by Karyn Good
You hear high heels clicking, you see the young wearer of the heels stumble and twist her ankle while glancing back, terror etched on her face. She valiantly tries to escape the evil entity pursuing her, darn those three inch stilettos. And you know without a doubt – she’s a goner. She’s destined to go down in history as a plot point.
Suspense is what keeps us turning the pages. As readers or the audience we are being craftily manipulated by various techniques. For instance, the writer can stack the odds against the protagonist, think Rear Window, The Shining, or The Silence of the Lambs. The stakes are clear from the very beginning and there’s nothing we like better then rooting for the underdog.
In a romantic suspense we the reader need to feel emotionally connected to the main characters. We need to sense their worry, their fear, or their terror. We need to be able to taste it, smell it, hear it, see it and touch it. As the writer, we need to make them afraid. We need to be nasty and send them running. We need to create a sense of urgency. One way to do this is to use the ‘what if’ technique.
You start with an everyday situation. Lily, a teacher, is leaving school. Her objective is to get to an important doctor’s appointment.
Now add a ‘what if’.
What if you raise the stakes? Lily is in a bad mood because she was forced to suspend a student and she doesn’t feel like hearing more bad news.
What if you add a source of annoyance? It is unbearably hot outside and it’s making her tired and sick.
What if you add an element of danger? The suspended student is hiding in the bushes.
What if you add time constraints? Lily is already behind schedule because she had to deal with the suspended student and his parents.
What if you add the unknown? The suspended student has tampered with her car rendering it useless.
What if you add some dramatic irony? While Lily was meeting with the Principal, student and the student’s parents, she missed a phone call from the doctor’s office giving her good news.
The possibilities abound. You can generate a sense of urgency and the promise of conflict over several pages by asking yourself ‘what if.”
Alfred Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films over six decades. He was a master at crafting suspense.
There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t …” Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock calls this the ticking time bomb plot. There’s a bomb underneath the table that the characters are unaware of but the audience is and the audience also knows when the bomb is due to go off. Suspense is created by the gap of what the audience knows and the characters do not. Anyone watched Psycho lately? He was skilled at creating worst-case scenarios which he call “frightmares”, nightmares that happen in our waking lives.
He also used anticlimax as a conclusion to the ticking time bomb scene. Think of a movie where the main character is about to enter a room containing the knife-welding villain but is called away at the last second therefore narrowly escaping disaster.
In romantic suspense plots we include a hero or heroine figure who can defeat any peril. To me, you just can’t beat the romance/suspense combination.