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 Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing). 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.


If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book mentioned in this article: Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing), please click on the link below. (Full disclosure: If you do so, I earn a commission. Thank you.)

What makes a book a page-turner? How do you grab your readers right from the start and hold them through the last sentence? How do you make your plot twist and turn and keep the action moving without losing continuity?

You do it by generating drama and developing it using conflict, action and suspense. You make your reader burn to know what's going to happen next. You create tension...and build it...to the breaking point.

William Noble shows you how to intensify that pressure throughout your story. You'll learn exactly what constitutes conflict, action and suspense, how they relate to other important ingredients in your story, and - perhaps most important - how to manipulate them.

Through thorough, step-by-step instruction, you'll learn how to...

  • set the stage with techniques and devices that enhance drama
  • introduce suspense from the very beginning of your story
  • build suspense through cliff-hangers, dialogue, mood, character
  • development, point of view, subtlety and indirection, and time and place
  • bring all that conflict, action and suspense to a gripping conclusion
There are all sorts of ways to create tension in your prose - from using adjectives and nouns that drip with imagery to making quick scene cuts and transitions to accelerating the pace. Learn them here. Then use them, and your story will plunge your readers into a river of worry...and the current will carry them to The End.

$12.99 USD
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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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