Writing Tips: 7 Strategies For Writing Suspense

You must hook a reader early on because there are plenty of other books to read and life is too short to read a book that doesn’t engage you. 

Writing suspenseSuspense is one technique you can use, and in today’s post, Tony Lee Moral explains how you can bring it into your novel. 

Alfred Hitchcock was the famed Master of Suspense, and over the course of a 60-year career, he made over 52 movies of mystery and suspense. Many of his films were adapted from source novels, short stories or plays. So when writing my new mystery novel Ghost Maven, California, I was naturally inspired by the suspense techniques of Alfred Hitchcock whom I have also written three books about.

Suspense has largely to do with the audience’s own desires or wishes, so getting it right is an important part of the writing process.

Here are 7 tips to follow when writing suspense:

Tip 1. Know the difference between Suspense and Mystery

Suspense is an emotional process, rather like a rollercoaster ride, or a trip to the haunted fun house. All suspense comes out of giving the audience information. You cannot expect a reader to have anxieties if they don’t have the information to be anxious. If you tell the reader that there’s a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense.

Mystery, on the other hand, is an intellectual process like a riddle or a whodunit. In a mystery, you don’t need to answer every question, it’s important to leave some questions unresolved, so that the audience will be thinking about them at the end of the book.

Tip 2. Keep a Suspenseful Plot Moving

The sudden switches of location in a chapter are also very important to keep the reader entertained and the atmosphere suspenseful. The rapid movement from one scene to another, and using one idea after another, keeps the reader hooked.

The 39 Steps, adapted from the John Buchan novel of the same name, is one of Hitchcock’s favourites because of the rapid and sudden switches in location. Once the train leaves the station, the story never stops moving. Halfway through, the lead character Hannay leaps out of a police station window with half a handcuff on, and immediately walks into a marching Salvation Army band. To escape the police, he marches with the band, then slips into a public hall, and ends up on oratory platform and is mistaken for a speaker.

Tip 3. Use locations for suspense

Hitchcock believed that if you are using a unique location, it should be used to its utmost. He was adamant that the backgrounds must be incorporated into the drama and made it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a location. Never use a setting simply as background. Use it 100%.

Point Pinos LighthouseWhen writing locations for my novel, I also thought how they could be used dramatically. In Ghost Maven, when Alice climbs the Point Pinos Lighthouse, it twice becomes the setting for her attempted murder. Heather, the high school prom queen’s disappearance becomes the MacGuffin, a plot device that Alfred Hitchcock often used, which is the engine of the story that drives the characters in the second half of the book.

Tip 4. Use props for suspense

As well as using your locations to build suspense, use your props also. In the Cold War thriller Torn Curtain, Paul Newman’s character uses all the instruments available in a domestic kitchen to try and kill the spy Gromek, finally settling on a gas oven.

Frenzy takes place against a backdrop of Covent Garden’s fruit market. When the villain hides his latest victim in a potato truck, Hitchcock uses the milieu to the fullest and it even provides the clues to solving the murder. Thanks to the potato dust, the police discovered a trail that will lead them to the true criminal. So the market really functioned as a character in that film.

Tip 5. Avoid clichéd stereotypes

VillianOne central rule is to avoid writing clichéd characters and stereotypes. Hitchcock has given us some of the most memorable villains such as Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder, or James Mason in North by Northwest. That’s because he avoided the cliché through character and made his villains attractive.

“All villains are not black, and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere. You can’t just walk down Fifth Avenue and say he’s a villain and he’s a hero. How do you know?” said Hitchcock. “In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Very often you see the murderer in movies made to be a very unattractive man. I’ve always contended that it’s a grave mistake, because how would he get near his victim unless he had some attraction?”

Tip 6. Crosscut scenes for suspense

Hitchcock used crosscutting to evoke suspense. Crosscutting for suspense is the cutting between scenes of parallel action, and by rapidly cutting between scenes taking place in different locations, to communicate to the reader that the action is happening simultaneously.

Think of a chase scene where a man is being chased by another man. The most common and effective use of cross-cutting is in scenes of horror. In such instances, the protagonist whom the viewer identifies with, and the threat are presented in tandem. This way, the audience knows information that the protagonist doesn’t and find themselves in a state of anxiety about the plight of the character.

Tip 7. Involve Your Reader in the Suspense

Two-thirds of the way through, arguably Hitchcock’s greatest film, Vertigo, the audience discovers that Madeleine and Judy are in fact the same person. Hitchcock was first criticised for revealing the plot twist early, but the result is actually much more suspenseful, as the audience is asking what will James Stewart’s character do when he finds out?

You don’t always have to save your twist until the end of the book, sometimes it’s more suspenseful to reveal the twist earlier on. Again it goes back to giving the reader information and anxieties.

Do you write suspense? Will you try applying some of these strategies? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Tony Lee MoralTony Lee Moral is the author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock; Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass; Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie and The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds. His new novel Ghost Maven is published by Cactus Moon Publications. You can learn more at GhostMaven.com.

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