How does one build suspense in a story?
(I am having a little bit of trouble with my pacing, so this is important.)
It’s basically two stages of five steps, divided up.
- Work Backwards
Start at the end, work out how to get to that point. Once you know what the big mystery or reveal is, you can start to shroud it.
- Plant Seeds
Make sure people know what is going on, that they can follow what’s going on. If you plant enough seeds, they should be able to keep up with the main character, and eventually begin to predict what is going to happen next just before the character does.
- Give hooks
Draw people along, hook them in. They need to be following the story.
- Displace the audience.
Don’t make it too easy. If they are in unfamiliar terrain, they will sympathise with the protagonist, if the protagonist is also in unfamiliar terrain.
- Emotive Response
Make the audience feel, make them empathise, make them sympathise with the characters. If they are in the same place as your main character, that puts them in the same position of mystery and discovery, meaning the story is as much an exploration for them as it is the main character’s.
The audience should be just ahead of the main character.
This makes them smart. This makes them feel clever. It also gives them just enough foresight to see what is going to happen, and then give them enough time to wonder how the characters are going to deal with this.
The second stage goes like this:
- Location as character
Make the location organic, real, make it relevant. Make it a metaphor for the story itself, make it matter. Choose your locations for a reason.
Dropping clues so that people can see what is coming, but not until it is nearly upon them. If people suspect something is about to happen, that puts them on edge. Tell people what is coming. This can be done a number of ways, but a classic example is the cello in Jaws. It’s a sonic signifier, it’s a theme. We know the shark is there when we hear that sound, so we are set on edge, waiting to see what will happen.
- Tell Lies
This is your job, as a storyteller. Tell lies. Make stuff up. If you can also string the audience along a bit, they’re in your world. They respond how you want them to.
- Character Identification
Amnesia is a common trope in many stories, because it puts the audience in the same boat as the main character. If we identify, we explore as they so. It makes us empathise with the character more.
Make things resonate, make them harmonise, make things counterpoint for other things. Get metaphorical, draw comparisons, give things a contrast. By juxtaposing things, you highlight more things about them. Make contrasts.
I have already hit on most of these in my scripts, but I can work them in better. I need to go back and rewrite them with these in mind.
I also need to read more Graham Greene.