Creating Suspense in Fiction:
Starve Your Children and Feed Them Herrings
by Matthew Brockmeyer
If there’s one thing a writer wants, it’s for readers to keep those pages turning, and there’s no better way to do this than by creating suspense. No matter the genre, be it highbrow-literary fiction, romance, horror or a political-espionage thriller, you have to give the readers a feeling of anxious uncertainty about what is to come if you want them to keep reading feverishly. You have to give them a feeling of suspense.
How do you do this? Starve them. Starve your children. Only give them enough to eat so that they’re always hungry for more. When that stranger comes to the door, don’t tell them who he is until the last possible moment. Always have an unanswered question that the reader wants an answer for.
Forgive me for using a film as an analogy, but I recently watched Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film Killing of a Sacred Deer. It begins with a heart surgeon meeting up with a teenage boy. We know there is something amiss with their relationship, but we don’t know what. The doctor buys him an expensive watch and lunch. Introduces him to his wife and children. Then, as the boy begins to grow stranger and stranger, the doctor begins lying to his friends and family about how he knows the boy. And we are hooked. We need to know what the hell is going on here, especially as the boy begins to permeate their life and become a part of their family. When the reason is finally revealed, in the third act, everything that’s happened becomes crystal clear, but by then the plot has built to a terrible crescendo and there’s no turning away.
You’re invested. You’re starved and hungry. You’re in utter suspense. Right now, do you want to know how the surgeon met the boy? Well, I’m not going to tell you, using this entire analogy as an example of starving your children.
And here’s the old one-two. When your reader is starving, dying to know what is happening behind the scenes, what hidden mechanics are moving the plot, feed them some herring. Mislead them. Like a magician drawing your attention away from the trick he’s about to perform.
In my own writing I do this often, taking the reader down one road, then—surprise!!—twisting the story into a whole new direction. As the tension and conflict progresses in my writing, I begin to increase these twists and turns, building to an apex and finally cresting and crashing down, leaving the reader breathless and reading late into the night.
Well, this advice is pretty abusive sounding, and I certainly don’t advise starving and misleading your real, actual children. Only your readers. But as long as your prose is clear and tight, and they don’t get lost on the trip, your readers will have no choice but to take and love this abuse.
About the Author:
Matthew Brockmeyer is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Kind Nepenthe. He lives deep in the forest in Northern California with his wife and two children. His short stories have been featured in numerous magazines, journal and anthologies. You can learn more about Matthew and his work at his website.
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