The Suspense is Killing Me!

Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you’ve given them that information. In five minutes time that bomb will go off. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they’re saying to you, “Don’t be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There’s a bomb under there.” You’ve got the audience working.

~Alfred Hitchcock, via IMDb

The above quote illustrates Alfred Hitchcock’s process of generating suspense.  Suspense is defined as “Anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation.”  (The Free Dictionary.)  The trick to suspense is creating that anxiety or apprehension.

But as any reader knows, stories in general are uncertain, undecided, and mysterious situations; and yet, some don’t have any suspense at all.  I know I’ve tried to write numerous scenes that were supposed to be suspenseful, but, though the situation was uncertain, undecided, and mysterious, there was no suspense.

Say you’re walking down the hallway, deep in thought about something pleasant.  Food, maybe.  You’re thinking of big, moist chocolate cakes with gooey frosting.  Big cakes injected with a virus that only you are immune to, so only you can eat them.  These cakes are still a little bit warm, still soft, still delicious…  Then Gollum jumps out of a corner and whacks you on the head with a rock.

Surprising, yes?  We won’t go through all the bloody details.  You had a shock when Gollum jumped out, all because you weren’t expecting it.  Were you anxious?  Apprehensive?  Were you thinking to yourself, “I just know Gollum is going to jump out of a corner and whack me on the head with a rock…”  No, you weren’t.  You were thinking of nice, warm, moist cakes, fresh out of the oven, newly frosted…  Even though the situation was “uncertain, undecided, and mysterious”, you didn’t care.  There was no suspense.

So… how?  How do we get suspense when we want it?

A few weeks later, you’re walking down the same hallway.  You’ve just been released from the hospital with stitches in your scalp, bandages around your ears, and that deathless anesthesia in your tongue.  You recognize the hallway from last time.  You see all the dark corners.  Your head starts to hurt again where Gollum bashed it.  You aren’t thinking about food this time– you’re thinking of Gollum, crouching in one of those dark corners, fingering his rock, stifling malicious chuckles.  You wish you had brought a flashlight, or an elvish rope, or a magical Ring.  But you left your magical Ring at home today– today, of all days!  And you have to use this hallway because the others are blocked.  What a strange coincidence.

So you inch forward, step by step, peering into corners, fingering your bandages, walking quickly while trying to seem confident.  You try whistling a jaunty tune, but you never really knew what jaunty meant, and the air is still and dead, and your tongue is messing it up anyway.  You swallow hard.  You wipe your sweaty forehead.  And that’s when Gollum strikes.

Once again, we shall skip over the painful details.  Was there more suspense?  This time, you knew what was coming, but you didn’t know when.  The outcome was undecided, uncertain, and mysterious.  You knew part of the outcome, but not all of it.  And that’s suspense.

You can create suspense this way for just about anything.  Show what could happen, then ask the question: when will it happen next?

Alfred Hitchcock made these same distinctions: the audience knows about the bomb under the table, but they don’t know when it will explode.  If the people at the table acted quickly enough, perhaps they could escape being blown to smithereens.

Sometimes you can use “presets”.  Poison, knives, avalanches– if the audience already knows what will happen to the character when everything goes wrong, you can create suspense.  In Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, suspense exists because someone just said, “Hey, look, poisonous snakes!” and because we know Jones won’t keep a cool head around snakes.  We don’t need to see someone else get killed by the snakes to know they’re dangerous (though that does happen earlier in the movie with the traps within the temple).

But in other cases, especially in fantasy, you have to set things up before you can generate suspense.  Say you create a huge monster that steals your life force and makes you explode.  Unfortunately, you took a dare from your best friend and wrote it as a giant bunny.  The audience doesn’t know what to think.  It’s a dangerous bunny?  They’ll laugh at your attempts at suspense… until you kill someone.

All the red-shirt Star Trek guys who die?  They build the suspense.  They show exactly what happens when the alien kills people.  Captain Kirk sneaks through the cave, gun at the ready, until he sees the “alien”.  It’s a giant bunny!  He’s about to pet it when CHOMP!  There goes his companion.  Next time, there will be suspense as we wonder if Captain Kirk gets killed.

But unless you have a shipload of red-shirted no-names, you can’t kill someone every time you need to introduce a dangerous situation.  Just show someone who has died from this.  A skeleton in the corner is as effective as a fresh body.  (Vampires will probably not agree with me.)  As long as the audience knows the skeleton was killed by the monster, you can build suspense.

A brief interlude: In the movie Tangled, the main characters are walking through a dark tunnel and they happen across a skeleton.  It doesn’t build suspense because they aren’t being chased by the same thing that killed it.  Instead, it’s a comedic tool.  On to the rest of the post.

