Last year I started a series of one-day workshops devoted to the craft of crime fiction. They’re broken up into various segments, but I wanted to summarize one of the most popular: Building Suspense . Btw, this isn’t limited to crime fiction as you’ll see. But it is a rather long post, so curl up with your favorite beverage before reading. If you like it, let me know and I may do some of the other segments going forward.
JACK BAUER AND ME: BUILDING SUSPENSE
The president of the United States was held hostage. Jack Bauer was prosecuted for torture. A nuclear bomb exploded over Los Angeles. Remember 24? If you don’t, I recommend watching a season or two on DVD. The plot machinations were over the top, and some of the dialogue was so lame it was dead-to-rights funny. But nowhere else could you see so many edge-of-your-seat stories presented and drawn out, sometimes over the course of an entire season. You might have turned away for a while, but I’ll bet you always came back. I know I did. I was hooked on the adrenaline, the emotional investment, the potential for disaster.
What 24—and its successors, such as MI-5, the Jason Bourne films, and even HOMELAND, do relentlessly well is build suspense. And although you are writing a novel, not a screenplay or teleplay (that’s another article), shows like 24 visually incorporate many of the basic precepts of suspense every thriller writer needs to master. Which is why I may occasionally reference Jack and friends going forward.
Whether it is a global or an individual crisis, suspense is not so much what is happening as what may happen. It’s about anticipation, often anticipating the worst. It’s about creating an uncertain situation in which the outcome is in doubt. It’s asking a question not immediately answered, raising a concern not immediately addressed, posing a threat not immediately resolved.
Notice that immediately is the key word. Suspense depends on stretching out time—delaying the answers as long as possible. The longer a writer can stretch and delay, the longer information is parceled out in bits and pieces, the more suspense there is.
Before I was a writer, I was a reader. I read John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth, and more. (With the exception of romantic suspense, the genre was dominated by men back then.) I loved the nail-biting scenes, the emotional roller coasters, the utter inability to put a book down. I knew then, way before I wrote my first novel, that suspense would be an integral part of my craft.
But suspense isn’t limited to crime thrillers. Any story with a secret, with tension, or with an unresolved conflict is ripe for the kind of unbearable, exquisite suspense so many of us love. Consider some of the classics: To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby. All of them use suspense to heighten interest and emotion. Contemporary authors too, including Jodi Picoult, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, incorporate suspense in their novels.
In fact, suspense should be an essential part of every author’s tool kit. To that end, following are some techniques of suspense culled from master storytellers, authors you may know, and even Jack Bauer.
The first line of a novel gives readers an indication of the voice, character, and sometimes setting. But that first sentence must also provoke, tease, or set up a situation that compels the reader to keep reading. First lines need to have enou
gh inherent suspense to hook the reader at the outset. Consider the following:
“The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth
“The small boys came early to the hanging.” Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
“For a week, the feeling had been with him, and all week long young Paul LeBeau had been afraid.” Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
“Ricki Feldman is best admired from a distance—if you get too close, you might find some of your body parts missing.” An Image of Death by Libby Fischer Hellmann
“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” Fat Tuesday by Earl Emerson
“My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.” Dead Over Heels by Charlaine Harris
“I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should have put some plastic down.” Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler
Each opening is unique, but they share something, too: each line begins in the middle of the action, in media res. The readers know something is already in progress, something they need to catch up on. Something intriguing or captivating. A question. Bear in mind that first lines don’t have to be serious. Humor can offer suspense, too. But whether it’s serious or funny, the challenge is to craft a first sentence so artfully that a reader must read on.
At the other end of a chapter is another opportunity to hook the reader. The goal here is to create a “sting” or cliff-hanger, which is a staple of suspense. Again, the objective is to leave the action in media res so that it’s impossible for readers to put the book down. They must see what happens next.
A variation of the sting is to introduce at the end of a chapter a totally new concept, danger, or character that must be followed up on immediately. If it’s done right, readers will be compelled to go on.
In 24, for example, most scenes do end with a sting, but stings work just as well in prose. Consider these examples from my own work:
“He was arrested a few weeks ago, and he’s in jail. They say he killed a teenage girl.” Easy Innocence
“Pony tail plunged the needle into his chest. The old man’s hands flew up. The dog biscuit skittered across the floor.” An Eye for Murder
“Petrovsky started the Buick and pulled out of the lot. Davis backed out and swung the wheel left. The car went into a skid. ‘Fuck.’ She muttered under her breath. I belted myself in.” An Image of Death
A cautionary note: don’t create a sting at the end of every chapter. If overused, it can become redundant and trite. Readers need periods of calm between the storms.
