Get in new groups to discuss “The Most
Basic Elements of a Story
1. PLOT - the story line; a unified, progressive pattern of action or
events in a story
2. POINT OF VIEW (POV) - the position from which the story is told
3. CHARACTER - Types: person portraying himself or another
1. Characterization: Methods
4. SETTING - the time and place of the action in a story
5. TONE - the attitude of the author toward his subject or toward the
6. MOOD - the feeling or state of mind that predominates in a story
creating a certain atmosphere
Suspense is created by an uncertainty about
what happens next in your story. So–what
does happen next? The unexpected, of
course. But let’s think back to the basic plot
outline to understand how to create
The plot of a story is driven by conflict;
without a conflict creating tension, you
simply don’t have a story. Suspense is the
reader’s worry about what will happen
because of that conflict.
Begin at the right place
Looking over the broad picture of your story, the need for
escalation requires that you start at a place of strong
conflict, but not so strong that the situation can’t get
worse. You must find a strong enough place to create
suspense; yet, that exact situation and time in the story
must allow for a progression of scenes in which things get
worse. In other words, make sure the sequence of scenes
What is the initial conflict in “The Most
We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great
"The best sport in the world," agreed Rainsford.
"For the hunter," amended Whitney. "Not for the jaguar."
"Don't talk rot, Whitney," said Rainsford. "You're a big-game hunter, not
a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?"
"Perhaps the jaguar does," observed Whitney.
"Bah! They've no understanding."
"Even so, I rather think they understand one thing--fear. The fear of pain
and the fear of death."
"Nonsense," laughed Rainsford. "This hot weather is making you
soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes--the
hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters.
As you work with the plot and
conflicts, search for ways to bring in or to
Which are scenes of
uncertainty in the story?
Uncertainty about the Island
"The place has a reputation--a bad one."
"Cannibals?" suggested Rainsford.
"Hardly. Even cannibals wouldn't live in
such a God-forsaken place. But it's gotten
into sailor lore, somehow. Didn't you notice
that the crew's nerves seemed a bit jumpy
today? [. . .] All I could get out of him was
`This place has an evil name among
seafaring men, sir.’
Let readers root for a
character or characters.
Give readers a person to root for. If we care for
the characters, we worry more. Good
characterization gives us cause to root for a
character and his/her eventual success over
the conflict. If we know that a woman has
been abused, but come out of it and
successfully raised two lovely children, then we
worry more when she starts dating a man we
suspect of being an alcoholic.
Who do we root for in “The
Most Dangerous Game”?
Is he round or flat? Dynamic or
How is he characterized?
What drives readers to root for
Give the readers a great
Make villains credible, logical, and
believable, but not likeable. Readers need
to understand why the antagonist is doing
what he does, and why he believes his
actions are justified and rational.
How is Zaroff drawn as a believable
"Life is for the strong, to be lived by the
strong, and, if needs be, taken by the
strong. The weak of the world were put here
to give the strong pleasure. I am strong.
Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to
hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of
the earth: sailors from tramp ships-lassars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels-a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth
more than a score of them."
Evoke strong emotions
through a critical conflict
Make sure the conflict evokes strong emotions. This
usually means a conflict that matters in some important
way. The possibility of walking through a thicket with
thorns is trivial in comparison to a life and death
situation. On that continuum of what is at risk, push more
towards the “life and death” end to increase suspense.
What is the next conflict in “The Most
Dangerous Game”? Consider
Rainsford and Zaroff’s conversation
"But you can't mean--" gasped Rainsford.
"And why not?”
"I can't believe you are serious, General
Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”
"Why should I not be serious? I am speaking
"Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what
you speak of is murder."
The conflict must change
In some way, as the story progresses, the
character’s situation(s) must change, usually by
building on the initial conflict. You must ask how
things can get worse. Would it be worse at a
different time? A different place? With different
characters? Or try it from a different stance: what is
the worse thing your character would ever have to
face? That is the ending scene and how can you
back up from there and soften the conflict?
The conflict escalates again
Rainsford is in fact confronted with the
original conflict that his friend poses: the
unfairness to the animal. Next he learns
that Zaroff is hunting men on his island.
Finally, he learns that he will be hunted.
"My dear fellow," said the general, "have I
not told you I always mean what I say
about hunting? This is really an inspiration. I
drink to a foeman worthy of my steel--at
last." The general raised his glass, but
Rainsford sat staring at him.
To evoke strong emotions, you must
include great details. This means you
must think about what the setting is like in
terms of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and
tactile possibilities. Use specific sensory
details to evoke the situation and give
the reader a blow by blow of the action
of the story.
"I'll give him a trail to follow," muttered Rainsford, and he struck off
from the rude path he had been following into the trackless
wilderness. He executed a series of intricate loops; he doubled on
his trail again and again, recalling all the lore of the fox hunt, and
all the dodges of the fox. Night found him leg-weary, with hands
and face lashed by the branches, on a thickly wooded ridge.
An apprehensive night crawled slowly by like a wounded snake
and sleep did not visit Rainsford, although the silence of a dead
world was on the jungle. Toward morning when a dingy gray was
varnishing the sky, the cry of some startled bird focused Rainsford's
attention in that direction. Something was coming through the
bush, coming slowly, carefully, coming by the same winding way
Rainsford had come. He flattened himself down on the limb
and, through a screen of leaves almost as thick as tapestry, he
watched. . . . That which was approaching was a man.
Feel the Consequences.
Once you place the reader in the situation, then
evoke even stronger emotions by making sure the
reader understands the consequences of failure.
This is the, “So What?” question. If X fails to do Y–
so what? Who cares? You must provide enough
details on the consequences or hint at it broadly
enough for the reader to guess the
What are the consequences?
"You'll find this game worth playing," the
general said enthusiastically." Your brain
against mine. Your woodcraft against
mine. Your strength and stamina against
mine. Outdoor chess! And the stake is not
without value, eh?"
"And if I win--" began Rainsford huskily.
"I'll cheerfully acknowledge myself defeat
if I do not find you by midnight of the third
day," said General Zaroff. "My sloop will
place you on the mainland near a town.”
Try using scene cuts to leave X hanging while you
present a scene with Y that leaves Y hanging;
then come back to X, finish the first scene and
transition immediately into the second scene
which–of course–leaves X hanging again.
Repeat as needed.
Where is the reader left hanging?
"Nerve, nerve, nerve!" he panted, as he dashed along. A
blue gap showed between the trees dead ahead. Ever
nearer drew the hounds. Rainsford forced himself on toward
that gap. He reached it. It was the shore of the sea. Across a
cove he could see the gloomy gray stone of the chateau.
Twenty feet below him the sea rumbled and hissed.
Rainsford hesitated. He heard the hounds. Then he leaped
far out into the sea. . . .
When the general and his pack reached the place by the
sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood
regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his
shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a
silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame
Much of building suspense is an issue of pacing, which
is merely taking the long picture of your story and
thinking about how scenes blend with each other. For
example, you might follow two fast-paced action
scenes with a scene of simple action but more
complex character interaction.
You can control pacing with sentence structure.
Long, flowing sentences can slow down the action.
Short sentences build tension by propelling the reader
Rainsford held his breath. The general's eyes had
left the ground and were traveling inch by inch up
the tree. Rainsford froze there, every muscle
tensed for a spring. But the sharp eyes of the
hunter stopped before they reached the limb
where Rainsford lay; a smile spread over his brown
face. Very deliberately he blew a smoke ring into
the air; then he turned his back on the tree and
walked carelessly away, back along the trail he
When the general, nursing his bruised shoulder, had
gone, Rainsford took up his flight again. It was flight
now, a desperate, hopeless flight, that carried him
on for some hours. Dusk came, then darkness, and
still he pressed on. The ground grew softer under his
moccasins; the vegetation grew ranker, denser;
insects bit him savagely.
Then, as he stepped forward, his foot sank into the
ooze. He tried to wrench it back, but the muck
sucked viciously at his foot as if it were a giant
leech. With a violent effort, he tore his feet loose. He
knew where he was now. Death Swamp and its
Dialogue and internal monologues can also
affect pacing by changing the rhythm . Short
interchanges of dialogue between characters
increase the reading speed. Long speeches by
a certain character will slow it down. If you feel
like the story needs to pick up the pace, look
for areas with too much dialogue, internal
monologue, or exposition. Or vice versa, not
"Rainsford!" screamed the general. "How in God's name did
you get here?”
"Swam," said Rainsford. "I found it quicker than walking
through the jungle.”
The general sucked in his breath and smiled. "I congratulate
you," he said. "You have won the game.”
Rainsford did not smile. "I am still a beast at bay," he said, in
a low, hoarse voice. "Get ready, General Zaroff.”
The general made one of his deepest bows. "I see," he said.
"Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for
the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On
guard, Rainsford." . . .
Use Dread and Anticipation
Keep in mind the difference in dread and
Dread: bad things have happened and even
worse things are possible.
Anticipation: something bad could happen
unless. . .
Dread builds on past conflict, while anticipation
builds on hope of avoiding conflict. Try to use
both as you build the suspense of your story.
One way to convey your character’s dread or anxiety is to
directly tell the reader:
He felt scared
She was afraid
I grew more frightened by the second.
He experienced the really horrible feeling of absolute
fear, an emotion that was indescribably debilitating.
These are ok; they tell the reader how your character is
feeling, but they don’t really invoke any emotion from
the reader. To make a scene more suspenseful, show the
character's fears instead of just telling them; this permits
the reader to feel the fear rather than just think about it.
The showing of behavior or feelings is no more complicated than telling
about it. Consider, for example, your visceral reactions to fear. Sharing
those corporeal responses will heighten your readers’ involvement in
A person may feel hot or cold, shiver or sweat. Palms get damp, the
mouth dry, the throat blocked.
People may experience an accelerated, pounding heartbeat, feeling it in
unusual places: in their ears, in their throat, or even in their fingers.
Breathing changes. It can become faster and shallower, though for some
people it may deepen and slow.
The skin can react in multiple ways: goose bumps may occur or the hairs
on the arms may stand up.
The stomach may tighten, clench, churn, or feel like it is filled with ice.
Pain drifts through the body; for example, the fillings of some people’s
Fear causes clenching of the jaw and hands, involuntary
noises, uncontrollable shaking.
“He struggled up to the surface and tried to cry out, but the wash
from the speeding yacht slapped him in the face and the salt
water in his open mouth made him gag and strangle.”
For a seemingly endless time he fought the sea. He began to
count his strokes; he could do possibly a hundred more and then-“The general's left eyelid fluttered down in a wink.”
“Rainsford held his breath.”
“Rainsford froze there, every muscle tensed for a spring.”
“A smile spread over [Zaroff’s] brown face.”
“The pent-up air burst hotly from Rainsford's lungs. His first thought
made him feel sick and numb.”
Add suspense to your story by using the strategies
we just learned
1. While on vacation and shopping in a department store, a middle-aged man comes
face to face with the guy who kidnapped his son ten years earlier.
1. At a Chinese restaurant, your character opens his fortune cookie and reads the
following message: "Your life is in danger. Say nothing to anyone. You must leave the
city immediately and never return. Repeat: say nothing.”
2. Your character has to tell his parents that he's getting a divorce. He knows his
parents will take his wife's side, and he is right...
3. Your character suspects her husband is having an affair and decides to spy on him.
What she discovers is not what she was expecting...
4. ·A man elbows your character in a crowd. After he is gone, she discovers her cell
phone is too. She calls her own number, and the man answers. She explains that the
cell phone has personal information on it and asks the man to send it back to her. He
hangs up. Instead of going to the police, your character decides to take matters into
her own hands...
How to Create Suspense
1. Begin at the right place: the need for escalation requires
that you start at a place of strong conflict.
2. Add uncertainty
3. Let readers root for a character or characters
4. Give the readers a great villain
5. Evoke strong emotions through a critical conflict.
6. Change the conflict.
7. Include great details.
8. Make sure readers feel the consequences.
9. Use dramatic scene cuts
10.Use pacing to control the intensity of the story.
11.Use dread: bad things have happened and even worse
things are possible.
12. Use anticipation: something bad could happen unless. . .
Post #12: Post a long paragraph or two that
demonstrate your efforts at creating suspense.
This is the first three pages
of a short story. Please note
the style as you read.