I’m deep in the guts of my current WIP, a sequel to my first published novel. (It’s only been about 10 years.... Um, better late than never, right?) Anyway, after TPM (hubby) ripped apart what I had about a year ago (or maybe it’s been two?), I’ve been picking up the pieces, mending what could be saved and consigning the rest to a “Not Used” file. (Who knows, maybe they’ll make good “extras” to “fans” some day.)
I came to a screeching halt the other day, though, when I realized I don’t have a bad guy scene. Not one. And I’m about two-thirds of the way through the story. The bad guy is wreaking havoc among my cast of characters, but I’ve given little to no clues about his identity! No scenes where I get into his head or see him in action.
Since this is supposed to be a romantic suspense novel, I decided it was a problem and quickly wrote a couple short bad-guy scenes and tucked them into the story.
Then I started thinking about all elements of suspense I need to incorporate into the story and realized when I finish the first draft (I will finish...I will!), I will have a lot of work left to do.
There are a number of techniques writers can use to create suspense, like making the stakes really big (whether personal or universal) and creating a short timeline for solving the issue.
This article from Writers Digest talks about other things, like applying pressure and creating dilemmas. (Yeah, they go without saying, I think.)
For me, as a reader, what creates the most suspense is when I know something bad is coming, and I’m reading/watching the bad stuff develop, waiting for the hero/heroine to figure it out.
Example: The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho with Janet Leigh. Run! Run! I shriek in my head every time I see it.
(Just because I think Hitchcock is THE master of suspense, I thought I’d share this article in which he explains the difference between surprise and suspense.
And talking about applying pressure...
Did everyone see the original Terminator film (1984, directed by James Cameron and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton)? To me, the last ten minutes or so are some of the most suspenseful in film.
The Terminator has been chasing poor Sarah Connor throughout the film. She’s gotten herself cornered in this massive forge-like industrial plant. She’s running while machinery is twirling and spinning, plunging and hissing around her. John Connor is there, trying to protect her, until the monster takes him out. Then it’s just Sarah against the creature sent back through time to kill her.
All vestiges of humanity have melted off his metallic skeletal frame. It’s half blown to smithereens. But it won’t stop. It...keeps...coming. Relentlessly. Until it has her trapped less than an inch away.
When I first saw this movie, I remember pushing back against the couch where I was sitting and folding myself into a fetal position.
Even today, just watching the scene has me holding my breath, and I know the ending!
And that’s the level of suspense I shoot for. I want readers holding their breath, pushing back against their seats, their eyes racing across the pages until the scene is resolved. It's a pretty high bar. Like I said, I have a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s fun trying to figure out what I can do to ratchet up the pressure on my beloved characters and make them run for their lives.
What are your favorite suspense moments?
Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil (really, really evil) and the power of love. Learn more at her website or visit her at Facebook where she occasionally posts about life and writing.