Friday, April 22, 2011

How Do I Write Suspense Well?

Laura Diamond brought up the topic of suspense on her blog today. I especially enjoyed the interview with Alfred Hitchcock, but it left me with a burning question: how do I write suspense well? This has always been kind of tricky for me: I have to have at least two people read the scene and tell me why it doesn't work, rewrite, have them read it again, rewrite again. It can take as many as four or five iterations of the same scene before I get the reaction I'm looking for. But the problem is that I can never duplicate it! I have to go through this process with every single scene! (or at least every scene I want to be suspenseful).

From what I've seen/read/heard, it comes down to two or three things:
  1. High risk factor (something big is at stake)
  2. Ignorance of the character (the reader knows something dangerous the character doesn't)
  3. Legitimate potential for disaster (the reader believes something terrible can and very well might happen)
I feel like I'm back in my high school calculus class: I have the formula, but I can't make it work! It's the most frustrating thing IN THE WORLD!

So, today I'm looking for input: what do you do to create suspense? How do you bring those three factors into play? (or did I miss the mark completely with my analysis?)


  1. I agree with the high risk factor. Something else that needs to be there is maybe not ignorance as much as an inability to help the situation. The character needs to be a little helpless. I mean, something is going to happen! If you want it to be suspenseful then there has to be a point where they can't do anything about it...until they figure out what they are really supposed to be doing that is. And that's where the ignorance comes in. It's a process and I have certainly not perfected it but the only way to figure it out is to keep on writing :)

  2. I don't know if I do suspense particularly well, but there's a lot of page space dedicated to the concept in Robert McKee's book and it helped me a lot.

  3. Hello Reece,

    Welcome to the world of blogging!

    I found my way here en route from The Golden Eagle as I was making my rounds with the April A-Z Challenge that has been underway.

    I’ve taken a wee tour around your site - and see you are a Disney fan. Good to read.
    I have a daughter who is an animator (more specifically a character designer) - we practically lived at Disneyland during her youth - and right into adulthood, dare I add!

    Re your questions about writing suspense well - unfortunately I do not have an answer as such.

    But, I will add this question. Do you do these four or five scene rewrites before the story is finished or are they done as part of your first draft rewrite?

    Do you pose specific questions to people reading your draft work?

    More things to ponder...

    I look forward to dropping by again.
    Cheers, Jenny

  4. I wish I could help you there, but I'm not a writer. I am a reader though, and love a good suspenseful twist in a story. I'm sure that helps you! :)

    I found your blog via The Golden Eagle, you left a comment and mentioned The Dark Crystal, so I decided to pop by and check out your blog.

    Have a splendid day!

  5. Suspense is hard, no question about it. I often think that tension is easier to create, though it oculd be said that these two are interchangeable.

    I think I definitely agree with the High Risk Factor element. And definitely the potential for disaster - that's what's it's all about, right?

  6. I have a hard time writing suspense at times. I write a whole scene, think it's great and then re-read it and it sounds SO STUPID! I'm still learning to write my suspense a little better.
    I usually get the huge thing that is at stake, and the character not knowing what is going to happen, but I can't seem to make it real. Like keep the reader on the edge of their seat real.
    Hopefully at the writer's conference I'm going to next week, I can learn a little more! If they have an awesome formula I'll definitely share it! :P