21 Oct

YA Cafe: Building Suspense

Posted in Reading, Teen Lit, Writing, YA Cafe

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature. I’m your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs. We’ve also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned! Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #YAcafe.

Today’s Special: Building Suspense

Suspense isn’t something reserved just for teen literature, but let’s face it teens and kids are much less forgiving as readers than most adults are.  When writing for adults you can get away with long flowery descriptions or entire chapters where nothing really happens but the language is pretty anyway.  In teen lit and kid lit… not so much.  If you don’t keep the pages turning, chances are your readers will put the book down altogether.

So how do you build suspense and keep it going throughout the book or story?  Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my reading and writing.

1)  Raise the stakes.  (WARNING: The Hunger Games spoilers in this section.)  Let’s look at that fabulous example of suspense-building: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  Notice how the stakes constantly go up throughout the book.  First Prim gets selected as a tribute, making the games suddenly very personal for protagonist Katniss.  Next, she takes her sister’s place as tribute making the life-and-death stakes even more personal.

Then as Katniss prepares for the games, we see her avoid forming bonds with the other tributes.  After all, to survive, she will have to kill them.  Then she finds out Peeta is in love with her.  Stakes = even higher.  Skip ahead to the last third of the book where she starts falling for Peeta but learns that there’s a chance they can both survive… stakes go up but not so much.  Then she discovers the rules have changed and it’s either her or Peeta who can survive.  At that point, the stakes are as high as they can get (which is good because that scene happens to be the book’s climax.)

Notice how the stakes keep going up.  Every time we readers start getting comfortable with the stakes, the author ratchets up the tension by raising the stakes.

2)  Avoid red herrings.  Red herrings are when you “trick” the reader into thinking the stakes are really high but then *surprise* it’s not really the case.  The classic red herring is the “it was all a dream” trick, where we get all this suspense and then suddenly the character wakes up and we realize that none of it was real.  Why are red herrings so bad?  They make the reader lose trust in you and that can be a problem because when you really want to raise suspense, the reader might not believe you.

Suspense depends a lot on trust.  For the reader to truly buy into the situation you’re crafting you have to get the reader to trust you.  If the reader doesn’t trust you as the writer, then it will be all the more difficult to draw the reader into the suspenseful situation you’re creating.  Don’t break that trust by playing tricks on your reader.

3)  Play with pacing.  One great technique for increasing suspense is to either speed up the pacing to a breakneck pace or slow it down so we can feel every heartbeat, every breath.  We see the latter technique often in first-kiss scenes.  There we are, reading along, dying for the hero and the love interest to have that first kiss but dagnammit they just won’t kiss.  They inch closer and closer together.  Their eyes are locked in a steady gaze.  The sexual tension is through the roof, their lips are inches apart but the author keeps us waiting just a few more sentences before that kiss.  Talk about building suspense.  (Which brings me to the most important point about suspense.)

4)  Suspense does NOT mean “not knowing.”  Contrary to popular belief, suspense doesn’t mean that the author keeps you guessing.  In fact, a lot of the time you know exactly what’s going to happen, but you keep flipping page after page and can’t put the book down.  Suspense isn’t always about unexpected plot twists (though it can be).  Rather, suspense is about the author gripping you by the hand and pulling you into the story.

Suspense isn’t about what is going to happen in the story, but how it’s going to happen.  Take The Hunger Games.  We know from the minute that Katniss becomes a tribute that she will have to survive.  How do we know?  For starters, she’s narrating the story so if she dies, the series is over.  Secondly, from the very first scene where we see Katniss hunting in the woods, we know she’s a survivor.  The question isn’t whether or not Katniss will die because we’re already pretty sure of the answer.  So how does Collins keep us reading page after page?  She hooks us by making us want to find out how it will all unfold.

In the spirit of Halloween and all things creepy, what’s the most suspenseful book you’ve read lately?  I’ll share my pick next week when we have our Book Club discussion!

For more on Suspense in YA, check out Ghenet’s post!  And don’t forget the book club discussion next wee on October 28.  The topic is flexible: just choose a book that you think is scary, then your thoughts by joining the discussion!  (And just in time for Halloween… muhahaha!)

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Comments on this post

  1. Satia says:

    Well, believe it or not, I just read Persuasion and as I was thinking about it, about how reading Austen shouldn’t be terribly gratifying because you know how it is going to end . . . but then I kept reading, found it hard to put the book down, was eager to see how the happily-ever-after marriage would finally come to be. And when you know the ending, you know pretty much where the story’s heading, the ability to engage the reader regardless is always remarkable.
    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers would be my second pick (not in rank but I finished it before I did Persuasion). Just blown away by this novel. I could guess where some of the characters were heading but I still found myself just shocked by one thing that happens and then another and yet everything was genuine. Nothing happened that was out of character or contrived. Inevitable, yes, but still compelling.
    Those were the most recent. I’m not including a biography I read even though I found it very suspenseful. Of course, I know how the story was going to end and I even knew a lot about the political and social climate that defined much of the lives that were presented on the page. And yet, I was devouring this book as best I could between everything else I had going on at the time. I just didn’t think a biography qualified as suspenseful, per se.

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