Create Suspense: Leave ‘Em Hanging

 

Image of cat hanging by claws on fence

Hang in There

One day, after stepping away from my writing for a few days, I re-read the my most recent chapters. They felt so comfortable, I almost went to sleep. I knew I’d formed some bad habits.

I started with an objective to write a page-turner that riveted the reader from beginning to end. But somewhere along the way, I started wrapping up loose ends. Soon, each chapter closed without any suspense.

I recalled that William Noble dedicated a chapter to this subject in his book Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict, Action & Suspense. I pulled the book out and reviewed Chapter 4 – Leave ‘Em Hanging.

Here are some of his key points.

How It Works

Leaving them hanging works because readers approach it with double expectations:

  • They expect to be left hanging.
  • But they expect to have the drama ultimately resolved. We can leave them hanging only for a limited time.

Techniques

Scene Cuts

Quickly cut from one scene to the next, changing point of view. The movement, itself, is what makes this work. It doesn’t allow the reader to relax and become immersed in the extended playing out of the scene.

Transitions

Transitions are devices to move the reader across time or place from one scene to another. Used properly, they can lengthen tension and apprehension.

The key is this: Transitions should occur during tense moments; they should not resolve the problem or the dilemma or the confrontation, at least not right away. Allow the conflict to resonate for a while, and this will make the transition more significant and more useful.

Story Pace

Pacing a story correctly involves writing rises and falls in action and suspense that build to a climax in a satisfying way.  Keys from Mr. Noble:

  • Don’t pick up the story threads too quickly.
  • Let uncertainty fester in the reader.
  • Stretch out the rescues and solutions.
  • Offer less than satisfactory alternatives or dilemmas and problems.

Summary

In order to compose a page-turner, we’ve got to leave the reader hanging. Scenes and chapters need to end abruptly. If there are no loose ends, then the writer must create some.

The pace needs to keep the tension rising. Too much, too fast and it will be unsustainable. Too slow and the reader will get bored. Leaving things hanging is just one of the tools for ratcheting up the tension.

Update:

After writing this post, there was a particular chapter that bothered me. In the chapter, my two protagonists get separated during an action scene. Before end of the chapter, they find each other.

I chopped off the last part of the chapter, so that after pulling himself out of the raging whitewater, my hero becomes despondent when he can’t find his female partner. The story doesn’t come back to them for three chapters. Even then, I took my time before reuniting them.

I feel better now.

Do you have any scenes or chapters that end too neatly? If so, tell us about how you cleaned them up.

Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict, Action & Suspense

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the reminder and suggestions. I’ve got seven unpublished novels full of snoozer-chapter endings.

    Reply
    • Looking from a distance, it seems so obvious. But when I’m knee-deep into the process of writing, I find myself wanting to clean up loose ends.

      I’m glad this post helped you.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      Reply

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