One Writer’s Journey

October 24, 2018

Suspense: Why You Want It and How to Create It

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:40 am

In a story, when we talk about suspense we are talking about the ability to keep your reader on the edge of their seat.  They firmly believe that something is going to happen.  It may very well happen soon.  And the reader feels tense.

Sometimes suspense comes with knowing something big is at stake.  The timer is counting down and when it reaches zero . . . ka-boom!  Or it can be a matter of a character being in a live-or-die situation. This live or die situation could be literal – air is running out, a bomb is counting down, or the virus is building in his system.  Or it could be emotional as the character competes at state, in the elementary school science fair or for the love or their teen life.

The situation is tense but how do you create tension in your writing.  Here are nine tricks to try:

  1. Write your story in the third person so that the reader can see something coming even if the character cannot.
  2. Limit things in time or space.  This could mean a countdown or limiting the character’s physical movement – they have to get off the bus, out of the cabin, or out-of-town.
  3. Reduce the time or space.  The timer suddenly starts counting down even faster.  Or the space available is reduced.
  4. Use a scary setting.  Don’t just put your character in a setting that they find scary. Use one that people find scary.  A deserted mental hospital. A dark space station.  Someplace high.  Someplace with spooky noises.
  5. Foreshadow, hinting at a problem before it arises.
  6. Pile on the complications.  Just when your character has the prize within reach, snatch it away and add another complication.
  7. Remove a key defense.  The character’s phone goes dead or a door slams down separating them from their friends.
  8. Create doubt.  Does the character wonder if she can succeed?  Maybe things are too closely paralleling an earlier failure.
  9. Through the details you include.  When you describe your setting, include suspenseful or creepy details.  Branches are grasping.  Sounds are secretive whispers.  A building settling is moaning in agony.

I’m going to have to create suspense as I work through my mystery and I don’t just mean the scenes that involve my would-be detective and the murderer. I’ve been writing all around it but I need to write the scene where they find the body.  Step by creepy step, I’ll need to layer in the details that will have my readers on the edge of their seats.


Fractured Fairy Tails: Go Big

I love it when I come across a new book that represents an original take on an old story.  Some, in my opinion, are harder to redo than others.  For me, one of the toughest is the Little Red Hen.  In part, this is because I so loathe how some versions of the original end.  I hate it when no one helps the hen and she’s so sweet that she shares with everyone anyway.

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  That’s the nicer version.  Ugh.  Can I just say that?  Ugh!

The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez is a completely new take on this story.  And Maier takes “go big or go home” seriously.  This is a completely different story than the one we all know.

There is no hen.  In fact there are no anthropomorphic animals.  The POV character is a little girl named Ruby.  The antagonists are her three brothers.  Mom, Dad and Grandma each come into the story although they aren’t in the text.  They were added by Sanchez.

In the original, the hen already knows how to grow the garden.  She just wants help.  In this version, Ruby finds some boards. She knows she wants to build something but first has to learn to use the tools.  Only then does she start to develop a plan.

The original has a chorus with the hen asking for help and the other animals saying no.  In this version, whenever Ruby asks for help, the brothers tell her no but they each have their own way of saying no.  “‘No way,” said Jose. I’m too busy.”  Maeir uses the brothers’ responses to create a chorus that young readers can look forward to throughout the story.  It is also a bit of humor for older readers and adult readers who are going to laugh when they read “no way (said) Jose.”

In spite of the differences, the broad strokes are the same and this is clearly the Little Red Hen.

  • The title mirrors the title of the original.
  • Your main character is trying to accomplish something.
  • A trio of antagonists refuse to help.
  • The call and response pattern (will you help/no I won’t) remains the same.

Why not take the time to have a bit of fun with your own favorite tale?  Change a character and/or the setting to give it a Halloween twist.  Try different combinations to see how it impacts the story and try to work in the same broad patterns as the original.  I’ve never sold one of these stories, but they are something I like to play with.



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