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Monday, May 13, 2013
5 Ways to Make Your Novel More Suspenseful
Today's guest newsletter is from Hallie Ephron, author of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. EDITOR'S NOTE: Order Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel (or anything else from our shop) today and save 30% off the price with the code WD3013. (Sale ends May 11.)
"A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience." -Alfred Hitchcock
Suspense happens when a scene becomes charged with anticipation. It's the possibility of what might happen that keeps the reader on the edge of her chair.
Think of the classic suspense scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Suspicion. The Joan Fontaine character believes that her charming, wastrel husband, played by Cary Grant, is an embezzler and a murderer who is now out to poison her.
There's a long shot as Grant mounts the stairs, and then the camera focuses on the nightly glass of milk he carries up to her. Everyone in the audience is wondering: Is it poisoned? To heighten the threat and foreboding, Hitchcock had a light bulb placed inside the glass to give it an eerie glow.
To create suspense, your job is to do the literary equivalent of what Hitchcock did by putting that light bulb in the milk: Build dramatic tension by making the ordinary seem menacing.
The writer's tools for achieving this are sensory detail and the slowing down of time.
1. Turn up the Sensory Detail.
By focusing on the right sensory detail, you can heighten the sense of potential menace in everyday objects.
Take this example from my co-written novel, Amnesia. Peter Zak and Annie Squires approach a house where they suspect one of Peter's patients is being held captive.
Tall bushes shrouded a shadowy front porch. Only a sliver of light between drawn drapes suggested anyone was home.
Someone had made an effort to dress up the house for Halloween. On the small lawn, dried cornstalks were teepeed around a lamppost. A pumpkin grinned from the top of a wheelchair ramp. Opposite the pumpkin was a little barrel of chrysanthemums. Beside the front door, barely visible in the shadow, a scarecrow dummy wearing a cowboy hat was slumped in a chair. I exhaled, realizing I'd been holding my breath.
Annie got out and eased the car door shut. I did the same.
We moved up the side of the house, crouching as we passed under the dark windows. I was conscious of every sound-my own breathing, traffic whooshing up and down the adjacent streets, the far-off pulsing wail of a siren. At every step, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot seemed thunderous.
Here the traditional trappings of a New England autumn, like a pumpkin and a scarecrow dummy, seem ordinary and ominous at the same time.
Now let's take apart the pieces and look at what happens, alongside the sensory details that are used to create the suspense ...