Suspense Through Action
n. a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.
Suspense. In real life, it’s not a preferred thing. It’s generally something you try to avoid.
In writing, it is essential. Regardless if you’re writing a western, a sci-fi thriller, a gothic romance or a mystery, suspense keeps the reader turning the pages. It keeps them interested.
For some, action is suspense. Car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs. Who will win? Who will lose? Let’s face it — that’s all Hollywood stuff. Even so, if it’s done halfway right, it is very suspenseful. For example, did you see the movie “The Rock”? In the climax, there’s all kinds of shooting and fist fights and airplanes and rockets and all that fun stuff. You could look at it as a great action sequence — and it was — but why was it suspenseful? What made it great? The direction? The special effects? The music? Nicholas Cage? Sean Connery?
What is tension?
ten-sion n. 1. the act of stretching or straining. 2. the state of being stretched or strained. 3. mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement. 4. a strained relationship between individuals, groups, nations, etc.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, all that — but in fiction, tension is the combination of pacing, drama and plot. Plot, mixed with drama, is giving the character a goal and then throwing things at him to try to keep him or her from reaching the goal. Pacing, however, is the element writers have the most trouble with when it comes to suspense. After all, as the writer, you know what is going to happen — how do you make it suspenseful for the reader if you know the outcome?
To make matters seem even worse, 99 times out of 100, the reader also knows the outcome.
Nicholas Cage had to save San Francisco from poison gas to be launched from rockets on Alcatraz. He only had Sean Connery to help him. There were more bad guys with guns than there were Nicholas Cages or Sean Connerys. There was the US Government prepared to blow up Alcatraz (as well as Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery) to prevent the poison gas from being launched. To complicate matters just a little bit more, Nicholas Cage had a fiancée — who flew to S.F. to be with him — and it wouldn’t be very good for the happy couple’s future to have the planes bombing Alcatraz, or for the poison gas to be launched.
Do you really think Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery would be bombed? Do you think the fiancée and all of San Francisco would be gassed? Of course not. Come to think of it, did you think E.T. would really die? Or that Dorothy would never make it home?
You knew how it was going to end, as you probably do with most movies, novels and TV shows. There are very few surprises. The fun, for the reader, is how they are transported to the end.
And that’s the problem facing the suspense writer — making it fun for the reader even though we know the ending. Even though they know the ending. Okay, so maybe the good guy wins but doesn’t get the girl, or the good guy wins but loses everything else in the process, or the good guy wins but is terribly wounded in some way — there are several variations on the same basic theme. The bottom line is, the good guy wins.
Get your good guy in jeopardy. Put him in a situation where it looks like he won’t get out of it. Here’s an example from my novel Confusion. The good guy in this chapter is Christopher, a 4 year old boy who has been kidnapped by his alcoholic mother. They are hiding out in a Minnesota hotel room, and it’s told from the perspective of the mom.
The rage flew up out of nowhere again, worse this time, blinding her.
“What did I say? Huh? What did I SAY!”
She came at him, around the bed, then straight for him.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop it!”
He was scrambling now, trying to get up and get away, but she snagged his foot and dragged him toward her. He raised his arms protectively in front of his face.
“NNNOOOOO!!!” he screamed, as she grabbed him with one hand under his arm, another grabbing his thigh, lifting him up and throwing him to her right, over the bed, against the wall where he crashed, his head and a foot thunked into the plaster with a hard snap. Then he fell to the floor.
There was a long moment when nothing happened, and there was only the sound of her breath coming in and out of her body as if she had been running. Then, to fill the void, came a shriek that was horrifying, bloodcurdling. It was the sound of a small animal being killed.
Michelle went to her purse, and pulled the bottle out. She twisted the top, breaking the seal, removing the lid, all in one practiced movement that she would later not remember doing. There would be a lot she would not remember.
The wounded screaming did not stop from the far side of the bed, instead finding a new level of noise.
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” she yelled, trying to over-scream the screamer, the index finger of her right hand pointed toward the wall where he had hit, her three other fingers and thumb wrapped around the neck of the bottle. She could not see him, he was invisible, all noise. “I’m warning you! If you don’t stop right this second, I will make you stop!”
She took another long drink, feeling the burning bloom deep inside her. She gritted her teeth against it, then let the warmth settle in.
The screaming did not stop, going up another level, full of pain.
That was it. She had enough.
The chapter ends there, and the reader must go through two other chapters before they discover what has happened to Christopher. The suspense is a result of the action — in this case, the child abuse. Note that the suspense does not take complete hold until the chapter ends. In other words, the action brings the tension which builds anxiety, and leads to . . . suspense.
From tension comes suspense. But how do you create action that builds tension?
Jeopardy. The potential for danger. The possibility of getting caught. Getting caught at what? Well, that’s up to you. I’m not going to write your story for you.
You don’t need to insert a lot of slam-bang gun-fire car-chasing action into your story — you don’t need any guns, cars or slam-bang at all (which we will cover in next week’s lesson) though it certainly won’t hurt. All that’s really needed is the threat of something — the threat of getting shot, caught or otherwise in trouble. That’s what the action is all about.
Here’s an example from The Fear of The Dark, showing action in action:
“Stop!” a voice yelled from the other side of the wall the moment his feet hit the ground.
But he didn’t stop. He ran.
And then the shooting started.
As he turned the back corner of the house, Neil felt a bullet strike his shoulder, punching him like a sledgehammer, sending him down. He did not hit gracefully, landing face-first in the grass of the backyard. He scrambled up, holding onto the shirt and jeans, losing the shoes, heading for the wall separating Hank’s from the neighbor’s.
More shouting came from seemingly all around as he scaled the cinder block wall, scraping his skin — his left shin, the inside of his right thigh — then jumping from the wall and hearing the dog the moment he hit the ground. Neil looked in its direction and saw a medium-sized animal coming at him, white with dark patches.
Things were not getting any better here.
Most people would probably consider this to be strictly an action sequence, but it’s more. The action is simply the tool used to create the tension, and that ultimately leads to suspense, which keeps the reader reading.
And that is our goal.