Yesterday, I had the privilege of hearing Andrew Pyper, author of Canadian bestsellers The Killing Circle, Lost Girls, and The Demonologist, speak at the WCDR’s monthly breakfas. As he introduced his talk, he told us he had decided while watching a nail-biting hockey game the night before not to give one of his set speeches. As a writer of literary thrillers, he spends a lot of time thinking about suspense, and the game triggered him to put his thoughts about how to create suspense on paper.
His presentation had the freshness that comes from newly articulated thoughts and the depth of years of thinking on the subject. I have no doubt that he will refine the speech and future audiences will get a well-polished lesson in creating literary suspense, but it was a treat to be exposed to the more raw workings of Pyper’s mind as he develops this presentation. For those of you who didn’t have the privilege of being there, here is a recap of what I got out of his talk.
1. A Working Definition of Suspense
Suspense is the space between the asking and answering of a question.
When structuring a story, a writer must keep track of the questions that the reader is expecting will be answered. It is the desire to get the answers to these questions that keeps a reader turning the pages.
Although a single question may drive a novel from beginning to end, it is not enough. Secondary and tertiary questions at midpoints keep the tension high. Pacing the suspense through the story requires tracking the unanswered questions, creating a series of questions that are answered throughout the book.
For suspense, there must always be an open question.
2. Generating Fear in a Scene
What generated fears in a reader? It is not the exquisite description of the scary thing. Rather, a scary scene is driven by the experience of the character who is scared.
For example, in Henry Jame’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw, the ghosts are ciphers, hardly described, sketchily drawn. The power of the story is in the living governess who experiences the presence of the ghosts. Her fear becomes the reader’s fear.
A description of a creepy basement is far less frightening to a reader than sharing the experience of a character who hates basements but has to explore this one because he fears his missing daughter is down there, and it terrified of what he will find when he gets to the bottom. The character’s interpretation of the creepiness of the elements of the basement is key.
3. Setting for a Scary Scene
There is power in keeping it real. Make the scene identifiable to your reader to increase the immediacy of the sense of fear.
The devil is in the details. The little things can be frightening. In a realistic, contemporary world, the moving of a coffee cup or the spilling of a cup of coffee can be scary.
To develop the sense of fear as experienced by a character, one technique is to use the environment to reflect the character’s state of mind.
As an example, Pyper used a scene from one of his books in which a frightened character sees a pastoral mural, but rather than focusing on the peace of the scene, the character imagines a hunter lurking in the woods ready to destroy that peace.
4. Capture the Details of Life
Pyper described good writing as the movement between the general and the particular. A sole focus on the general fails to capture the reader’s attention, but too much of the particular becomes merely a list of facts.
There is a resonance in naming things. As an example, Pyper offered the distinction between a scene in which a character sees a half-eaten sandwich on the bathroom counter and a doll and an action figure in the shower and the same scene with the character seeing a half-eaten ham sandwich, a Cabbage Patch doll and a Green Lantern action figure. Adding the specificity to the items engages the reader at a deeper level.
Pyper shared two techniques he uses for finding the particulars that he can use in his writing.
1. Like most writers, Pyper carries a notebook in which he records details he observes. The notebook is a tool for remembering the particular, especially moments of dialogue.
2. A mental exercise he engages in is to look around an everyday place and think about where in that environment something terrible could happen.
5. Making a Friendship Bracelet or the Don DeLillo effect
One of the things Pyper discovered when examining Don DeLillo’s work was that DeLillo often combines 3 elements in a paragraph and weaves a fugue of sentences using these elements.
For example, the three elements could be a character’s actions, a memory, and a current thought. By weaving these elements together in a single paragraph, a writer can extend a moment in a believable way. Rather than slowing down physical actions, this approach enriches the action that is happening and delays the readers progression to the next moment – a technique that delays the answering of open questions, thereby contributing to suspense.
Pyper used the friendship bracelet he was wearing, made by his daughter, as an analogy. The threads of the bracelet are the elements that are being woven together to create the whole.
As an advanced technique for increasing the suspense, one of the threads can remind readers of questions that have been asked but not yet answered.
6. Use How You, the Writer, Feel as a Test
A writer has to care about each scene. To create scary scenes, the author must feel that everything is at stake for the character in the scene. Something about the scene must be unsettling to the author.
Especially in writing the first draft, Pyper points out that a writer must open Pandora’s box, letting out all the things that can go somewhere frightening, grounded in the awareness that this is what makes my character scared. Pyper knows he has done well when he leaves a writing session thinking, “maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
Revision is a different beast, but the first draft is the place to go for the ridiculous and open all the doors to places that scare the character. Refine and cut later if the work demands it, but start by getting it all out there.
And there you have it, 6 thoughts on creating suspense from Andrew Pyper. Can you use them to make your story-telling more suspenseful? I know I can.