Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Structure

Perhaps the most basic tool a writer can use to create suspense is plot structure and though there are an infinite possible variations, the basic structure of all suspense stories is the same. Below is a stripped down blueprint for a suspense novel of 80,000 words.

The Structure of the Suspense Novel at 80,000 words

Part One THE SET UP 0-20,000 words
introduces the protagonist and his/her backstory
introduces the protagonist’s inner demons
creates empathy for the protagonist

Plot Point #1 the story changes; defines what challenges are in store for the protagonist

Part Two REACTION/RESPONSE 20,001-40,000 words
describes the protagonist’s reaction to Plot Point #1
(largely defensive, exploratory, and/or unsuccessful)
At this point the antagonist is winning and in control

Plot Point #2 (Midpoint) Parting of the curtain; a secret is revealed to the protagonist and reader

Part Three THE ATTACK 40,001- 60,000 words
with the new knowledge gained in Plot Point 2, the protagonist begins a counterattack against the antagonist. The battle is now in doubt, but momentum is swinging toward the protagonist

Plot Point #3 something changes to empower the protagonist; the last piece of information about about the antagonist is revealed

Part Four RESOLUTION 60,001- 80,000 words
the protagonist is now in control and successfully defeats the antagonist

For an example of how this structure works in real life, let’s look at the film The Ring. (I know, I know, it isn’t a novel, but the essential story structure is similar for film and fiction. Storytelling is storytelling, after all.)

So, The Ring.

Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is a reporter and single mother to a precocious young son. At the funeral for her niece, Rachel is told by several of her niece’s friends of a mysterious video that causes all who watch it to die.

This is Plot Point #1.

Rachel investigates and eventually identifies a young girl as the originator of the mysterious video and determines she was murdered.

This is Plot Point #2.

Sometime later, Rachel tells her son she’s found the girl’s remains and that she can now rest in peace. Her son looks at her and says: “Mom, you weren’t supposed to help her.”

This is Plot Point #3.

Now it becomes clear to Rachel that she hasn’t defeated the video and that she probably can’t. The only option she has left is to cut her losses.

This is just an example of how structure can work in practice. Examine your favorite novel or film and I’m sure you can find similar (and better) examples.

Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Environment

Another tool in the writer’s suspense arsenal is the environment. If pace can be considered the soundtrack to your story, environment is the combination of location and lighting. Taken together, setting and lighting (the environment) help set the mood of your piece and can amp up the suspense.

Most of us are familiar with the term “setting”. It is where your story takes place. Is it set in an urban center of tenements and skyscrapers? A suburban bedroom community? Or the wilderness of the Yukon? A change of setting inevitably changes the story because the characters interact with the world around them as much as do each other. If that world changes, so will the story.

The Bourne Identity wouldn’t be the same story if it had been set in the ranch lands of Eastern Montana rather than the cities of Europe. The challenges Mr. Bourne faced would have been different, as would the resources available. It may not have been better; it may not have been worse. It certainly would have been a different story. (This is ignoring the genre convention that spy thrillers should take place largely in the “jet-set” cities of Europe and The United States).

Another familiar (and most abused) example of how the environment can create suspense is the creative use of weather: storms, wind, rain, fog, snow, and the dark of night. Literary critics call this “pathetic fallacy”. In literature and film, pathetic fallacy is the idea that the weather mirrors the state of human affairs. If everything is calm and orderly among the folks, the days are warm and sunny. Likewise, when there’s conflict between people, the weather turns stormy.

Probably the most famous example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, but it is much more pervasive and often very heavy-handed. Think of how often thunder and lightning occur during horror movies. This is pathetic fallacy at its most cliched. It is so cliched as to be almost laughable. The same could be said for ghost and other such tales always occurring at night. It’s cliché. One of my favorite aspects of Stephen King’s novel It is that virtually all the action ( and I thought some were truly creepy) takes place during broad daylight and during the sunny days of summer, at that. He broke all the cliches and I think it made the suspense even stronger.

Beyond the cliches though, inclement weather (which includes darkness) can be a useful tool in heightening suspense. Why? Because it’s another obstacle the hero has to overcome. If the hero is, say, fleeing through the wilderness from an assassin, he has to worry about his pursuer, accidental injury in the rough terrain and becoming lost. Add a blizzard and now he also has to be concerned with hypothermia, exhaustion, and an increased chance of getting lost.

