“On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.”
So begins Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
In the next two sentences, we get some precise description, enough to start creating a world and convince us to inhabit it. And then, we get a look at the man again.
“He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.”
Does that aggressive straddling not tell us something? Can we see those boots and are we worried about that insincere smile? Do we have any doubt that this man is up to no good?
The narrator, an 18-year-old girl, has a realization. She passed the same man earlier. She realizes, also, that she is in a remote place, where no one will be able to hear her call out. She concludes: “[H]e has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.”
Into his trap.
Three paragraphs, and we wait, breathless, to find out what will happen next. As it turns out, we will wait many pages, as the author flashes back to her morning, and then even further back, to the days when she took a defense class and naively thought she understood the world’s dangers and could protect herself from them.
I Am, I Am, I Am is not a suspense novel. It’s a memoir. That 18-year-old girl is O’Farrell herself, and we all want to know how she survived this brush with death, one of the many she writes about in her book.
I’d challenge anyone to find a better example of how to create a suspenseful moment and then keep us in that state of suspense for as long as possible—but not too long—before allowing us to return to the next anxious moment with the dangerous man, on the trail, in a place where no one will be able to help our youthful protagonist.
I love suspense novels—so much, in fact, that even I forget at times that “suspense” is not just a genre, it’s an element of all good writing.
But what is suspense, exactly? How does it work? How does it not work? What are the mistakes that most of us make when we are trying our hardest to write a suspenseful novel or simply a suspenseful moment within any true or fictional story?
Let’s agree that suspense requires uncertainty. A question has been asked, and the lack of an answer creates uncertainty, which makes us anxious. (But safely anxious. Much has been written about the strange fact that we enjoy experiencing in books and movies the very emotions and situations that would make us unhappy in the real world!)
We might assume that maximum suspense requires maximum uncertainty.
Let’s test that idea.
I pull a book from my bookshelf, one I know I enjoyed but haven’t skimmed in years, so I don’t know what to expect: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. This one is a novel, by the way.
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
She’s been murdered!
Well, that spoils the surprise, doesn’t it?
The surprise, yes. The suspense, no.
As it turns out, surprise and suspense are not the same thing. (Hitchcock reminds us that a hidden bomb can create surprise, but a ticking bomb that the audience knows about creates suspense.)
Suspense is much more powerful that surprise, and—counterintuitively—it often works better when we know more, not less.
And at the same time, more is not everything. Answering some questions allows the generation of new questions—often, larger and more intriguing ones.
In the case of the Sebold example, two questions have been answered right away. We know something about our main character—her name. And we know she has been murdered.
By answering questions immediately, the author has provoked even larger questions.
How was she murdered, and by whom?
If she’s dead, how can she be narrating this book?
Not every book reveals so much in the first sentence or paragraph. Some deliberately confuse or disorient us. But if we read slowly and carefully, paying attention to every sentence, we will notice that the narrator carefully manages the balance of known and unknown. She controls the “rate of revelation.”
If the narrator is withholding some crucial information, she “earns” this withholding by being extremely clear and forthright about other details. In this way, she earns our trust, but even more than that, she helps lure us into the “vivid, continuous” dream of the story. We are not in fact stumbling without assistance through fog. We are given handholds. The more solid and real the handholds, the further we are willing to venture into the misty unknown.
So far, I’ve used two suspense examples that involve high-stakes, violent threats of rape or murder. But violence isn’t required for suspense, of course.
Former Alaskan Beth Mathews’s recently published Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure and Love Rekindled opens with a scene in which Beth’s husband, Jim, is seized by a rare type of stroke. The medical threats continue once he is hospitalized, and later, as he tries to recover. These are nail-biting scenes.
Physical threats make for compelling reading, but emotional threats are just as powerful. Consider the ones we see often in both novels and memoirs.
Will my spouse or friend betray me?
Will I discover something I’d rather not know about another person, or about my own past?
Will I conquer personal demons, or will they conquer me?
These are all negative situations. We can find suspense in positive stories as well, especially when the narrator’s goals are clear and tangible.
Will I conquer that mountain, escape poverty, achieve a particular dream?
The greater the potential for loss or gain, the higher and clearer the stakes, the more compelling the story.
It’s fun to categorize suspenseful scenarios and look for authors’ most common tricks for creating pleasurable anxiety (or longing) in the reader. But the truth is, suspense is easy to talk about and hard to pull off.
When we read suspense in any form, we get caught up in finding out what will happen next. We stop noticing the word choices, syntax, pacing or structure behind the great plot.
When we write suspense, especially the kind that requires the hiding of some information, we often can’t tell if we are withholding too much or too little. More often than not we will withhold too much, leaving the reader confused.
When we try to expand certain moments, to keep the reader at the edge of her seat, we often can’t tell if we are truly generating tension or just boring the reader. More often than not, we do the opposite of slowing down key moments. Instead, we pile on action or unearned emotion, and we end up with an overheated, unrealistic, frantic mess.
So, what’s to be done?
Here are a few tips I’m applying to my own reading and writing life.
- Read slowly and closely. Try typing out a successful opening or suspenseful moment from published books you admire. Look for the questions that are being raised and answered, one after another. How is the author managing her “rate of revelation”?
- Look for the connection between suspense and character. To feel emotions (anxiety, hope) while reading a story, we have to care about a character, first. How does an author make you care for a character, even one you’ve just “met” on the page?
- Pay attention to time. Does a scene—or an entire book—have a clear “ticking clock?”
- Look for suspense in books, including nonfiction, that aren’t necessarily in the “suspense” genre.
- Look for suspense in the “everyday moments” of fiction and nonfiction. How does an author make even a mundane moment feel suspenseful?
- In your writing, notice what you are hiding and revealing. Are you hiding (withholding) too much?
- Practice taking any scene from your work and—at a point in the action when interest is high and the stakes are clear—slowing it down, dilating moments with precise, concrete details. Make the reader wait before the action continues.
- Dynamics matter. Not every moment should be suspenseful. Practice using quieter scenes as contrasts to the nail-biting ones.
- Seek the right kind of feedback by asking when readers are confused. A reader can’t feel anything if she doesn’t understand what’s going on.
- Be gentle with yourself. It’s my personal opinion that suspense is hard to get right in an early draft. Revision is a great opportunity for dialing up suspense, appropriately and proportionally.
If you’d like to learn more about suspense and practice close-reading and writing in a group, sign up for my next 49 Writers class, “Master the Element of Suspense (Regardless of Genre),” November 4 & 11, Saturdays, 1-4pm, via Zoom.