Pt. I, Build Suspense White-Hot Intense I’M ON THE FIRST STEP, I WANT MY–!
Finishing Dean Koontz’s book, Deeply Odd, was a roller coaster read, or a hide-under-the covers read, if you will. Couple that with a phone call from a friend the following morning saying she woke in the night face to face with a hairy black spider she brushed frantically away, and you have awakened some nerve endings. Seeing no black spider carcass increased her teror. How scary is that, she said. Then she couldn’t sleep, because the very thought of a missing spider struck fear into her heart. Her terror transferred to me. Image and Possibility were enough to pump my adrenalin, even though I hadn’t seen the spider. It could happen to me; maybe it was meant as a warning. I looked at my pillow, lifted it, and looked behind the bed.
The two events conjoined to reveal and deliver writing craft strategy, whole. How did it do that, you ask. Wait, wait, don’t be impatient. I promise I will deliver the secret, but before that’s done, I must divulge the name of the very best book explaining how to write a novel I ever read and followed: The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. Many years later, a book on writing craft better than all others popped up on my electronic device, which completed my education on the secret to writing that I am sharing with you. This book was not just about suspense, but–. TMI, too soon. Now that four balls are circling in the air, hang on. I will explain what the first two events share in common.
One mystery writer actually announced in public at a reading that she hated suspense. I hate she confessed, because that was her sterling lack, imho, lack of suspense. Progression through her books just kind of happened in a flat, plodding way, and the mysteries unraveled in the heroine’s hands as she followed clues in her lackluster style. Dull. I still fervently believe that the driving force in any novel, writing, or even poetry, is suspense. What else makes you turn a page, than good, strong suspense? You must know what happened. Did the heroine get out of that burning car? Was she all right, afterward? Who killed M, and why? Is he still around? Am I in danger? What made him do that? Burning questions have to be answered. As for my friend, did she call for an exterminator? Did she change all the sheets? These cascading questions signify the investment of personal involvement.
So, let’s break those examples down. Dean Koonz’s craft in creating suspense is exactly the same that my friend gave me in her call. Koonz and my friend painted a picture with words that lingered, an image that threatened or portended threat. They said, ‘something’s coming.’ Now Dean Koonz is a master of suspense and I embarked on a path of discovery by reading his novels. My friend, unwittingly, created the perfect picture of horror or suspense: a lost black spider near your head. So I have a picture and a process. Don’t worry, I’m going into further detail about both, right now. I promise. A believable person, innocently proceeding with life, encounters the unbelievable or is being set up for a horrible experience–we are brought in on the experience all at once, like my friend, or a little bit at a time, like the novel.
At first the two events, finishing Koonz and my friend’s black spider, seen in tandem, presented only a puzzle. Dean Koonz and a spider. The novel wasn’t about one, but that’s not to say he hasn’t written a novel involving a spider. Then the reason for my blinding light experience became clear. I remembered specifically searching writing craft books for how to develop plot which I later interpreted as suspense. I read and read. None of the how-to’s proved helpful. They outlined what to do with the plot you already had, but they did not tell how to create suspense from nothing. Frustrated, I began an intense internet search on how to plot. This migrated to suspense building. None delivered answers that created excitement. I stepped up my wordplay. These answers lacked the oomph, tightness, and intensity I wanted. (I talk to myself, did I tell you?) So, when my right brain supplied the word ‘intensity’–the master key emerged. Intense. I looked up the word. “Intense–occurring or existing in a high degree; very strong; violent, excessive, or vivid; as, an intense light.”
Intense meant stretched to the max, strenuous, urgent, fervent. Intense meant strong emotion and firm purpose. All right, I needed a craft book that taught me how to make my writing intense and all those other adjectives. No craft writing book turned up one specifically. Instead, all over the internet popped up Dean Koonz’s book entitled, “Intensity.” That settled it. I had to have it. If a writer of Koonz’s stature had written a book entitled “Intensity,” I bet it was intense. I could learn from the master. I bought his book, read it, my tongue hanging out the whole way. This began my love of his work. That, and one more feature of his books I won’t reveal until later. If at all.
Yes, if you dared name a book Intensity, you had to stand by it. Intense, it was. Suspenseful, it was. And would you believe, it taught me all the things I needed to know about how to build suspense, step by step. Upon writing this article about the process, I began to remember telling ghost stories at camp and striking terror into my friends’ hearts. One saw terror in their widened eyes, constricted lips, their white, gripped knuckles. One hid under her sheets. One ran out the door. I was good at making my friends’ mamas mad, but there’s a downside to everything.
