Writing Excuses 5.4: Creating Suspense

This episode of Writing Excuses features our special guest, Smokey-Smoke Sanderson who spent the first half of September on tour abusing his voice.

Suspense! What is it? What isn’t it? What is the relationship between suspense and mystery, and for that matter horror, humor, and adventure? This ‘cast is chock full of pithy quotes, useful advice, and anecdotal examples.



Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, which was the #1 bestselling book on Audible the week prior to this recording. Forty-five hours and thirty minutes of Sandersonian fantastical goodness, read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading.

Writing Prompt: “I have coated my left hand with magical ink.”

That Episode on Pacing We Promised to Link To: Right here, and it features James Dashner!

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29 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.4: Creating Suspense”

  1. Gentlemen,
    Thanks for this podcast! Not sure if it was planned or from a fan suggestion, but it was informative & intriguing as always! Now, I need to apply it to some scenes in my own work. For the love of Heaven, get Brandon some hot tea and honey for his voice. It sounded hacked!

    Now, are there certain ways you apply or build suspense in your works? Not just for horror or suspense categorized novels? Thanks agian, guys.

  2. Brandon needs a lozenge… You know, my first spelling of that was closer to lasagna until the spell check kicked in. After some careful thought, I think Brandon could use a lasagna as well. Lasagna for everyone!

  3. That would be 22.75 2 hour commutes for Way of Kings, Howard. I personally would never want to be listening to a reading of one of Brandon’s books while driving – I would become so intent on the story that my attentiveness to the road would go out the window. Soon after, the window would go as well, as would anything loose in the car, which would no longer be capable of moving itself. I do not say that Dan’s or Howard’s writing is in any way inferior, I just haven’t been in the mood for webcomics lately and have yet to see a Dan Wells book in the bookstore. You’re too weird for most of us Canadians, I guess…

    One thing Brandon said (to Dan): “You’re writing first person. We know that your character can’t die.” Given Dan’s setting, this is true, at least unless it’s on the last page. However, some fantasy settings involve various methods of reversing death with some alternative consequences to go along with that. Of particular note is the story of the game Planescape: Torment, in which the protagonist (“The Nameless One”) wakes up on a Mortuary slab with no memory and enough scars to be fatal several thousand times over. (I won’t explain everything because it’s not a well known game and yet is likely the best RPG I’ve ever played, so I don’t want to spoil it for others who are intrigued by the concept, but the fact that he’s waking up with amnesia on a mortuary slab at the start of the game gives you the basic idea.) I just think it’d be interesting to see that kind of system incorporated into a first person story – death has a consequence that, while not final, is extremely unpleasant (so instead of an alternate failure condition, it’s an alternate consequence for that failure condition). Any thoughts?

  4. Just a comment about the Firefly example: I think the purpose of Walsh’s death was to physically kill off Firefly for the fans so we would all know that this is truly the end. The use of the death later in the movie was just taking advantage of an existing event.

  5. @Howard – Coming from someone who caught up on 9 years of Schlock in under a month: Don’t worry, there’s plenty of suspense without being there every day. Also, I enjoy being there every day too.

  6. Thanks for the podcast — the contrast between suspense and mystery was really helpful with a book I’m having a hard time figuring out.

    I agree with Brandon and Howard. I think randomly killing people off has become its own cliche. In Serenity, I knew why they’d done it, and I was pretty sure no one else was going to die. *Spoiler Alter for Harry Potter* (though if you haven’t read it yet…anyway) I found the last book really frustrating because this is exactly what happened. People died in convenient ways for the least emotional impact (married couples together, one of the twins, etc). In fact, I thought the most emotional part of the end wasn’t anyone’s death. Somewhere along the way, one of the twins loses an ear. He’s now always going to be disfigured and different from his twin. That was a loss that worked for me. The random deaths just made me upset — it felt contrived.

  7. Yes, to the post about random deaths in the last HP book! Not that I’m tryin to sway the posts into an HP fan spot :) But, yes…random deaths soooooo annoying and way anti-climatic for me. Is it wrong that I pretend that the deaths didn’t happen and I’ve kinda just imagined my own ending??? Great podcast, and I loved the random “da, da, da….!”‘s. A nice suspenseful touch that totally re-inforced the topic! And of course, cracked me up!

