thursday, 22 October 2015

7 Building Blocks for Suspense

Here's another blog post from my now defunct Magic Beans blog which feels kind of relelvant to me at the moment. If you're trying to write suspense, perhaps you might find it useful too...

Readers will be drawn to your writing for all sorts of reasons, but one of the ways to keep them there is to build suspense. Keep them turning the pages of your book, whatever the genre, and you will have a happy reader. 

Tinkerbell had found the perfect
place to hide...
1. Show us your protagonist’s weakness
Maybe she has a major character flaw, a debilitating phobia, or a secret from her past. Show us her flash of violent anger, her frozen fear of heights, or that humiliating moment of past failure, at the beginning of the story and build up to the moment when it is exposed to others. As readers, we will know the moment is coming; we will empathise with your protagonist and dread the moment as much as she does. Chances are, we will all be biting our nails in expectation.

2. Make the Wicked Witch really wicked
You know we should fall in love with your protagonist don’t you? Well, one way of nudging that along a bit further is to pull out all the stops and make your antagonist really nasty.

and Monty thought he was safe too...
3. Think the worst
What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character? Go on, make it happen. They’re going to have to deal with some pretty tough obstacles anyway, so why not make them tougher? Problems to be overcome are what stories are about, after all. Without conflict there is no plot, and no plot = no suspense.

4. Show us the danger
For your reader to understand the gravity of a dangerous situation, you may have to show us exactly how real the danger is by hurting another character first. This gives us the chance to feel the fear and anticipate the worst, and of course also allows for tremendous relief when the danger has passed.

But Buster had a new trick that
neither of them knew about...
5. Up the stakes
If you’re going to build tension, you’re going to have to keep upping the stakes, creating bigger and bigger obstacles for your protagonist to overcome, until you reach one so big there’s no way they are going to escape. (Except of course they will. That’s the point.)

6. Go against the clock
Set a deadline - a time, a day, a week… something specific. That way your reader will know exactly when the dramatic climax is upon them and they will feel a real sense of urgency.

7. Employ the unexpected...
...but don't rely on it. While you might be tempted to let your characters do something unexpected, if you do it too much, you risk losing your reader. Suspense is about what might happen and involving your reader in the build up to that event is crucial.  

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