Writing advice blog: Examples of suspense analysed

Susie Helme and Elaine Graham-Leigh

Photo by Kamil Feczko on Unsplash

In the last post, Susie Helme talked about techniques for building suspense in your writing. In this post, we’re taking a look at how it can be done in practice, by analysing some examples from our favourite authors.

Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House

Inside, the music thumped and wailed, the heat of bodies washing over them in a gust of perfume and moist air. The big square room was dimly lit, packed with people circling skull-shaped vats of punch, the back garden strewn with strings of twinkling lights beyond. Darlington was already starting to sweat.

Four of the five senses are engaged in this paragraph — sight (dimly lit); sound (thumped, wailed); smell (perfume); touch (sweat) — so that the reader feels the emotions of Darlington as he starts to sweat, building suspense up to Big Drama when he (spoiler alert) enters the mouth of hell.

M. Stillman, In a Joshua Sea

After waiting a few seconds while rocks continued to fall, and then a little longer for most of the dust to settle, the four of them went back into the adit and around the bend. What they saw there would change their lives.

Here, the author straight-up, tells the reader that the characters are about to see something important. What’s even more surprising is that right after they discover the gold, hubris punishes their gold-lust when (spoiler alert) a flashflood careens down the valley, ending their lives.

Liane Moriarty, Truly Madly Guilty

She must have cut them up with scissors. Not her grandmother’s pearl-handled ones. They’d gone missing.

This cryptic note mentions scissors, foreshadowing, which later turn up and play a role in the drama à la Chekhov’s Gun.

Tony Bassett, Murder of a Doctor

As he returned to his car, he failed to notice a twitching net curtain inside a first-floor flat at Hatton Court and a woman’s face gazing out.

This is at the end of a chapter, leaving us a cliffhanger. The use of the powerful word ‘twitching’ leaves a frisson of expectation, as well. This creates dramatic irony, gives the reader knowledge of something the protagonist doesn’t know about.

Elaine Graham-Leigh, The Caduca

‘I only want to say one thing.’ She paused momentarily, letting the beat go, timing it until they were all waiting with her.

This a beautiful description of an oratory trick. We follow the time lapse beat by beat. We hear, here, the orator pause, as (click) one person tunes in and (click) another person tunes in, until the whole audience is waiting, agog, for what she will say next.

Ruth Rendell, ‘The Haunting of Shawley Rectory’, A Spot of Folly

I whistled for Liam and strolled down to the gate and looked back at the Rectory. It stared back at me. Is it hindsight that makes me say this or did I really feel it then? I think I did feel it, that house stared at me with a kind of steady insolence.

This neat piece of foreshadowing tells us that the haunted house isn’t finished, even though the characters don’t know it yet. The wonderfully evocative description picks up on the way the Rectory is introduced to us at the beginning of the story: ‘it seems to stare straight back at you.’ We now realise that it doesn’t just seem to stare; it really does.

Kara Thomas, The Darkest Corners

Girls like Lori didn’t have anything to worry about. In Fayette, we were safe from the Monster, who stalked the outskirts of town in search of the next troubled, desperate girl to accept a ride from him. That was what we thought until the police found Lori’s body in a wooded area off the interstate a day after she went missing.

The change of pace here emphasises the jolt of surprise we feel as we’re taken from ‘Lori doesn’t have anything to worry about’ to ‘Lori has been murdered’. It sets up one of several mysteries we want answered and also introduces a key theme of the book, that what the characters think they know isn’t necessarily true.

Robert Harris, Conclave

In January this year, following minor injuries sustained in a car-bomb attack, Archbishop Benitez offered his resignation on medical grounds, but withdrew it after a private meeting in the Vatican with the Holy Father. Otherwise, the file is remarkably scanty.

The writer and the reader of this Vatican memo don’t know it, but this piece of information holds the key to the final mystery in Robert Harris’ novel about a papal election. We know this snippet is significant, or Harris wouldn’t be telling us, but what does it mean? We’ll have to wait for 200 pages to find out.


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