Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Seven Proven Ways To Pack Suspense Into Your Stories

How many ways can you hang a page? Or a scene? Or a chapter?

Page hangers are a relic of the Victorian three-deck novel that was delivered in monthly installments. Each installment ended with a little advertisement for the next one. How ever would our hero escape from that flooded cellar and those hungry red-eyed rats? Yet even today they are a fixture in best-selling suspense novels.

Mistresses of melodrama Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell use so many page hangers - around three per scene - that they must pluck them out of a database.

Not every novel calls for hangers, of course, but the ploy is useful when the scene shifts into a different point of view or sub plot. It buys the author time. We’ll put up with a lot of digression if we're sure that the mystery posed by the page hanger will soon be resolved.

 Here are seven proven page hangers and how to use them in your story to create suspense.

1. The seamless transition

This is not so much a hanger as a link between sub-plots. One character sets the scene, suspensefully, for another character to appear. S/he then introduces a further plot thread.

‘“Uh, huh, look who’s coming.”

“I thought Bill was on holiday.”

“Never trust good news.”

The man who entered looked like a bank vault, but was not as pretty.’

At once, Bill is on the set and characterized as a Bad Guy. The transition is seamless. We can look forward to a new episode, filled with conflict.

2. The blatant hanger

‘If only I had known!’ Today this long-whiskered hanger is best reserved for children’s stories where its young audience might still find it thrilling. It’s also risky. It throws the reader out of the time line.

‘I kissed her hand. I waved her goodbye. I could not have known that it was the last time I would ever see her.’

Indeed, how does the narrator know it, unless the entire story is related from some perspective in the future? The reader will be confused if we haven’t made that perspective clear at the start.

3. The helpful environment

Any element in a scene set can be given a symbolic meaning to hint, in the last paragraph, at interesting things to come. Typically, this foreshadowing is ominous:
‘The clock began its relentless tick to midnight.’

But it doesn’t have to be: 
‘The sun emerged at last. It was going to be a perfect day.’

4. The rhetorical question

Highlight any intriguing question - it need not be integral to the plot - and let the narrator ask that question of themselves or others.

‘What could be so odd about a luxury villa on sale at a distress price that nobody would even inspect it, let alone buy it?’

What, indeed? The reader lusts to know.

5. Foreghosting by dialogue

‘Foreghosting’ is a subtle form of foreshadowing. In this case, a character might sound a warning or make a cryptic prophecy.

‘“I'll tell you one thing. You’re not going to like what you find in that room.”

What’s in that room? We’ll have to wait a few pages to find out.

6. The reader knows more than the character does

In any story, the reader usually knows more than the characters do. We have a wider perspective. So we shiver if a scene ends:

‘“Don’t go on Morder Fell at night, master Brown. It changes in odd ways after dark.”

Changes? I laughed. I was a seasoned fell walker and I had no patience with the superstitions of the village.’

We enjoy the bumptious ignorance of master Brown. We know, simply from the context of the story, that he will soon meet a dreadful fate on Morder Fell...

7. The 'Perils of Pauline' page hanger

When tension mounts, you can introduce a temporary pause just before the climax by dropping in variations of these all-purpose hangers - then inserting a double carriage return:

‘I thought the day could get no worse. I was wrong.’

‘I looked where he pointed and my world fell apart.’

'His next words sent ice up my spine.'

'Suddenly, she felt very afraid/lost her appetite/the day seemed very cold...'

Of course, if you overdo such hangers your character is going to appear permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Ration them to one per 20 pages!

Should we use page hangers?

The trick is to vary our page hangers so creatively that the reader doesn’t notice them. Otherwise, they’re counterproductive. ‘Here comes another hanger,’ our reader will sigh. And they’ll put our story down.

What page hangers do you enjoy reading - or writing? Which do you think are the most effective? Add a comment and share your thoughts.


 Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro


16 comments:

  1. Love this post! Keeping the reader engaged -- especially in these days of instant gratification -- has become an art. All the hangers you address work well and can be used with equal effectiveness, particularly when applied with skill.

    You note their judicious use to be once in 20 pages. Typically, I like to end each chapter with something that urges the reader to turn the page and keep reading. This doesn't need to be a cliffhanger, but it should whet the reader's appetite for what comes next. However, I shall now be careful not to overdo those little hooks and drive the reader away. Because I use multiple voices(normally just one per scene), this should not leave any character exhausted from constant trauma/drama. Nor, hopefully, will it wear out the reader.

    Excellent post, Dr. Yeoman!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This a wonderfully useful post, John, most importantly because it conveys the range and variety of techniques available to the strategic writer.

    I agree with Linda that the caution not to overdo is most important. Sometimes the best way to keep the reader reading is just to keep on with the story. At times, even an abrupt and unheralded change of scene or POV with the start of the next chapter is just the ticket.

    The opposite of the "page hanger" might be the "full stop," which I sometimes think of as "ba-dum-ching." It's the end-of-chapter device that seals up that piece of the story and, by giving (temporary) closure, implicitly signals the reader that something fresh is coming.

    And the list goes on, no doubt.

    ReplyDelete
  3. ‘If only she had known!’ is one of my pet peeves in third person narrative. I don't mind it as much in first person, since the narrator is alive and telling the tale after the fact, and therefore does have plausible hindsight. But in third person it is jarring for the reasons you mention and also for the fact that it reminds the reader that they are reading a story with the ending already plotted, i.e., breaks the illusion that they are experiencing the story at the same "time" as the POV character.

    ReplyDelete
  4. True, you can overdo page hangers and end up writing farce. My award for the silliest use of page hangers goes to Patricia Cornwell’s novel Point Of Origin (1998). Every passage ends with a variation of ‘My kitchen seemed to get small and airless as I waited for the rest of what he had to say.’ The narrator seems to be perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Kathy Reichs does the same, and worse, but her page hangers are fun and creative. I suspect Cornwell was aping Reichs but missed the humor.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great ways to add variance for suspense.

    Morgan Mandel

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yes, every scene should end with the reader anxious to turn the page. Since I read in bed at night, I learned that if I was to get any sleep, I'd have to stop in the middle of a page, not wait for the end of the chapter.

    Donald Maas speaks of creating "microtension" where every sentence makes the reader want to know what's going to happen.

    I'm with Elle on the "if only" approach. It ruins the story for me, since I don't know, and now I do, so why read on?

    Terry
    Terry's Place

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love the "it changes in odd ways at night."

    I've heard some criticisms of frequent "hangers," but I like them as long as they are done well. A good hanger keeps me reading "one more chapter" before I turn the lights out, then it is 3:00 a.m. and the book has been devoured.

    ReplyDelete
  8. When reading way past my bedtime, I really don't like any page hangers. (smile)

    However, I do appreciate the craft of authors like Harlan Coben and Laura Lippman who know how to keep the suspense going.

    For my books, I like to use the rhetorical question.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Fun and useful post, John! One of my favorite bits of suspenseful foreshadowing is from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” when the protagonist says “I shall not die of a cough,” and his murderer—the man who will wall him up in the wine cellar—says, “True—true.”

    ReplyDelete
  10. Maryann has a good hanger in her new novel, which we won't share with you in our interview tomorrow. Terrific post, John!

    ReplyDelete
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  12. This is great! I like good page hangers, but it is a challenge to do it well. And I thoroughly dislike the narrative "little did she know, but..." Bumps me out of the POV character. Thanks for sharing this.

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