The Anatomy of Suspense

May 25, 2021

This post is part of an ongoing series on the making of the thriller STEEL FEAR, which goes on sale July 13. 

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“How do you maintain suspense through hundreds of pages?”

The first time got that question was in an interview with Publishers Weekly back in April. I gave an answer that had something to do with how first drafts are like pencil sketches that will eventually become the oil painting of the finished book: lots of broad strokes, trying things out, and erasing as the shapes gradually emerge. And how part of the suspense is that while I’m writing, I don’t know myself exactly what’s going to happen next.

The second time I got it, I gave some other answer.

I wasn’t satisfied with either one. So afterward, I thought about it some more. How exactly does that work?

I think it has to do with the difference between questions and answers.

There’s something curious I’ve noticed about the reviews people have been giving the book. Quite a few say something like these:

Steel Fear comes in hot and never slows down. Exciting, action-packed, and twisty from stem to stern.” — Brad Thor

“An edge-of-your seat thriller … like speeding down a slalom course, once you get going there’s no stopping.” — Steve Berry

“A five-star scorcher from first page to last.” — Robert Crais

I cite these not to brag but to make a point. From reading what these accomplished authors are saying, you might get the sense that Steel Fear is packed with action from cover to cover. What’s so curious about that?

Just this: It’s not really true.

I mean, yes, action occurs. There are fights. (A few.) There are murders. (Many of them offscreen.) There is running and chasing. (A small amount.)

But mostly not.

In fact, that was one of the big challenges in writing the book. The story takes place on an aircraft carrier. Alcohol is prohibited. Discipline is as tight as military discipline gets. There are no barroom brawls, no street fights, no letting off steam on the weekends.

So no, there’s honestly not a lot of action. And yet it seems like there is.

How does that work?

In a word: suspense. There may not be a lot of action happening, but the promise of serious action simmers under the surface, threatening like thunderclouds. That’s what suspense does. It creates anticipation. Sometimes the anticipation of the thing is more intense than the thing itself, whatever that “thing” happens to be.

This is why, for example, Stephen King says when given the choice, he will always opt to create terror over horror. Terror is the so-far-unanswered anticipation of something horrible. Horror is the actual arrival of the horrible thing.

This reminds me of something I heard a rambling talk-show-philosopher say on NPR late one Sunday night, when I was a teenager. I’ve forgotten the man’s name, but will never forget what he said:

“Answers are for people who aren’t comfortable living with questions.”

That resonated for me, because I’d been hearing a lot about the power of affirmations: the repeated positive assertions of a state or situation you want to see occur. I never quite warmed to the idea. It always felt like I was trying to brainwash myself.

But I did warm to the idea of asking myself powerful questions.

I couldn’t get into declaiming “You are successful, you are wealthy beyond measure, you are the handsomest, cleverest man in the universe” and so on. But I could definitely get into repeatedly murmuring to myself: “What impact would you like to have on the world?” or “Why was I put here?”

I dubbed them “quesfirmations,” and I’ve been asking them ever since.

Questions have more power than answers. They are pull versus push. As Aunt Elle says in The Go-Giver Leader:

“Pull is the substance of influence. Not push. That’s why we don’t talk about how much push we might have with people, but rather how much pull. … Think of it this way: How far can you push a rope?”

This, to me, is the difference between suspense versus action. Tension versus release. Question versus answer.

And that’s my answer to the interviewer’s question. How do you maintain suspense for hundreds of pages?

Unanswered questions.

In Steel Fear, for example, chapter 1 and 2 follow Lieutenant Monica Halsey, a helicopter pilot, from her stateroom, through the labyrinth of passageways, and up to the flight deck where she is about to board her helo, which, she notes as she watches it settle onto the deck from its previous run, resembles a giant praying mantis with its big cockpit eyes. Here are the last two lines of chapter 2:

In the seconds before takeoff, she always said a silent prayer herself.

She’d be damned if anyone else on this deployment lost their lives. Not on her watch.

Wait—anyone else? Who lost their lives? We have no idea. And we don’t find out for a good long time.

In chapter 3 we meet Chief Finn, the troubled SEAL at the heart of the story, as he boards Monica’s helo for a ride back to the ship. (Why he’s coming aboard, we have no idea. Another unanswered question.) The chapter ends this way, as a man named Harris ushers him down off the flight deck and into the ship’s interior.

Harris turned and saw him looking back to the south, toward Bahrain. “Chief Finn?” When the SEAL didn’t respond he said, “Everything okay, Chief?”

Finn looked over at the other man. Nodded and followed him in.

Nothing was okay.

The next chapter follows Finn from the Air Transfer Office to the little hole in the wall where he’ll be staying (“It felt like he’d been shuffled into a desk drawer”), where he considers another unanswered question: Just what is the “special assignment” he is supposedly on? The chapter ends like this:

His best guess?

He was being shipped home in disgrace.

Wait—what?! In disgrace for what reason? And why doesn’t he know? Just what happened back there in Bahrain, or wherever he’s been the last few days and weeks?

We have no idea.

But we’ll find out … won’t we?

2 Comments

  1. Adrian

    SUSPENSE – the word implies being “suspended” – i.e. with our feet off the ground. We’re not “grounded”, our feet are pedaling in the air, looking for a firm surface and finding none. What a great device to keep us reading, searching for a firm grounding!

    Reply
  2. David Connon

    I agree that asking oneself powerful questions open up intriguing possibilities in a story.

    Reply

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