Start and end your chapters with suspense
Chapters – sometimes as small as a single scene, or as long as a third of a book – are an integral part of the novel format and an important tool in the hands of a writer. A chapter acts like a brief ‘fade’ to black, like the fade-out cuts you see on TV shows or movies. They trim long boring actions and ‘refocus the camera’ on the action that is really important to the story. The places where you divide your 50,000-200,000 word wall of text are crucial to driving suspense and tension and creating a great story.
The suspense is killing me!
Suspense has a very easy definition, and I advise you to burn the following words into your brain and/or skin if you like to write genre fiction: Suspense is created when the reader is left uncertain over the outcome of a character’s action.
Suspense is created when an author wields uncertainty like a psychological weapon against the reader. To best leverage uncertainty in your story, you have to have excellent control of time and tempo.
One of the masters of temporal sorcery is, sadly, Dan Brown. My personal opinion is that Dan Brown writes about as well as Donald Trump speaks (“I have words! I have the best words!”), but I will give the credit where credit is due. The DaVinci Code is a masterpiece of suspense, and that shows in its sales figures. But how did he do it?
Besides a generally exciting concept, he did it by controlling chapter length, and using chapter division and point-of-view switching to bring his story to boiling point and keep it there.
If you have a copy of that book, go back through it and find the chapter headings. You will notice that there are upwards of a hundred chapters in The DaVinci Code. A hundred and four chapters, if you count the epilogue and prologue. ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR.
Why so many? Well, because Dan Brown decided to split his chapters on a per scene basis. In other words, rather than squish multiple scenes into a chapter, he basically just wrote a single scene and called it a chapter. Some of these ‘chapters’ are only a page long! He also often splits his point of view between scenes, head-hopping between his two heroes and the antagonists. In every instance, the author ends on a suspenseful note. The character in that scene is doing something and the actions they take do not have a certain outcome by the time that pagebreak occurs. The reader is basically compelled to turn to the next chapter.
Momentum is the cornerstone of a good thriller, and because people tend to think of novels in ‘chapters’, they will often read a story with the intent of finishing ‘one more chapter’ before they go to bed. But if the chapters are short and each one ends with suspense, they never put it down. It’s kind of like putting chicken salt on your mashed potatoes. The potatoes might be great or they might be bland, but the MSG – the chemical that excites your brain – keeps you eating past the point of fullness.
So that’s one technique you can use to divide your book – write shorter chapters. Write one page chapters, if you have to. This is very good for thriller and crime writers who need to cut between actions and overtly employ suspense to create the drama of the story.
The smoldering story
Quickstepping via chapters is one way to control time, but it’s not suitable for all stories. Romance and Fantasy novels tend to benefit from a more measured pace, otherwise, the reader starts to feel jerked around. Worldbuilding and character building tend to be fairly integral parts of the experience, and a one-page chapter just won’t fly.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need suspense. As you write or revise, have a look at your provisional chapters. What is the last action taken by the characters? Is it resolved? One thing you sometimes see is a chapter ending on a pleasant note of finality. “And then he rolled over and went to sleep.” Well, so did your reader: Literally, because a lot of people read in bed.
Start and end a chapter with a note of uncertainty, and see how much faster the book moves. With my own urban fantasy novels, I find that my chapters run anywhere between 2000-5000 words, and include several scenes.
Your mastery of time must be a bit more subtle than renowned author Dan Brown when you include multiple scenes per chapter. One common problem I see in fantasy is ‘temporal padding’. These are things like walking from place to place, cooking, horse travel, car travel (without plot significance or dialogue), bathing, eating and chatter between characters that is not relevant to the story or that resolves within the course of the conversation. You know when you’re drafting and struggle to know what to do do with your characters? That’s a bit of a giveaway that you’re in spitting distance of one of these padded scenes.
When you reach a point where your merry band must move locations, start a new chapter. Crossing from one end of the room to the other is fine; the forest journey is pointless unless something integral to the story is going to happen there. If the characters plan at dawn and execute their plan at sundown, start a new chapter and skip. The unresolved plan is suspenseful.
Romance can utilize this with interpersonal interaction. End the chapter with someone leaving, committing to an action (but not doing it yet), arriving, realizing something wonderful or awful…but not quite revealing what that wonderful or awful thing is.
Other times to end a chapter and start a new one include:
- Any point of view or character perspective shift.
- The culmination of a crisis.
- Temporal transition.
- Fast-track experiences.
- The space between preparation and execution.
- The introduction of someone important the story.
- Significant change of scene.
- The start of a key series of events.
What are your other favorite ways to create suspense?
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