What Makes Suspense Work?


An illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wond...
An illustration by W. W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also known as The Wizard of Oz, a 1900 children’s novel by L. Frank Baum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although movies and books about monsters (or dragons or paranormal teen angst) aren’t something I normally read, I happened to pick up Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I read it, well, most of it. There is a lot of gore at the beginning. I’m not a fan of gore. So by now you might wonder why I read what I don’t normally read.

Stephen King in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (a gem of a book) about horror movies and books and why we are so fascinated by being scared, and what makes us scared. He has condensed the reason. We are most frightened by what is behind the door, as long as the “it” of that thing is kept behind the door. Isn’t that true? Weren’t we as children most scared of what the wicked witch threatened to do to Toto in the movie Wizard of Oz because we didn’t know what powers she had? She actually didn’t do anything to Toto. Then we were scared of the castle because it was big and it looked like it was full or those hairy-coated ‘ooma’ guys. Then the witch dissolves in water. WHAT?!! The “door” was opened. As soon as the door is opened or we “see” what is behind the door – we are either a) no longer frightened, or b) disgusted, and no longer frightened. At that point it is up to the author to create suspense in some other way.

So the answer to the why I kept reading Relic is this – the authors knew to keep the monster hidden. I was nearly at the end of the book when I discovered the full reveal. They kept me curious. So I kept reading. Simple.

I skipped about half the book trying to get to that point. What were the parts I skipped? The scientists arguing about DNA, the scientists discussing DNA, the scientists blah, blah, blah. Who cares what the scientists think when there is a freak of nature eating people’s brains?

Someone once told me that Elmore Leonard Jr. said that he writes a book and then deletes all the parts that he didn’t want to read either.

His writing is succinct.

Of all the authors of the past fifty years his fiction will likely stand out in the top 10 most read.

So how do you make your writing suspenseful? You write and write and then delete, delete until you have left only unanswered questions such as – what will happen to the woman suspended above the bridge? or when will the poor child ever get to see her mother? And what happens to the puppy? So with these sorts of questions the reader can’t help but keep reading. The longer the answer is hidden, the more the reader wants to know the answer. That is the anatomy of suspense. The reader may come to the final reveal and it is not the answer they want. But the questions are answered. It is important to always provide an answer.

Conflict is not always a fist fight. Unanswered questions are conflict.

No one wants to read the boring stuff. If there is no conflict, there is no intrigue and therefore no reason to pursue the end of the book.

I saw a funny cartoon in the comics today. The prince and the princess are on horseback and the sign on the side of the road reads: “Happily Ever After, A place lacking all the drama and excitement that brought you together”. Well, the rest of the sign could have said “The sort of thing no one wants to read.”

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