I have to warn you that it's a big part of allergy season for me, so if you detect a slight incoherence, you know why.
In October for the past three years, the Muse Online Writers Conference has offered a number of workshops and live chats with authors, editors, publishers, and even a few agents, with the goal of helping authors to improve their craft and their chances at publication. We will be offering our course on adding suspense to fiction again this year, following the same lines as last year–
JD Webb and I posted a number of writing prompts, sentences that students were to take and begin a suspense story with. The results were interesting–and by the end, I believe the participants understood more clearly what suspense is and how to incorporate it.
So what is suspense? It is the feeling that something bad might happen. It is not violence, it’s the fear that the violence might happen. It is not shock effect, although suspense and shock effect work hand in hand in some genres. It can be compared in a minor way to the fear you might feel going to the doctor when you know you’re going to get a shot. You feel apprehension about getting stabbed in the arm with a needle, but once it’s actually happened, you no longer feel the fear and apprehension. In the same way, suspense loses its punch if you let the bad thing happen. The goal is to keep the reader on edge by keeping your protagonist just this side of the bad results threatened by your villain.
As instructors, we, too, each took one of the prompts and began a suspense story with it. Mine is posted below:
The small hairs on the back of Roger’s neck rose as he slid the nozzle of the gas hose into the Miata’s tank.
He stiffened, looking up. The driver of the black Chevy at the next island over had his back to him. Close to the station’s front door, an elderly man held the lid of an old-fashioned chest freezer open, while two young boys picked out ice cream treats. No one from inside the station’s office seemed to be looking his way.
Someone, somewhere, was staring at him. And hard, by the feel of it.
He squeezed the pump handle and locked it on before turning slowly on his heel, looking around with a feigned casual air. Heat rose from the faded asphalt of Hwy 236. Directly across from him, a farmer wheeled his tractor in a tight arc and started back along the length of his field, cutting the long grass for hay. Down the road to his left, houses clustered on both sides for a distance of about a quarter of a mile. To the right, on his side of the road, was a feed store. The farmer’s field took up the rest of the other side, green grass stretching away for as far as he could see.
The small community was little more than a spot along the road, too small to be incorporated as a town. Quaint, Marissa had called it when they’d passed through on their honeymoon. There was also no one in sight, aside from the farmer, who was headed away from him.
He shook himself and turned back to the car. Marissa had fallen asleep not long before they’d gotten here. He leaned his forearms on the driver’s door, smiling as he studied her. She wasn’t one to let things get in the way of her plans. They’d made the reservations for this trip last year, before their honeymoon had ended, and not even the surprise discovery seven months ago that she was pregnant had been enough to deter her from it. He reached in and gently brushed a few strands of her long black hair from her face.
“Hey, hon, better wake up.”
One corner of her mouth quirked. “I wasn’t asleep.”
He grinned. “Sure. This is the last chance for a bathroom stop before we reach our hotel.”
She grimaced, opening her eyes. “You do know that this child of yours plays kickball with my bladder, don’t you?”
“You’ve mentioned it before.”
She sat up, unfastened her seatbelt, and opened her door.
“Need any help?” Roger asked.
“I’m not as big as a house, yet.” She carefully levered herself out of the low-slung car. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The weight of the pregnancy had given her walk a cute little sway. Roger pushed himself upright, watching her over the roof of the Miata as she walked away.
The sense that he was being watch returned, so strong that he gave up any pretense of casual interest in his surroundings. He scanned the area, looking first past Marissa to be sure she wasn’t heading into trouble, then turning to look intently toward the small cluster of houses. A couple of children had come out onto a front lawn to play catch. An ancient Ford Fairlane rattled past along the highway, pulling off at the feed store. There were a few places where someone could have hidden behind bushes to stare at him unobserved. There was no way of knowing if anyone was using them without going to check.
The pump handle clicked off. He turned back to pull the nozzle from the tank and return it to the pump. As soon as Marissa came back from the bathroom, they’d be leaving, and his hidden observer would just have to find someone else to stare at.
A red pickup truck approached from the direction of the houses, slowing as if to turn in at the service station. Marissa swung around.
“Roger, do you have a couple of dollars for…” Her voice trailed away. He looked at her quickly. She stared past him, her eyes wide, and her face pale and blank with shock. “Billy--”
Roger half-turned, looking behind him. The red pickup had slowed to a crawl. Its driver, a lean, muscular man with short dark hair and a bushy mustache, stared back at him, cold, arrogant, a slight smile curving his mouth. Marissa’s psychotic ex-husband, who’d beaten her so badly that she’d lost their nearly full-term baby, and gotten himself convicted of manslaughter in the death of their child. She’d divorced him while he was in prison. He wasn’t supposed to be out yet.
Billy’s smile widened. He raised an arm and mimed pointing a gun at Roger’s head. His index finger crooked as if pulling the trigger. Roger’s skin crawled. Billy looked past him at Marissa, then stepped on the gas and accelerated away.
Does this give you the feeling that something bad is going to happen? Billy has announced his intentions. If I were to continue the story, of course, it would become a contest between Roger and Billy, with the lives of Roger, Marissa, and the unborn child at stake. Keeping the suspense high requires that the readers care about what happens to this young family, which is another vital aspect of suspense. If your readers don’t have a strong desire to see them escape, they might just root for Billy to track them down and kill them.
Click on the Writing label for all other posts on writing.