The dance of suspense

Suspenseful writing is a dance between plausibility (what makes sense to readers), and the unexpected. Not just any unexpected events, such as inheriting a million dollars, but ominous ones, such as discovering that the previous person who inherited that same fortune did not manage to survive the six weeks. It is a dance because that kind of revelation causes the reader’s adrenaline to rise, but after the initial thrill, it will start to waiver again. The unexpected events must be carefully paced, without seeming predictable.

Suspense often originates from hints of what the unknown holds. But that unknown has to make its presence known to the readers somehow. What are some techniques to do this?

Showing the antagonists viewpoint in addition to that of the main character works to build suspense, if it is done sparingly. The reader will tend to agonize over the person lurking in the dark as the protagonist arises from bed to start a morning routine, unaware of the danger. Only showing the viewpoints of the two characters creates a cat and mouse game. Increase this number of viewpoints, and the reader will have to start keeping track of the characters. This may lead to a more cerebral and less emotional, and therefore less frightening, view of the situation.

A paranormal vision, in which scary but clouded glimpses of the future appear, is a frequently used technique. Perhaps too frequently used. Many readers realize this is an easy kind of foreshadowing that occurs when not much is happening in the actual story. Therefore, using premonition requires some finesse. If the foreshadowing is too heavy handed, it smacks of amateurism–especially if a horrifying vision is simply used as a kind of jump scare.

Even though the reader’s adrenaline may rise with this first supernatural vision, it will lower with each repetition. Limit the amount of time spent on the visions by limiting their number, rather than having a lot of short vague ones. It should leave the reader with some apparently concrete information but still questioning how events will all unfold. The response of the character to the premonition can show how unnerving it is.

The writer has to continually raise the threat, which usually means outlining the plot to plan the rising arc of danger. This might occur if the character misinterpreted the vision or it turned out to be reality and not a premonition. But, you can’t use those twists more than once, either.

As the author you know very well what will happen. So, expect to recruit a second and third, or even fourth person, who is ignorant concerning you and your plot, to read your work. Take their critiques seriously. As the author creating suspense, you are always “the man who knows too much.”

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