How To Create Suspense

    Do you know how to create suspense?

    One of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser known films, Rope, is also one of his best.

    The film begins with two men committing a murder in plain view of the audience. The two men then hide the body in a large wooden chest. Soon the audience realizes, to their shock, that the two men have planned to host a dinner party just moments after the murder—at the scene of the crime.

    As the unsuspecting guests enter the apartment, your stomach just gets tighter and tighter as you watch them fall into this horrifying trap.

    For nearly the entire movie, the audience is on the edge of their seats, wondering if, or when, the unsuspecting dinner guests will discover that they’ve been dining with murderers, and that the murdered man is in the same room as they are.

    The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock

    Now, it sounds as if I just gave away the surprise ending of an Alfred Hitchcock film. But I haven’t. Because if you were to watch this movie yourself, you’d find that all this information is given to you in the first 15 minutes of the film. In fact, much of what I have just told you is revealed in the synopsis of the film itself.

    In the play that the film was based on, the murder is not shown to the audience and happens before the play even begins. This means that it is not made absolutely clear to the audience that the murdered man is hidden in the chest.

    When the play ended up in Hitchcock’s hands, he changed all that when he adapted it into a film: he made sure that the audience knew that the murdered man was hidden in the chest at the very beginning of the movie.

    Why did he do that?

    Hitchcock did that because he knew that if he withheld that pertinent information, he would only elicit a few minutes of shock near the end of the film. However, if he revealed the secret of the murder right away, he could give his audience 80 straight minutes of unadulterated, edge-of-your-seat, thrilling suspense.

    If you have watched the film, you will agree with me that result is incredibly effective.

    Because as soon as the audience knows that there’s a dead body hidden in the chest, there is no telling where this story could go.

    Everyone is vulnerable—even the murderers themselves—and at any given moment, you can easily imagine something going terribly, terribly wrong.

    How To Create Suspense

    This is how you create suspense:

    Don’t withhold sensitive information that could put your characters in danger. Instead, broadcast that sensitive information to your reader as soon as possible. That way, your reader has no choice but to walk on eggshells for the rest of your story, keeping them engaged and glued to the page until the very end.

    A guest post by regular WTD contributor Ollin Morales. He is a fiction writer and professional blogger. His blog, Courage 2 Create, chronicles his journey as he writes his first fiction novel. His blog offers writing advice as well as strategies to deal with life’s tough challenges. His blog was named one of The Top Ten Blogs for Writers by Write To Done two years in a row (2011, 2012).

    Image: man reading suspense novel courtesy of Bigstock.com

    About the author

      Ollin Morales

      Ollin Morales's blog, Courage 2 Create, chronicles the author’s journey as he writes his very first novel. His blog offers writing tips as well as strategies to deal with life’s toughest challenges. After all, as Ollin’s story unfolds, it becomes more and more clear to him that in order to write a great novel, he must first learn how to live a great life.

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    • Silvia says:

      i never thought about delivering information to that effect. That’s brilliant! I’d say it’s even better than trying to surprise or a shock readers.

    • I love it when what would most people name the main twist is revealed early so that we are left with endless possibilities. While it is not a masterpiece, I really enjoyed the 2011 movie The Double with Richard Gere.

      He plays a retired CIA agent who’s forced to return to the case of a very dangerous killer-since another murder in the same style is committed. He keeps trying to convince the agency and his rookie FBI partner that the killer is long dead. But of course he is not, since the killer is Richard Gere.

      This is revealed in the trailer, making some viewers think it is the entire twist. Nope, it is this “twist” that made me see the movie. It usually makes a great thriller when the audience knows more than one of the main characters and gets to watch as the secret-keeper manipulates the others. Oh, and some of the best lines come from Gere when he talks about what a worthless, psychotic monster the killer is. Priceless.

      P.S. I’m so watching Rope.

      • I’m so watching The Double. I just watched Primal Fear with Richard Gere. Really great performance by Edward Norton in that film. Another great thriller!

    • Writemania says:

      Thanks for bringing this critical tip

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Love learning by the perfect example, Ollin.

      You’ve made this lesson a cinch to remember and put into practice. I love thrillers and suspense novels. Will watch for this technique, and hope to use it in my own writing, too.

      And, yes, sounds like a good rainy-day movie rental — one I haven’t seen before. Thank you!

      • Yeah, it would be the perfect rainy day movie. Any Hitchock film would do, actually.

    • Ray Ward says:

      This same tactic worked to perfection in “Memento” (a Christopher Nolan film). In the opening sequence, you see a man being killed. The rest of the movie is about why he was killed. In each scene, you get one piece of the puzzle. But each piece leaves raises another unanswered question. Until the end.

      • Really great point, Ray. I loved Memento. Love Christopher Nolan, too.

    • i write for children and young adults and can see how showing the danger would heaighten their interest. As I am writing a historical novel about the 1780’s to war of 1812 in US and Canada, there was much to be feared and showing that danger reveals te rediament the main character is in.
      Thanks for reassuring me.

    • Brilliant! This is certainly an effective technique for creating suspense, and through the way you’ve written this article I can already feel that suspense. Thanks for bringing this critical tip to the forefront of our awareness.

    • Jevon says:

      Interesting stuff Ollin. If everybody knows that the situation the characters are in is dangerous, then readers would be nervous about their every move. I never really thought about the science of it. Thanks for pointing this out.

      • You are welcome. Go rent Rope if you haven’t seen it. It’s an excellent study in suspense.

    • Beth Havey says:

      Yes, you raise the bar on your characters and then you increase your reader’s stress and most times they cannot put your work down. Thanks.

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