By Author Donan Berg
Every reader desires suspense and writers strive to create the page-turning anticipation. That last word “anticipation” is the definition of suspense. One could write a book on creating suspense. However, let’s focus our penlight of inquiry on a tiny spot. In that tiny spot is our protagonist. All around him or her are varying shades of gray (dare we count them to equal the number fifty, no, not today) destined to become the darkness we label as the color black.
Suspense may set up housekeeping within any genre. It’s the romantic secret, the dark hole of sci-fi space, the path to the mystery’s clue, the rattlesnake coiled on the cowboy’s prairie, or the youngster’s hand reaching into what he or she thinks is a chocolate chip cookie jar.
Common objects can be used to create suspense. Why? Because there is a history or association that the object carries along with it. It’s the traveler’s baggage, so to speak. For example, if one were to read the word “toga,” what comes to mind? Romans, Caesar, Animal House, Belushi, wild party, girls, sex. (That last word was a no-brainer, wasn’t it? The three-letter word could punctuate any list of human association examples countless times without being wrong.)
Can you foreshadow suspense? Sure. Common objects invite association with pending dread. Halloween is the easiest example. The holiday has witches, spooks, skeletons and all sorts of objects linked to fear, foreboding and horror. If the author said the protagonist lived on Elm Street, would you think of scissor blades for fingers, hockey masks or “Father Knows Best?” What if the day happened to be the thirteenth of the month? And, add to that, a Friday. Each day of the month is obviously equal in creation, but the world has added associations. Is death any more horrible if it happens on Friday, the thirteenth? What about the Ides of March?
Children’s dolls are the Utopian fun object and the acme of all that is good, hopeful and innocent. And then an author created Chucky. What made Chucky more terrifying? His actions, of course, but he broke a perception of what a doll normally stood for. Anyone desire to open a drawer and spy a voodoo doll? An object, the doll, that stood for good, now acts or stands for evil or a premonition of bad. The opposite is when a mild-mannered reporter steps into a telephone booth and re-emerges as you know who.
A second more common foreshadowing of suspense is to use an object itself associated with foreboding. The most common example is the storm, either in full-blown glory or massing clouds on the horizon. Once Dorothy was sucked into the Kansas tornado, the reader didn’t expect the girl would be sitting down to milk and cookies. Remember, you don’t have to have terrible things happen after each suspense foreshadowing. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. If the proverbial cat walks out of the shadow after causing its owner a panic attack, the next time there’s a noise in the shadow confronting the owner it may not have to be the cat. Be careful of dream sequences. Ever since Bobby Ewing on TV’s “Dallas” opened the shower door in the 1980s, or maybe before that, announcing that the event had been a dream has carried its own association, and it's very negative, a reader turnoff.
Look for ways to create suspense in all kinds of situations. One way of many is to find a prevalent object in cultures, religions and/or exotic locales and set your mind to work. What could be different? What does the protagonist expect? What does he or she not expect? What moves the plot forward? Is the pumpkin a descriptive object to announce Halloween or to become a princess’s carriage? Or maybe the carved smiley face with the burning candle spooks a pair of lovers trying to sneak into what they anticipated to be an unoccupied cabin miles from nowhere.
Let’s try an example of a typical scenario of the police waiting to capture suspects arriving at an abandoned Midwest farmhouse. Should be a straightforward situation, or not? Detective Second Class Adolph Anderson is sweating out whether or not he’ll earn a nomination for a gold shield. Officer Sean Finnegan dreams of sewing on sergeant stripes.
What follows is an excerpt by the author from his currently unpublished manuscript entitled “Garden Bones.” All rights reserved.
“C’mon, dirtbags, we’re ready for ya,” Adolph muttered to no one in particular. He endured the ear itch his stretched black stocking cap created and shook his head to drive out the arid smell of burnt field stubble the westerly breeze carried into his nostrils. Before he organized this stakeout, he’d demanded his daughter Kirsten promise not to leave home and be at Mary’s side. Adolph had personally verified all exterior home door locks worked. His cell phone listed the number of the security company scheduled to install perimeter sensors the next day. He heard two owl hoots and braced his shoulder against a sturdy cottonwood.
