The Super-Secret Way to Create Suspense in Your Story

The Super-Secret Way to Create Suspense in Your Story

If you’re a writer, or aspire to become one, you know part of your homework is to study suspense.

After all, suspense is what readers (particularly mystery and thriller readers) look for in a book. The American Heritage Dictionary tells us such readers want “the condition of being suspended.” They want to experience the “anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation.”

In Stephen King’s The Shining, will Danny and his mother Wendy escape being murdered by father/husband Jack Torrance? Can you figure out which character in Murder on the Oriental Express committed the murder? Was anyone in the first audience at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho prepared for the final revelation?

Is There a Problem With Suspense?

Yep, there’s a problem with suspense, and it’s implicit in that last sentence: Was anyone in the first audience prepared for what was to come? What about later audiences? Someone is bound to be a spoiler, so word was bound to get around about Psycho: “Norman Bates and his mother are the same person!” The climax is still shocking, but once the secret is revealed, some of the impact is lost.

Fortunately, a second path is open to mystery writers. This path doesn’t rely on the Big Secret being concealed. It doesn’t require use of red herrings to throw readers off the scent and send them down blind alleys.

Another Way to Create Suspense in Your Story

The second path to suspense in your story is dramatic irony.

To illustrate, I ask you to recall the last time you had private knowledge that a friend or family member didn’t have. Recently, I met “Gina” in a local supermarket. After we exchanged pleasantries, she said, “I know you haven’t heard about Fred and Lucy. It’s a shocker, that’s for sure.”

True, I knew nothing about the pending divorce of our mutual friends, but now I did. “They promised each other to keep quiet about it,” Gina explained, “but one of their kids told a friend. The friend happens to be my son.”

You probably know what comes next. At this exact moment, Lucy rounds the corner with her shopping cart. She spots us, calls “Hi!,” and rolls up. Immediately, I find myself in an uncertain, undecided, even mysterious moment. I look for signs of despair or bitterness in Lucy, but all I see is her usual sunny self.

The conversation that follows–in front of the meat counter–is all dramatic irony. Gina and I are playing dumb as Lucy tells about how she’s flying tomorrow to see her sister. It’s been awhile, so on the spur of the moment she’s decided to go–and she’s taking the kids out of school to come with her.

From this moment on, Gina and I are involved in a conspiracy. We are interpreting everything said and seen in the light of the information Lucy doesn’t know we have. The words coming in both directions are mostly lies. But Gina and I are experiencing a guilty pleasure, one made all the more strong—and guilty—by our liking both Fred and Lucy.

The Magic of Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony dates as far back as the fifth century BC. The legends and myths that formed the plots in Greek tragedies were already known to everyone in the audience. There was no suspense about Oedipus’s ultimate fate would turn out to be. Wondering “whodunit” did not apply.

But this did not spoil the experience for the audience. They sat in god-like knowledge of what Oedipus didn’t know–that from birth, he was the man fated to murder his own father and marry his mother. Watching as he relentlessly pursues the truth, theatergoers felt (and still feel) the tragic aspect of the human condition: terrible things can come from not knowing the future.

More recent, classic illustrations are present in Shakespeare’s plays. In Hamlet, King Claudius has murdered his brother and married the widow, Hamlet’s mother. Little does Claudius know that his nephew/stepson has been visited by his father’s ghost. Now Hamlet knows who killed is father.

In Othello, we know early on that Iago has evil intentions. But Othello is a good man who assumes other men are honest. He can’t see what everyone in the audience knows: “Othello, wake up! Iago’s going to destroy you!”

Dramatic Irony in Action

Dramatic irony can serve the mystery/thriller writer very well. In The Anything Goes Girl, the first book in my Brenda Contay mystery series, Brenda is pitted against Betsy McIntosh, a smart, ambitious public-relations director. Unlike Brenda, Betsy has fought hard to get where she is. For this reason, it never enters her mind that Brenda would throw away a successful career, just to defend a principle.

The reader knows better, and watches Betsy make big mistakes. When she discovers what the reader has known all along, it makes her ready to risk everything, just to get even.

In my next mystery, Brenda and her lawyer friend Marion go fishing in northern Minnesota. My readers soon know what they don’t: they’ll be followed by a man convicted of embezzlement because of Marion’s courtroom skills. Nor do the women know that Marion’s old college boyfriend has never forgiven her for breaking up with him.

These two men are joining forces. Where better to make Marion pay for her “crimes” than in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters? In other words, “whodunit” is replaced by “what happens next?”

As the name suggests, “dramatic” irony works best when a novel is told through multiple points of view. That way, readers are able to share what some characters know, and others don’t. It’s possible, but more difficult to accomplish this in first-person stories.

Making conscious use of dramatic irony can free writers to develop great twists and surprises. It puts readers in a position of superior knowledge, and the satisfactions of “playing God” often proves very rewarding.

Tell me your opinion: How can you use dramatic irony to increase suspense in your story?