  8. Another great podcast. :-) Interesting about the difference between mystery and suspense, I hadn’t thought about it before.

    And I also agree with what everyone says about random deaths. I hate it when writers do that. I’ve even become wary about watching another Josh Whedon show (I still haven’t forgiven him for killing Anya in Buffy). There are times when a beloved character has to die, I know – usually when the author is “finished” with the character, they’ve served their purpose. But I just hate it when the author kills characters to create some kind of artificial emotional impact, or, worse, to fill a required body count (I thought that’s what redshirts are for :-P).

    And Howard, didn’t you say you wouldn’t read Girl Genius on-line, but waited for the collected books to come out instead?

  9. True dat, about me and Girl Genius. But Studio Foglio is getting my money, so they’re unlikely to complain. I’m not convinced that all these folks who catch up on Schlock a month at a go are buying books.

    Those who are? TOTALLY FORGIVEN.

  10. Just a note to say that I am of those long-time listeners who listens and lurks but never really says anything on the website. Which may have something to do with why I am one of Howard’s Schlock fans who tens to check in once every couple of weeks rather than daily; it is extremely hard for me to find time online and it is usually condensed into a one- or two-hour block every other week. This week, though, I had to make more time to get online because I felt the need to mention … Dan says his book comes out tomorrow (9/28) but I’ve already had mine for a week and polished it off within two days of it arriving. No spoilers but I will say, awesome work Dan!

    I do like the mix of mystery and suspense in nearly every genre of writing. Those questions that a reader must ask themselves are the only reason to keep turning the pages. You do have to give some of it away during the story, though, or readers will see only the deus ex machina in the end, or the resolution I’ve seen in some internet readings where the plot failed (or the author bored of it) and so it became “rocks fall and everyone dies”. Neither or which, in my opinion, is going to make me go back for more.

  11. I agree with Brandon about the whole Serenity thing. When the death happened I was immediately pulled out of the movie and annoyed. It ruined the end of the movie for me because I immediately realized that the character (who I really liked a lot and identified with) had been killed for no story reason or plot reason, but just to prove someone could be killed. The reason this annoyed me so much was that a character had ALREADY been killed early in the movie to prove this and it actually fit the storyline. The second death was redundant and didn’t server a purpose, imo.

  12. Hmmm, that random death thing is interesting, because its a contrast between creating emotional impact and perhaps an author’s desire to show that heroes/people can die in the most mundane of circumstances or with little fanfare/drama. It probably doesn’t make for great reading and I agree I didn’t think much of it in Harry Potter as it felt very tacked on to the entire ending sequence. I think perhaps you could have a random death of a character (with a backstory, I’m sure we all don’t care about soldier#775) so long as it helps other characters to develop because of the consequences of that death….I dunno.

  13. Good point about buying the books, Howard – I presume that’s where you make the bulk of your revenue. Do you get anything at all when people just read on-line? I think I remember you saying that ad revenue isn’t much. (I’m fascinated by the business models on all this, and I also want to support the webcartoonists I enjoy.)

  14. Ad revenue is nice, but it only pays maybe 1/4 of the monthly bills here at Chez Tayler. Merchandising still accounts for the overwhelming majority of our income.

  15. Great podcast. I’ve been needing to hear something like this for awhile. I always feel like I’m explaining the suspense and not actually giving any. BTW the audio book for TWOK is great! I just finished last week after I listened to it non-stop for a week.

  16. I don’t think that the death of a character should automatically be analyzed as “the author ratcheting up the suspense.” While the notion that no character, even an important one, is sacred and could die at anytime was an important corrective in epic fantasy, I think it’s clear that although it can be used as a cheap trick, it isn’t necessarily one.

    In fact, when it comes to novels, and especially series, I think a character death is less important in relation to creating suspense and more important. This is certainly true of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, where a key character death early on and a few later on shock not just because the author has proved that he is willing to kill of main characters, but also (and I’d argue even more so) because it’s a twist that shows that story you thought he was telling is not the story that is actually being told.