Two pairs of headlights turned off the county road into the graveled farmyard, the second pair those of a small truck. If Luann’s prediction came true, she’d be in a van with Rebecca. An old Cadillac sedan’s headlights illuminated the two words “Salvatore Pizza” on the visible side of the panel van. Adolph strained to count two women, five males, and an unidentified smaller person before the doused headlights returned the farmyard to the night’s murky darkness. Luann right again. Damn. Could be the teenage girl. Adolph hated the complication.
The parade of visitors disappeared into the farmhouse. Second story bedroom lights went on after the first floor living room. Adolph wanted to wait until the lower level lights were flicked off, but they stayed on. He thanked God no vehicle guard patrolled and the numerical odds were even, better than even if he could count on Luann being on the inside. He fumbled for his walkie-talkie not regretting he hadn’t invited the SWAT team with its audio headsets. He spoke one word into the walkie-talkie: “Forward.”
The noose of officers tightened around the farmhouse.
Tense leg muscles subdued rising adrenaline to slow Adolph’s steps. He brushed against the words: “Salvatore Pizza.” He hesitated. Finnegan would take longer to get in position at the rear farmhouse door. A shadowed figure to his left waved. Adolph raised his left palm now holding the bullhorn. He peeked across the van’s hood. Lights remained on on both farmhouse levels. To his thinking that wasn’t a good sign. If the impromptu porn studio existed in the master bedroom, all inside actors should be on the second level. Yet, a black form passed in front of what had to be a lamp and behind the gauzy living room window curtain. A light beam flashed on and off in the basement casement window.
Adolph ignored the tightening knot in his stomach and his fears of being seen. Someone inside had merely checked the house entrances and exits. If concerned, the yard light would’ve been flicked on. Patience. Keep cool. He lowered his left arm. Two owl hoots. Finnegan positioned. Adolph waved to the figure on his left and exposed his upper torso from the cover of the van. Until he reached the solid surface of the front walkway, he tried not to kick the pebbles in the gravel underfoot. No moonbeams guided his effort. To his right, a third figure, crossing the lawn, matched Adolph’s advance. The three men joined forces on the front porch. Both officers, shotguns vertical, fingers on their respective triggers, nodded to Adolph and flattened their backs against the house clapboard on opposite sides of the front door.
Adolph gulped two shallow breaths and pressed the bullhorn to his lips.
“Police. Come out now. Hands up.” He angled his body forty-five degrees to the door to protect against bullets shredding the wood and striking him. He tapped his 9mm against the bullhorn’s flared-molded end. His companion officers stepped out and pointed their shotguns at the front door.
Adolph called out again. “Police. Come out with hands up. (Silence) Now.”
No answer greeted his third shout. The silence irritated, but didn’t surprise, Adolph. The Dragons had to be calculating their escape. Or, eliminating hostages!
Adolph shouted, “Finnegan.” His bellow wasn’t the planned signal, and Adolph’s shoe sole slamming into the front door near the door handle elevated Plan C to Action Plan A. Following his sole, he burst into the living room. Empty. He heard the back door squeak and Finnegan emerged from the kitchen. Adolph tossed the bullhorn to the carpet and pointed his left forefinger at the ascending stairs. He ordered one of the officers with him to go back outside and stand guard at the two vehicles. “Don’t shoot. Expect hostages or innocents fleeing.”
With Finnegan’s butt tight to his, Adolph tiptoed up the stairs. He stopped two treads from the landing. An eerie silence. C’mon, Luann, knock something over. Give me a hint as to which room you’re all in. He braced his left hand against the peeling floral wallpaper. The 9mm weighed down his right hand. The glove worn didn’t allow the moisture gathering on his palm to streak the gun’s butt. A new scalp itch intensified. Brain cells warned his timing had to be just right or someone’s going to get hurt.
He rotated his head toward Finnegan. Their eyeballs met. Finnegan’s gaze mirrored Adolph’s thoughts: What now?
