Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Art of Anticipation

Before I say anything substantive about last night's Grub Street class, I would like to thank our instructor, Hallie Ephron, and my classmates for being so patient and kind with me... and with Serious Girl. I actually brought Serious Girl to class with me last night, because Husband was in South Dakota overnight, and I was unable to line up any of the babysitters SG trusts (it's not a long list).

So, from 7-9:30pm, SG sat on my coat in the corner of the classroom, eating dinner and watching The Backyardigans on the iPad. In this (intentionally) dark and low-res photo, you can see her holding one headphone to her ear, while holding her spoon with the other. There are two stuffed Backyardigans along the wall, and she's actually under a large easel. Class went until 10pm, but I decided not to push my luck or SG's bedtime any further and left at 9:30, taking the last writing assignment home with me.

Serious Girl, you were a nearly silent all evening, and you were a ROCK STAR. Hallie and my fellow students, thank you so much for giving us a chance and I hope we never disturbed your class experience.

So! Last night's class was called Writing Suspense. I am simply going to share some of Hallie's insights in bullet-point form:
  • Suspense is the potential that something bad is going to happen. When something bad actually happens, that's not suspense, that's conflict or action.

  • Suspense often involves taking ordinary objects and imbuing them with a sense of menace.

  • Suspense requires a clear sense of scene (time, place, etc.) because you cannot build suspense if the reader isn't grounded.

  • Suspense requires the laying of groundwork... if the reader doesn't have the critical information before the moments of tension, it's not suspense, it's surprise. As a writer, chances are you won't know what this critical information is until you've written the key scenes. That's what editing is for: go back and put that gun in the closet, that cell phone in the hospital room, that cliff near where the car chase will eventually happen.

  • Explanation ruins tension, which is another reason why the writer must provide any critical information and/or backstory before the suspenseful scenes, not during them.

  • Suspense can often be created by giving the reader information that the characters don't have (although some people can't read this kind of story at all).

  • The writer must raise the stakes so that characters will do things no normal person would. You know how you scream at the movie screen for characters in a horror flick not to go down to the basement? Make it so that the reader understands why the hero has no choice but to go into that basement.
Suspense and tension can be built through slowing the pace, creating a vivid sensory setting, putting the reader side-by-side with the character in peril (the "closeup" camera angle), juxtaposing the innocent with the unnerving, having the critical elements already established, and raising the stakes.

Suspense and tension can be eased by action, the anticipated bad thing actually happening (the payoff), something unexpected but harmless happening (the false payoff), humor, distancing the reader from the story (the "long shot" camera angle), summarizing or cutting away from the scene, or providing back story in the scene.

This class was a delight, and I'm picking up a copy of Hallie Ephron's Never Tell A Lie today. Hallie also authored Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, which a mystery-writing crit partner of mine recommends most highly.

Any suspense-writers here? What are your favorite techniques? Or, like me, do you just like the have the occasional moment of reader anticipation thrown in? What are your favorite suspense books?


  1. All those are good tips, and the cinematic terms help in that I just watched a show on the making of "Jaws," where the whole film worked because the shark didn't, making Speilberg have to use camera angles and the suspense of what you can't see but know is there. (Plus, having John Williams score your story would be cool, too.)

    My own favorite technique would be the use of rhythm and fragments, or... what was that? No, outside. It sounded like... No, don't go look. Please, don't. You don't know what's out there!

    It's... it's a raccoon? You sure? Well, geesh, that'll teach me to freak out. I mean, one second you think it's a werewolf and-

    [cue hordes of raccoons jumping from the roof in ninja suits.]

  2. Lovely little Serious Girl! You should count yourself lucky -- most kiddos would be running around like little tasmanian devils in that situation.

    And those are GREAT suspense tips. Definitely bookmarking this!

  3. Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing them! I think Alfred Hitchcock was a master of building suspense - as were Twilight Zone episodes - good things to study as we write suspense into our novels.

  4. Great tips, and Good Show SG! Anyone else notice that this post about suspense started with a mis-trust of babysitters? I think wew have our writing prompt of the week. "The devious sitter had filled my cookies with cauliflower! Mwa-ah-ah! And the home was NOT peanut-free!"

  5. Thanks for posting this great info. One my favorite suspense books is Vertical Run, kind of a book Die Hard.

  6. This is really cool. I'm learning so much right now about the effect choice of words, sentence structure, lengthening moments, can have on the mood of a scene. It's almost like I want to meditate for a few minutes before editing each one, to make sure the mood is right. In that sense, I think writing a book is not unlike directing a film.