Ways of Maintaining Suspense
- Ticking clock/deadline
- Convergence – multiple pov characters and the reader’s knowledge that when two of them get together, something bad will happen
- Planet/damsel in distress
- Revelation of mysteries/connections/relationships
- Cost – the hero will have to pay something in order to find something out
- Weakness of character which the character will have to find out
Don’t use just one of these things. Keep your reader turning pages.
The richer your cake the better, but it’s still got to look like cake at the end. – Walter
Examples: Dorothy Sayers, who uses many red herrings and reveals; The Floating Admiral; the note at the beginning of Gaudy Night.
Raising Stakes and Reveals
Raising the stakes, also known as escalation, works at both micro and macro level. For example, in “Jumping Jack Flash,” we start with a small favor which is low stakes, and then things start escalating.
Raising the stakes serves to draw the reader in. A personal investment can get larger, or an interest, or an interest can become an obsession. Or a character can find out things about him or herself.
- Pygmalion – not just a ball at the end, but must fool a language expert.
- The person who could tell you needed information is missing or dead.
- The walls of the trash compactor start closing in during Star Wars.
- The Millennium Falcon breaks down.
Escalation can occur by making the danger get closer as well as larger. For example, the Xeroxing scene in “The Nasty Girl”, in which she is Xeroxing papers while someone gets closer and closer to catching her, so we hear the slow grind and whir of the machine as the other person approaches and the tension gets higher and higher.
You can also raise the stakes by inserting a deadline. Things like weddings and courtroom scenes have built-in deadlines. These deadlines can be real or artificial, but artificial deadlines usually occur in comedies. Examples of deadlines: “Around the World in 80 Days”, “The Batchelor”, in which he must get married by a deadline in order to receive his inheritance.
Reversals occur when an action happens that sends the plot in a completely different direction. They change the question that the reader is asking. Reversals almost always raise the stakes. You can have double and triple reversals as well as reversals that take you off guard and set up the next reversal. The dinner scene in “Hello Dolly” is a study in one reversal after another.
J. R. R. Tolkein is the master of reversals that do something that is simultaneously good and bad. Bad events with a good consequence and vice versa. Examples include Gollum’s snatching the ring, going through the forest and getting attacked by Old Man Willow but escaping the Barrow-Wights, Eowyn’s almost death and subsequent meeting Faramir.
Reversals do not have to be bad. The
Reversals can occur at any point of the story. If they occur in the beginning, it’s part of the set-up. They most commonly occur at the end, as in the stories of O. Henry and Saki.
One way to plot raising the stakes and reversals is to make a smallest to the greatest chart. Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is a study in escalation.