Inspired by Halloween, I decided to focus this month's writing article on a genre that specializes in thrills, chills and spills! We will be discussing Thrillers and Suspense as a genre in fiction.
The basics of a story is a plotline which follows the exploits of the main characters as they attempt to resolve a conflict while making their way to their intended goal. So how exactly does Thriller and Suspense differ from other genres? Suspense in fiction happens when dramatic tension escalates, and becomes charged with anticipation. So the genre isn’t necessarily about plot as much as it is about emotion, defined by using tension to create anxiety, uncertainty, or surprise. So it is easy to see how this can cause confusion, as these characteristics are applicable to a broad range of literary genres. Thriller/Suspense can stand on its own, but can also be incorporated into other genres, such as crime/thriller, western/thriller, fantasy/thriller, horror/thriller, and many more.
It is a very popular genre in writing, however it’s classification seems to elude many. They tend to get scattered around with other genres, being categorized as Horror, Science Fiction or even Mystery.
To understand Thriller/Suspense fiction, you need to understand it’s perspective. The storytelling approach when dealing with a crisis focuses on being proactive, with a hefty dose of drama. In order to be proactive, events need to happen in the beginning of the story, forcing the protagonist to react. To better understand, let us have a comparison:
- Mystery: A crime happens, then we see the protagonist spend the rest of the story trying to find out what happened. He is therefore reactive.
- Horror: Unspeakable terror happens, then we see the protagonist spend the rest of the story trying to escape it. He is therefore reactive.
- Science-Fiction: Something out of the ordinary happens, then we see the protagonist spend the rest of the story dealing with the situation. He is therefore reactive.
- Thriller/Suspense: The protagonist receives information about impending doom, then we see him spend the rest of the story attempting to prevent it. He is therefore proactive.
The key to writing Thrillers/Suspense fiction is not to ask “What needs to happen?”, it’s to ask “What can go wrong?”. Four factors need to be taken into account when writing this genre: reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension. So the tension in the story needs to escalate, or else the suspense will evaporate before it reaches a climax.
Here are some important points to remember when writing Suspense Fiction:
- Create a good hero. This may be true to any story, but the suspense hero has to be someone the reader will worry about. In Suspense, the hero helps create tension by having their life, needs or desires in jeopardy. We push suspense even further by keeping said aspects away from the protagonist, emphasizing how deeply the character wants it, and showing what consequences will result if they don’t get it.
- Create a good villain. In a suspense novel, the identity of the antagonist is known early, and they are very visible to the audience. It is therefore important that the villain be a worthy opponent to the hero. Explore who the antagonist is; what is their motivations, background and character. Show the reader why they should fear this person.
- Understand tragedy. It is important to understand the importance of loss. The goal of Suspense stories is to engage the reader's concern by heightening the impact of the tragedy. But if the story contains hundreds of murders, each explained in detail, then the act of murder will seem less tragic, and readers won’t feel concerned by it. To build tension, don’t emphasize the violent act, increase the reader's apprehension about the violent act.
Modulate Suspense. Building tension takes time. Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences. Create a feeling of apprehension by slowing down time; use longer, more complex sentences rather than being short and to the point. This can help to increase suspense. Break the tension by inserting a pause into suspense; a moment of comic relief, reveal a clue that advances the plot or maybe character development. Use this technique of inserting a brief respite to give readers a break, then return to the suspense to keep them hooked.
Promises and Payoffs. A promise is anticipation that a dreadful event is going to happen; the payoff is the action taken against said event. There can be a suspense sequence early in the novel, and the tension should build up the farther into the story the reader gets. The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff. It’s important, however, that those promises always be fulfilled, or else the readers will end up feeling disappointed.
- Create dilemmas. Events in the storyline should come at a price. The protagonist needs challenging dilemmas to test their character, and must seemingly be a lose-lose situation. By their nature, protagonists can’t stray from their morals or promises, so they will need to face dilemmas, no matter how difficult.
- High stakes. The story must be about a cause so important to the protagonist, that they are willing to do anything to prevent it from being in danger. Place said cause in some sort of peril, then raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, intimate, personal and devastating. Postponing the resolution will help sustain the suspense, and ensures readers will empathize with the protagonist.
- Apply pressure. A key way for writers to create tension is by pitting the protagonist against what seems to be insurmountable odds. Pile on the problems by giving the protagonist more things to do than they can handle; working against the clock, waves of enemies, elemental disasters, allies in distress, unexpected obstacles, etc. Push them further by removing their tools, escape routes and support system. The protagonist should be working every minute to achieve their goal, which should feel just out of reach. Heroes should be stretched to the breaking point in order to save the day.
Foreshadow rather than telegraph. The line between foreshadowing and telegraphing is a subtle one. Creating a scene that ends in foreshadow is meant to hint at something more sinister to come without out giving away the punchline. Telegraphing is when the reader guesses what’s coming, effectively ruining the suspense.
- Point of view. The reader should have foresight into the actions of both the protagonist and the antagonist. By making the readers aware of the trouble before the protagonist, they get to see the lines of convergence between the protagonist and antagonist. This technique builds tension from the reader’s self-imposed fears of knowing the consequences of the perils ahead.
- Turn up the Sensory Detail. Heighten anticipation by focusing on the right sensory detail. By making your character hyper-aware of sensations, you add a feeling of impending danger, which contributes to dramatic tension. The absence of sensory detail, such as stillness and shadows, can also suggest a hidden menace. Furthermore, using the protagonists internal dialogue allows the reader to experience the tension firsthand.
In closing, the most important thing I learned today, is to be unpredictable. Make nothing straight-forward. Readers will try to predict what will happen, but they want to be wrong. The reader might know what the story’s endgame is, but not how it’s going to get there. Give them more than what they are anticipating.
Until next time!