Creating Suspense

May 15, 2003
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The Plot ThickensNew York Agent Noah Lukeman offers special insights from his latest book, now in paperback!

Creating Suspense – An Excerpt From The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways To Bring Fiction To Life

by Noah Lukeman © 2002

Now in paperback, June 2003!

(Reprinted by arrangement with St. Martin’s Press, LLC)

THE PLOT THICKENS via Amazon.com

Chapter 5

Suspense

“Emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.”

—Alfred Hitchcock

 

"Suspense, ultimately, is about anticipation. It is about what we do not have, what has not happened."

—Noah Lukeman

 

One can have undeveloped characters and weak journeys and a hackneyed plot, but if suspense exists, an audience will often stay with the work. They might walk away resentful, might immediately forget the work, but for those few hours you’ve got them hooked. This is because suspense, more than any other element, affects the immediate, short-term experience of the work. It is thus an excellent complement to slow-moving elements that give a work substance.

If used improperly, though, suspense is just a means in and of itself. In these cases, the writer creates characters and circumstances merely to conform to suspenseful situations, instead of the suspense arising naturally from the characters and circumstances themselves. Suspense becomes the destination, when it should, rather, be an adjunct to the journey. Even in such cases, though, the presence of suspense is still a feat and shows promise, since it indicates that the writer is writing more for the reader than for himself. Indeed, if you look at modern “literary” short stories and novels (such as come out of many MFA programs and appear in most literary journals), what becomes strikingly clear is that many of them lack suspense. With their emphasis on realism and metaphor, these writers seem to have forgotten that readers still need suspense, that they won’t just read for reading’s sake. Most of these novels (if published) are rewarded by selling only a few thousand copies, while a master of suspense (like Stephen King) will sell several million copies. Profound literary writing and characterization needn’t be incompatible with suspense. Only the modern “literary” writer has taken such a contrary stance; one glance at Melville’s Moby Dick or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness shows how highly truly literary authors valued suspense.

What is it that compels us to keep turning the pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? That makes our heart pound as the snow accumulates in The Shining? At first glance, suspense seems like a mysterious, magical element, but fortunately, to analyze suspense is to approach somewhat more definite ground. Ten different readers will have ten different opinions when it comes to defining a character’s journey, but suspense is something universally recognized. Indeed, viewers who walk away disliking a film will often still admit to experiencing suspense.

Suspense, ultimately, is about anticipation. It is about what we do not have, what has not happened. It is about the process of watching events unfold: Once the victim is murdered, the woman wooed, the suspense disappears. But while the victim is stalked, the girl courted, suspense looms. Suspense, simply, is about creating and prolonging anticipation.

How one does that is much more complex. Suspense comprises dozens of elements, each building on and dependent on the next. Let us begin with the creation of anticipation (it can’t be prolonged if it doesn’t exist) and start with twelve of the more obvious ways to do this.

 

"The first step toward creating anticipation is having an objective (or destination) in mind for character."

—Noah Lukeman

 

Creating Suspense

1. The Objective. The first step toward creating anticipation is having an objective (or destination) in mind for your character. A killer sitting in a room by himself is not nearly as suspenseful as a killer chasing a victim; a jogger idling aimlessly on the corner is not as suspenseful as a jogger racing to the finish of a marathon. The killer and the jogger need objectives. Once they have them, we suddenly want to know if they’ll achieve them. Anticipation begins.

2. Raising the Stakes. The objective is an important first step, but someone taking out the garbage has an objective and this hardly makes for heart-pounding suspense. One way to build suspense is to raise the stakes. Let’s say the garbageman only picks up once a week, that he is honking outside the door, that our character has missed him for three weeks in a row, that his tiny hallway is filled with foul-smelling garbage, and that his landlady is going to evict him if he misses the garbage man again. The garbage truck is revivving; it is beginning to take off. Now the stakes are raised, and our character's taking out the garbage has suddenly become suspenseful.

So one way to raise the stakes is to increase the importance of the objective. This is not quite as easy as it sounds, since importance, we must remember, is relative. Take, for example, a book deal. For A, who has always dreamed of being in print and has been trying his whole life, a book deal may mean everything, may lend meaning to his entire life. But for B, who is a professional collaborator and has published fifty books and enters into a new book deal twice a year, a new book deal might seem routine. Likewise, if a billionaire secures a one-million-dollar book deal it could mean nothing to him; whereas if a starving artist working minimum wage lands a five-thousand-dollar book deal, it could mean everything. “Importance” is relative.

So consider the importance it has for your character. In this way, a seemingly mundane objective will gain great importance and thus suspense. How badly does he want it? How long has he wanted it? Take the paraplegic who has been trying to move his finger for ten years. For the first time, he can move it an inch. Our hearts pound with suspense over what would, for any other character, be insignificant.

Stakes can also be raised by considering the importance a character’s objective has for other people. Let’s take our courier delivering a package of blood for a dying man. For the courier himself, the outcome of this objective has no special importance; but for the man receiving the package, it is a matter of life and death. Thus, for the courier (if he is like most people), the delivery of the package will also take on great importance—we often go to greater lengths for others than we will for ourselves.

 

"Finally, we must remember that danger is all about perspective. It needn’t actually exist in the real world for us to feel it – —it need only exist in a character’s head."

