- Possible Danger – Present possible danger and consequences. Then have the MC ignore it or think it can’t happen to them
- Lurking Danger – A threat exists that reader knows about, but MC doesn’t – usually only works with multiple POV
- Big Moment Trouble – Present a situation that everyone knows needs to happen, but we don’t know if the MC will be able to get there – plan gone wrong – flat tire on way to big interview
- Moral Dilemma / Decision – Force MC to make a difficult decision with huge and terrible stakes – usually a no win situation
- Closing Doors – Make the MC close doors the reader knows MC will need later on
- Keeping Secrets – Character keeps secrets that create danger/problems for MC or someone else we want to succeed
Okay, that’s a poor example, but I think it gets the point across. Character closes a door that the reader knew needed to stay open. The reason you have to use this technique with skill is because the reader has to feel the problem building even though the character doesn’t quite get it.
As promised, I’m back with another technique for creating suspense. If you’re just joining me in learning how to create suspense in writing, you may want to read Part One, Two, and Three along with this post.
In my opinion, this one is a little less intuitive. Here we go.
MORAL DILEMMA / DECISION
This is where you force your MC to make a difficult decision with huge and terrible stakes, usually a no-win situation. Let me explain further.
Your character has a choice. It’s not an easy choice. It may even be an impossible choice. You let the reader get an idea of this upcoming choice and how your MC doesn’t know what to do. Perhaps the results of the MC’s choice will bring about terrible consequences for him/him or someone else the reader loves. For example:
Your MC is heir to the throne, the eldest of the dying king’s two sons. He is a good prince and will be an even better king. He plans to rule with love and respect for his people. His younger brother is a lesser man and would rule as a tyrant if allowed. Of course, the good prince soon learns of the rival kingdom’s plot to destroy half of his future kingdom. There is one way he can stop the evil Wizard King, but it will cost him the throne. If he proceeds, his brother will inherit the kingdom and he will have to live as a captive in the rival kingdom, but no harm will come to his people.
Now that’s quite a dilemma.
Here’s another (much shorter) example: A teen girl has to choose whether to terminate her unplanned pregnancy.
The critical thing when employing this technique is to build up both sides of the decision as having terrible consequences. I hope I’ve explained that well enough.
What books have you read where the author uses this as their primary suspense technique?
Oh, I’ll be back with another technique soon – one that has to be used almost perfectly to be effective.
In part one and part two, I wrote about creating suspense with possible danger and lurking danger. As promised, I’m back with another technique for how you can create dramatic tension or suspense in your books. This one is does not have the word danger in it. Ready?
BIG MOMENT TROUBLE
This is one that I hope all of you understand and use already. It relates directly to character goals. You present the reader with the character’s goal, some big moment the reader really wants the character to succeed at, and then put the character into enough trouble to make the reader unsure if the character will succeed after all. For example:
John, who recently married a tycoon’s daughter, wants desperately to impress his unapproving father-in-law. The father-in-law, after some coaxing from his daughter, sets John up with a big-shot job interview and tells him this is his chance to shine.
John’s excited for the opportunity and doesn’t want to blow it. Dressed in a new suit and power tie, he heads toward the city center. Half way there, his front right tire has a blowout. He reaches for his phone, but in his haste to get an early start, realizes he left it on his dresser at home.
That’s okay. He knows how to change a tire and if he hurries, he’ll still make it. He gets out the spare, but it seems low on air. There might be enough, but he won’t be able to tell until it’s under the weight of the car. He gets the tire on with barely enough time to still make it and holds his breath as he lowers the jack . . . .
See how that works? Present a goal the reader buys into and then make it seem like the character won’t be able to achieve it. If you’ve never read about the try/fail cycle, you may want to look that one up, as this kind of situation applies directly to that construct.
Okay, that’s it for today. The next technique I’ll present may be less intuitive, but it can create a great deal of suspense.
In part one, I wrote about creating suspense with possible danger. As promised, I’m back with another technique for how you can create dramatic tension or suspense in your books. This one is kind of a cousin to possible danger. Ready?
This one works best with a multiple point of view (POV) book. It’s that part of a story where the reader knows about a danger and the MC is unaware. For example, a serial killer character POV has just ended with the killer slipping into the MC’s house and will be waiting with chloroform, duct tape, and a scalpel. The next chapter switches to the POV of the MC who is on her way home from work and just told everyone not to bother her because she needs some peace and quiet.
See how that works? Sort of like possible danger, but with one major difference. The reader has been told exactly what the danger is and the MC has no clue.
That wasn’t too bad, was it? The next technique I’ll present probably gets used more than any others. Anyone want to guess?
Suspense: that elusive element of every awesome book that writers strive to understand and create in their work.
- How do you define suspense?
- How important is suspense?
- How do you create suspense?
First of all, I want to clarify something. When I began researching this, I started with the word tension instead of suspense. When I went to look up tension, I got a lot of definitions about stretching things out. That’s when I tried searching dramatic tension. All the references for dramatic tension redirected to suspense. And in truth, suspense is what I wanted. But not the genre, the concept. So, in short, dramatic tension and suspense are generally equal. Here’s a pretty good definition I found online.
I agree with those definitions. But is it really necessary to create suspense in a book to keep the reader going?
Answer: Yes. Yes it is. It doesn’t have to be nail-biting, murderous-stalker-lurking suspense, but suspense needs to exist or the reader will feel like nothing is happening, despite the hundred pages they just read where lots of actions take place. Ever have that feeling while you were reading? Now you know why and here’s where it gets fun. How do we create suspense?
Not “Danger” but “possible danger”. There’s a big difference and it’s a simple concept. Not that danger can’t create suspense, it’s just not going to be as reliable as possible danger. Here’s why.
Imagine your MC in a Western. He’s just been challenged to a duel. He’s standing in the middle of the dusty road, hand hovering over the grip of his pistol, facing one of the fastest draws in the territory. That’s danger. And, there’s suspense.
But let’s add in one simple thing.
As your MC stares into the eyes of his opponent, something pops into his mind. Did he reload his pistol after the bar fight last night? He fired five of the six rounds and passed out at some point. When he got up this morning, all he could remember was strapping on his belt with his gun already in the holster.
Now that’s suspense.
Let’s try another. This time without any actual danger involved.
A new mother is kneeling next to the tub, bathing her eight month old when the doorbell rings. She’s expecting a package she’ll have to sign for and doesn’t want to miss it. The bell rings again — an impatient deliverer. The front door is just around the corner from the bathroom. Little Lucy will be fine by herself for twenty seconds. Besides there’s only an inch or two of water in the tub. She dries off her hands and scampers to the front door.
I don’t know about you, but that creates some suspense for me. That’s what possible danger can do for you, your characters, and your novels. And that’s only one technique. Expect another in my next post.