Raise the Stakes
Perhaps you’ve heard an editor, critic, or reviewer say, “What’s at stake?” or “The stakes aren’t high enough.” What are they really saying?
What they’re saying is that there is not enough emotional investment by the reader in the story or character. An author needs to create that emotional investment. So how do we do that? By continually raising the stakes. Increase the danger. Ramp up the possibilities for disaster. Build on the uncertainties and secrets. In doing those things, you will escalate suspense. Following are some techniques that will help.
Create complications for your protagonist. Confront him or her with obstacles and dangers and stresses that must be managed or overcome. Sometimes those dangers may be hidden, and the character doesn’t realize they’re there. For example, your heroine starts to undress thinking she is alone and safe, but unbeknownst to her, the villains are climbing up the fire escape. The suspense comes from the reader wondering whether she’ll hear them in time and escape.
Develop a worst-case scenario. Another way to raise the stakes is to think of your worst-case scenario . . . and then make it worse. For example, a protagonist might think he’s killed the villain. At the last minute, though, the villain rises, draws a bead on the hero, and threatens him . . . again.
A fine example of a worst-case scenario occurs in William Kent Krueger’s Purgatory Ridge. Two women and three children have been kidnapped. The women try to escape, pitting their lives and those of their children against the risk and dangers, not only of a crazy gunman, but of a harsh Minnesota winter as well. But even that’s not enough. It turns out one of the children is diabetic and needs insulin or he’ll die. The stakes are suddenly sky-high.
Create dilemmas. Another way to raise the stakes is to tempt a character with no-win situations or Hobbesian choices. For example, a character is forced to save one person while another dies. Or a character picks up a gun after swearing an oath never to do so. Or a character is faced with alcohol after years of sobriety. Confronting a character with questions of morality creates tension and suspense. The reader knows the wrong choice will mean danger, risk, perhaps the loss of everything for which the character has worked.
Isolate the protagonist. One of the best ways to establish close identification with readers, and thus raise the stakes, is to make the protagonist face tests and obstacles alone. Through the course of the story, a protagonist should become increasingly isolated. His friends, colleagues, even his tools, are stripped away, forcing him to confront the enemy alone. Think of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity: Jason Bourne, unsure whom he can trust, performs tasks by himself, using his wits to overcome danger. Sometimes, in the process, he develops new skills. Because readers identify with him, they root for him. They want him to succeed. The stakes and the suspense are high.
Include the antagonist’s point of view. In many thrillers, there’s a chance the reader already knows—or suspects—the identity of the villain. Suspense builds when the writer explores the antagonist’s point of view and lets readers know why this person is the way he is. Perhaps the writer even creates sympathy—or at least understanding—for the villain. Knowing the antagonist’s character, motivations, and thoughts adds to the conflict by pitting two adversaries against each other. And that ratchets up suspense.
You can do this in small ways or big. Perhaps we’re in the antagonist’s thought process as he finishes a meal and decides whether he enjoyed it. Or perhaps you describe the villain’s thoughts as he confronts the protagonist during the climax. However you do it, the reader must believe in and fear this person. When readers see how calculating, manipulative, or evil he or she is, or conversely, how misunderstood, they will react viscerally. And when that happens, the author has raised the stakes.
MacGuffins and Red Herrings: Structural Misdirection
The MacGuffin (named originally by Alfred Hitchcock) is a more complex version of the red herring, and its effect is more significant than simply raising the stakes. A writer using a MacGuffin actually creates subplots and characters that provide alternative scenarios for the murder or the crime. It’s intended to distract and confuse. While the protagonist—and the reader—are focused on the MacGuffin, the villains are solidifying their hold on the real situation. When the MacGuffin is revealed, we realize that time has been wasted and energies depleted, and the opportunity for the protagonist to prevail is narrower. The stakes are higher, the suspense tauter.
Hitchcock was a master of the MacGuffin. But it’s been used well by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), and even filmmaker Robert Altman in Gosford Park.
Essentially, the MacGuffin delays revelations. And delaying revelations is an excellent way to prolong suspense. When the moment of revelation is forestalled—when the protagonist is kept in ignorance as long as possible—a writer plays to universal fears. Moreover, once the door has been opened and the information revealed, the scare may fade. Think about the film Signs with Mel Gibson. During the first part of the film, the audience doesn’t know what evil is confronting his family. Because of that, the film is riveting. Once we discover the threats are just your garden-variety aliens, the film becomes anticlimactic, simply one more ho-hum sci-fi film.