Adolph leaned forward; placed his left knee on the higher tread, sliding his left hand lower on the wall. Without exposing his head, he listened ever more intent on deciphering the slightest of noises. His ear canal might as well have been a laboratory vacuum chamber for the absence of noise-transmitting air. He straightened up. His butt bump alerted Finnegan to his next move, which was to bolt ahead, pivot into the upstairs hallway, and flatten himself against the wall ready to fire.
All upstairs inhabitants might as well have been possums playing dead for the amount of sound Adolph’s ears detected. When Finnegan’s face appeared, Adolph’s hand motioned toward the master bedroom door, his choice for room most likely occupied. He swallowed a premonition that he wouldn’t like what he was about to find. What to do? Indecision no option.
Adolph called out, “Come out. Play’s over.”
Only the scratch of Finnegan’s boots as he sidled up to Adolph drifted to the ceiling. Adolph lifted his right foot and feigned a kick. Finnegan nodded and braced himself against the opposite hallway wall, shotgun shouldered and aimed.
The bedroom door thudded its inside door handle three times against the wall and gouged a crescent into the plaster.
“Damn.” Adolph’s expletive echoed among the disturbed dust particles floating beneath the lit ceiling light fixture. “Damn. Double Damn.”
“What the hell!” Finnegan exclaimed.
Finnegan’s surprise wasn’t lost on Adolph. He pulled back the black window curtain and waved to the officer standing on the front lawn, next to both suspect vehicles still parked where first seen. Adolph’s supposition verified when he raced through the two adjoining bedrooms and the bathroom, opening closet doors, and finding nobody present.
He met Finnegan in the hallway. “What’d we miss, Sean?”
“Thought you’d know... Sorry.”
“No one came out the front.”
“Not the rear, either.”
Adolph slumped against the wall. Think, stupid. He recalled house lights on both the first and second stories. He’d seen a figure later moving on the first floor, and then the basement light. “Let’s check the basement. Only place left.”
Adolph led the twosome’s clomp down the stairs. “Nothing upstairs,” he said to the officer in the living room. “Hand me your flashlight and stay here while we check out the basement.”
Finnegan unclipped his own flashlight and the two beams preceded Adolph and Finnegan into the basement. Dark and dank, they found it devoid of human life. The arachnids skittered within the heaven they’d created. Adolph swiped at a cobweb before he noticed a cleared path above his head and scattered dust on the concrete floor.
“Was told a torture chamber existed with an entrance here in the basement,” he told Finnegan. Adolph purposely left Luann’s name unmentioned. Where was it? She hadn’t explained that. “Check behind those shelves moved out from that wall to your left.”
“There’s a door.”
“Let’s go.” (End of example)
If the above were a full novel, the reader wouldn't be ending here, even if it was a chapter ending, which would be totally acceptable. All hopefully will pardon the abrupt ending here for further discussion of suspension creation. To be successful, suspense shouldn't always race on at unrelenting warp speed. The trick is to create a pause, a release. The forward momentum to be similar to a radio wave with its up and down variation gracefully accomplished. In the above example, could the reader have expected gunfire? Sure. Was there any? No. Where did the suspense come from? Objects like shotguns are typical in a police procedural. What or where else: an empty farmhouse; the internal dialogue of Adolph monitoring his emotions, what he expected at the farm, including Luann’s help; the security features he was installing on his own home and what about the possum?
Two final notes:
(1) The extent of the reader's expected knowledge of the scene or situation can dictate the amount of necessary writing detail. If the locale is exotic, include additional description to ground the reader.
(2) Holding back information can add or detract from suspense. To hold back information the viewpoint character possesses can be a cheap trick that will irritate the reader. Likewise, adding words to the effect that the main character didn't know he would be hospitalized the next day are also to be avoided. In the example above, was it fair for the author not to detail who exactly constituted the group of suspects? Later, the excerpt reader learns Adolph knows a woman named Luann and that she’s inside and may or may not be a suspect. In context, to be fair, Luann was a detective assigned to be Adolph’s partner. The reader would know this from earlier events. Now, everyone’s up to speed. No suspense. No anticipation.
Ps, And who's that standing behind you?