Thursday, August 20, 2020

A Refresher Course in Suspense

 When I (Donis) am really in the zone, in the midst of a scene, I’ve been known to leap up from the computer and begin pacing the floor, unaware of my surroundings, muttering dialog to myself.  I imagine that to an observer I look like a hands-free cell-phone user.  Except there’s not a person on the other end - there’s another world.

I sometimes have to figure out how I’m going to pull off a particular scene I have in mind.  I know what I would like the reader to see in her head, what emotions or feelings I’d like to convey, but what is the most effective way to paint that picture, to evoke those feelings?  If I write the scene in two or three different ways, I’ll often be able to come up with the right combination of images, but occasionally, I’ll realize that I don’t quite have it.

That’s when I go hunting.  If I need more suspense, for example, I pick out several works - literature or movies - that made me tense, and try to pick apart how it was done.

I’m always looking for effective ways to building suspense.  In the course of writing several books, I’ve seen and read all the classic suspense-building techniques in action, and keep a list of examples, not only to remind myself, but to use as a teaching tool as well.

A refresher never goes amiss, Dear Reader.  And if you have other examples, I’m all eyes.

The Ticking Clock : Our hero must accomplish something before a horrible thing happens.  Diffuse the bomb!  Find out who really did it before the wrong man is hanged!  Great example, the movie D.O.A. (the 1950 original with Edmond O’Brien is better than the 1988 Dennis Quaid version.)

Drag Out the Action : Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But if you just know the trap is going to spring, and it doesn’t ... doesn’t...doesn’t...  The anticipation is killing me! The trick here is timing.  Great example, Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble.

Add More Peril : Our heroine is running through the jungle and the Columbian drug suppliers are right behind her, brandishing their machetes.  She crashes through the brush, and finds herself on the edge of a cliff!  There is a river at the bottom of the gorge, so she takes a leap, just feeling the breeze as a blade slashes over her head.  She falls 75 feet into the river and realizes it’s infested with piranas! She swims like the dickens, piranas nipping at her heals, and as she nears the shore, 40 tribesmen with poisoned dart blowguns step out from the trees...   No matter how bad it is, it can always be worse.  Great example, any of the Die Hard movies. 

I Know Something You Don’t Know : We’ve seen the villain hide under the stairs, but the hero has no idea as he walks down into the dark basement.  The author gives us a piece of information that the characters don’t have.  Great example, Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace.

The Cliffhanger : Remember the villain under the stairs?  He leaps out!  He grabs the hero around the neck!  He pulls a knife!  Meanwhile, back at the ranch...  Great example, Hour of the Hunter by J.A. Jance.

My Hands Are Tied : Our hero can see disaster about to happen, but is powerless to stop it.  Greatest example of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back : The sleuth is investigating Laura’s murder.  He cannot discover a single clue to her death.  Everyone loved her! She was wonderful and squeaky clean.  He’s baffled, and sits in her apartment long into the night, pondering.  At midnight, the front door opens, and ... it’s Laura!  She’s alive!  Then who is the woman who was found lying on the floor of Laura’s apartment, wearing her clothes, shot in the face with a shotgun?  Ultimate example, the 1944 movie Laura.     

And one of my favorites, 

Foreshadowing : This takes some skill to pull off well.  Two guys are sitting around discussing the possibility of some nefarious occurrence.  “Oh, that’ll never happen,” says one.  Want to bet?  If the author has set it up well, we now spend two hundred pages waiting with baited breath for it to happen. Excellent example, Robert McCammon’s Queen of Bedlam.  What a set up!


Sybil Johnson said...

All good things to be reminded of. Thanks.

John R. Corrigan (D.A. Keeley) said...

Donis, thanks so much for sharing this post. I love it and will point my students to it.
- John