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.