When I stopped writing romance novels and began writing screenplays more than the format on the page changed for me many years ago. I moved from a best selling romance and women’s fiction author to suspense and mystery and I changed from writing novels to writing screenplays all at once. Screenplays taught me something about writing suspense. When you write a screenplay the internal, not external, is where suspense builds and books are where you learn to write the internal. Confused? I was but writing suspense within the format and constraints of a screenplay taught me how to do it better. Years later, when I switched back to novels, I was ready to go.
Confused? Here’s what I think.
Suspense is internal. A lot of writers mistake suspense for action. But suspense is what you build in the quiet moments between the action. When a reader picks up a suspense novel, they have certain expectations…to be entertained and to be surprised. But it has to properly executed (pun intended).
Alfred Hitchcock, the undisputed master of suspense, always said it’s not about the boom. It’s about the anticipation of the boom. My analogy is that when you go to It’s a Small World in Disney World, you expect light and fluffy. You’re riding along hearing that annoying song over and over and over and the little dolls are dancing and singing and suddenly you see a little Dutch boy with a knife in his chest, bleeding all over the tulips.
That’s a boom. Shocking. Disturbing. But without a set-up, suspects, anticipation of the murder, red herrings…not suspense.
However, if you chose to go on The Haunted Mansion ride, you went in with anticipation that increased with every step. It started outside with a spooky looking house, a graveyard, spider webs, eerie music. That made promises of what was inside. Just like a book cover.
Then you are herded very tightly into a small room. Nothing weird yet, but just the fact that you’re crowded is unsettling. Then the floor appears to drop, elongating the paintings so that what seemed normal became bizarre. The doors slam open with a bang and you’re loaded into a car with spooky sounds and a creepy voice piped in through the speakers.
Then the car moves down a track and we see doors swell toward us and doorknobs turn. We continue along and see a talking head, then the car turns and we see ghosts dancing in a ballroom, then a crystal ball. Gradually, they increase the level of creepiness and frights with ghosts jumping up from headstones in a graveyard and screams startling you…all of which increases your heart rate because you don’t know what’s going to jump out at you next.
It’s not a constant barrage. There are slow, almost quiet moments between the booms, so you have time to catch your breath and build your anticipation for the next scary creature to pop out. Finally, the ride roars to a stop and you exit feeling like you survived a dangerous adventure. All of your senses have been stimulated. Everyone walks away smiling and laughing nervously.
That’s just like a suspense novel. When a reader picks it up, they have an expectation of being entertained, surprised, stimulated, teased, fooled, challenged and, ultimately, satisfied. Our job, as writers, is to pace our stories so that the ride is worth it.
Here’s my suspense and mystery books published recently:
And released this month was book #4 in the YA Mystery Time Travel Mystery series, CUL8R.
AUTHOR SITE: http://www.nightwriter93.com
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