Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween, Horror, and Suspense

By Susan

"The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..." — Stephen King

We are not experts on terror here at What Women Write, that's no secret. Among us you'll find writers of women's fiction, historical fiction, YA, contemporary fiction and southern fiction. None of us purport to be Anne Rice. Yet at Halloween, it's always fun to think of the gross-out, the horror, and the terror, and finding a way with simple words to scare the beejeezus out of a each other.

The interesting thing about writing horror, I think, is that it's not the rabid dog or the possessed demon that gets us; it's the suspense the the author creates in taking us to that place where we are transported to the scene. Our breath quickens as our eyes move faster across the page. We think we know what is coming... but sometimes we're wrong. Dead wrong. With well-written horror it all becomes so fantastically believable that we leave our mundane surroundings and suddenly we are there, trapped by zombies and fighting for our lives, using the severed limbs of our fallen comrades as our only weapons in an epic battle of good and evil.

Of course, not all suspense is about zombies and rabid dogs, and for all of us "normal" fiction writers, I think we should take a lesson or two in creating tension in writing. How can we lead the reader down our trail of breadcrumbs until they arrive right where we want them to be? How best do we build suspense, remain unpredictable, avoid cliches, and create a novel that keeps you reading?

After an informal poll, here are some of the top techniques for creating suspense in fiction:

1) End chapters with a reason for the reader to keep the light on.
2) Only tell them what they need to know. Make them question what is coming next.
3) Make your story unique and interesting, yet somehow still plausible.
4) Edit with suspense in mind-and proofread your work actively looking for it. If it's not there, add it.
5) Think about pacing and immediacy--what is your character's emotion RIGHT NOW?
6) Expect the unexpected--and surprise your reader.
7) Add an element of danger.

Remember that you are writing for an audience, and your pacing, timeline, and flow of information must be such that the reader--and I think that this is just a little bit important--WANTS TO CONTINUE READING. Sure, we are writing for the sake of the story, or writing, to quote Mr. King again, "for happiness." But if your story doesn't carry some level of tension, then who is going to read it anyway?

Here's Joan's take on suspense in literature, and I couldn't agree more.

"The novels I find most suspenseful feature multi-faceted characters who are damaged or conflicted, faced with impossible dilemmas, and plagued with uneasiness about their futures. For writers, I think the key is to withhold vital information until absolutely necessary. Keep the stakes high, complicate it some more, and be unpredictable. Sometimes suspense stems from physical danger (Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants) or psychological (Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger), or maybe a combination (Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle). All three narratives drove the reader along a winding road in the fog, where visibility was limited and the unexpected lurked around every turn."

And so, for Halloween, I'm revisiting my manuscript and adding some suspenseful elements I may have forgotten. I'm changing chapter breaks, adding sentences of foreshadowing, upping the ante on plausibility, and planning a few new surprises. What about you?

Trick or Treat!


  1. A recent book that certainly kept me in suspense was ROOM by Emma Donaghue. There were times while reading it that I was actually cringing at what might happen if things did not go according to plan. What made it worse was that the protagonist was only five and so he didn't pick up on some things while the reader was left completely terrified for him. I can't tell you how many times I said, "Oh my God, NO!" out loud while reading it. I'll be reviewing it for my next post.

  2. Kim, I agree. ROOM was wonderful! I specifically didnt mention it as an example here, knowing you were critiquing it in your upcoming post :-) I think with all great reads we don't always recognize the suspenseful elements until we've devoured the entire book in one sitting (like I did with The Help last year). Suspense (along with great writing and a great storyline) is the key!


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