My oldest son occasionally says: “Want to know the definition of suspense? I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
This joke captures the essence of suspense, which is to ask a question and then… make em wait!
Good stories constantly imply interesting questions. The questions and their answers are like the bread crumbs that lead you into the fairy tale woods. Reading is fun when you know you’re going into the woods AND you know that the author will guide you through its maze-like wonders and terrors skillfully, step by step, bread crumb by tasty bread crumb. You don’t have to worry about getting truly lost. You don’t have to worry about the woods holding nothing of interest. The skilful writer gains your trust with the placing of the bread crumbs. Then you’re along for the ride. And if the answers to the questions are not immediately provided, the ride will be filled with thrills and spills – suspense!
How exactly does a writer do this – make em wait? Since I’m currently reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome (and I might be doing so for a while; the hardcover copy I am reading is 1072 pages), I will share an excerpt from it that I think is highly suspenseful.
In the interest of exercising your suspense recognition muscles, I give you this challenge: read the following and try to notice how King builds suspense. What questions does the text imply and how does King make us wait for the answers?
There was a thud.
It brought Sammy wide awake in bed even though she’d smoked half a doob and drunk three of Phil’s beers before falling out at ten o’clock. She always kept a couple of sixes in the fridge and still thought of them as “Phil’s beers,” although he’d been gone since April. She’d heard rumors that he was still in town, but discounted them. Surely if he was still around, she would have seen him sometime during the last six months, wouldn’t she? It was a small town, just like that song said.
That got her bolt upright, and listening for Little Walter’s wail. It didn’t come and she thought, Oh God, that damn crib fell apart! And if he can’t even cry –
She threw the covers back and ran for the door. She smacked into the wall to the left of it, instead. Almost fell down. Damn dark! Damn power company! Damn Phil, going off and leaving her like this, with no one to stick up for her when guys like Frank DeLesseps were mean to her and scared her and –
She felt along the top of the dresser and found the flashlight. She turned it on and hurried out the door. She started to turn left, into the bedroom where Little Walter slept, but the thud came again. Not from the left, but from straight ahead, across the cluttered living room. Someone was at the trailer’s front door. And now there came muffled laughter. Whoever it was sounded like they had their drink on.
1. The First Question: Thud – Notice that the first thud is followed by a period, not an exclamation point. Any thud in a story implies something wrong. So the question is What’s wrong? or What’s that? or Who’s that? Notice, too, that the answer to this question is only partially answered after the 260 words in this excerpt. King makes us wait. And wait. And… He’s milking the moment, and that’s what we want. So what does he do while he makes us wait?
2. Exposition – While you’re making em wait, it’s the perfect time to slip in some exposition. Things we need to know. Back story. Here, for example, we learn that Sammy smokes marijuana and drinks a lot of beer before going to bed. We learn that her husband Phil has been MIA for 6 months.
3. Characterization – This exposition further fleshes out Sammy’s character (she has been featured in a couple of scenes previously). We see that she is a flawed mother, getting high and drunk even though she has a baby. Yet we soon learn that she is not so far gone as to forget about Little Walter. When the second thud reraises the question: What’s that? Sammy’s instinct is to make sure her baby is all right.
4. A New Question – The premise of this story is that a sort of invisible yet impervious dome has mysteriously fallen upon and imprisoned the residents of a small town, Chester’s Mill, Maine. Will they get out? How? At what cost? Sammy’s thoughts in this scene raise a new question: since Phil has been MIA, he was not in town when the dome fell… or was he? Clearly King wants us to wonder about this. Perhaps we will have to wait many pages for the answer. In this way a second thread of suspense is weaved together with the first.
5. Repetition of the Question: Thud! – Notice that from here on out the thud is followed by an exclamation point, upping the ante. The question is not going away. What is going to happen??? Tell me already!!!
6. Action – Till now we have seen no action other than Sammy waking up, at which point she thinks about Phil. Now, after the second thud, she thinks about her baby and that gets her moving. Note that her actions, she “threw back the covers,” “ran for the door,” and “smacked into the wall,” are urgent and thus reveal a greater concern and love for her baby than she has shown for her husband.
We also get more characterization and connection with Sammy via her thoughts. She is frustrated, blaming her smacking into the wall on the dark, the power company and Phil. We learn that she’s still thinking about how “guys like Frank DeLesseps were mean to her and scared her,” implying another question: is Frank behind this?
7. And a Third Time, Thud! – The magic number is three. We see it again and again in stories, in music, in comedy. When listing something, list three things. When telling a joke, if there is an extended setup then the punchline must come third. Who knows why? Three just works. Occasionally you can mix it up for variety, but in general stick with what works, the magic number three. Thud, thud, thud.
8. Partial Discovery – Next we learn that someone or some group is at the door, laughing and drunk. New questions: Who is it? What do they want? Why are they here late at night, rudely making thud noises? Are they dangerously drunk?
Even though we’ve only heard three thuds and followed a woman waking up, thinking, checking on her baby and getting a flashlight, King, a master of suspense, has accomplished far more than dropping a few plot points. He’s included exposition, developed character and dropped the bread crumbs that lead us further into the woods. We’re still reading. We’re still along for the thrill ride.
Well-executed suspense is so effectively gripping that one question can frame an entire story. Ask a question at a story’s beginning; make readers wait till THE END. Hence the popularity of existentialist classics No Exit and Waiting for Godot. Hence the success of the 1980 season finale to CBS’ prime time soap opera Dallas, for which viewers were forced to wait six months, till the next season’s premiere, to learn the answer to the question on thousands of t-shirts that summer:
WHO SHOT J.R.?
Hence the success of your next story, and mine. Okay? We can do it.
Which leaves us with a question: What is Suspense Rule #2? I’ll tell you tomorrow.