Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Writing 101: Building Suspense

Building suspense is truly a fine art. If you can master it you can craft thrilling stories. But you may also be running your readers around in circles instead. Are you actually building suspense...or are you wasting my time? 

Writing in Circles

There is nothing more deliciously suspenseful than watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and knowing that something is about to happen. Sitting on the edge of your seat with your heart pounding, anticipation building and rising. But the thing about a Hitchcock movie is this: it's going to be over in 2 hours. So you know you're going to have to wait...but you also know the wait isn't going to inordinate. When it comes to suspensful novels, it's a whole different game.

Because novels might take much, much longer to payoff than your average Hitchcock movie. Making your readers wait a long time isn't necessarily the mark of good suspense, either. Sometimes, it just becomes a drawn-out, pointless plot that feels endless. And that gets pretty aggravating. If a picture is truly worht a thousand words, then this clip illustrates my point better than a few dozen blog posts ever could. Be warned, this clip isn't safe for work and it's not appropriate for children: 

Building suspense is about stretching your readers' patience...it's not about breaking it. The clip above is an example of what happens when a reader's patience is broken. They begin to harbor resentment. If you watched the rest of this South Park episode, you know that Butters went to author George R.R. Martin's home in order to complain.

Your readers don't have to go that far to complain to you...they can just find you on Twitter.

You want to build suspense until it stretches and stretches, but doesn't snap. That means you have to relieve the tension. You've got to provide that payoff to your readers. You can't just keep them on the hook for ever, because eventually they'll buck and they'll jump right off your line. And they'll swim away to read other books. 

Build suspense by continuously rewarding the reader for sticking with the story. Continue revealing information and making things happen. Continue bringing them closer and closer to the ultimate truth that they're seeking, and then give them what they want before it crosses the line into becoming annoying. When you can do that, you have mastered the art of building suspense.

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