Writing Hacks #13 : Creating Suspense (1)

Suspense is one of the most important things to infuse in your writing. It’s not just for crime thrillers, all genres need to have an element of suspense to keep your reader intrigued.

Pass me the onions dear.

So for a writer, what is suspense? Put simply, it’s raising a question in the reader’s mind and then delaying the answer. 

Let’s look today at just one technique for how you can create this delay in your writing; the cutaway.

The cutaway

First, you must reach a moment of tension, of some conflict. Will he kiss her or turn away? Noticing in the rearview mirror that you are being followed? On the news she sees her best friend on a ledge of a tall building, looking down and runs for the door. Whatever it is, you’ve come to a critical moment of tension that you would be a waste to resolve instantly. So how to delay? With the cutaway all you need to do is literally cut away from the scene and place the reader in a different scene (though there is an implicit promise you must conclude the moment of tension later). Here are some examples;

Cutaway to some backstory: In Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach this is done very subtly. Two newlyweds face each other over a meal, unsure of what to say to one another, they both declare their love for one another in a rather unconvincing fashion… then what next? McEwan then puts in a line break and begins some backstory on one of the characters, taking us away from the awkward moment.

Cutaway to a different Point of View: If you have multiple Point of Views, then you can leave your moment of tension by moving to a different character. This is fairly common and you’ll notice it happens typically at the end of the chapter with a cliffhanger.

Cutaway to the next chronological scene : This is a subtle one. You don’t show or reveal what happened but move the story onto the next scene and let the reader work out what happened through direct action. A fantastic example of this is in the film No Country for Old Men, serial killer Anton Sigur has viscerally murdered a lot of people in the film already, we’ve seen him strangle, shoot and even use a pressure canister type thing to murder with impunity. Towards the end of the movie, he tracks down the wife of the man he’s been chasing, who he’s sworn he will kill. He offers her a 50-50 chance, the flip of a coin to determine if she lives or dies but she refuses to put it down to chance, appealing to his human side. The coin doesn’t decide, she says, you do! Sigur however is a fatalist to the core and insists if she doesn’t choose, he will kill her. Then we cutaway and the magic cinematic moment happens. Rather than show us a murder or him deciding to let we cutaway to a shot of the outside of the house. There’s nothing for a few agonising seconds, then Sigur pushes open the screen door and steps out onto the veranda. Has he killed her or not? At this point we don’t know and are in the middle of the DELAY. Then (and this is the bit i really love), Sigur leans on a support post and checks the underside of each shoe, one after the other (checking for blood we presume). In this example the delay is a short one before resolving the mystery, but it’s so beautifully done it has to be mentioned!

So there you have three examples of cutaway techniques! If you’re a keen reader then read on as I call out a few examples of books where suspense is done really well and why. If you know any moments yourself them post below, i’d love to hear them!

One book which I found to be a masterclass on suspense (maybe even too much suspense?) is Before I go to sleep – which also was made into a film (not seen it though!). Set up is this: PoV amnesiac protagonist, starting each day not knowing who she is keeps a diary to help her piece together who she is at the start of each day. Then she realises someone is tampering with the diary. Can she trust it? She finds a message to herself telling her not to trust her husband. What’s going on? The entire book is made up of brilliant suspenseful moments which act as the engine to keep you reading. I’m a big fan too of subtler moments of suspense such as the incredibly talented Elena Ferrante and her Neopolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend being the first). SPOLIER ALERT. Lina Cerullo, a bride on her wedding day, notices a pair of cherished shoes (that she had designed) on the feet of her sworn enemy Marcello Solara whom she had forbidden to attend the wedding. The shoes were a gift from her to her new husband and an emblem of their relationship and love. Seeing them gifted thoughtlessly by her husband to her sworn enemy is a fantastic moment and the possible repercussions fill the readers mind which we wait for Lina’s reaction. Then we get the ultimate cutaway, the book ends and we experience the ulitmate delay until we read the next book.

Happy writing