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Sarah Hilary | Five Tips for Suspense

June 30, 2014

Sarah Hilary SOMEONE ELSE'S SKINAlfred Hitchcock drew a useful distinction between shock and suspense. Shock, he said, would be a bomb going off without warning at the family breakfast table. But if you show your audience the bomb in advance, and if you intercut that with images of the oblivious family breakfasting, if you juxtapose the normality with the horror in store – then you have suspense. I try to keep this rule in mind when I’m writing. Here are five tips for how I created suspense in SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN.


#1 Be visceral

This is about engaging the reader senses – taste, touch, sound, smell – but it’s also about pulling the reader headlong into the story, getting under their skin, making their pulse race. In SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, I put Marnie Rome’s sidekick into a deadly situation towards the end of the book. Noah Jake is in danger, in pain, afraid for his life. I kept the chapters short. I ditched conventional sentence structure. Got right inside his head. We’re as scared as he is that he might die, and not a nice death.

#2 Keep it real

Having horrors in store for your characters is all well and good, but take care not to go too far away from what a reader can easily imagine. You’re after empathy. If your hero’s suspended over a tank of snakes, say, then can your reader reasonably imagine this sort of danger? If not, you’ll have to work twice as hard at the suspense. Lots of readers have told me they find SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN scarier than a serial killer story precisely because it contains dangers they can imagine. It feels as if it could happen to them.


#3 Don’t be afraid of the dark

Hitchcock was one of the first mainstream directors to use darkness as a motif. He knew that the darker the fate in store for his characters, the closer his audience would sit to the edge of their seats. Darkness is your friend. Use it. But know when to switch to #4 below, for contrast and effect.


#4 Turn on the lights

Have you ever watched a horror film and found yourself laughing at a moment when you’re damned sure the director meant you to scream? Relax, it’s not you. The director got it wrong. It’s a normal human reaction to prolonged stress. The director should have given you a break, a scene where there was a chance to gather your breath. A moment of light will make the dark more effective.


#5 Keep secrets

We all want answers. It keeps us turning the pages, to find out what happens next. If you give the reader too much information too soon, or if your information is always on the level, your reader will lose some of that motivation to keep reading. SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN is a book about secrets, so in a sense I cheated. But not all secrets are the same. My heroine, Marnie Rome, is an expert in uncovering secrets and at keeping them. You have to read to find out why.

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