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Bob Nailor




Suspense: Scaring Your Reader

The idea of scaring your reader - for a non-horror writer - is one many an author seldom considers. But think. You're writing a romance tale and one of the characters is killed. Or, you have a fantasy where your hero(ine) must come face to face with an extremely gruesome creature. Better yet, a thriller which is filled with suspense but isn't selling.

Did you scare your reader. Did you build suspense?

There is more to it than just having a broken and beating window shutter, a dark corner with moving shadows or even a blood-curdling scream.

Movies and television shows do it with music, lighting, special effects and great actors. You, the author have only words and the reader's imagination to create the magic.

You can only produce so many mental images for the readers' imaginations to create the ambiance needed because the imagination, although endless, can be limited by your words. So how do you, the writer, create tension, suspense and scare the crap out of your reader?

Word pacing.

Consider this scene:

John walked across the living room. The floor creaked. He moved the flashlight back and forth in front of him so he could see into the corners. Suddenly, there was a sound of somebody moving about above him. He located the cobweb covered spiral stairs and went up. Out of breath, at the top of the stairs, he hesitated. A cat dashed from the room and down the stairs, scaring him. He dropped his flashlight. He was alone in the dark. Something moved.

Now consider this rewrite:

John crept across the living room floor, the boards moaning and creaking with each step. The shadows sought refuge elsewhere as his flashlight probed the corners and walls as he flashed it randomly about the room. A sound. Something moved in the room above his head. Stairs. He carefully ascended the moldy stairs, slashing at the cobweb curtains that blocked his way on the spiral staircase. Second floor. Resting momentarily, heart beating, blood thumping at his temples... a cat sprang from the room, dashed between his legs, and disappeared down the stairs. The flashlight, released from his hand, careened down the stairs, flashing dancing shadows in its noisy path. Suddenly, he was alone. It was dark. A sound. He wasn't alone.

Both paragraphs depict the same incident but one has more descriptive words and pacing. Right. Pacing. An author will have the right word for the moment but a good author will have the pacing necessary to keep the reader flipping the pages.

To make a scene full of suspense, an author can use the trick of sentence length. By using sentence length, the author forces the reader to a style of breathing. Now think about this. Sentences are controlled by punctuation with a period being one of the most common uses for breathing. A reader takes in the whole sentence with a breath. Commas, colons and semi-colons are also breathing breaks where the reader takes a breath. Long sentences can cause a reader to hold their breath and in doing so, create tension and suspense.

The opposite is also true. Short sentences will cause a reader to breath more often and in a sense, hyper-ventilate.

Notice this sentence "He carefully ascended the moldy stairs, slashing at the cobweb curtains that blocked his way on the spiral staircase." is long and build suspense. Then, I use a combination of commas and an ellipse to create breathing breaks and get the heart pumping with "Second floor. [BREATH] Resting momentarily, [BREATH] heart beating, [BREATH] blood thumping at his temples... [BREATH] a cat sprang from the room, [BREATH] dashed between his legs, [BREATH] and disappeared down the stairs." and scare.

I follow it with another long sentence broken up and several short sentences. I'm still forcing the reader to breath fast. By the time the reader has gotten to "He wasn't alone." the reader is getting ready for the scare.

Sure, you can use descriptive words to imbue the concept of fear but, for some, scenes filled with blood, guts and gore just don't fill the bill and can be a turn off, especially in a romance or fantasy.

But, if the lead character in a romance novel was to see their friend killed with a is there such a thing? tasteful murder to scare them, it would make the book memorable. The same holds true for a fantasy or science fiction story. There are several beasts that could use scenes when the hero(ine) faces them to create scary segments. In fact, the above example of John with the cat and spiral staircase could be a scene in a detective thriller. Or, it could be a horror story, depending on how the writer wished to continued the tension and suspense.

So, just remember long sentences are conducive to creating tension and anxiety. Short sentences creates a scare.

Then sock it to them!




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~ COMMENTS ~

Nichole Hall
2014-12-15
Great Post! I agree that pacing definitely impacts the story. I agree it's important that your pacing should say to the reader what you intend. And that pacing can impact the story more than the words you write.
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Bob Nailor
2014-12-15
There are two types of pacing and most writers learn about story pacing... making sure they get all the elements into the tale and in the proper sequence. Breathing pace is seldom considered and is very critical and very inherent in horror writing but also applies to all genres, including poetry!
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Elyse Salpeter
2014-12-15
I never, ever considered the "holding the breath" scenario! What a great analogy and it was very visual for me. I realized in the second paragraph I really was holding my breath for the end of the sentence. Great post!
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Bob Nailor
2014-12-15
Glad this one helped you. I really noticed this in one story where the author was long-winded all the time and when the finale came, it was anti-climatic, no short sentences to continue the punch. Like a boxer, you spar and then you attack.
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Scott Bury
2014-12-15
Excellent advice. I am trying the same effect in my work in progress, a war story.
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Tamie Dearen
2014-12-15
Great post! I love this one. I'm bookmarking it for later! :D
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Onisha Ellis
2014-12-16
Good tip! Husband and I were listening to a NYT bestselling suspense author and they could have surely used this tip.
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