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How to Write a Novel & Short Story – Suspense

How to write a Novel & Short Story – Part Four

Suspense, or Keeping the Reader Reading.

“We do our best to paralyze the reader – freeze him to the book. All quivering helplessness, he waits to see what is going to happen next.”

           William Foster-Harris, The Basic Formulas of The Story (1944) Norman:Univeristy of Oklahoma Press.

We need readers to worry and wonder about what will happen to the characters next. We need them held in suspense. Suspense is defined as “the condition of being insecure or uncertain,” in Collins Complete and Unabridged English Dictionary, 2005 Edition.
Frey says that what is undecided is a story question. Story questions make the reader curious, not usually straight out questions, but sometimes they are, they are statements or situations that require further explanation or they could be problems that require a solution, a forecast crisis like a meteor hitting the earth, a death threat, and the like.

“When Dad got released that day he knew he would never go back, not now – whatever happened, not now he knew what he had to do. He just had to figure out how.”

So in this opening the story questions that are asked are:

Why was he in prison? Why won’t he go back? What does he have to do? How will he do it?

This sort of story question, when placed right at the beginning of a story, they are almost always used in a short story, is called a hook. Frey is of the view that both short stories and novels should have a story question, or hook, within the first two sentences. This device should not be used too often and should raise a legitimate question about characters and situations that will be answered.

Kafka, in The Trial begins the story:

“Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine day.”

Who traduced him, and why? Why was he arrested? What will happen to him?

Notice too how Kafka also manages to garner our sympathy immediately. This is a very effective technique that if deployed properly will create curiosity and encourage sympathy immediately. The other form of suspense is anxiety and apprehension. Because we have a character that the reader is fully empathising with the reader will want good things to happen to this character. So a little girl who has just been orphaned will generate sympathy, if she then is kidnapped, or as Frey puts it, if the character is plunged into a situation of menace, anxiety is created.
In other words bad things are happening to sympathetic characters. The menace could be social disapproval; a teacher being wrongly accused of molesting pupil, this kind of suspense occurs when there is a reasonable expectation in the reader that bad things will happen to the character with whom they sympathise, identify and empathise.
The most powerful technique is the “lit fuse” technique. In the old Batman television show, from the sixties, each first episode ended with the dynamic duo tied up and about to be cut in half. Or in the James Bond films where Bond must stop the rocket from being launched, even though he’s dangling over a tank of sharks, with no hope of escape and blindfolded. In Jurassic Park, when the two kids and the adult must clamber over the fence, the action switches from the frantic scramble over the fence and then back to the hut where each lever has to be pulled down. In The Trial “will Joseph K. prove his innocence?” is an obvious example.
In action films, such as Indiana Jones, there will often be many scenes in which the fuse is lit, often such films simply consist of this form of suspense.
Frey sums it up:

“Suspense, then, is a matter of creating story questions, putting the sympathetic characters in a situation of menace, and lighting the fuse. It is making the reader worry and wonder.”

Of course the suspense concerns the dynamic characters discussed earlier.
How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York

4 Responses to “How to Write a Novel & Short Story – Suspense”

  1. lily Says:

    could you give me some plots of a story

  2. Md. Shahidul Alom Says:

    could u give me the characterisation of a short story or how a character introduce to the reader by the author.

  3. Bob Barnly Says:

    this didn’t help at all. i was trying to add a suspensfull elemnent to my writing but not a suspense story. please add some tips on suspense elements.

  4. abdulghafur Says:

    could u actually write a short story

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