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Flashback: The Writer’s Craft–The Architecture of Suspense

Spencer-Fleming for Hire – Issue 23

I’m about to reveal the secret for creating suspense,” she said. “Are you listening? It’s–” She clutched her throat. She stared in horror at her tea cup. “It’s…”

The well-placed curtain line, ringing out a scene or chapter, is an easy way to give your readers a jolt of suspense. But how do you create rising tension throught your book? How do you keep page after pages turning long past bedtime?

Suspense is sometimes misread as heart-pounding excitement: will the bomb be disarmed in time? Will the lone agent save the President’s life? But suspense as a literary effect should underline every type of story, because at heart, it’s simply that question every child asks when you pause for a moment while reading a tale: what happens next?

The suspenseful story begins with the architecture of what eminent writing instructor Dwight V. Swain describes as Scene and Sequel. Scene consists of Goal, Conflict, and Disaster. Our protagonist, Jane, wants to leave work early to get to her daughter’s recital. That’s her goal. Her boss comes in as she’s pulling on her coat and demands she finish the Frobisher presentation. Conflict. If she tells him to stuff it, the account goes to her rival, Dick Darcy. If she does as he asks, she’ll miss Ginger’s recital. Disaster! What will poor Jane do?

Notice there are no guns, no bodies, no mystery in this scene. Suspense doesn’t hang on Jane or Ginger being in danger. It hangs on the urgent question you’ve created in the reader’s mind and emotions.

Let’s take a closer look at those Scene elements again. The strongest goals are concrete, urgent, and immediate. Really, Jane’s goal is to be a good mother–but that’s too vague to give the reader anything to dig into. She might have the goal of not working late so as to have more time with her daughter–but that lacks any sense of urgency. Her boss might have come in a few days before and loaded her up with work–but the threat to Ginger’s recital would be several days away, giving the reader enough emotional space to relax. No, Jane has to get to the Cheryl Greely School of Theatra-Dance, and she has to get there right now.

The most suspense-raising conflict comes from an antagonist–in this case, Jane’s boss–who has his or her own goal. Jane might have been delayed by obstacles: bad weather, not finding a taxi, but those are weaker, and offer less scope for expanding the story, than actors. Once she hails a cab, Jane’s problem is over, but her boss is going to be around to bedevil her for the rest of the book, either as an antagonist or, this being a mystery, as a corpse.

 

Scene is followed by Sequel, in Swain’s terminology. Sequel consists of Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision. The boss leaves, and Jane sinks into her chair, grinding her hand into her forehead. Reaction. How is she going to get the Frobisher account done and not disappoint Ginger? Dilemma. Wait–what if she gives the work to her ambitious assitant Eve, with a promise to bring the girl’s help to the boss’s attention at the sales meeting the next day? Yes, that would solve her problem. Decision.

The reader breathes a sigh of relief. One of the purposes of Sequel is to prevent the relentless onslaught of one high-stakes question after another, which can lead the reader to close the book, exhausted. Note, however, that the Decision both raises another question in the reader’s mind–is ambitious Eve really going to be so accomodating?–and leads the protagonist straight into the next scene, which develops organically from the Decision.

Jane arrives at the sales meeting eager to collect the work from Eve. Goal. But Eve’s convinced the boss that she, not Jane, has been the driving force behind the Frobisher account. Conflict. The boss hands the account over to Eve and scorns Jane as a lying opportunist.

Disaster! Poor Jane’s in it worse than she was before, which is, of course, the point. The Scene-Sequel rythym acts as an engine, each revolution pushing Jane into deeper trouble, raising the stakes, increasing the suspense. What happens next? Will Eve be found face-down in Jane’s office with Jane’s fountain pen through her heart? Will Jane’s rival turn out to be less of a Dick and more of a Mr. Darcy? I’ll have to keep reading to find out.

[Sidebar: Dwight V. Swain was a pulp fiction and script writer who taught at the University of Oklahoma’s legendary Professional Writing Program for over a quarter century. Alumnae of the program include Carolyn Hart, Ross Thomas, Tony Hillerman and Louis L’Amour. Swain’s best-selling how-to Techniques of the Selling Writer has been in print continuously for forty-three years.]