Well calculated to keep you in suspense.

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense
Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense

WHEN I WAS A BOY, television was simply a strange little contraption we saw in the window of a furniture store on our way to Church each Sunday night.

Get there early.

Sit on the hood of the car.

Watch John Wayne or Tex Ritter or Johnny Mack Brown chase the bad guys on a little square screen.

It was black and white.

But then, we lived in a black and white world.

We had problems all around us.

I just didn’t know they were there.

Most nights, we huddled around the Philco radio in the living room of our farm home and listened to radio dramas.

Close your eyes, and you could see it happen.

Your imagination was at work.

We had bought tickets to the theater of the mind.

My favorite shows were Gang Busters, Inner Sanctum, Mr. and Mrs. North, The Phantom, and The FBI in Peace and War.

These were, after all, the chilled early years of the Cold War.

Russia was in our worst nightmares.

And spies were everywhere.

Spies were going to kill somebody.

It might as well be us.

That’s what we were taught.

That’s what we believed.

That’s why waited at night for the FBI to crawl into the radio and haul them off to jail.

The best show of all, however, was named: Suspense.

The title said it all.

In fact, the radio announcer would come on before each episode with a low, ominous voice and say: “This is a tale well calculated to keep you in . . . suspense.”

And so it was.

When writing novels, suspense plays a major role in the story regardless of the genre. It’s something every writer should make a conscientious effort to achieve.

In a thriller, will the hero live when he’s out of bullets and Scarface is closing in for the kill?

In a romance, will the tall, dark stranger realize the heroine is in love with him, or will he run off with the wild, blonde bimbo working the night shift at the Shady Lady Lounge?

In science fiction, will the rocket ship reach the dark star before the web of the intergalactic menace rips it from the sky?

Suspense.

It’s all about suspense.

But how do you effectively write it?

The master knew, and Alfred Hitchcock did it better than almost anyone. This is the way he explained it:

“There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s 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 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 becomes 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 is a bomb beneath you and it is 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.”

As Mignon McLaughlin pointed out, “Even cowards can endure hardship. Only the brave can endure suspense.”

Suspense allows readers the chance to encounter their innermost fears.

They dread what’s going to happen.

They know what’s going to happen.

They pray it won’t, and they know it will.

Good writers of suspense keeps them waiting for as long as they can.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    If you learn, learn from the master, and Alfred Hitchcock, more than anyone, was the master at creating suspense in a story.

  • I don’t really write suspense – but my motto is ‘Torture the reader.’ For that to happen, the reader has to be the unwilling participant in knowing what’s coming. It is fun to make sure the reader knows pain is coming, because that’s why readers read: to suffer vicariously.

    I remember the first time I got to the end of Gone With the Wind, aching with Scarlett, knowing there must be SOMETHING she could do to get Rhett back. Hoping she would figure it out. That is my model. All I have to do to get the feeling I want to impart back is to put myself back in the frame of mind when I read that scene.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, it looks to me like torturing the reader is a great way to build suspense in a story. Keep them full of angst, and you have them hooked.

      • I can always tell you what’s happening next in Pride’s Children – that’s the advantage of extreme plotting.

        What I have to figure out each day is how to make that hurt the most. Which I can do as soon as my brain wakes up – IF I keep asking it that question.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          I had not thought of it, Alicia, but that’s the question every writer must ask before he or she leaps into the manuscript for the day.

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