What makes a good horror story? Sure, you could throw in some hideous monsters, fountains of blood, and things jumping out from every corner, but as classic horror author H.P. Lovecaft wrote, “The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” And writers harness that fear not by revealing horrors, but by leaving the audience hanging in anticipation of them.
That is, in a state of suspense. The most familiar examples of suspense come from horror films and mystery novels. What’s inside the haunted mansion? Which of the dinner guests is the murderer? But suspense exists beyond these genres. Will the hero save the day? Will the couple get together in the end? And what is the dark secret that causes the main character so much pain?
The key to suspense is that it sets up a question, or several, that the audience hopes to get an answer to and delays that answer while maintaining their interest and keeping them guessing. So what are some techniques you can use to achieve this in your own writing? Limit the point of view. Instead of an omniscient narrator who can see and relay everything that happens, tell the story from the perspective of the characters. They may start off knowing just as little as the audience does, and as they learn more, so do we.
Classic novels, like “Dracula,” for example, are told through letters and diary entries where characters relate what they’ve experienced and fear what’s to come. Next, choose the right setting and imagery. Old mansions or castles with winding halls and secret passageways suggest that disturbing things are being concealed. Nighttime, fog, and storms all play similar roles in limiting visibility and restricting characters’ movements. That’s why Victorian London is such a popular setting.
And even ordinary places and objects can be made sinister as in the Gothic novel “Rebecca” where the flowers at the protagonist’s new home are described as blood red. Three: play with style and form. You can build suspense by carefully paying attention not just to what happens but how it’s conveyed and paced. Edgar Allan Poe conveys the mental state of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” with fragmented sentences that break off suddenly. And other short declarative sentences in the story create a mix of breathless speed and weighty pauses.
On the screen, Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematography is known for its use of extended silences and shots of staircases to create a feeling of discomfort. Four: use dramatic irony. You can’t just keep the audience in the dark forever. Sometimes, suspense is best served by revealing key parts of the big secret to the audience but not to the characters. This is a technique known as dramatic irony, where the mystery becomes not what will happen but when and how the characters will learn.
In the classic play “Oedipus Rex,” the title character is unaware that he has killed his own father and married his mother. But the audience knows, and watching Oedipus gradually learn the truth provides the story with its agonizing climax. And finally, the cliffhanger. Beware of overusing this one. Some consider it a cheap and easy trick, but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness.
This is where a chapter, episode, volume, or season cuts off right before something crucial is revealed, or in the midst of a dangerous situation with a slim chance of hope. The wait, whether moments or years, makes us imagine possibilities about what could happen next, building extra suspense. The awful thing is almost always averted, creating a sense of closure and emotional release. But that doesn’t stop us from worrying and wondering the next time the protagonists face near-certain disaster