“Keep Out - Danger!”
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.
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
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. :-)
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.
The Unfinished Song: Initiate
I think this shows too, how you can take a technique and use it to open up new possibilities in your story.
The Unfinished Song: Initiate
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?
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?
I'm getting excited about this. Curious, too. Are you ready to reveal to us what the door looks and sounds like?
I got those tips from your scary scenes workshop, Rayne. And it was good to read them again. Thanks.
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 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.
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.
I'm curious, Gianna: How many such 'portals' did you use?
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?
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. :-)
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.
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. :-)
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.
So yes, there are definitely many different types of portals, from the mundane to the esoteric.
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!
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. :-)
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.
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?
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?
like that and using it to up the suspense ante.