You’ve heard the old adage about the ticking clock, I’ll bet. If you want to move a book along, create a deadline, increase the pace. Have your characters running against the clock. So as a writer, you think, increase the pace. Suspense is all about the ticking bomb, tight deadlines, and racing cars. It’s a Schwarzeneger movie or a Dan Brown thriller with cars racing up the Vatican steps.
All right, we now have the principles. First—start with somebody you can empathize with, and second, relate something terrible that just happened, or better still, is about to happen, or better even than that, both has and will. The third thing, then is to increase the pace, right? Wrong.
Instead, the third thing to do is the opposite of speeding up. It’s, Slow Down. Slow down? Surely that old brain has tricked me again. Everyone will laugh me to the curb and back. Slow down. Then the flashback picture of camp days and the scary story I told and embellished, the one about the former occupant of our room who had bitterly fought a friend, got so mad that he cut off his toe, and the man died of gangrene, so now he haunts the former friend’s descendants or anyone who enters his room, returned to mind. “I’m on the first step, I want my toe.”
And immediately you return to those days in a flimsy cabin, the night black around you, and there you lie in the dark without a weapon, sweating, crickets and frogs creaking, and you imagine a disembodied spirit walking up from the swamp, wanting his toe. Maybe you lie in the antebellum house of your childhood that actually claims ghosts as inhabitants, where there are more steps for him to climb, and the slow creak of stealthy pressure on old wood rubs every nerve raw. The same story works with a tweak here and there. Worse still, you have to go to the bathroom which is outside the cabin in the dark, where the Thing is lurking. Or it’s all the way down the hall in the antebellum house, and you have to go past those stairs.
You lie there, waiting for the next floor board to creak, for the whisper, for the scratch against the window. You slide further under covers. “I’m on the 6th step, I want my toe,” the storyteller goes. Oh, God. Wait. How did I miss hearing the second, third, fourth, and fifth step? Was I not listening? Did he skip the warning? Is he playing tricks on us? No he’s not consistent; he’s not fair. Oh God. And then you remembered the back story, how the person who stayed in the room you were in died, but maybe he didn’t, really. Maybe he lived and turned psycho, went to a madhouse somewhere, and now, he’s escaped and visiting you. Don’t those people sometimes take to the countryside and find their way back to the one thing they obsessed on? “I’m on the seventh step, I want my toe,” the storyteller says, his voice grating menacingly, a sharp creak emanating from the stairs again, and you scream. Was that a laugh you heard?
See how I’ve caught you? Not by speeding up, but by
so you can hear the sweat drop
listening, ears keened to the silence
the silence pregnant with evil
wavery red like eyes
gain on you
through no fault of your own–
a door slams–
is it the wind?
you leap up
move deliberately to the door
to the hallway
that hides another door you know is there but he doesn’t
where you are either safe
or a sitting target
irrational motives near you–
you hear a slurp
an “8th step–I want my toe” and
you, nearly crazy with fear—
Ohmigosh, I have reached my article limit, and fear I will have to make you wait for installment two in the series, I’m on the Second Step, I Want My– ! From Intense to Suspense and then, Victory. You can’t be upset with me. I gave you what I promised so far, didn’t I? And with it, the fourth principle, which is to interrupt the anticipation yet again and again, making you more and more demanding and needing an answer. Withhold information, always withhold something crucial. Don’t blab it all out! Now, just pretend you’ve laid the book down on the table because an important stranger has knocked on your door, and you must find out what he wants. Do come back, however—oh, and don’t unlock your door for the stranger, even if he must use the bathroom or the phone, or God knows what. Even if your husband is there with you. Remember, I warned you. Don’t. And by the way, building suspense this way works in any genre. The fear principle just hypes up the romance, or whatever. You want to know what I know, don’t you? I hope I’ve done this in my book, A Deadly Provenance (http://www.amazon.com/A-Deadly-Provenance-ebook/dp/B00D4ANOZQ/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370089422&sr=1-1-fkmr2&keywords=books+by+Joanna+McKethan). Read it and tell me, will you? And look for Installment Number Two on Plotting. Coming Soon.
Learn more »