    In regards to Serenity, I agree that there was an element of play and frustration there by Joss. This is a movie, after all, that caps a series that didn’t receive the support (either network or audience) that it should have. There’s a little meta-fiction going on there. And, and this is why I think it jerks some people out of the narrative, a visual joke.

    But I disagree about the emotional impact. I think you can consider it slightly gratuitous and still see it was an impactful element of the plot — the rests of the team goes in to the final battle much more distracted and dark than they would have otherwise. It’s the difference between going in grim and determined and going in grim, determined, angry and (for some folks) fey.

    That said, although character death is mentioned here as a tool for ratcheting up suspense in terms of the reader/author dynamic (dude, he/she could kill of anybody!), I think Dan and co. would agree that if you’re going to use it as a fictional device that it should bring in other things (such as plot movement and character development) as well.

  17. I was wondering if there’s a standard place where fans put their responses to your writing prompts. I love doing them and wondered if there’s a way for you to see them. It’s perfectly find if you don’t read it, I’m just wondering if there was already a place to put them.

  18. Hey all. Listening to episode 2.29 right now, and wondering if you guys would be up for talking about how to identify the promises you’ve made. I mean, perhaps it’s best for the author him/herself to figure out how exactly to fulfill these promises, but how does one figure out what those promises are to begin with?


  19. Yes, Ed is right. post everything here Lauren. I for one would love to read your writing prompts.

    The Way of Kings… the way to make my eyes blister. LOL.

  20. Hey, great podcast!

    When you first said not to kill people just to prove you can, I was a little surprised, or maybe guilty is the right word. I am still trying to decide exactly how you mean this. I don’t think an author should randomly kill someone just to do it, their death has to be meaningful in some way, even if the meaning is in the fact that there was no meaning. :)

    But, in one of my scenes this group gets captured and the bad guys want information from the girl. So, they start killing off her friends, and one of the random soldiers dies. Next came a more important character. I wasn’t trying to say, “See, no one’s safe.”
    I was more aiming for. “These guys are dangerous and have to be stopped.”

    I get tired of hero’s always escaping and bad guys simply getting squished. Now that I think about it, I should write an article about bad guys getting squished. Can we have a podcast on that? “Killing off bad guys.”? If we want to talk about meaningless deaths that would be a good subject, especially in children’s fiction.

  21. I’m one of those people who don’t read Schlock every day, even though I consider it to be one of the best webcomics I follow. I have in the past, but I generally found it very difficult to engage with the strip, both on a narrative and a comedic level, on a day to day basis. Invariably I would find myself going back through a story once it had been completed and enjoying it a hell of a lot more, because I could keep sense of the plot better, and sustain an amused mood that made the punchlines better. So ever since I realized that, I’ve been reading it basically a book at a time. Which is how you sell them! How can you be annoyed by fans who read Schlock in chunks when 75% of your revenue comes from selling it in whole pieces? Sheesh.

    (“Chunks of Schlock” is a lovely phrase, isn’t it?)

    For anyone looking for more suggestions on ways to create suspense, or alternative means of building tension, I recommend this excellent essay, called “Building a Better Bomb”, off of the same Hitchcock quote. http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2008/10/building-a-better-bomb-the-alternatives-to-suspense/

  22. Kyu,

    I think while Peet Gelderblom rightly shows there are a variety of ways suspense manifests itself, he mistakes method for effect.

    Suspense occurs when a reader or viewer hopes or fears for a characters, not KNOWING what will happen, but suspecting or knowing what MIGHT happen, and therefore feeling tension about the possibilities.

    Almost ALL of the films Gelderblom cites as “non-suspense” films were horror flicks. The audience, by default, already suspects awful things in store for the characters. They came into the theater already fearing for the character, suspecting what MIGHT happen. They were primed. So Gelderblom, in fact, is actually only showing why uncertainty is necessary for suspense and how surprise feeds into that uncertainty.

    It’s like ANACRAPHOBIA. We don’t always see specific spider bombs planted, but we know there are spiders around. So when a guy goes dipping his finger in the hanging coffee cups, we freak because we understand what MIGHT happen. It turns out nothing is there, but that doesn’t lessen our suspense. You don’t have to see a bomb planted. You only have to fear what MIGHT happen. Likewise, when the spider rolls out of the cereal box, we all jump to the roof. It was a surprise, sure. And delicious. But only because the audience was hopped up on suspense in the first place.