Sometimes, however, shock is enough.  When the killer bunny almost kills someone, it’s often enough to create suspense for next time, when perhaps the main character won’t be as fast.  Similarly, if you have something inanimate destroyed, it can build suspense for the main character.  The killer bunny smashes an enormous walnut between its teeth and suddenly the light bulb goes on above the character’s head: he should probably start running now.

Make sure everyone knows the worst that could happen before you put a character in a tight situation.  Otherwise, it’s nothing to be afraid of.

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76 thoughts on “The Suspense is Killing Me!

  1. Remember when you said that The Head Phil had to die in Phil Phorce? You gave me a good shock with that.
    I will have to keep this in mind for my next novel. Spy stories are probably better with suspense. 🙂
    Because I have to ask… is the giant bunny the same sadistic one you were telling me about from your writing?

    1. WHAT?! THE HEAD PHIL DIES?!?!?!?!

      Isn’t that…Liam, though? I’m slightly confused.

      Maybe I ought to be reading more of the Phil Phorce so I can catch up.

      1. We may have to rewrite the story there…SAVE THE HEAD PHIL! SAVE THE HEAD PHIL! SAVE THE–wait, how can Liam write the story if he’s in the story and he’s dead? 😛

      2. Yes, we can. Worse case scenario, we finish writing the Phil Phorce. And we start auctioning off Liam’s stuff…

      3. Well, obviously he can’t write the story if he’s dead . . . unless he’s a ghost. Liam, are you a ghost?! Wait . . . ghost’s can’t hold pencils. Well, there goes my theory!

      4. You’re not going to die? Yay!!!
        Oh, wait. You meant about being a zombie, didn’t you? 😦

      5. And the old lady! I love the old lady! And Phoenix!
        Actaully, we just need to hold a meeting of the Phils. Hey, Liam! We need contact information for all the Phils, please.

      1. This is intersting…
        “Gross. Are you going to participate in the zombie apocalypse?”~Seana
        “No, the giant bunny is different. The sadistic bunny isn’t giant.”~Liam

        What happens when the comments get a bit mixed. 🙂

        My apologies, Head Phil. I didn’t mean to start this. But hey! Maybe you’ll get more readers for Phil Phorce through this!

      2. Yeah, because if you reply through the WordPress dashboard, it sticks it right under the comment you are replying to. If you’re just using the button on the actual blog, it sticks it at the bottom and even those from the dashboard get stuck above it. 😛

      3. I know that stuff like that happens. I just thought this was particularly interesting. 🙂

      4. Yeah, it does usually work better that way, Liam and Sea. However, if it’s not your blog, it only gives you the notifications for replies to YOUR comments.

  2. I didn’t even think about that, how shock is not the same as suspense. Thanks for the reminder, that might save my skin (from the killer bunny, no less) later.

      1. I won’t challenge you. If he really is a zombie, I’d be too freaked out, and if he’s only pretending to be dead then he writes better posts than me anyway, so it’s better to let him keep it. Besides, I already have a blog.

      2. Well, if he’s going to die, then he won’t use the blog, anymore… unless he is a zombie. For being semi-living dead (?), he does write amazing posts. He writes amazing posts regardless of life or death or Nazgul Five.
        I don’t have a blog. So I could just take over this one upon the death of the Head Phil. I already said I would write Phil Phorce Phanfiction. Of course, I’d probably mess it up…

      3. Well, what else am I supposed to do? When he dies, I will write a eulogy and mourn and all that, but then I’m going for the blog.

      4. Well, of course not. But anyway…I gave them back, whether he noticed or not. That was just to prove that we could. 😉 So I’m saying if or when he dies, I’ll take them!

  3. Mm. I haven’t really thought about building suspense. Building tension? I can do that…but suspense is an awesome tool. It’s so easy in movies, especially when YOU know something’s going to jump out and eat the MC, but the MC doesn’t know that. Fun, eh? 😉

    1. It’s easier in movies because it’s third person cinematic; you can show poison poured on the food before the main character eats it. Brian Jacques managed it, but he had third person omniscient.

      1. Yeah, I was just wondering how I’d do this with first person. I’m writing in first person present, so I imagine it’d be kind of tricky.

      2. If you’re POV charrie sees someone suspicious sneak out of the dining room and slip something into his pocket right before he enters, then your POV charrie eats something and then passes out… poisoned.
        I don’t know if this was helpful or not. I write third person omniscient.

  4. Ahaha, fantastic post Liam! Creating suspense is hard – I’ll admit myself I’m not very good at it. Cliffhangers are one thing; they’re short-term, and sometimes the only reason the reader is interested is because of that strange instinct that says they just HAVE to know how it ends. Suspense, however, is somewhat more cerebral, and depends entirely on the reader being engaged with the text.

    When it works, it works marvellously.

    When it doesn’t . . .

    . . .

    . . .

    It’s just irritating.
    Rather like what I just did. Trying too hard to achieve an effect waaaaay out of its reach.

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