—Noah Lukemam

 

3. Danger. Danger is a powerful way to increase suspense. Let’s say a character has an objective to swim across a river. Let’s also say the stakes are high: If he doesn’t make it, he won’t be able to journey on with his peers. This scene is moderately suspenseful. Now let us change the scenario so that this river is also filled with hungry crocodiles and dangerous currents, that 90 percent of the people who try for it don’t make it, and that an army is chasing him, so if he doesn't try, he'll be shot. . . .

Suspense also comes when other characters are in danger—especially if your character is trying to get someone else out of danger. It doesn’t necessarily come in our worrying for the other person, but in our character’s being involved in an immediate objective with urgency, high stakes, something he (presumably) cares about, and something that might become dangerous for him. If your character stumbles upon a man on the street being beaten up and decides to intervene, there will be suspense; still, there is not quite as much suspense as there could be, since we don’t know if the victim, being a stranger, deserved it, perhaps instigated it, or even perhaps would resent being helped. On the other hand, if your character sees that the person being beaten is his brother, the suspense will suddenly be much greater. Now he can’t walk away. Now it affects him personally.

Remember, too, that there are many types of danger. There is sexual danger (when a pretty woman walks into a dangerous neighborhood, we don’t worry about her being beaten up—we worry about her being sexually assaulted); medical danger (an illness, or a contagious disease, as in Outbreak); emotional or psychological danger (when a child is abused); spiritual danger (if a character is being dragged into a world of murderers and is becoming one himself).

Suspense also comes if your character is a danger to others. In such cases there is nonstop tension, since wherever he goes, we wonder if he’ll strike. It is the suspense of following a murderer, of sharing his viewpoint as he cruises down Main Street and eyes the children walking home from school. We know what he’s capable of. Likewise, suspense comes with our character being dangerous to himself. He might be reckless—speeding drunk on a highway, playing chicken, or he might even be suicidal. Such a character is both the perpetrator and object of suspense.

Finally, we must remember that danger is all about perspective. It needn’t actually exist in the real world for us to feel it—it need only exist in a character’s head. Take the paranoiac who is sure that people are chasing him, and starts to run. Although the people aren’t really there, we feel the suspense as he goes.

4. Ticking Clock. Adding a time limit goes a long way in creating suspense. If a student taking a test has as much time as he wants, it won’t be nearly as suspenseful as if he had sixty seconds. A ticking clock can be used in select scenes—like in the classroom-or it can also be used to frame the entire work. Some works—especially action thrillers—are propelled by this alone. Twenty-four hours to save the president ( Escape from New York); forty-eight hours to find the criminals ( 48 Hours); thirty days to spend all the money ( Brewster's Millions), etc.

A clock needn’t literally be a ticking clock. Simply going through your work and asking yourself precisely how many days or weeks or months transpire can be tremendously helpful. Many writers are out of touch with their time line, and it has been my experience that if you ask most writers exactly how much time transpires in their work, they’ll be at a loss to answer. This is especially the case if time isn’t a major factor in the work.

Why does your work transpire over three months instead of three weeks? Why three weeks instead of three days? Believe it or not, most works can accomplish just as much over a shorter period of time. In the process, a sense of urgency will be added. There will be suspense where there was none.

Even if you decide not to add a time pressure, it is enormously helpful to know exactly how much time transpires and what sort of use you make of it. It will help you get a handle on how much time you are allocating to which events, and in most cases, help you to better allocate this time. You will also be able to incorporate atmospherically the passing of time. For instance, knowing a certain event took place specifically on a Friday, you might incorporate your character getting off work early that day; knowing a particular event occurred during the summer, you might incorporate your character’s not hearing his phone ring because of the hum of the air conditioner. These small details will help ground the work and bring it to life.

Remember that a clock in and of itself won’t add suspense—it all depends on how you use the clock. The ticking clock is useless if the character doesn’t check it; but if he is reminded of it at every turn, it can play a major role. In Manhunter, we are given a time limit in the very first scene: The detective has three weeks until the next full moon to find the killer. From the very first minute of the film, the pressure is on. The writer didn’t even let that suffice; many scenes also have an additional time pressure of their own, for instance when the team of detectives have only twenty-five minutes to solve a complicated riddle before a newspaper goes to press. Each time pressure propels us through each scene, while the greater time pressure propels us through the work and lends it direction.

Equally important is your space allocation. As a rule of thumb, when you want to give a crucial scene the greatest suspense, slow down your work to nearly the actual time of its transpiring. If, for instance, there are five seconds until a bomb explodes, a film might spend an actual five seconds on the countdown.

Editor's Note: Don't miss the rest of this book! Highly recommended, and now at a savings in paperback.

 

About the Author

To order The Plot Thickens via Amazon.com

Noah Lukeman is President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd., a literary agency based in New York, which he founded in 1996. His clients include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, National Book Award finalists, Edgar Award finalists, multiple New York Times bestsellers, national journalists, major celebrities, and faculty of universities ranging from Harvard to Stanford. Mr. Lukeman has worked as a Manager in the New York office of Artists Management Group, Michael Ovitz’ multi-talent management company, and has worked on the editorial side of several major publishers. Mr. Lukeman is himself author of the bestselling The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster), and of the recently published The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martins Press), a selection of the Writer's Digest Book Club and a national bestseller. Copyright 2002 by Noah Lukeman

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