The Super-Secret Way to Create Suspense in Your Story

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About Barry Knister | @barryknister

After retiring in 2008 from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, Barry Knister published his second novel Just Bill. His first novel, a gritty thriller about Vietnam vets, The Dating Service had been published by Berkley. Knister’s third novel The Anything Goes Girl is the first installment in the Brenda Contay Mystery series. Book Two will be released later this year Visit his website.

Comments

  1. Siegmar Sondermann says:

    Hi Barry,

    as I prefer using a single point of view character throughout my stories, I wonder, how I possibly can make use of dramatic irony.
    I would appreciate any trick of the trade you could share.

    • Hi Siegmar.
      If you write in first person, it’s more difficult to make use of dramatic irony. But it can be done. Example: your narrator confides information to the reader that is unknown to other characters in the story. When those characters interact with your narrator, you can manipulate the effect of their ignorance. Example #2: your narrator has problems or obsessions that make him blind in some way. But the reader is not blind, and sees what the narrator doesn’t, that he–the narrator–is missing or misinterpreting the meaning of events.
      Give it a try, and let me know how using DM works for you.

      • Siegmar Sondermann says:

        Thanks Barry,

        since I will rewrite my latest story in the course of 2014, I started outlining the plot anew, this time according to K. M.´s book instead of freestyle writing.
        That gives me the opportunity to give DM a chance, especially your Example #2, which should drive the reader nuts in a good way.
        Well, my beta reader to begin with, and some day all the others.

  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Barry!

    • Katie–
      To be guest-posting on your website is to be keeping company with the very best. It is hard to think of a site that does more to provide clear guidance that writers can put to practical use. Thank you.

  3. Good and timely post! I just decided the last couple of weeks to tip my and a lot more and let the readers know more about the “big bad”, as told by him in 1st person.

    • Marie–
      When telling the story in the first person, it’s a tricky business to make use of dramatic irony. But that’s one good reason for at least considering it: if you do figure out how to bring it off, you present the reader with something fresh. Good luck!

  4. Hi Barry and thank you!

    This post has come at the perfect time! I’m writing my first novel and in my story the protagonists are trying to solve a mystery around their past, but I was struggling with how to explain everything to the reader and ended up with a huge information dump at the end where the villain did the cliched ‘I’m going to explain our entire plan to you before I kill you’ thing. Hated it!

    So, yesterday I changed it so that the chapters are interspersed with phone call transcripts and emails from the villain which give hints to the reader but don’t give the ending away.

    I kind of got it from Stephen King’s Carrie, where he alternated chapters about Carrie with news reports of the final event. You know what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t ruin the story. What do you think of this idea?

    Thanks,
    Kate

    • Kate–
      I think it’s a GREAT idea, and I mean that. It fits perfectly with the times, demonstrating how modern technology (phones, email) are implicated in our lives. And it seems as well to be a shrewd way to solve the problem of what’s called “the expositional lump.” Katie Weiland posted a terrific piece on the problem. Her term for it is the “As you know, Bob” problem, in which a writer who doesn’t know better dumps all too much information on the reader through dialogue that rings anything but true. You seem to have learned this key lesson, and that will certainly make for a better story.

      • Thanks Barry! My story is set in the future so I agree that using technology to tell the story is a good call. Thanks again, you’ve really helped my confidence!

  5. Hi Barry. First of all, I graduated from Lawrence Tech in ’95 (Engineering). Now living up in Oxford and working in Warren. Perhaps we’ll cross paths (or I can just offer to buy and make certain of it).

    As for dramatic irony, I used a bit of it in my latest mystery, MURDER ON THE SIDE. My protag’s love interest happens to be the mother of the primary murder suspect and former lover of the victim. She’s determined to hide from her past, so she doesn’t reveal this to my protag/detective. This creates wonderful tension between the two at book’s end. Of course I used multiple POVs. This one would be difficult with a single POV.

    Hopefully I’ll see you around. Thanks for the great post.

    • Hi Ron. Nice to hear from you, and great to learn an LTU grad is now a writer. Your protagonist’s love interest sounds like someone with an involved romantic past.
      You are certainly right in saying that first-person narratives don’t lend themselves to the use of dramatic irony. But it can be done. In Herman Melville’s brilliant novella, Benito Cereno, an American ship captain tells the story. He boards what appears to be a disabled Spanish slave ship. Because of his own biases and assumptions, the American captain cannot see what a smart reader can–that the slaves have taken over the ship and are holding the Spanish captain and crew captive.

  6. Steve Mathisen says:

    Really excellent post today! Thank you, Barry! And thank you, Katie for hosting him today. :)

    • Hi Steve. I hope you got something useful from my guest post. I am very grateful to Katie Weiland for giving me the privilege of posting to one of the most useful sites for writers available on the Internet.

  7. It is kinda amazing dramatic irony was so well established so long ago, and here we are, uh, here I am, getting ideas of the nuances from your post and the comments – thanks so much Barry :-)

    • Filipe–
      You’re entirely welcome. I hope what I’ve had to say will be useful. The best way to think about dramatic irony is to key in on the word “dramatic.” The device works best when thought of in terms of theater–in front of footlights or in the reader’s mind. Characters are missing “on stage” when others confide information that we hear, as though we’re conducting surveillance. We know what the missing actor doesn’t, and we want to see what will happen.

