Now, please. Don’t be deceived by this article’s title. There is no “easy” way to build suspense—for some writers, it comes naturally, while others have to work harder. But there’s no way around it. Whether you’re writing literary or commercial fiction, you must have suspense in some form or another. In the dictionary, suspense equals a “state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty,” but as writers we must dig a little deeper. Suspense, in fiction, is anything that poses a threat to your characters, anything that pushes them closer to one of the three types of death—physical death (actually dying), psychological death (an emotional disparity), or professional death (losing one’s job). What works even better is when you can incorporate all three of these in your story. In The Fugitive, for instance, Richard Kimble loses his wife and his job in the movie’s opening sequence, but as the story progresses we see him facing psychological and physical death, too—it’s psychological because he absolutely can’t give up and dishonor himself in public, and it’s physical because, well, they’re coming after him with guns.
A correct approach and a deeper understanding of suspense and its purpose in your story is vital in the actual crafting in it. But if your story still lacks drama, there are a few easy fixes that all can contribute to your story.
Now, you’re thinking I’m crazy. You’re thinking description takes up too much space in the constantly shrinking traditional publishing world. Lengthy passages of description hearken back to Hawthorne and Poe, and, while they were the best writers of their time, their style would never survive today.
And you’re right. I completely agree.
But keep in mind that fiction, in Alfred Hitchcock’s words, is merely real life, with the dull parts taken out. Good suspense must be real suspense, and you must show that, in one way or another. One way is description. An eye for detail, especially quirky or dark details, can contribute enormous amounts of drama to a particular scene. Take this passage, from John D. Macdonald’s Cape Fear, later on called Cape Fear, when Sam Bowden discovers convicted rapist Max Cady is watching him and his family:
He went over and put the sandwich and thermos on the sawhorse. As he was unbuttoning his shirt, he had his back to Nancy. He stopped, motionless, his finger tips touching the third button. Max Cady sat on a low pile of timbers twenty feet away. He had a can of beer and a cigar. He wore a yellow knit sports shirt and a pair of sharply creased slacks in a shade of cheap electric blue. He was smiling at Sam.Notice the precision of the details, but the brevity as well. The passage isn’t lengthy, but it provides just enough for readers to piece together an image in their heads. The finger stopping on the button, the “cheap electric blue,” the “long time to walk twenty feet”—all these things add, little by little, suspense to this scene.
Sam walked over to him. It seemed to take a long time to walk twenty feet. Cady’s smile didn’t change.
“What are you doing here?” Sam kept his voice low.
“Well, I’m having a beer, Lieutenant, and I’m smoking this here cigar.”
Hitchcock used these all the time. Look at the cricket-playing Brits and the divorced couple in The Lady Vanishes, or the lonely woman, the musician, and the rest of the quirky neighbors in Rear Window. With these recurring everyday people, going about their everyday lives, Hitchcock communicated the reality of the story world. It adds a layer of believability to the problems that the lead characters were encountering.
The great thing about the Rear Window vignettes is that they almost always contributed to the story—say, the musician with his party and the tinkling of the piano and the distant laughter as Jimmy Stewart’s character is discovering something new about the killer in the next building. Other times the vignettes serve as distractions that throw off, if only slightly, the pursuit of the lead character. If you can take this idea of believability and reality and inject it into your own story, with a little practice it will always turn out good suspense.
Of the three roads I’ve presented here, this one is likely the smoothest to travel. It’s not difficult to change up the setting of a scene, but it’s a simple, logical way to add suspense. When I write, I always try to cram as many intriguing settings as possible into my stories—scenes in a character’s simple, suburban house or a story’s climax in an empty basement just won’t do. Of course, it’s possible, but it takes a skilled writer to make an empty basement interesting.
Look to Hitchcock again. We don’t call him the Master of Suspense for nothing. Consider the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest, or the scene in the United Nations or the oceanfront car chase. All these places are not merely settings, but factors to how the story plays out. If Lester Townsend had been murdered in some remote forest, with no people anywhere in sight, then how would Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, have been blamed for the crime? Interesting settings add both believability and intrigue to your story. Always have something going on around the characters while the story plays out.
Give these things a try in your everyday writing, and, whether you write thrillers, romances, or sci-fi, you’ll keep your reader’s attention until the last page—and, hopefully, your next novel.
About the Author: Brayden Hirsch is a teenage writer from Vancouver, BC. His debut book, a collection of four long stories, is entitled On Catastrophe’s Whim, and will release this summer. Visit his website for more information.
Story by K.M. Weiland