    Surprise without suspense, what Hitchcock is talking about, is completely different. Surprise is a vital story element. But it provides only a short-term effect UNLESS its used to feed uncertainty and terrible possibility into the reader’s mind. And then it’s just another element for building suspense.

  23. Writing prompt for this week’s podcast. It’s a little behind but whatever. I really liked this prompt.

    I have coated my left hand with magical ink. The reality of the situation was dawning on me, and suddenly in a moment when I didn’t need to be doubtful, I was wondering why I had become a tagger. I tried to hide my hand from Esper while planning what I was going to write, but she spotted me. It was about time she found out anyway.
    “You’re left handed!?” she whispered, almost getting loud enough that I wanted to shoot her a glance but didn’t. “Does Tesla know? I can’t believe you’re left handed! James, one of the best taggers in the area and he’s left handed. That doesn’t seem possible.”
    “Best tagger is going a little far but ok. Can you keep it down? I only have so long to do this.” I said. It wasn’t a nice bottle of ink. I hadn’t spent very much on the tiny black vial and I was a little worried my tag wouldn’t work. It was only an unlocking attempt, but the delay would harden the ink. I began to write on the door:

    Dear Sarah,
    You unlocked the secrets of my heart. You opened the world to me. I love you.

    The ink was draining from my hand as my index finger dotted the period at the end.
    “It seems a little cheesy, even for you.” said Esper.
    “I know. I really don’t want Richard to suspect anything. It’s enough that I always use Sarah as my connection, but this time it really needs to look unremarkable. Besides, when’s the last time you saw a graffiti love letter that wasn’t cheesy?”
    “Fine, as long as it works…” As she said this the ink escaped from my hand completely, and the letters in my tag began to glow a bright white. In the darkness it was blinding, and we both covered our eyes.
    “Great Squid! How much did you spend on that ink? Or rather how much didn’t you spend?”
    “We need as much profit as we can get this time. You know we need the money.”
    “I suppose, but this is making me a little on edge. I hope it – “She was cut off by the sound of the door lock clicking open. I let out a sigh of relief and went to push it open.
    “You really think Richard would steal from Tesla?” asked Esper nervously, as if she were trying to talk me out of this last step.
    “I don’t know, but Tesla wants an answer, and he’s willing to pay for it, that’s enough for me.” And with that, I pushed the door open.
    We were both frozen in the doorway. Richard’s flat would have been completely unremarkable if it weren’t for the thousands of vials, test tubes and storage bins filled with ink. The moonlight barely made out the beginning of the huge pile of stolen goods as they faded from view further back into the room. I found a light switch to my right and flicked it on. The room became a rainbow of color. Every color and every value of ink was visible. There were vials of Eel ink, and even a few of Giant squid ink, which must have been Tesla’s most prized possessions. Esper looked dumbstruck, and was looking back and forth between the tubs of green Permo-Ink and vials of purple and pink Fashion Ink. It was overwhelming. I didn’t need to see anymore but looked anyway. It was obvious that every item in here belonged to Tesla. It all had his seal on the vial or container in one place or another, and I’d seen all of this stuff before. Then, something caught my eye.
    “What is that?” I said, and trampled over to the other end of the room, over the vial covered couch and to a shelf with a tiny, thumb sized vial with a cork in it resting in the corner. It had an opaque white liquid inside, and it was glowing. “Esper what in the Black’s name is this?”
    “I… I have no idea.” She said as she fixed her gaze on the vial. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Where did Richard get something like this?”
    “Not from Tesla.” I said. The vial was intriguing. It had to be some kind of ink, but in all my experience tagging, I’d never seen an ink glow before being put down. I had to know what it was. I pocketed it and made my way out of the flat.
    “You’re taking it?” Esper asked cautiously.
    “Tesla won’t be expecting it back; it doesn’t have his seal on it so I don’t think it’s his. I want to know what it is.” And with that, I took a small vial of black ink and we left, I tagged the door on the way out so it would lock again.

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