1. jackratko
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    jackratko New Member

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    Building Suspense

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jackratko, Sep 4, 2013.

    So, I have a scene in my short story where two brothers are hiding in a field. The field gets burned down with them inside, and they escape. I'm having trouble creating an escape scene with enough suspense.

    "They sat amongst the crops for several hours, never daring to peer outside the fields. It was not long before they could hear screams of horror, see the gray pillar of smoke erecting from the town, and smell the ashes of a burning village. However, the smoke seemed to be coming closer and closer until it was neigh on top of them, and Alexander understood with dread the reason behind this. He immediately grabbed Demetrius’ hand and sprinted away from the raging fire, which was scorching the fields.​

    Demetrius tripped over a rock and tumbled to his stomach. He peered up at Alexander briefly before letting out a loud wail. Alexander quickly helped him to his feet and despite Demetrius’ pain they kept running, the flame always directly behind them."

    I may want to change the fire to have circled them, so they need to run through burning fields, but I'm not sure. Any suggestions?​
     
  2. GHarrison
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    GHarrison Senior Member

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    Anyone here will say that you are telling and not showing in this piece. This makes the reader simply a recipient of the story. To develop suspense I think you need to immerse the reader by slowing down, focusing on what the characters are feeling and experiencing each and every second. Show the fear and where it comes from.

    Suspense is about waiting and wondering how an unknown outcome will make the reader feel. I suggest drawing this out, add some contemplation, make them human, and add some uncertainty as to what is going on. Put the reader in there with them, so to speak.

    This sentence here, for example: "They sat amongst the crops for several hours, never daring to peer outside the fields." Could use some expounding.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2013
  3. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe you could add a part where the characters are trying to decide whether the fire or the people chasing them is the scarier risk?
     
  4. wolfenburg
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    wolfenburg Member

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    +1 on GHarrison said. Simply adding more detail with draw this whole scene out longer, creating more suspense. Show us through thoughts, feelings & sensory perception how dire the situation is. Show us how the air tastes and smells. Perhaps they get lost in the fields and become claustrophobic? There are a thousand possibilities.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I think it's harder to show the tension building with this style of narration. There's an active thread that "show don't tell" is not the answer to everything, but I agree with GHarrison, it may be the answer here. The way the event is narrated, it distances the reader from the action.

    "It was not long before they could hear screams of horror, see the gray pillar of smoke erecting from the town, and smell the ashes of a burning village. However, the smoke seemed to be coming closer and closer ..."

    "It was not long before" -
    It's too nonchalant. Also, eliminate words like "seemed". There's a list of such words one should use sparingly, 'seemed', 'really', 'just', 'sort of'... etc. We tend to overuse them in our thoughts, but the reader doesn't need them.

    "Barely minutes passed when screams of horror pierced the silence. A gray pillar of smoke rose above the town and the smell of burning houses filled the air. The pillar grew wider coming closer and closer..."
     
  6. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Building suspense is part of why I love my first person/present narratives.

    "God, is he still out there? I hear the shuffle of footsteps coming toward me- Shit! He is. What do I do? What do I do? Okay, Alli. Slow down. Breathe. Don't panic. Just... whatever you do, don't panic..."

    That said, maybe you should throw some elements like that in with your third person narrative. Are their hearts pounding? Lungs filling with smoke? Are they panicking and have their judgement impaired by that, which may lead them to do something the reader wouldn't expect?
     
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  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think that the level of suspense is a function of 1st or 3rd person narrative. One can build suspense with either. It can be done with a threat that the character knows (s)he needs to escape as well as one the character doesn't know exists but the reader does - the madman with the ax just beyond the closed door that the character is approaching, thinking it's the way out. The reader instinctively cries, "Don't go there!"

    .

    Wreybies posted something a couple of weeks ago on "filtering", and this is a prime example. Show us Alexander seeing/feeling/smelling/sensing the approaching danger. Show us his thoughts ("The field is burning!!") and fear ("We're gonna die!"); thinking he sees a way out ("Over there, it seems okay") but then uncertain ("Wait! Which way is north?!") until a decision is reached ("God, I hope this is right!") but do not let us know until the very last moment whether he made it or not.

    One other suggestion: when you write it, keep your paragraphs as short and as sparse as possible. It will slow the passage in the reader's mind, no matter how fast (s)he reads, and (s)he is more likely to absorb it (ie. less likely to scan) than if it is a single, densely packed paragraph of narration.

    Hope this helps.
     
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  8. JindleBrey
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    JindleBrey Member

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    Start the suspense with one of the brothers saying something like "Do you smell that?". That should instantly get the reader's attention. Then build it up to them being surrounded by fire. Maybe get the smoke to obscure their vision, causing them to split up and become lost. It's up to you. What would you find gripping?
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    "Listen...do you smell something?"

    Sorry, couldn't resist.
     
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  10. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would agree it's too much like a commentary and leaves nothing to my imagination. Suspense is what you can't see like the Blair Witch Project - the only film ever to scare the crap out of me because we never saw whatever was out there. Here you go into every detail so there is nothing left to suspend me.

    I would use short sharp sentences and alter the rhythm - slow slow quick quick slow, and also dialogue, and let the reader know how the characters feel, their fears, their hopes.
    I would suggest you fullfill the criteria for being critiqued and post an excerpt.
     

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