Bad weather can also serve to isolate the characters. In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, the hero, a small town Chief of Police, and his allies are trying to stop a mysterious string of killings when a Pacific hurricane bears down on their coastal community. Not only does a large portion of the population evacuate ahead of the storm, but those that don’t, hole up in their dwellings for the duration. Then storm damage cuts off all communication with the outside world. The hero must now stop the bad guy entirely on his own.

It ratchets up the pressure.

More than anything else though, weather heightens suspense by making characters more vulnerable. We are all, like it or not, slaves to our senses. So are our characters. Anything that impedes their ability to perceive danger increases their vulnerability and, therefore, the suspense. Darkness, fog, rain, and snowfall all hinder our ability to see approaching danger. Wind, rain, snow, and thunder do the same thing to ability to hear a threat. Also, having a character bundled up in a heavy coat, scarf, hood, or hat can interfere with peripheral vision. A character who is soaking wet, cold, or overheated can also be distracted enough to struggle with focus at the worst possible time.

You get the idea.

Using environmental factors can greatly increase the suspense in your work. However, like any tool, we must constantly strive to use them judiciously and creatively. If we simply fall back to the timeworn thunderstorm as the hero approaches the evil mansion, we will probably lose the reader.

Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Pace

There are many techniques the savvy writer can employ to help create and heighten suspense in his/her work. Among these is the creative and judicious use of pace. Pace is the controlled speed with which your story progresses.

Think of the soundtrack to your favorite movie (and you really should pay attention to this, if you don’t). The music is not the same during the romantic love scene as during the car chase, or as the hero enters the house where the monster is lying in wait. In the same way, and for the same reasons, the pace of our fiction should not be the same throughout the story. It also shouldn’t vary randomly, but in direct relation to the effect we’re trying to achieve.

So how do you, the author, control pace? There are two primary means of doing this: through the balance of dialogue and exposition, and through sentence length and structure.

Dialogue and exposition are perhaps the easiest to control. Simply put, dialogue moves faster than exposition; exposition slowly things down. Inserting an exchange of dialogue will speed up a long passage of description. Inserting a passage of description or explanation will slow down a long, dialogue-heavy scene.

The very best authors use the balance of exposition and dialogue to carefully control the pace of their work. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece of short fiction: “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Read it and you will notice the crescendo effect of approaching doom. It almost feels like riding a runaway train, starting slowly, then picking up speed until we crash into the conclusion.

How does he do this?

Well, he was a master. But take the story apart and you will notice in the first half of the work it is almost all exposition, with little dialogue. This, naturally, moves at a more sedate pace. The second half of the story, on the other hand, is mostly dialogue, which moves quicker. Together, the effect is one of starting slowly and ending fast.

He, of course, uses other techniques in addition to pace, but that discussion is for another day.

Another way of controlling pace is through the thoughtful use of sentence length and complexity. Longer, more complex sentences move the narrative more slowly than short, declarative ones. (For one thing, they take longer to read.) It mimics the way most of us talk and think. When we’re relaxed and contemplative, we tend to work with more complex, nuanced language. In excitement, when our adrenalin is flowing, we think and speak in short, powerful phrases.

To demonstrate the effect of varying sentence complexity, consider the opening sentences of these two short stories:

“The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country.”
Ernest Hemingway
“Big Two-Hearted River”

And then:

“The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believes he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.”
William Faulkner
“Barn Burning”

Doesn’t the difference in sentence complexity alone seem to bring Faulkner’s narrative to a screeching halt? Especially when compared to Hemingway’s lean prose. This is an extreme example, but I think it makes the point. Longer, complex sentences slow the narrative down; shorter, simpler ones speed things up.

Putting it all together is a little more tricky because there is no set formula for either sentence structure or the ratio of exposition to dialogue. Every story is unique and every author writing is unique. This is where writing becomes a form of art. It is only through study and experience that the author will be able to decide the best way to use these techniques. And, of course, practice.

So, the next time you read one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they use the mix of sentence structure, exposition, and dialogue to control the pace. And how the pace of the story, it’s peaks and valleys, work to keep you reading. Then try the same techniques in your own work.