      • actually “dramatic” helps hugely; i’m on old (community/college) theatre person, and pointing out the simple connection (duh) turned on the stage lights so to speak ;-) thanks so much barry

  8. This is a terrific, informative post. I will be posting the link on my blog. Thanks so much for this one.

    • Rosi–
      You are more than welcome. As I explain in the post, my own reliance on dramatic irony really stems from my limitations as a writer. I can’t hold a candle to mystery writers who are great at fashioning complex plots. It’s just not the way my mind works (as you might have guessed, I’m lousy at puzzles). This means I have to find other means for gaining and holding the reader’s attention. That’s why dramatic irony is indispensable to me.

      • Leonardk says:

        Hi Barry, thanks for your post. I too am lousy at puzzles, get a headache with sodoku ( probably spelled wrong) and invariably lose the plot in “complex” stories. Now I learn from you and Kate that there are ways around this apparent deficiency. Very many thanks.

  9. Thanks so much for validating my instinctive ideas on fleshing out my bad guy! The first book in the series (Seeking Sirius) kept him/it hidden. But in this second book, there must be more understanding or readers will rebel, I’m afraid.

    Loved the example of three women talking around the secret. Seems to be in my life a lot. Maybe I should include some of that drama? Of course, change the names to protect the guilty.

    I’ve bookmarked this post, to review again and again.

    • Laure–
      When you say there seems to be a lot of dramatic irony going on in your life, you speak for all of us. Anyone who pays attention will see/hear it happening. Think of parents talking about their son or daughter before the child enters the room. Or kids plotting strategies for how to get around their parents’ rules. That’s a large part of why it can be a great asset to writers–it reflects life. But as you say, never forget to “change the names,” along with hair color, body type, etc. You don’t want your cover blown.

  10. Hi Barry
    Great post, thanks
    I’m not sure if this counts, but in my current WIP, which is a trilogy spanning twenty something years, the reader finds out certain happenings from the current day quite near the beginning of the books. As we go through, and jump back and forth in time, we watch the characters heading for the fall. The reader knows it’s coming, but not how or why. The first book also begins with a short prologue with the hero lying injured and near death, a scene we only return to right at the end.
    It was great to read a post that looks at older literature. Amazing how these devices have been used for so long.
    cheers
    Mike

    • Hi Michael.
      It sounds to me as though your big, three-volume project lends itself very effectively to the use of dramatic irony. How/why replaces whodunit. It also opens up great possibilities for convincing your reader he knows what’s coming, when in fact he will turn out to be wrong. This happens a lot in the movies. The flash forward at the beginning shows us what will happen at the end–except it turns out the viewer has been guided to misunderstand that ending.

  11. As a newbie to the SERIOUS world of writing, I didn’t realize that I was causing that effect in my story I’m working on. I was thinking of it being a more humorous side to the tale. I just learned a fabulous lesson. Thanks :)

    • Hi Glynis–
      I think it’s often true that writers make use of a technique without fully appreciating what they’re doing. When you know what dramatic irony is and how it works, you’re able to make conscious use it. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Hi Barry,
    This is timely as I’ve been considering whether to introduce dramatic irony into one of my novels. It is written in first person and to make things even more difficult for myself it is in present tense. I also need to give great insight into the mother character who knows more than she tells her daughter. Giving her a pov may be the answer…

  13. Hi Rowena.
    First person, present tense–that’s setting quite a challenge for yourself. I am still hoping to write something in first person, but when I try I see again how difficult it is: it cuts me off from developing characters through those characters, and so far that has proved too restrictive to me.
    Above, Ron Estrada asks about use of DI when writing in first person. You might take a look at my answer.

    • Hi again Barry,
      Yes, I read your answer to Ron with interest. It gave me another perspective on how to revisit my first novel. Though I’ve had lots of interest it has never found a home. I remain hopeful!
      This book has been through many rewrites and after writing two others I’m ready to take another look. I do feel there are plenty of clues to the truth in how the other characters behave and the inconsistencies they display – which my protag notices but explains away. It is a fine line, I have found, between DI and making your protag look stupid. But I’m always open to trying a different approach (my second novel is multiple pov and third person – lots of fun to do that one).
      I love first person and really love present tense, though it isn’t popular with editors. As you say, I set myself a difficult task – it was my first novel so ignorance is bliss :)
      Thanks for your insights

      • Rowena– Do you have people you trust/respect who read your work? I don’t, so I’ve decided to seek out the help of a freelance editor. I want such a person to read a story of mine that fits the description you give–a story rewritten several times, etc. Mine was taken on by a NY agent who failed to get me a contract. I need to know whether the agent was just not very good in her dealings with editors, or wasn’t good at choosing manuscripts/authors to represent. You might consider working with such a person.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you’re a writer, or aspire to become one, you know part of your homework is to study suspense.After all, suspense is what readers (particularly mystery and thriller readers) look for in a book. The American Heritage Dictionary tells us such readers want “the condition of being suspended.” They want to experience the “anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation.”  […]

  2. […] The second path to suspense in your story is dramatic irony.  […]

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