In prose, there are several ways to forestall revelations.
Shift point of view, time, location. Varying one or more of these elements can delay revelations and thus build suspense. Perhaps the most classic example is the Hitchcockian example of the bomb under the table. If two people are playing cards and the bomb goes off, you have surprise, even shock. However, when the camera cuts from the card players to the ticking bomb, back to the card players, then back to the bomb, the delay causes the situation to become more gripping and emotional—and suspenseful.
You see visual shifting frequently in shows like 24. Split screens typically bookend each scene, recapping not just Jack Bauer’s perspective, but those of his team members, adversaries, and victims. Cutting back and forth between characters—and locations—builds momentum, keeps interest from waning, and allows viewers to invest in the story.
Create a fake scare or resolution. Presenting an apparent resolution, quickly followed by an additional complication, can heighten suspense significantly. The villain is not really dead . . . the task is not really completed . . . the danger has not really passed. I used this technique in A Picture of Guilt. Ellie’s colleagues disarm a suitcase nuke and think all is well. Then they pick up traces of a second device, which, because of its location, is even more threatening. The suspense is gripping.
The corollary of delaying revelations is stretching time. The objective here is to extend time as much as possible, particularly during action sequences. As I mentioned earlier, in A Picture of Guilt, my protagonist, Ellie Foreman, and an FBI agent are tracking the suitcase bomb, which could detonate at any minute. I drew the action out for four chapters.
Following are some tools to help you stretch time.
Literary slow motion. At peak moments of conflict, stretch the moment with sensory details. Let’s say your hero has been beaten up and is lying on the floor. The writer might describe what he’s seeing, hearing, and feeling, including
- The villain’s shoes coming at him
- The lights dimming
- His vision blurring
- The sound of rustling, laughing, or shouting
- The feel of the floor
- The taste of blood in his mouth
Couple that with a stinger at the end of the scene, such as, “His last conscious thought was of ——,” and you have suspense.
Author William Goldman used literary slow motion quite effectively in Heat, where he takes seven pages to describe eighteen seconds. When time is slowed down to that extent, the reader stays riveted.
Deadlines. One of the most common techniques used to stretch time is to impose a deadline by which something must—or must not—happen. The protagonist is working against the clock, and the clock should be working for the antagonists, taking the protagonist farther away from his goal. In Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds’ The Altman Code, covert agent Jon Smith has only days to prove the Chinese are sending chemical weapons to Iraq. In Greg Iles’ 24 Hours, Will and Karen Jennings have one day to escape their captor to rescue their child from a kidnapper. But many literary and cinematic works that aren’t crime fiction use deadlines as well, for example, the films An Affair to Remember and High Noon, Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Countdowns. Breaking up time into smaller pieces can add suspense. In 24 the ticking clock is a staple. Each episode is one hour of a day, and each block of the show is bookended with a digital clock. Whether in film or in prose, the use of real time, especially when it’s being counted down, creates urgency and tension. The reader is aware that a deadline is approaching. Time is running out.
In a written countdown scene, the narrative might say, “Ten minutes were left . . . ,” at which point dialogue or action occurs. Then: “She looked at her watch. Five more minutes.” More action or dialogue. Then: “Only two minutes remained.” Something else happens.
The technique is not limited to time. Distance can also be used as a countdown. For example, “He was two hundred yards away. I reached into my pocket. At one hundred yards, I pulled out my gun. When he got within fifty yards . . . ,” and so on. Setting or location can also be similarly stretched. “In D.C., Mary did this . . . In New York, John did this . . . In Paris, Jacques was doing this.” When these elements are juxtaposed with a deadline, the suspense should be almost unbearable.
Suspense—while critical to crime thrillers—needs to be integrated with the other elements of fiction. Conflict, pacing, action, character development, dialogue, voice, language—a writer needs to juggle all these to master the craft.
Finally, I don’t usually recommend books on writing. I think it’s more important just to read and write. Over the years, though, I’ve come across four books that were worthy of my time. I hope you’ll find them worthy of yours.
Carolyn Wheat, How to Write Killer Fiction. Almost half the book is devoted to writing suspense. It’s been extremely helpful to me, especially her discussion of “The Four Outcomes.”
Stephen King, On Writing. A wonderful refresher/review of what we should be doing. I like to listen to the audio in the car.
Annie Lamotte, Bird by Bird. I love her discussion of “Shitty First Drafts.” It has helped me get unstuck many times.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer. A worthy tome that cites classic examples of each element of craft she deems important. I also love her list of “Books to Be Read Immediately.”