[This is another snip from my talk on “suspense” at Write on the Sound in 2012.]
It was a powerful moment for me when I realized that we don’t read fiction to find out what will happen.
We read to find out if what we expect will happen actually does. A key to suspense is to create expectation in the reader – preferably the expectation of “something good.” Readers love upheaval, reversal, conflict, turmoil, transformation… readers love confrontation.
Example: Chekhov’s gun. (That is, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”)
When you’ve got a confrontation coming up, don’t merely foreshadow it, creating uncertainty. Let the reader know with clarity that trouble is on the way.
Example: Carrie, by Stephen King. The prom-night telekinetic conflagration at the end of this novel is still famous. Let’s look at the clues King planted for us:
Page 5: “a [telekinetic] potential of immense magnitude existed within Carrie White. The great tragedy is that we are now all Monday-morning quarterbacks…” The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Carietta White
Page 22: “I’ve seen some high school pictures of her, and that horrible black-and-white photo on the cover of Newsweek.” Carrie: The Black Dawn of T.K.
Page 27: “And now there’s this other thing. No one can laugh that off either. Too many people are dead.” Carrie: The Black Dawn of T.K.
Page 37: “The outcome of the White affair raises grave and difficult questions. An earthquake has struck our ordered notions of the way the natural world is supposed to act and react.” Telekinesis: Analysis and Aftermath
Page 48: “the only witness to any possible prologue to the the final climactic events was Margaret White, and she, of course is dead…” The Shadow Exploded
Page 122: The trouble at the prom begins.
Exercise: Think of a revealing moment, an exciting confrontation, or a reversal in your work-in-progress. Did you intend this scene as a complete surprise for the reader? If so, play with the notion of letting the reader know it will happen well ahead of time. If you foreshadowed it somewhat, then consider letting the reader know with certainty that the confrontation will be inevitable. Brainstorm a new piece of evidence could you present to the reader (an object, a offhand line of dialogue, a scene from a new POV).
Great post, Steve. I just finished reading Anna Karenina and Tolstoy was genius at foreshadowing and making the reader try to guess what was to happen next. In each instance, I was wrong! Perfectly executed. 🙂
Tolstoy? Thanks, Susan, for classing up this joint. I’ve got to get that on my to-read list.
It’s a must-read for anyone who writes novels. 🙂 You’ll love it. Now, onto War & Peace. That’s only 1276 pages. Krikey!