In this Lesson we’re going to look at how suspense works.
This isn’t because you’re going to be writing super-tense genre fiction – although perhaps you will be.
This is because suspense of some sort is useful in all storytelling, and it’s best to have an idea how it works.
Most stories play with different levels of knowledge. One character has a secret, say. Or two characters have planned a surprise for another character.
Or, taking a step back, it may just be that the reader knows more about what is likely to happen in the story than the characters do. The story’s title may have offered a clue.
Suspense is a very clear way to think about the levels of knowledge that a writer can create within a story.
My understanding of suspense has mainly come from Hitchcock, the book that the French film director Francois Truffaut published in 1966. It is based on his interviews with the English film director Alfred Hitchcock.
I’m including below scans of both of the crucial pages. You should read every word, but I’m going to pick out the important sentences.
The definition of suspense to grasp hold of, and never let go, is this –
In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense.
For ‘the public’ you can insert ‘the reader’.
And here is the key explanation –
There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures [movies] continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous conversation become fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!’
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
There is a huge amount of storytelling wisdom here. Not all of it will apply to you or your writing. But – as a generalisation – literary fiction will err on the side of concealing information from the reader whereas genre fiction will be more likely to make the reader aware of all the facts involved.
The more facts the reader is aware of, the more suspense there will be.
For a long time, I thought storytelling was about withholding as much information from the reader as possible, for as long as possible. My stories tended involve to be a series of surprises rather than a build-up of suspense.
I realise now that I was missing out. Sometimes I should have been letting my reader know more about what was going on.
You don’t need to include bombs in your stories. But you will bring a great deal more suspense to them, and depth of characterisation, if you have complicated levels of knowledge within them.
A knows something that B doesn’t.
One literary equivalent of a bomb is a secret. A woman discovers that her husband is having an affair with her best friend. When does she choose to detonate this piece of information?
You have already written a description of your two main characters, walking through your somewhere and finding the something. We called this Finding.
You have then written some dialogue in which the child and the grown-up disagree about what to do next. We called this Arguing.
You’ve also written a scene in which the child and the grown-up get in the car and drive away. And then the car breaks down. We called this Driving.
What you need to do now write three new scenes. The first is to go before Finding. The second is to go in between Finding and Arguing, and the third is to go after Driving.
In these short scenes, you are finally going to write more about the someone you invented back in Exercise 5. This is the person in disguise.
The first new scene – which will fit in your story just before Finding – needs to show the person in disguise looking out for anyone approaching. When they see the child and the grown-up coming, they place the something right in the middle of their path. The person in disguise then goes and hides themselves somewhere they can watch what happens. (Hopefully this isn’t impossible, and you haven’t made your somewhere a completely flat plain.)
Write this new scene, and then scroll down.
The second new scene follows on from the Arguing scene between the child and the grown-up.
All this second new scene needs to do is describe the person in disguise watching the child and the grown-up from their hidden place. As they continue to disagree, the person watching reacts – you can have them do whatever you like.
One suggestion is that you have the person in disguise make a phone call to report what is going on to a character we have not yet met.
When you have written the second new scene, scroll down.
The final new scene you’re going to write comes immediately after Driving, in which the car has broken down.
In this scene, the person in disguise drives up to the child and the grown-up and offers them a ride to wherever they need to go.
When you have finished this scene, write Arriving at the top of the page.
That’s it. That’s all you need to do today.
That took a bit of shuffling around of papers, but you should now have a story that feels a lot different to the one you have when this lesson began.
Shuffling stuff around is what a great deal of writing is about. Words within sentences. Paragraphs sections within stories.
Read your story through, start to finish.
Can you see how the introduction of a very clear new level of knowledge, that of the person in disguise, has brought tension to the story?
In the terms Hitchcock used, you have started to make the reader aware of all the facts involved.
But, of course, you haven’t done that. Because the reader doesn’t yet know why the person in disguise is doing that they are doing. They don’t yet know what the meaning of the something is.
Points of View
I haven’t yet said anything about points of view – except to ask you to write everything in the third person past tense. That’s using he, she, it, they and not I or we.
There was a reason for that choice. It is far simpler to create Hitchcockian suspense in a third person narrative than in a first person narrative. Because the third person narrator can easily be perfectly aware of all the facts involved whereas the first person narrator is likely to know only what they have seen or been told.
Think for a moment about whether it would be possible to do what you have just done, introducing that level of knowledge, if the narrator of your story were not a third person narrator but the child.
Let’s say their story starts like this:
I was walking along with [the grown-up] when I looked down and saw [the something].
What would be the information you would need to find some way of including through glimpses and suspicions that, in the third person version, can just be told straight to the reader?
I am not advising you to write all your stories in the third person. Not at all. But if you choose to write in the first person – as an I narrator – you need to find ways to access different levels of knowledge. These can’t all depend on your narrator eavesdropping, and overhearing conversations they shouldn’t.
It’s time for you to do some discovering of your own. Before next time, you need to read at least two of the stories linked to from this Literary Hub page about 11 Very Short Stories You Must Read Immediately. Just look through the descriptions and see what takes your fancy.
Hitchcock uses the example of a bomb beneath a table. In this scene, the boy is carrying a bomb in the metal film tin. He doesn’t know he’s carrying a bomb.
We’ll end the lesson with this masterclass in suspense.