Top-Five Tools for Suspense in Creative Nonfiction

Sometimes when working on a personal essay or memoir we flood the engine of our prose. We’re trying hard to be as authentic, accurate, and open as possible, so we include everything remotely significant. The forward momentum stalls under the weight. In revision, techniques from the art of fiction can hasten the pace.

Here are my Top-Five Secrets to Suspense:

  1. Work Between Descriptive and Prescriptive Outlines
  • Write to the prescriptive outline, but as you go, let yourself veer, experiment, play, defy. Periodically take stock by making the descriptive outline. It’s like an X-ray to see what beast you’re wrestling now and whether or not it’s got functional bones. Use it to evolve a new prescriptive outline, and so on.
  • Descriptive: find out what’s already there and summarize it.
    • Identify the purpose of each section.
  • Prescriptive: take charge of what needs to be. Imagine someone asking, “Why are you telling me this?”
    • Give life to stagnant passages by clarifying what’s at stake and why.
    • Cut material that slows forward momentum. Sometimes the absence of text removes a blockade. New juxtapositions surprise and enlighten.
    • Fill in gaps. Replace any overviews of key incidents with scenes.
    • Capitalize on large-scale places of emphasis, especially with cliff-hangers, like this one . . .
  1. Capitalize on places of emphasis, especially for set-ups and pay-offs.
  • Use the 5 places of emphasis—the beginnings and endings*
    • of books,
    • of chapters,
    • of sections,
    • of paragraphs,
    • of sentences and/or poetry lines.
  • Rearrange so that your strongest material gets the limelight. (The “2-3-1 tool of emphasis” i.e. put the second-most important at the beginning, stash the weakest in the middle, and let the most important star at the end.)
  • Stage a grand introduction, even if quiet
    • hit the inciting incident asap,
    • interrupt normalcy with trouble,
    • inject a sense of foreboding,
    • establish a daunting quest or obsession,
    • strike the narrator or main character with external and internal obstacles to overcome.
  • Set your reader up
    • Make the intro a contract with the reader that promises a daunting project. Dare yourself. Remember Florida Man’s famous last words, “Hey, y’all! Watch this!”
    • Write the beginning of each chapter as a subcontract of the intro.
    • In sections and paragraphs, occasionally make a wild claim, something you’re not sure you can deliver. Your reader will share your suspense.
  • Pay your reader off with
    • A revelation, new information or insight,
    • An arresting image,
    • An unexpected turn in fate,
    • A cliff-hanger.
    • Sentence-level suspense; i.e. have your reader wondering, What will this writer say next?
    • A break in a pattern you’ve established. Play long against short.
    • “Punched up” prose. Occasionally use uncommon words or details. (TV series Casual, dissing someone two characters both know, “She walks her cat.”)
    • Detail. Don’t add more but replace generalities with specifics that represent the general.
    • Sentence-level places of emphasis. Put the most important words or ideas at the beginnings and endings of sentences and phrases, and readers will trust your style to deliver. Teach them to expect small-scale as well as large-scale pay-offs.
  1. Make the reader your accomplice.
    • Try verbal irony—say one thing when the opposite is apparent to the reader. It stimulates the reader’s intellect. “Getting” the inside joke is intrinsically pleasurable, and your reader will read on for the next dopamine dose.
    • Harness dramatic irony—establish that the narrator (or another character) doesn’t realize something the context makes apparent. Your reader will feel superior and will read on for more.
    • Rely on good-old situational irony—use it early and often. A type of set-up/pay-off in which the narrator leads the reader to expect one thing and something incongruous occurs instead. Your story-telling unpredictability will keep the reader gunning for the next surprise.
    • Commit to higher levels of specificity. People prefer doing the easy work of generalizing and categorizing, so don’t do it for them. Give them “Chihuahua” and they will think “dog.” Don’t give them “dog” and make them decide what dog. Specificity also gives readers the pleasure of learning and visualizing. They will read on enjoying whole-brain engagement.
    • Juxtapose nonsequential scenes and readers will gladly do the work of trying to reassemble them.
  1. Do the time warp
    • Beware past-progressive versus simple past. Covering great tracts of time with past-progressive (“We would watch cartoons after school, then we used to claim we’d already done our homework, even when the afternoons were sunny and cool”) starts to drag, so use it only if it sets something up (character, theme, seemingly steady state, all of the above). If past-progressive is causing stagnation, try locking your narrator into simple past tense in a specific, representative scene and see how much more suspenseful it is—you didn’t know then what you know now.
    • Don’t forget nonlinear story-telling. There are no spoilers. Show us where we’re going, and we’ll wonder how we got there.
    • Let the sequence of the language reflect the sequence of events as you lived them. Conversely, let the sequence of language reflect the free-associative nature of events as you remember—and forget—and deny—them.
  1. Don’t spare the rod of foreboding, foreshadowing, ambiguity, and unease
    • Keep in mind the wheel of fortune. What goes up, comes down, and so on. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Convection. Keep readers aware that change is perpetual and unpredictable.
    • At least once a page, insinuate that something’s off. Or have someone declare something’s off when it clearly isn’t.
    • Vary the level of danger. Be intermittently generous with details indicating peril but be in no hurry to name the monster. Ambivalence and ambiguity are aversive states, but only in your own life. We love it in someone else’s.
    • Show how you and the people involved misconstrued their circumstances, each other, and themselves. Show how they looked in all the wrong directions at the wrong times.
    • Show how you and the others involved over-reacted or under-reacted. Show how people underestimate others, overestimate themselves, or the reverse. Have your narrator digress at points of high conflict. Readers will want to know what caused these reactions and what happens because of them.
    • Cultivate obsessions. They’re fascinating and dangerous.
    • Keep readers on their mental toes guessing how these tensions will resolve and at what expense.

*from Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools.

Lisa Lanser Rose

Sometimes when working on a personal essay or memoir we flood the engine of our prose. We’re trying hard to be as authentic, accurate, and open as possible, and so include everything remotely significant, and the forward momentum stalls under the weight. In revision, techniques from the art of fiction can goad the pace.

Here are my Top-Five Secrets to Suspense

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Categories: Art, Lisa's Voice

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