Wait! Do NOT open that…
Box. Door. Window. Hatch.
We’ve all been there, reading a thriller, horror story. Or sitting in the dark of a movie theater.
We’re not going to jump if, behind the door is Johnny Studboy about to hand Mary Sue a corsage and a box with a ring in it.
But if we know that (fill in the huge evil character) has annihilated Johnny, taken on his appearance, and substituted the ring for another that changed the last poor girl into a…
You get the idea.
Last time, I wrote about how often it’s what we don’t actually show that lets the readers’ imaginations run wild. Hopefully we’ve given enough poisoned breadcrumbs along the path to send their imaginations in a direction we want it to go. We’ve just left them to paint in the details.
In crafting suspense, however, there are tried-and-true methods. I don’t intend to go into them all. Writer’s Digest recently wrote about many, quoting the movie-master, Mr. Hitchcock. He cites the couple sitting at a bistro table chatting. No suspense there. Unless we, the reader/audience have previous been allowed to know what they don’t. Under their table is a bomb, set to go off at 3:00. And, as the gentleman asks the waiter for the check, chatting pleasantly with his soon-to-be paramour, he checks his watch. It’s 2:55.
Bait the hook and reel ’em in. But first, bait the hook.
All kinds of speculative fiction, more often than not, depends on suspense to propel the reader. In fact, I’d say that, to some extent, every kind of fiction does. Even literary. But that’s another discussion.
Rachelle Gardner blogged about writing what you know, that it doesn’t mean sticking to what you’ve actually, physically experienced in your life, but writing from what, in the depths of your being, you know to be true, for you. Go deep. Write from your truth.
In the case of suspense, I’d posit that writing what you know should draw from the well of your experience. What has worked in making you both terrified to keep reading/watching, and unable to stop?
Here’s where you do show. Bait the hook. If we don’t know what Ms. Unholy Evil is capable of, we won’t worry when Johnny stops to give her a light. If we don’t know, from having seen what the thing in the box can do, or unleash, we won’t cringe as it’s about to be opened.
After a brief introduction, when a boy chasing his paper boat down the rain-filled gutter encounters a clown in the sewer, and Uncle Stevie is kind enough to show us what a fun-filled clown can do, well, need I go on? But I’ll be you did.
First you gotta set ’em up. Bait that hook. Show something mind-blowing. (To a degree appropriate to your story and genre, of course.) Then back off. Take your sweet time. But keep going toward that door. Or that lovely lunch date with the bomb under the table.
You know what works. The slow amble up to an “Oh, no, don’t do it” moment, and then cut. Make us wait to see if…
Think about it. What’s scarier? The actual moment when something flies down from the top of the bookcase (of course it’s only the cat—the monster is behind the curtain), or those interminable moments when Sally Stupid is creeping in the dark to investigate? You KNOW something is going to happen.
More importantly, you’ve shown just how horrific, or life-changing (or life-ending), it might be.
Then build those moments, accelerating to the big showdown or the big reveal. Each more intense, each reversal more devasting, terrifying, or challenging.
But you know all that. Right? Timing, pace, is everything.
But first, you gotta bait the hook.
What ways do you think are effective in doing that? Do you agree that it’s key? Are there times when effective baiting is not necessary?