Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

After my last post, Hope commented in a way that made me think of suspense more than of time, so this new post is about ways to create suspense, eleven ways in no particular order:

1. Time pressure, which I’ve already written about. However, mere time pressure isn’t enough. The reader has to be reminded of it. The deadline, whatever it is, has to loom. You can make it loom in lots of ways: with count-down chapter headings; in scenes that show how unprepared your main character is; in dialogue, when the teacher repeatedly reminds his class of how many days are left until the exams that will determine your main character’s future forever.

2. Distance. Distance can operate a lot like time. Susan, your main character, is traveling toward some critical destination – a long-lost parent, a trial, someone who once hurt Susan. The chapter headings can be miles remaining or train stops to go. The history that makes the destination critical can be told in flashbacks along the way. In this case the destination has to be made to loom.

3. Thoughts. If your main character worries, your reader is likely to worry. The scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the tin man, and the scarecrow repeat “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” is a great example. The words are spoken because it’s a movie, but the refrain could just as well be Dorothy’s terrified thought loop. You don’t want your main character to worry ceaselessly – unless he has an anxiety disorder – but you do want to drop in a few thoughts about possible disaster every so often. As an added benefit, worries are a great way to end a chapter when you don’t have an actual cliffhanger handy.

4. Nonstop action. A crime novel called Slayground by Richard Stark, obviously not for kids, is a book-length chase through an amusement park that has only one exit. I finished the book in a single sitting. I didn’t like the main character much, but I hated the goons who were after him, and I had to find out how and if he escaped. The amusement park setting provided a zillion opportunities for inventive booby traps and narrow escapes.

Your story may not allow the action to be this quick and pounding all the way through, but you may be able to rev things up here and there.

5. Separation from the problem. Suppose your main character, Lucy, has an enemy, and suppose Lucy has to go on a class wilderness week. What is the enemy doing while she’s away? What’s going to greet her on her return? If you aren’t writing in first person, you can even show what Lucy is going to walk into. Of course, the wilderness week has to be interesting too.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the main character, Addie, sets out to find the cure for her sister’s incurable disease. While the two sisters are apart and when Addie is deprived of her magic spyglass, she keeps worrying that her sister’s condition has worsened. I wanted the reader to worry too. What if Meryl has already died?

6. A flaw in your main character. If you’ve seen the Back to the Future movies, Marty cannot tolerate being called a coward and always loses control when he is. The audience cringes, waiting for his next implosion. In Two Princesses again, Addie actually is a coward. The reader fears that she won’t find the courage to help her sister.

7. A flaw in an important secondary character. Suppose your main character’s boyfriend is treacherous or unpredictable – affectionate one minute, hateful the next. His character flaw is a source of tension. Any sort of flaw can work: forgetfulness, clinginess, selfishness, stinginess, and so on, but you have to set it up so that your main character needs something that the flawed character can’t be counted on to supply.

8. Isolation. Your main character can wander away from the other campers in her wilderness group and get lost. Wild cats live in these hills. Their habitat is shrinking, and they’re hungry. In the backwoods there’s no cell phone reception. Aaa!

9. Expectation. Mom expects her son to be a brilliant student in every subject. Or, going the opposite way, Mom expects him always to fall short. His best friend expects him to sacrifice his needs for hers again and again. Or the main character can have hard-to-live-up-to expectations of himself. His efforts to break away from expectation can have your reader chomping on her fingernails.

10. Injustice. Your main character has been falsely accused. She’s misunderstood. She’s been ripped off. In my Dave at Night, Dave’s precious carving of Noah’s ark has been stolen. Much of the book’s tension comes from the search for it and worry about the repercussions that may follow its recovery.

11. A terrible situation, such as slavery, war, an internment camp, abandonment. A story can still go slack in this kind of environment, but the cruel camp guard or hunger or disease can help you get back on track.

It will probably be worthwhile to reread a few books that you couldn’t put down long enough to brush your teeth. Study the author’s suspense techniques and consider how you might apply them to your story.

And here are two prompts:

Think of five more suspense builders. You can remember exciting stories of your own or by other people. Consider how they or you ratcheted up the excitement. Write down the techniques. Or think of new stories and come up with your own fresh builders.

Use one or more of your or my suspense makers in a new story or in a story you’re working on. Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Thanks so much for that post!! It really helped!

    I have a question for you though. What do you like most about writing fantasy? I personally like how the possibilities are endless, but how about you?

    Thanks Again!!

  2. Hello, Mrs. Levine! First of all, I'd like to say, that you are one of my favorite authors, and Ella Enchanted has to be my favorite book! I'm really excited that I found your blog.

    But, I actually have a question. Well, I'm pretty young and am an inspiring author. I read a lot, and I usually write everyday, and have creative writing as an elective at my school. Is there anything else I can do to become a better writer?

  3. Hi Gail
    In school we are learning about how to write short stories. You know, creating a plot, the stories conflict. And I was wondering….Do you think it is easier to write Short or Long stories? Not how fast you can write them, but the way the story flows on paper. Or does that all depend on the person. I always having trouble making a short story, a short story. I always have to give more detail or just have to write some more.

    hope to hear from you soon!

  4. Hey Gail
    Just something that I found out. The day you responded to my other comment was the day that a disney fairy movie came out. Did you write that one or is it only movie related?

    from lizzy

  5. To Marzo–Sounds like you're doing everything right. You might want to join or form a critique group–just make sure everyone is constructive and not hurtful.
    To Lizzy–It's great to have more to write, and detail brings a story alive. I wouldn't worry about length. As to your other question, I haven't been involved in the Disney movies.

  6. Hello, thanks for the awesome blog! {just found it!}
    I was curious how you found the little-known fairytales you've based your Princess Tales off of. And you always *tweak* them just a bit, how do you come up with those ideas?
    That series and Dave at Night are by far my favorite of your books.

  7. To DoreMifa–I find fairy tales in the Lang collections, which are out of print but can be found, maybe at your library. The tweaking comes from the places in the stories that don't make sense, that are illogical.

  8. Hi Gail
    A bunch of us people leaving you comment tell you which one of your books are our favourite. Well, i was wondering what is your favourite book? It could be one now, or your your favourite childhood fairy tale.

  9. It was wonderful hearing you speak in Rockland, Maine. What an honor to be able to hear you in person.
    You mentioned that you are trying to find the perfect illustrator for your "This is just to say" book. I highly recommend Melissa Sweet of Rockport, Maine. She just got an award for her illustrations in A River of Words, a gorgeous book about William Carlos Williams.
    Thanks again for your advice on writing. My students loved hearing you, too!

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