Suspense is a Bridge

Here is a boring piece of fiction.

In a minute, I’m going to ask you to make it more suspenseful… and you’re going to do it wrong.

Jane Hemingway marched with purpose down Wilshire, past a flower shop, on the way to the post office. After a week-long tech conference in Hawaii, she was almost back in the swing of her life. Just a few errands to run — pick up a week’s worth of mail, for instance — and her normal rhythm would be restored.

Rhythm was what she liked. Steady, repetitive, secure, safe, like a metronome beating out her days. Writing code took all of her mental energy. Irregularities of schedule and unforeseen events distracted her, stressed her out, burning ergs of brain-fuel better used on her programming. She worked hard to eliminate those irregularities. She had a very low tolerance for stress.

Years of the steady removal of distraction had made her who she was. She kept her dark hair cut short, so it required no care. She wore no makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of six flower-print dresses of various colors, chosen so she could dress herself each morning without thinking. She owned a single pair of shoes.

She stopped a few steps past the flower shop. Her mother loved tulips. It would be a nice way to say hello, and after all, she never called her mother as often as she should. Jane backtracked and entered the shop, ringing the bell on the door.

You think you’re a writer? Okay, go ahead — make those four paragraphs more suspenseful. Increase the tension!

How would you do it? More active verbs? Strike some adjectives and prepositional phrases? Or would you (this is my favorite) cut the whole walking-down-the-street scene? Do we need this stinking thing?

Let’s say we do. For our story, the reader needs to know this character and this exposition (she’s an eccentric programmer, close to her mom, physical appearance, etc), because it will all be important later.

Enough, already. Here’s where you went wrong.

You fiddled with verbs and adjectives, or tightened sentences, or tried it in present tense, or maybe first person.

You got distracted by language, and forgot about storytelling.

There are lots of great storytellers who aren’t very good with language. Vince Flynn and Dan Brown come to mind.

(There are great storytellers who are good with language, of course… and plenty of poets who suck at storytelling. And, rarely, successful writers who can do neither.)

So let’s use our skill as storytellers, rather than “writers,” to fix these tedious but necessary paragraphs.

How?

By not changing the paragraphs at all.

Here, check this out.

From his vantage point on the roof, Sven had a clear view of Wilshire Boulevard. Through the cross-hairs of his high-resolution sniper scope, he spotted his target.

Short dark hair, flower print dress. That was her, all right. She was still walking toward the post office, and there was no sign of the package. Good. He hadn’t been fast enough to stop that Chinese intelligence agent from dropping the package in the mail to a random conference attendee, but at least he’d tracked that attendee down. And he was pretty sure she knew nothing about it.

Too bad for her. Sven disengaged the safety — that familiar “click” always started his palms sweating with excitement.

#

Jane Hemingway marched with purpose down Wilshire, past a flower shop, on the way to the post office. After a week-long tech conference in Hawaii, she was almost back in the swing of her life. Just a few errands to run — pick up a week’s worth of mail, for instance — and her normal rhythm would be restored.

Rhythm was what she liked. Steady, repetitive, secure, safe, like a metronome beating out her days. Writing code took all of her mental energy. Irregularities of schedule and unforeseen events distracted her, stressed her out, burning ergs of brain-fuel better used on her programming. She worked hard to eliminate those irregularities. She had a very low tolerance for stress.

Years of the steady removal of distraction had made her who she was. She kept her dark hair cut short, so it required no care. She wore no makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of six flower-print dresses of various colors, chosen so she could dress herself each morning without thinking. She owned a single pair of shoes.

She stopped a few steps past the flower shop. Her mother loved tulips. It would be a nice way to say hello, and after all, she never called her mother as often as she should. Jane backtracked and entered the shop, ringing the bell on the door.

#

Sven’s eyes narrowed coldly. He had hesitated, and now she was out of sight. She couldn’t be allowed to reach that package alive.

Sure, Steve, you’re thinking. When in doubt, throw in an assassin. Lame.

I admit my example is cheesy. But my point is this:

I don’t need to change those four paragraphs. Now, the reader is no longer bored by the Jane exposition, because the reader is busy realizing that Jane is Sven’s target and sweating about his aim, not to mention wondering what the hell the package is. I have given the reader more to think about, so he or she is at a higher cognitive level while reading the exposition.

I have made the Jane exposition interesting, not by changing it, but by changing the reader’s mental state. As a writer, I am a conductor, and the reader’s mind and emotions are my orchestra. Get it?

Tension is not achieved by style. It is achieved by strategy. The aim of that strategy is to give the reader more to think about, more to wonder about, and more to suspect.

You can do this by asking questions (“What’s in the package?”) and setting the stakes high at the beginning. Then, the reader will gladly burn through any exposition you need to get across to make your story work.


Suspense is a bridge you can build. It can carry your readers over writing like the italicized paragraphs above.

The bridge metaphor helps me remember how to write — much better than the word “tension,” which merely describes the emotion that the reader feels when the writing works well.

“Tension” only makes me think of a piece of rope.

You, the writer, ask questions continuously, on page 1, and again on page 10, and again on page 110. And you answer them too — perhaps on page 8, and page 18, and page 88, so that you have a telescoping pattern of small-scale (zigzagging) and large-scale (thematic) suspense.

In other words, if you want to increase the tension in Chapter Five, try rewriting Chapter Three. If Act II is dragging, rethink Act I.

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