In my last post, I talked about “quick” and “slow” suspense. Quick suspense is fast off the page by calling the reader’s attention immediately to a threat, like a ticking bomb. However, quick suspense depends more on universal threats than character specific ones, and will always be weaker than “slow” suspense, which develops when characters the reader cares about are threatened. Below are some ways that, I think, writers can create the slower and superior type of suspense. These are techniques I used in my thriller, Cold in the Light.
1. THE EXPLOITING OF CHARACTERS’ WEAKNESSES:
Characters need to be vulnerable for slow suspense to develop, and they need to be sympathetic. This is why many thriller and horror writers use children as characters, and why women are often victims in such stories. These types of characters are at least perceived as being more vulnerable, and therefore evoke sympathy in the reader. A threat against a character the reader cares about is far more effective than one against a character the reader doesn’t.
2. SACRIFICING CHARACTERS:
Most thrillers and horror novels have some characters whose sole purpose is to get killed to show how dangerous the villain is. While the loss of such characters does help establish the villain persona, they do little to increase slow suspense. What does increase slow suspense is the loss of a character who the reader already cares about. If one such character is lost, the ante is raised for all the characters, and the reader perceives the threats as more serious for everyone. The more genuine the risks appear to the reader, the more slow suspense increases.
3. THE DARK AND STORMY NIGHT EFFECT:
The environment in which characters move is, in many cases, at least as important as the characters and action. In Cold in the Light, for example, much of the action takes place at night and in the woods. The villains are at home in both. The heroes are not. Harsh environments put another strain on the character; they make his or her life harder, and if the reader cares about them, this ups the ante for the reader.
4. CLIFFHANGERS AND GOALS:
Since the days of matinee serials, and before, writers have known the value of a cliffhanger for creating tension and suspense. Page turners are page turners because the page the reader just finished generates a “need to know” feeling for what happens next--on the following page. But cliffhangers work best if they come out of goal directed behavior for the characters.
For heroes, cliffhangers occur when they meet an obstacle on their way to a goal. It seems like they are about to reach safety and, “boom,” something gets in the way. The reader is left wondering what the characters are going to do to get around this new problem.
In contrast, cliffhangers happen with villains when obstacles are removed from their path. Since the reader’s hopes lie with the heroes, when the villain acquires a new weapon, or some knowledge, or some advantage, this rackets up the reader’s suspense. The reader wonders: “What is he/she/it going to do with their new information or new weapon?”
5. THE TELLING DETAIL:
When seen from the point of view of a character, the details they focus on can do much to increase suspense. Imagine a mall. Not unusual at all. But this mall has no people in it. It’s empty, totally empty. Silent. You pass the food court and see food sitting on the tables. Coffee still steams. Food looks half eaten. But no one is around. Then comes a sound, a boom boom, boom boom. You try to place it. It seems familiar. And you realize, it sounds like a giant beating heart. Choosing the right details guides the reader’s perceptions, and their mood. It sets them up to wonder, “what comes next?” And that is the “heart” of suspense.