Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Suspense and conflict), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
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What grabs the reader is a sense of impending conflict, which means the writer's goal is to create an ongoing air of suspense. With that in mind, imagine you're reading a crime thriller, you're a chapter or two into it when you come across this scene... (female speaker: Val is searching for her roommate Enid who's hours late coming home. After canvassing the neighborhood, she reluctantly knocks on the door of her new neighbor, Homer, shows him a photo of Enid, and asks if he's seen her.
He says no, but seeing how worried Val is, he invites her in for a soothing cup of herbal tea. Realizing she's probably blowing the whole thing out of proportion, and that Homer's really cute, Val accepts. Over two steaming mugs, Homer reassures Val, suggesting that Enid probably just decided to visit a friend, nothing worry about. Half an hour later Val leaves, feeling relieved and wondering whether Homer is single.) Val's mood arcs during the scene, she goes in worried and comes out happy.
We know why her mood changed. She realized that Enid was probably okay and Homer is really cute. It leaves us with something to anticipate, will Val and Homer get together? Does the scene need to suggest more than that? Well, if this were a lighthearted romance novel, probably not. But it's not, it's a crime thriller and guess what. There was a crime being committed in that very scene. It was just very well hidden because since the writer didn't want to give it all away, she kept the most heart-pounding part of the scene a big fat secret.
She thought she'd reveal it all later and really surprise the reader. But she did such a good job of hiding it that we had no idea there even was a secret. If we don't know there is intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot. So let's imagine the exact same scene, except this time the writer has let us know that... (female speaker: Enid struggled with the duct tape binding her arms to the chair in the basement below. "I'm down here!" she wanted to scream, but the t-shirt stuffed in her mouth muffled the sound.) This time we're riveted, rooting for Enid, and praying Homer hasn't slipped a roofie into Val's tea.
It's a far superior scene. But what if the writer really doesn't want to let us in on exactly what's happening yet? Does she absolutely have to tell us? No, but what she does have to do is give us hints that will both add suspense in the moment, by letting us know that all was not as it seems and will also make the truth believable when it's revealed. How? Let's see what the writer comes up with... (female speaker: "At the moment my time is taken," the man replied.
"Please, just see if you recognize her," Val said and thrust out the photo from their trip. "Really, I have no..." he trailed off in his words. "Wait, she does look a little familiar... Would you like to come in for a cup of tea? I find that a nice cup of Earl Grey always jogs my memory." "I'm not sure if I should, I'd like to continue canvassing the neighborhood." "Well, I do think..." The man's jaw tightened and he looked annoyingly at his feet.
"The rats are always gnawing at the floorboards." Val hadn't noticed before but there was a faint scraping sound coming from below. That's odd. The whole neighborhood was fumigated just last month.) Things like that stoke suspense by implying that someone is probably lying, which in turn triggers a dopamine-fueled rush of curiosity as the reader tries to figure out what's really going on. I can't say this often enough, a story is not about what happens on the surface, it's about what's really going on beneath it.
The writer's job is to let us see enough of what's underneath to care about what's on the surface.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots