Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday Guest Post: Rayne Hall



“Keep Out - Danger!”
Creating Suspense

Suspense is a feeling - the feeling of excitement, of tension, of fear, the feeling of needing to know what happens next. As writers, we aim to create suspense, because our readers love it.

Here's a quick trick for increasing the suspense:  Let your protagonist walk through a doorway on her way to danger. 

Film makers use this technique frequently. Next time you watch a thriller, cop drama or horror movie, observe how the camera lingers on the door before the hero enters.  Subconsciously, the viewer perceives the door as a barrier: if the protagonist crosses it, she is entering a danger zone. The viewer screams inwardly 'Don't open that door!'. Of course, the protagonist opens it and enters. By now, the viewer is sitting on the edge of her chair, frightened on the hero's behalf, needing to find out what happens next.

You can use the same trick in your writing: Put a door between your protagonist and the danger, and linger for a moment before she or he enters. Any kind of door serves: a front door, a garden gate, a gatehouse, a trap door, a stile, a cave mouth, even  a gap in a hedge. This works whether your  heroine is  a police officer on her way to confront a serial killer, or a governess tempted to explore the mansion cellar's secrets, whether your hero accidentally stumbles into a werewolves' lair or whether he gets dragged into the torture dungeon.

Slow the story's pace for a moment and linger at the door.  Describe the door: Is dark oak, grimy glass, gleaming steel, or splintering hardwood with peeling paint?  Are there any 'Danger' clues, such as knife marks, smashed glass, ominous stains, thorny plants, perhaps even a sign 'Visitors Unwelcome' or 'Keep Out' nailed to the centre?

Describe the sound of the doorbell, or the weight of the keys in her hand. Finally, describe how the door opens: Does it creak open or screech open? Does it rattle or whisper? Does it whine inwards on its hinges?

By the time your protagonist steps through the door, the reader's  suspense is turned to high volume, intensely anticipating what happens next.

If you want to increase the suspense further still, describe the sound of the door as it closes behind her. For example:  'The door snapped shut. ' 'Behind her, the door groaned shut.' 'The door thudded closed.' 'The door clanked into its lock. '

This suggests to the reader that the protagonist has just walked into a trap, and that her escape route is blocked.

By making your protagonist walk through a door, you can add a lot of suspense to your scene with just a few words.  Try it out, and enjoy.



Bio:
Hall writes dark fantasy and horror. She has published more than twenty books under different pen names in different genres, and her stories have earned Honorable Mentions in 'The Years' Best Fantasy and Horror'.  She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. She has worked as a museum guide, belly dancer, trade fair hostess, care home administrator, apple picker, development aid worker, magazine editor, publishing manager and investigative journalist.  After living in Germany, China, Mongolia, and Nepal, she has settled in a dilapidated English seaside town of former Regency grandeur. She teaches online courses: 'Writing Fight Scenes', and 'Writing about Magic and Magicians' and - her favourite - 'Scenes of Spine-Tingling Suspense and Gut-Chilling Fear'. 
For courses already scheduled for 2011, see
http://www.celtichearts.org/workshops.html
http://www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=303

35 comments:

Deborah Blake said...

Great post, Rayne. I loved the class you gave over at The Creativity Cauldron where you discussed this. Lots of good material!

Rayne said...

Thanks, Deborah.

I enjoyed teaching classes at the Creativity Cauldron this year. I look forward to see some of stories in print. It will be great to read a novel, recognise a 'door suspense' scene, or a theatrical-entertaining fight scene, and know that my class at the Creativity Cauldron has helped make it so good. :-)

Rayne

Marta said...

Fun! Hadn't consciously noticed the technique, but it's all over film, isn't it?

Rayne said...

You're right, Marta. Film makers use this technique a lot, and often cleverly. I've recently watched some old movies, like 'She' (based on the novel by Rider Haggard), and whenever story gets exciting, the heroes walk through a door!
Can you mention some films in which you've observed this technique? I'm compiling a list of examples, and would love to add yours.

Rayne

Tara Maya said...

Thanks, Rayne. I have found your advice on how to build suspense really helpful, since it's not my genre. But the great thing about suspense is that it can make any genre better.

Tara Maya
The Unfinished Song: Initiate

fiction said...

