On Crafting Suspense: Keep the Bodies Hidden
By Dustin Heron
Suspense is an important element of fiction—and not just for stories where things go bump in the night. Suspense is “the feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what might happen”—which is another way of saying “tension,” or what makes readers invest in a story’s outcome. To develop the ability to write good suspense, John Gardner suggests writing a scene that takes place moments before a dead body is discovered—and withholding the discovery. The idea is that suspense is created in the withholding and that tension is created in the space between the writer’s knowledge of what’s to come and the reader’s desire to know. It’s a tease, in some ways, but in the right hands, that withholding is a chance to explore your characters and their feelings as they react to the world of the story.
Shirley Jackson was a master of this technique. Her tale, “The Daemon Lover,” is a psychological terror that follows an unnamed woman as she waits for her fiancé to pick her up on their wedding day. Despite the implication of the title, the terror comes not from a supernatural source, but from the dread the woman feels as she continues to deny the fact that he is not coming and never intended to. We stay tightly packed in her mind through the entire story and feel her desperation as she moves throughout the city, looking for her fiancé:
There was a policeman on the corner, and she thought, Why don’t I go to the police—you go to the police for a missing person. And then thought, What a fool I’d look like. She had a quick picture of herself standing in a police station, saying, “Yes, we were going to be married today, but he didn’t come,” and the policemen, three or four of them standing around listening, looking at her, at the print dress, at her too-bright make-up, smiling at one another. She couldn’t tell them any more than that, could not say, “Yes it looks silly, doesn’t it, me all dressed up and trying to find the young man who promised to marry me, but what about all of it you don’t know? I have more than this, more than you can see: talent, perhaps, and humor of a sort, and I’m a lady and I have pride and affection and delicacy and a certain clear view of life that might make a man satisfied and productive and happy; there’s more than you think when you look at me.
She has placed her entire sense of self in this man’s opinion, in the idea of his love, and his abandonment thus destroys her identity. Her self-image is so fractured she can’t imagine reaching out for help without also having to defend herself: her appearance, her qualities, her humanity. She is experiencing terror as an existential crisis, and her uncertainty is the uncertainty of the story: the question of “how will this end?” creates an anxiety and an excitement in the reader which compels us to read on.
“The Daemon Lover” is told in that space Gardner articulated as the “moment before a body is discovered.” In this case, “the body” would be “the fiancé,” and the story is driven forward through action that is compelled by doubt, not certainty. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction, but in withholding a scene of direct confrontation, Jackson creates an internal conflict in her character which reveals her fears and worries and the deep psychological trauma she was experiencing. The suspense, the tension, in such a story is not in confrontation or discovery; it is in the thorough investigation of emotion. In order to create effective suspense in our fiction we must be willing to sit patiently with our characters in their uncertainty.
Identify a character in a story you are working on. Ask yourself: what is the one thing which, if missing, would cause this character to question everything they believe about themselves? Then, write a scene, or a series of scenes, in which the character is searching for that lost, essential thing. Where do they go? To whom do they turn first? As their search continues and desperation mounts, how do they respond? Withhold the reclamation of this lost thing, and stay with the character in their feelings up until the moment just before they discover what they’re looking for.
DUSTIN HERON is a short story writer with an MA and MFA from San Francisco State University. He has several publications, most recently in The Watershed Review and forthcoming from Long Island Literary Review, has been nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net prizes, and he received the Mary Tanenbaum Award in Creative Nonfiction. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press.