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Libby Fischer Hellmann on Suspense, part 2

In Part I [1] told you why I think suspense should be a critical part of every author’s tool-kit. To that end following are some techniques, culled from master storytellers, to build suspense into your work.

The Hook

The first line of a novel or chapter gives readers an indication of the novel’s voice, the protagonist, sometimes the setting. But that first sentence must also provoke, tease, or set up a situation that compels the reader to keep reading. I talked at length about first lines here [2]so I won’t repeat myself. But do check it out.

The Sting

The end of a chapter is an excellent opportunity to hook the reader. The goal here is to create a “sting” or cliff-hanger, leaving the action in in media res so that it’s impossible for the reader to put the book down. A variation of the sting is to introduce a totally new concept, danger, or character at the end of a chapter that must be followed up on immediately. Either way, if it’s done right, readers will be compelled to go on.
A cautionary note: don’t use stings in every chapter. It can become redundant and trite. Readers need periods of calm between the storms.

Raise the stakes

Perhaps you’ve heard an editor say, “What’s at stake?” or “The stakes aren’t high enough.” What they mean is that the reader doesn’t have enough emotional investment in the story or character. To create that investment a writer must increase the danger, ramp up the possibilities for disaster, and escalate suspense at every turn. Happily, there are several techniques that will help.

Create complications for your protagonist. Confront him or her with obstacles and dangers and stresses that must be managed or overcome. Sometimes those dangers might be hidden, and the character won’t realize they’re there.

Develop a Worst-Case Scenario
… and then make it worse. For example, a protagonist might thinks he’s killed the villain. At the last minute, though, the villain rises, draws a bead on the hero, and threatens him… again.

Create dilemmas
Tempt your characters with no-win situations or Hobbesian choices. For example, a character can only save one person — another must die. Or a character picks up a gun after swearing an oath never to do so. The reader knows the wrong choice poses danger, risk, even the loss of everything for which the character has worked.

Isolate the protagonist
Through the course of the story, a protagonist should become increasingly isolated. Think of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity where Jason Bourne, unsure whom he can trust, ultimately performs tasks by himself, using only his wits to overcome danger. Readers identify with him and want him to succeed. The stakes and the suspense are high.

Include the antagonist’s POV
In some novels, there’s a chance the reader already knows — or suspects – who the villain is. Suspense builds when the writer explores the antagonist’s point of view. Perhaps the writer even creates sympathy for the villain– at least understanding.

Delay Revelations
When the moment of revelation is forestalled– when the protagonist is kept in ignorance as long as possible – a writer plays to universal fears. Consider the following:

Shift POV, Time, location
Varying one or more of these elements can delay revelations, and thus build suspense. The most classic example is the Hitchcockian example of the bomb under the table. If two people are playing cards, and the bomb goes off, you have surprise, even shock. However, when the camera cuts from the card players to the ticking bomb, back to the card players, then back to the bomb, the situation is gripping– and suspenseful.

Stretch Time as much as possible, particularly during action sequences. In A Picture of Guilt [3], for example, my protagonist, Ellie Foreman, and an FBI agent are tracking a nuclear device, poised to detonate at any minute. I drew it out for four chapters. Techniques that help are:

Literary Slow Motion
At peak moments of conflict, stretch the moment with sensory details. Let’s say your hero has been beat up and is lying on the floor. The writer might describe what he’s seeing, hearing, and feeling, including
–The villain’s shoes coming at him
— The lights dimming
— His vision blurring
— The sound of rustling, or laughing, or shouting

Deadlines
The protagonist should be working against the clock, and the clock should be working for the antagonists, taking the protagonist farther away from his goal. In fact, many literary and cinematic works that aren’t crime fiction use deadlines as well, for example, the film “An Affair to Remember,” “High Noon,” Shakespeare’s comedy “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” even Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

Count-downs
Breaking up time into pieces adds suspense. The reader is aware a deadline is approaching and time is running out. In a written “count-down” scene, the narrative might say, “Ten minutes were left…” at which point dialogue or action would occur. Then, “She looked at her watch. Five minutes remained.” More action or dialogue. Then, “Two minutes were left.” Something else happens.

Distance can also be used as a count-down. For example, “He was two hundred yards away. I reached into my pocket. At one hundred yards. I pulled out my gun. When he got within fifty yards…” and so on.

Setting or Location can also be stretched. “In DC Mary did this … In New York, John did this.. In Paris, Jacque was doing this.” When these elements are juxtaposed with a deadline, the suspense should be almost unbearable.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into suspense. I’m happy to answer questions.

If you’d like more information about me and my books, my website is www.libbyhellmann.com [4].

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