Monday, August 6, 2018

The Suspense is Killing Me! ~ by Leah St James #amwriting

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.


Margo Hoornstra said...

Full disclosure here. I could not bring myself to watch the shower scene. Did that when I was a teenager, and it’s still with me. Talk about a powerful moment! Best of luck ramping up your suspense. You have some good examples to inspire you!

Jannine Gallant said...

I find scary movies more suspenseful than suspense movies. Not the bloody ones, but the ones where you know it's coming. Halloween 1 (the original) springs to mind. It's very difficult to write that kind of edge of your seat tension. Best of luck finishing this book!

remullins said...

Now I'm going to have to re-watch The Terminator. I've never tried to analyze what makes for 'good' suspense. I guess I want the hair on the back of my neck to prickle but I don't want to look like I've stuck my finger in a light socket. I'm kinda a weenie that way.
Did you read that they're making a new one with Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger? The movie poster shows Hamilton and 2 younger badass looking women.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Leah, thanks for the articles and the two film clips. I'm sitting in a hotel reading your blog entry while my husband is sleeping, so I can't click the start buttons and make noise. Dying to re-see the clips. Thanks for stepping back to rethink/reconfigure what constitutes suspense. I need to do that, too!

Brenda Whiteside said...

First off, had to laugh at Rolynn's comment. That is the story of traveling with FDW. I'm always sitting with my laptop, trying to keep quiet until the late sleeper gets his butt out of bed.

Good post, Leah. I love suspense. So many people confuse mystery with suspense. I write SUSPENSE which means, yeah, you may know who the villain is right away. And you should be on the edge of your seat wondering what he will do. I'd read the article from Hitchcock years ago and it stuck with me. The surprise element is to me much like mystery. If his scene was part of a mystery, there would be other such surprises and it would be a mystery why or who, etc. But suspense is much different in that you know it's coming. I've been dinged a couple of times in reviews with the observation that it was no mystery who the villain was. Duh. Other reviews praised me because even though they knew who the villain was, it was suspenseful. Neither is quite getting it, but at least the last one came closer.

Alison Henderson said...

I love suspense, but I've come to realize that what I write is actually mystery. I think suspense is harder to pull off. Good luck with this one. Hope it has us biting our nails!

Andrea Downing said...

Oh, Leah, I can rarely watch suspense or scary films. They set my teeth on edge. I have watched some but I'd rather sit down for a love story or a feel good film. So I'm no help here! Sorry!

Leah St. James said...

Margo, that's how I am with "The Birds." I saw it once when I was about 10 years old (I think) and it scared the you-know-what out of me!

Leah St. James said...

I agree, Jannine, on the scary (but not bloody) movies. The gore stuff just turns my stomach.

Leah St. James said...

I didn't read that about a new Terminator with Linda Hamilton and Arnold S, Robin! I can't imagine how that will turn out. Hmmm... should be interesting!

Leah St. James said...

It's probably a good thing you didn't play the clips while your hubby was sleeping, Rolynn. Especially with that shriek-like music in the shower scene!

Leah St. James said...

I love how simply Hitchcock explains the difference, Brenda. For me to really enjoy mystery, the characters have to be compelling in some way or another.

Leah St. James said...

Thanks, Alison. I love the humor you incorporate into your stories. Maybe it's another sub-genre: romantic suspense light? :-)

Leah St. James said...

I love the love stories, too, Andi. I read contemporary romance about as much as I read suspense, but I have a worst-case-scenario mind which tends more toward suspense when I write. :-) I also love romantic and romantic comedies in TV and film, but hubby/TPM not so much. I usually rule the channel on Saturdays and make him sit through those kinds of movies (including almost every holiday movie on Hallmark)!

Diane Burton said...

Thanks for sharing the Alfred Hitchcock quote. So true. The scariest film moment I've ever seen is from "Wait Until Dark" Audrey Hepburn is blind and the bad guy is in the apartment with her. She knocks out all the lights so he can't find her. He's fumbling around while she's in her natural element. Then, he opens the refrigerator. And she doesn't know. Talk about pushing back against the seat cushion. Good luck with writing your WIP. I'm looking forward to reading it.