Original Fic Tip: Three Ways to Use Surprise to Build Suspense
Today's tip is from another Writer's Digest article, and talks about how to use suprise to build suspense.
To gain optimum benefit, a surprise requires a setup. To ensure surprises feel natural, while still astounding your readers, think opposites. What can your character do or say that is opposite what’s expected?...The following are three tried-and- true techniques:
1. A First Occurrence of an Unexpected Event
Consider the famous spontaneous combustion scene in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. In Chapter 32, a merchant and collector of papers named Krook (the irony in his name intended), whose diet seems limited to gin, burns to ash through spontaneous combustion.
The novel’s primary plot revolves around a court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which the court must determine which of several wills is the valid one. With so many potential beneficiaries, the consequences of the decision will reach far and wide. Krook’s demise, while shocking, is an important plot point. It allows access to his papers and creates more than one suspenseful moment as the other characters rifle through his hoard. When they find a document that relates to the case, the payoff is clear. The surprise—the spontaneous combustion—is effective and appropriate because it leads to a suspenseful search.
2. An Anomaly
When children see a clown, they tend to expect fun surprises to ensue. So discovering that the clown in Stephen King’s It is not a benevolent embodiment of childhood joy, but rather a violent manifestation of evil, is an astounding surprise; it is an anomaly.
The novel is set in a small town in Maine and alternates between two time periods: the late 1950s and the mid 1980s. We learn that It, a maniacally bubbly clown named Pennywise, has been eating children (his preferred prey) and adults for hundreds of years. That Pennywise has succeeded in feeding on children for generations and has just awakened from a 27-year hibernation creates a sense of impending doom. As Pennywise sets its sights on each new victim, tension ratchets up. What starts as a surprise morphs into suspense.
3. A Revelation of a Previously Unknown Fact
In Seconds, first published in 1963, author David Ely crafts a tale around the theme that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. A secret organization known only as the “company” offers dissatisfied people an opportunity for a second chance. You can cast off your boring life and live the life you always dreamed of. The “company” stages your death, including leaving behind a corpse that looks like you. They give you a fresh identity, complete with evidence of your accomplishments. Through experimental surgery, you’re provided with a new, younger, more attractive look. Life is, on the surface, perfect. Only later, when we learn how they harvest the bodies they need to stage their clients’ deaths, do we see what has been going on behind the scenes. This shocking revelation is a complete surprise; then as suspense mounts, surprise turns into dread—a byproduct of suspense.
If you don’t use surprise to build suspense, you risk the unexpected event coming across as contrived. When you allow the stunning situation to contribute to a deeper storyline, your readers will feel gratified.
Now go forth and write!