It's interesting how suspense can be so in your face with subtle things like before a door opens, when it opens etc.. I used to read books without paying attention to the technique employed. This article is useful for me because, like Marta said, I didn't notice how much it is used in movies. Rayne explains well the technique and application. Regardless of the genre of fiction, I can see how this technique can create special effects in a book where needed. This door thing really works for me. I look out for door scenes in movies and books now.

Rayne said...

I agree, Tara. Suspense works in any genre. Some genres need a lot of it (thrillers, for example), but even humour, romance, and children's fiction have some suspenseful moments, and it's worth making the most of them. Have you used the 'door' technique in one of your novels? Will you tell us about it?
Rayne

PamelaTurner said...

Sorry I'm late, but thanks to Rayne Hall for posting these tips. I'm so glad you're finding them helpful. :-)

Alice Gaines said...

Thanks for the tips. That sounds like a great way to up the tension for any kind of story, not just suspense

Rayne said...

Thanks for inviting me, Pamela, and for allowing me to post on your blog. Do you think you'll be able to use the 'door effect' in your current or next novel?

Rayne

Tara Maya said...

My fantasy series, The Unfinished Song is set in a pre-medieval world, so at first it wasn't obvious to me how to throw in a door. But then I realized the same effect could be achieved by using a stone arch or a totem marker... It's a boundary, sometimes an explicit warning to stay away. You know that when the heroine crosses it, trouble waits on the other side.

I think this shows too, how you can take a technique and use it to open up new possibilities in your story.

Tara Maya
The Unfinished Song: Initiate

Rayne said...

Like 'fiction', I also find the 'door effect' very noticeable in films and novels - but only when you know about it. The average reader and watcher is unaware.

Once you know about it, you'll probably spot it everywhere. I find it especially in the works of bestselling authors.

For example, this morning I started reading 'Caught', a thriller by Harlan Coben. The novel actually opens with the 'door effect'. The first sentence is

>I knew opening that red door would destroy my life'.

Then Coben goes on describing the door (>wood and fourpaneled... with faded paint and a knocker at chest level no one ever used and a faux brass knob<) for several paragraphs.

Since Coben is a bestselling author, he knows what he's doing, and he's doing it skillfully.

I was chuckling when I read Coben's opening scene last night, because it coincided with with the publication of this guest blog. :-)

If you spot any interesting 'door effect' moments in novels or films, will you let me know, so I can add them to my collection?

Rayne

Rayne said...

Thanks, Alice. Do you think you'll apply this technique in your next novel? Or maybe you have already created a 'door effect' in one of your published books? If yes, I'd be interested to hear about it.

Rayne said...

That's an interesting thought, Tara. It's the crossing of a boundary that creates the psychological effect, and the door is merely the outward manifestation of this boundary.
I suppose anything could serve to mark this boundary: A line drawn in the sand; a differently tiled floor, a sign 'You Are Entering the Kingdom of Nknk'.

In some of my published horror stories I've used cave mouths and tunnel entrances, though they are still very similar to the traditional door.

What did you use in 'The Unfinished Song' - a stone arch or a totem marker, or both?

Rayne

PamelaTurner said...

Hi Rayne. I use a door effect in one of my novels where my character enters a tainted church to face a monster. That's probably a scene where I'll amp up the tension.

Rayne said...

This sounds exciting, Pamela. Is this one of your works in progress which are listed on the bottom left of your blog? Which one? The character entering a tainted church to face a monster is a perfect opportunity to use the 'door effect'. This can become a real classic! The church door can be so visually interesting, and it probably makes an interesting sound when it opens. Plus, there may also be the tactile experience, e.g. how cold or smooth the handle or knob feels to the character's touch, and how heavy it is to push open. And finally, the sound as the door snaps shut. By this time, your readers will be biting their nails!

I'm getting excited about this. Curious, too. Are you ready to reveal to us what the door looks and sounds like?

Rayne

PamelaTurner said...

Ha! You'll have to wait. (evil grin) Seriously, though, it's the Serpent Fire story and the church is a small country structure. In Cathedral Girl, Sera breaks the rose window which is the gate between earth and hell. And in the Zaphkiel Project, when Zaphkiel, an Ophanim, walks through the door and makes the conscious decision to murder his charge's abuser, he triggers a series of events that will have repercussions not only for him, but for his friends and his lover. (Yeah, I know, that description sucks. LOL) I'm hoping to enter Zaphkiel in Angry Robot's open submission in March.

Gianna Bruno said...

I used portals instead of doors in my recent parnormal fantasy The Journey. It worked well, I think.

I got those tips from your scary scenes workshop, Rayne. And it was good to read them again. Thanks.

jhoddyj said...

Great technique, Rayne. I applied it after a course you taught and had the people at my weekly critique group edging forward in their seats. The scene was originally routine, with my protagonist passing through a gated mountain pass, but once I lingered, however briefly, on the massive architecture, the suspended drop-gate, and the unknown country framed beyond, the scene sizzled. Everything said "Don't go there!" and since my protagonist is a new-caught slave, she had to go there.

I'd think a technique like this runs the risk of overuse, more in literary work than the movies. Any thoughts on how much would be too much?

siebendach said...

This technique is used repeatedly, to great effect, at the end of the latest version of 3:10 to Yuma.

This stands out for me a bit, because I usually see the technique used as a way to get the tension rolling, rather than at a story's climax. But I suppose it works.

Rayne said...

Pamela writes: >Ha! You'll have to wait. (evil grin) Seriously, though, it's the Serpent Fire story and the church is a small country structure.<

If you like, I'll critique the paragraphs as soon as you've written the draft for them. Right now, I'm in 'door mood' and would love to critique such scenes. But if you prefer, I'll wait until I can read the whole novel. Alas, I'm under-equipped with patience. ;-)

>In Cathedral Girl, Sera breaks the rose window which is the gate between earth and hell.<

Wow! This sounds like strong example of a barrier. You can really develop this moment. Just think of the visuals, and the sounds. Does Sera climb through the rose window? Or does something from hell come through it?

> And in the Zaphkiel Project, when Zaphkiel, an Ophanim, walks through the door and makes the conscious decision to murder his charge's abuser<

This can work really well. By describing the door and slowing the pace for a moment before he walks through it, you can emphasise his inner conflict. Standing before the door, he has second thoughts, still hesitates. The action of walking through the door then symbolises his resolution to do it. What kind of door is it?

>I'm hoping to enter Zaphkiel in Angry Robot's open submission in March.<

Cool. If you would like me to help you polish the 'door moment', let me know.

Rayne said...

Gianna writes: >I used portals instead of doors in my recent parnormal fantasy The Journey. <

I'm curious, Gianna: How many such 'portals' did you use?

Rayne said...

>Great technique, Rayne. I applied it after a course you taught and had the people at my weekly critique group edging forward in their seats. The scene was originally routine, with my protagonist passing through a gated mountain pass, but once I lingered, however briefly, on the massive architecture, the suspended drop-gate, and the unknown country framed beyond, the scene sizzled. Everything said "Don't go there!" and since my protagonist is a new-caught slave, she had to go there.<

Wow, that's great, John. Yes, it's amazing what a moment's lingering on such things can do for a scene. It can really make it sizzle. The psychological impact on the reader can be enormous.

It's interesting that your live audience (the critique group) reacted with body language which showed their suspense. We don't often get this kind of unguarded feedback.

Are you using the technique in other scenes of your novel?

Rayne said...

>I'd think a technique like this runs the risk of overuse, more in literary work than the movies. Any thoughts on how much would be too much? <

This is an interesting question, John. I went away thinking about it.

Here are my thoughts, for what they're worth: I've never seen this technique overused in any book or film.

I believe you can use it several times in a book, and the reader won't notice, as long as you use different kinds of doorways and different ways of moving through them, and place the door moment in different parts of the scene and write it differently.

I suppose it's possible to overuse this technique. If used all the time, any technique can become tedious. If every single scene in a book started with the protatonist walking through a door, that would be tedious indeed.

However, the real danger lies in using the technique in the wrong place. It has to be before something exciting or dangerous happens.
It works well if the hero is on his way to meet a monster, slay a dragon, confront his hostile father, confess a secret, explore the werewolves' lair, have dinner with a vampire, get reprimanded by his head teacher or fired by his boss, or gets dragged into the torture chamber or on the executioner's block.

It doesn't work if he walks into the kitchen, makes a cup of tea, and walks out again.

The door effect raises the reader's expectations. It promises that something exciting is going to happen. If what follows isn't exciting, the reader feels disappointed and cheated.

I think you can use the door effect as many times as you like, as long as the door leads to danger. :-)

Rayne

Rayne said...

I haven't seen 3.10 to Yuma. Is there per chance a clip of those scenes at YouTube? If yes, could you please point me to it?
I had a quick glance, and there are lots of 3.10 to Yuma clips, but not knowing what to look for, I didn't find it.
Rayne

PamelaTurner said...

