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What We Learned From Jenifer Jenkins on Writing Suspense

By May 1, 2019 June 22nd, 2019 No Comments

Hello Writers and welcome to the fifth article coming from our time at Teen Author Boot Camp, this week we shall walk through our notes from author Jennifer Jenkins on how to make suspense, a very important prospect for if you want your reader to feel emotions, which we here at the All The Writing HQ have never personally experienced. She has written such books as Nameless, Clanless, and Fearless. She was a fun personality to hear from at the conference, and we hope to see more awesome works from her in the future. Also if you would like to attend a class this summer at Utah Valley University, she is holding the Young Authors Academy, for more information click here, or on the link at the bottom of the article. Alright now Writers we will begin the article in… Just a second…. Just building suspense…. Okay maybe this is getting just a little bit old…. NOW! Ha spooked you.

Suspense is an interval part in most books, or movies, or just any kind of literary work in general. Suspense is defined as a state of being in which you are either anxious or uncertain about what’s going to happen, much like how we feel about Avengers: Endgame (*excitement noises*). The only issue with writing suspense is that you need to know how to use it, and that is exactly we are here to teach you all about.

Lets start off with something kind of simple, tension, we do not mean the kind that can be massaged out, we mean the strain that is put on the reader throughout your story, and then released. If you know much about earthquakes then you should know that as two boundaries scrape along each other they build tension, and then when it becomes to much to bare, the tension is released, and the Earth can take a sigh of relief, and we can make news stories about all the damage done. This is exactly what you need to make suspense, tedious amounts of buildup, then some more tedious buildup, maybe just a little bit more, and then you finally let your reader and character exist in some peace.

Jennifer Jenkins asked us how to make suspense at the start of her presentation. After a few seconds of guesses and mumbles, she switched the slide and showed us the answer. The answer was another question, but mind you it came with an answer this time, the question being, “How do you make your family hungry?” and the answer being, “You make them wait for dinner.” This analogy ties together the idea of making your reader wait for the delicious and satisfying result that you are about to serve them.

You may think that having your reader know what’s going to happen is a bad practice in writing, but this is untrue. The fact of the matter is that it depends on what you want them to know or what you don’t want them to know, you want your reader to be able to guess somethings while also having them completely in the dark for some scenes. It’s also good to note that the reader likes to be right sometimes, it can be frustrating being wrong all the time, throw the reader a bone every once in a while.

Now writing often circulates around getting your readers to ask the right questions, this is also the case with suspense. With suspense building you want to imply a question that brings an element of mystery and wanting to know, an example may be “What if monsters actually do exist?” But there can also be questions like, “Will the spy be able to get themselves out of this situation?” Which is more for building suspense in troublesome scenarios. Both of these questions have a next step in common, you have to answer the question, the only reason you wouldn’t answer a question is if you had a sequel planned and wanted to leave some threads to continue on.

Often building suspense can lead to the oh so familiar effect of being unable to put a book down, this is exactly what you want. If you’re readers eyes are glued to the page then you’re definitely doing something right. Jennifer Jenkins explained this as the reader gaining momentum as they chase the oh so sweet answer to the question that you implied earlier.

One way to keep the ball rolling with suspense is that you can add cliff hangers. Cliff hangers are one of the keystone ways of creating suspense, a cliffhanger consists of building up a particular rough scene that really needs a solution, but the solution is stalled until you reach the climax, the climax is where you drop your reader off by ending a chapter or the whole story, often leaving an expression of “What?!” on the reader’s face. But remember to keep this what as a more exciting kind of ‘what’ and not a confusing one. Also note that cliff hangers are not to be overused, having to many can lead to tiredness of the reader, and reduced effectiveness in building of suspense. “Oh look, another cliffhanger, great.” is something that someone would say sarcastically to the 50th cliff hanger.

Some people confuse action as suspense, when it is actually (in most cases) quite the opposite. Jennifer Jenkins described suspense as making more promises than action, like the promise to answer the question that you set up earlier. Suspense is based more on the idea of building moments leading up to a payoff, it can be summed up by saying, “Suspense is anticipation, action is payoff.” a great line from the presentation. Always make sure to have the build up last as long as possible, get every last bit of juice out of there, and then you can finally let the floodgates burst.

Jennifer Jenkins gave us a list of the 7 pillars of suspense we will list them in order down below.

The Seven Main Pillars of Suspense

    1. Backstory, backstory can be good or bad dependent on how much is shown and when it is showed, keep a good balance and hopefully the awesome backstory you planned will play to your benefit
    2. Questions, as we’ve said many times, keep you’re reader asking questions all the way up to the end of your book or series
  1. Have an active and unpredictable setting
  2. Mood, set up the mood of your story with proper word choice and as previously mentioned, setting, changing weather, difficult time periods, or natural disasters are all good ways to create tension with mood and setting
  3. Complicated and hard to figure out characters
  4. Identify and flip stereotypes to throw your reader off the scent
  5. Foreshadowing, the lightning before the thunder, the subtle hints that lead to the satisfying reveal

Don’t play tricks on your reader by just randomly throwing something in, this is quite gimmicky. But don’t let this discourage you from using red herrings, where you intentionally throw your reader off the scent of what is actually happening, but make sure you are able to explain the red herring when the time comes. You have to make sure to have story lines that lead to answers that make sense given all the clues that you have carefully placed.

Let’s get into the more romantic part of tension, where it is more of a ‘will they, won’t they?’ kind of tension. The ‘will they, won’t they?’ trope follows a romantic pairing and puts you on a roller coaster of asking yourself the questions of will they get together? or will they not get together? Always make sure to have tension running from the very beginning of your story, but have it on a lower interval that you can build up. Jennifer Jenkins told us that a relationship is only as strong as the challenges that keeps it apart, and there do have to be challenges. Without challenges in a story it’s just a happy story about how Joe and Sally lead a happy and perfect life together, which if we’re being honest is very uninteresting. The challenge can vary widely, but Jennifer Jenkins warned to watch out for “The Big Misunderstanding” where everything could’ve been solved by a conversation. This can lead to a weak challenge, and thus a weak relationship. She gave advice that often kissing/sex scenes lead to a deflation of tension, because you’ve gotten rid of the ‘will they, won’t they?’ dynamic, so if you do include a scene of this nature be prepared for another long build up of romantic tension in some other way.

In suspenseful stories you need to keep your stakes high, you can’t just have a story where Billy has to defeat the Dark Lord, because if he doesn’t he’ll get a cold. You have to ask yourself what the consequences are if you’re hero fails, and be sure it is a very big issue, also keep a running timeline of when they need to accomplish their goal before failure. Also keep in mind that the clock is almost always working towards the antagonists benefit, but do give the hero some small victories. Conflict is always the king of every story, without a good conflict you don’t have a good story. In your future or current projects create hard choices, and morally gray areas, or maybe a lose-lose situation. By adding these elements you’re main character can gain the title of hero, not just have it thrown on them.

And that about wraps up all our notes from the awesomeness that is author Jennifer Jenkins, go check her out in the links below, and see you later Writers.

Click here to go to Jennifer Jenkins Amazon page.

Click here to go to Jennifer Jenkins website.

Click here to learn more about her Young Authors Academy at UVU.

Also go find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Hope you all enjoyed and see all of thou later.