By Kate Gerard
Most readers will forgive other inadequacies if a story hooks them with suspense. How many times have you completely ignored mundane details when perched on the edge of your seat? If you’re like me, you’ll find surprises when you re-read a favorite suspenseful scene—details you were too busy or too involved to notice the first time around. This is the effect of suspense. It’s like a hectic carnival ride. Good suspense snatches the reader and propels her forward, faster and faster—details blur and her heart races—she’s so eager to see how the conflict resolves, she can’t read fast enough.
Unfortunately, new writers often fail to build suspense. Worse, they fail to resolve suspense in a climatic manner. The reader is teased by a potentially dangerous or emotion-laden situation, only to be disappointed when the conflict sputters—the characters either resolve the issue without escalating the tension, the tension escalates too quickly, or someone/something interferes too soon. Instead of perching on the edge of her seat, the poor reader slumps down in her cushion, disappointed and unsatisfied.
But suspense is not so difficult when we apply two simple principles: anticipation and dread.
Anticipation is a simple concept. In fiction, the secret to anticipation is letting the reader know something bad could happen. We create anticipation by introducing a situation that’s fraught with the possibility of danger or risk. Say your protagonist, a Department of Defense employee, is driving down the road, distracted about the documents he’s taken home from the office. Behind at work and with a report due tomorrow, he’s taken home top-secret papers, and he’s terrified of being caught. He misses a stop sign. Another driver leans on the horn, cursing, and your protagonist tells himself to pay closer attention. But a paragraph later, he’s back to worrying about those purloined papers. This is anticipation. The reader knows something bad is going to happen, and she’ll be glued to the page waiting for it.
Let’s take another situation. Say your protagonist, an assistant bank manager, is sitting at her desk when two strange men in dark suits approach. She rises to greet them, but instead of acknowledging her greeting, they walk past her and into her boss’s office. She hears the door lock behind them. Sometime later, she’s with a customer when she sees them leave, but her boss’s door is still closed and she shrugs it off. Any reader with a modicum of curiosity is going to wonder what’s up. That’s anticipation.
Or say your single father protagonist is chopping carrots and cuts his finger. It’s just a little nick, no big deal. He holds the cut under running water, and while blood is running down the sink, he has a sudden chill. He feels unaccountably light-headed and nauseated, but blows it off and goes on to prepare dinner for his children. The reader, being smarter by far than the protagonist, is immediately alerted to possible disaster. That’s anticipation.
In each of these situations, the reader knows something bad is going to happen. She may guess, she may speculate, she may nod knowingly; but she’ll have to read on to find out what the bad thing is going to be. You, the brilliant writer, have created anticipation.
The important thing to remember about anticipation is not to resolve it too quickly. Let the reader wonder what’s going on. Let the tension build. Sometimes anticipation will last for pages, sometimes chapters.
On the other hand, neither should you string out anticipation too long. Readers love being teased with anticipation, but they don’t like being manipulated. The reader will get annoyed if you don’t show her what’s happening in a reasonable amount of time. While allowing anticipation to simmer, make sure the intervening narrative is important, interesting and compelling. The reader will not forgive you if you leave her hanging with mundane, unimportant, or boring events.
The second principle of suspense is dread. Dread is the natural offspring of anticipation. Dread occurs after the bad thing has happened, but the outcome hasn’t been resolved. Let’s take the three earlier examples and see how dread works.
Absent-minded, your worried defense employee doesn’t notice the car in front of him has stopped for a red light, and he rear-ends the stopped car. He raises his head from the steering wheel, wipes the blood off his forehead, and gets out to check on the other driver. He approaches the car and finds an elderly driver slumped over the steering wheel. This is where dread is born. The worst has happened; now what will your defense employee do? Will he run for it, or stay to make sure the other driver is taken care of? What will happen to him? A good writer will play this moment for all it’s worth.
In the next example, for the rest of the day, secretaries and tellers go in and out of your bank manager’s boss’s office, many carrying boxes of files. No one looks her in the eye and when she asks, no one will tell her what’s going on. At the end of the day, her boss calls her in and accuses her of embezzling. Dread is born. Your protagonist is no embezzler, but who will believe her? Her boss is waving the proof in front of her nose. He picks up the phone to call the FBI. What will she do? What will become of her?
In the case of the carrot chopper, weeks pass and his symptoms progress. One morning he finds blood in his urine. Days later the worst is confirmed. He has cancer. Dread is born. What will this single father do? Who will take care of his children? What will happen to his family?
Dread should increase as the story progresses. Your protagonist will begin with many options. But, one by one, those options will prove untenable, and with each failure, the dread should grow. Present your reader with all the worst possible what-ifs, and don’t let her lose sight of those horrible possibilities. Remind her what’s at stake again and again. However, don’t ever clobber the reader with melodrama. Nursing drama takes a subtle touch.
Anticipation and dread can be used to propel the primary theme of any story, but a good writer uses these tools throughout the narrative. On a smaller scale, anticipation and dread can be woven into even minor conflicts. Don’t be afraid to douse your stories with suspense—readers will thank you and so will your publishers.