In Cathedral Girl, Sera struggles with a mysterious voice that promises if she breaks the window, her life will change forever. And it does, just not quite in the way she or the demon expected. But she had to break the window to release her destiny.

Thanks for being willing to look at SF & possibly the Zaphkiel Project. (I really need a title for that last one.) Head - Desk.

And congratulations! Your post has generated the most comments on this site. :-)

fiction said...

A different kind of door was used in Pan's Labyrinth. The girl drew a door with a piece of chalk on the wall, and, in the ceiling. Not quite the kind of door of suspense but it worked for me, more of a mystery, intriguing door.

I agree that this effect is hard to overuse - doors are everywhere. So many ways of using it - delay by lingering is awesome. Pushing a door, barging, hearing sounds while trying to unlock it - instead of eerie suspense, these create a different kind of urgency.

Yes, I use doors! Thank you for this posting, Rayne.

PamelaTurner said...

And in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Door is literally able to create and open doors anywhere. And Richard scratches a door in the brick...

So yes, there are definitely many different types of portals, from the mundane to the esoteric.

Julie Robinson said...

Hi Rayne! Great post, just like your class at CC. I also enjoyed the comments. My first thought when I think of the door effect is the red door in The Sixth Sense.

Today, I am going to try to remember to be conscientious every time I walk through a door. Instead of thoughtlessly opening it, I will stand a few second and think about the threshold I am crossing. Yeah, I know what's on the other side, but what if I didn't? Or what if there was a surprise? Bad? or Good? Hmmm, thanks for reminding me of this technique!
Julie

Rayne said...

Hi Julie. That's a great plan, to take note each time you walk through a door. Actually, you may want jot down notes immediately afterwards: e.g. on what sound the door made as it opened, and what it felt like to step through. This way, you can build a whole collection of notes about different types of door.

Whenever you want to describe a door in your novel, simply choose one from your many notes, and adapt it for the plot.

I have about a hundred door descriptions in my file, and I'm referring to them often. The details I jotted down based on real doors are so much more vivid than anything I could invent. :-)

siebendach said...

Well, I feel a little guilty for cheating you out of watching the movie, but here goes.

SPOILER ALERT!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdnasj3oaCY&feature=fvsr

Christian Bale is the hero, whose only chance to recoup the loss of his farm is to bring in the villain (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to Yuma, which will bring him to jail.

The boy is the hero's son.

Everyone else with a gun is "rotten as hell": members of the villain's gang, coming to his rescue.

Julie Robinson said...

Good idea!. Taking note today reminded me of that phrase in Hammerfall's song, "Between Two Wrolds" where he sings, "In the distant maze, I see two doors. One leads to change; one leads to where I've been before."

Rayne said...

So you've started taking notes of doors, Julie? I've decided to expand my colleciton of door descriptions further. Maybe I can add one door every day. Today, when I went shopping in a small Chinese grocer's, I took note of the door:

The dark blue paint was scratched in places, revealing the pale wood underneath. Four glass panels were inserted into the wood, and taped behind them, was a Christmas greeting in red glitter-foil, and kitschy Chinese prints of fat happy babies in Santa-Claus outfits. The brass door handle squealed when I pressed it down. The door swung inwards without making a noise. When I closed the door behind me, the door handle squealed again, as if in pain.

Will you share one of yours?

Rayne said...

Thanks for finding the '3:10 to Yuma' clip for me, Joe. Watching it, I'm struck by how brief the 'door' moments are, just a second or so each, or even shorter. This is the equivalent of just a few words in a book. There's no lingering, probably because those moments are in the middle of an action scene, and lingering or prolongued visuals would slow the pace.

But there's no doubt, those brief moments increase the already existing suspense.

I also note that the door moments are visually interesting. For example, the train door. If I remember correctly, it's bright yellow, and stands out from the surroundings, and we see it open.

I think the train door is probably the most important door in the film. The whole plot is about whether or not the villain will get on this train, so the door is an important symbol and boundary. Would you agree?

Does this film use door moments in the earlier parts as well? If yes, are those moments also brief, or does the camera linger a bit longer?

Rayne

PamelaTurner said...

Like the idea of using a door to create suspense. Thanks for the tip, Rayne. I wouldn't have thought of taking a tangible physical item
like that and using it to up the suspense ante.

Lesley DuTemple