Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

Ten Ways to Create Gut-Gnawing Suspense

Posted: December 13, 2013, 4:22PM

I checked the door—locked, just like it’d been the other four times I checked it—and with a final quick glance into the dark corners of the room, I crawled between the cold sheets, grateful for Aunt Margaret’s assurance that I wouldn’t be disturbed. 


“Don’t you worry, child. Won’t be nobody in that big old house but you.”

The wind of the approaching storm banged a loose shutter and the house sighed eerily, moaned as it settled into the night like an old crone easing herself into a rocker. Then I heard a sound from the room above me and my next breath caught and hung in my throat. 

Aunt Margaret had lied. 

Of course she did, you idiot. Your gut told you not to trust a woman who claimed at Crazy Uncle Albert’s trial that she’d thought he was burying tulip bulbs in those holes he dug in the back yard. 

The springs on the bed in the room above creaked under the weight of someone sitting down. I lay in the darkness as still as a concrete garden gnome. Then I heard the clunk of something hitting the floor. Uncle Albert had worn size 13 shoes. 

I sucked in a gasp. 

And waited.

But there was only silence.

Uneasy yet? You should be. Even this amateurishly scary scene creates suspense--in five different ways.  It also supplies a word picture/graphic of what we’ll be talking about here for the next few weeks, provides the simplest, most basic definition: Foreshadowing is dropping that first shoe so the reader spends the rest of the scene or chapter or book waiting, anticipating, trying to guess when the other shoe will fall.

Think of foreshadowing as previews of coming attractions, hints that prepare Loyal Reader for what’s coming and build in him a sense of anticipation—and apprehension, too, of course, an understanding that life is about to go seriously south on the characters in this story. A writer can use an entire scene to create suspense, with elaborately detailed foreshadowing,  or simply drop a clue with just a few words.

 

 Alastair Shelbourne stopped in his daily trek up the mountain to the ridge when he heard voices rising out of the fog that lay like clotted cream in the valley at his feet. On the first day of the school year, children in the Gaynor Junior School were singing All Things Great And Beautiful and their voices, drifting eerily up through the thick white mist into the bright morning sunshine, were the voices of angels. The 62-year-old grandfather stood still, listening. Then he smiled. It was the last time he ever would. 

When Butterflies Cry


 

Jonas got out the green bottle of hand lotion, started on her right foot with a big handful of it, smeared it on every toe and in between them, around the callus and the bunion, up on the top of her foot, to her ankle, her calf, her knee and her thigh. Rubbing the lotion in, smoothing it, stroking gently in the dark with his big, rough hands all the way up to the diaper she slept in. 

Soon as he’d smeared lotion all over her, she stopped wiggling. Didn’t itch anymore and she could sleep then. He lay beside her, staring into the darkness with hot tears running down his temples into his hair, wondering if he could do it and certain that he had to. Knowing this was the last sunrise he’d ever spend in  bed beside his Maggie.

Five Days in May


 

There are  more techniques to build suspense in your novel than I’ve got space to write about or you’ve got time to read. So I’ll narrow the field down to a tidy list-number. Here are ten ways to create foreshadowing:

1. NARRATION

This is the most obvious method, of course. Simply make a statement that hints of dire events to come, as in the two examples above—the last time Alastair would ever smile or Jonas would ever watch the sun rise beside his Maggie.

2.  DIALOGUE

Consider what Gandalf says after he finally speaks "friend" and enters the ancient Dwarf Kingdom of Moria. "There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world,” he says to Frodo in a quiet voice. About twenty pages later, Gandalf is yanked down into the guts of the mountain by one of them.

Or in my shoe-dropping scenario:

“Don’t you worry, child. Won’t be nobody in this big old house but you.”

Riiiiight. 

3. ACTION

When Miss Dimwit checks the door five times and then casts a furtive glance into the dark corners of the room, I’ve tipped off the reader to keep a lookout for the Boogie Man lurking in the shadows.

4. SCENE/SETTING

The “house sighed eerily, moaned as it settled into the night like an old crone easing herself into a rocker.” A creepy setting sets a suspenseful tone.

5.CHANGE IN THE WEATHER/ENVIRONMENT

Creepy weather sets a suspenseful tone, too. The archetypal horror story begins,  “It was a dark and stormy night” for a reason. "The wind of the approaching storm banged a loose shutter” in my scene for the same reason.

6.  AN OBJECT

You can signal impending doom with an object as innocent as a forgotten cell phone, or as obvious as a “Bridge Is Out” sign lying face-down in the mud.

7. CREATE IN MINIATURE

When Melanie Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay and is attacked by a seagull, we’re served notice that Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds are likely to be particularly “foul” creatures. When a spelunking character bumps his head and causes a small landslide, Loyal Reader says to himself, “Mark it down, there’s gonna be a cave-in.” And, of course, there is.

 

8. POINT OUT AN APPROACHING EVENT

As soon as Catniss Everdene mentions the upcoming Reaping, readers understand that her participation in it will not go well.

9. Conversly, you can DIRECT THE READERS' ATTENTION TO A NO-POSSIBLE-WAY EVENT.

Even if he were unaware of history, as soon as the ship's captain announces that the Titantic is “unsinkable,” Loyal Reader knows to start looking around for a life jacket.

10. UNREASONED EMOTION/GUT REACTION

Miss Dimwit’s gut tells her not to trust Crazy Uncle Albert’s wife.



Han Solo needs to do a better job of listening to his own internal organs. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he tells the others gathered with him in a garbage compactor.  He says the same thing when he’s tied up in the Ewok village.

Luke says it as his ship approaches the Death Star,  Princess Leia says it when they’re in the cave that turns out to be a giant space worm’s mouth and C3PO says it when he’s on his way to Jabba the Hutt.

Overkill? Yep. But when the viewer hears those words, he instantly has a bad feeling about it, too.

As a preview of coming attractions in 9e’s Blog, I plan to unpack these foreshadowing methods, dig in and see what they look like in stories and how we can best put them to work in our own fiction.

And I’ve got a good feeling about it. Really. I do.

Write on!

9e

 

 




Comments

SueAnn Porter January 2, 2015, 1:56PM

Loved this one too!   Reply

Replies (1)

Caleb January 13, 2015, 4:01PM

Thanks, helped me out a lot!   Reply

Replies (1)


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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author
NINIE HAMMON

I have soooo many stories I want to tell you, so many worlds I want you to see, so many people I want you to meet. People in trouble, most of them. Big trouble they didn't ask for but there it is. Ordinary folks like you and me who are forced by circumstances to fight for their lives. And then, smack in the middle of their everyday worlds they encounter the unexplainable. It's always the game-changer.

Welcome to my world. If you'd like to know more about me, I'm easy. Click on Meet Ninie and you'll see. My life isn't really an open book; it's more of a pamphlet, and you are cordially invited to read it. I'd love to interact with you on Twitter, Facebook Fan page, and Goodreads. Or come visit with me at 9e's Kitchen Table, a Facebook group where readers and I hang out. I think you'd like it.