The surest way to write a commercially successful book is to write a suspenseful book. Suspense isn’t just for thrillers or horror stories; suspense actually has nothing to do with a book’s genre. Here are some of the most suspenseful books I’ve read lately:
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
The first book is historical fiction, the second a 200-year-old classic, the third nonfiction and the fourth children’s fantasy. Each one is incredibly different from the other, but all of them were successful because their authors understood and built on the important relationship between suspense and pace. To put it another way, these authors are masters of suspense because they know how to pace.
The Definition of Pace
To properly pace a book means you’ve unfolded your story in such a way that the reader’s interest never drags. You’ve dropped the perfect amount of narrative bread crumbs to convince your reader to turn one page and then the next page and the page after that until she’s finished the book. It’s impossible to have a suspenseful story that isn’t paced correctly; on the other hand, if you’ve properly paced your story, suspense will automatically follow.
For an example of Rowling’s pacing prowess check out Chapter Three of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Letters from No One.” In this chapter, Rowling has Harry get his first piece of mail ever, but his Uncle Vernon is determined to keep it from him. How does Rowling build the suspense around this letter?
- First things first: Rowling spends the previous two chapters making sure we get attached to the main character. The more attached we are to a character, the more we’ll want to know what happens to him. Poor Harry gets his first letter ever and his toad of an uncle won’t let him open it. We care about Harry – we want him to succeed – so we read on to find out if he does.
- Rowling makes a big deal out of this letter. The suspense a reader feels toward something is directly proportionate to the level of importance the author gives it. If a reader isn’t aware that something is important, she’s not going to be biting her nails wondering how it turns out. How does Rowling let us know that this letter is important?
- This is Harry’s first letter ever. Remember how excited you were as a kid to get your first real piece of mail? Harry, orphaned and unloved, finally has a real letter of his own, and we want to know what’s in it.
- The letter is strangely unique. It’s made of thick yellow parchment; the address is written with emerald-green ink; it has a purple wax seal bearing an unknown coat of arms, and the addresser knows exactly where Harry lives: “Mr. H. Potter, The Cupboard under the Stairs.” Who would send such a strange letter? We read on!
- But the real clincher is Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia’s reaction. Rowling ingeniously prevents Harry from reading the letter but has him watch the faces of his uncle and aunt as they do: “[Uncle Vernon’s] face went from red to green faster than a set of traffic lights. And it didn’t stop there. Within seconds it was the grayish white of old porridge.” Even better is when Rowling has Harry listen at the kitchen door while the Dursleys discuss the letter’s contents: “I’m not having one in the house, Petunia! Didn’t we swear when we took him in we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense?” Rowling has conveyed the extreme importance (and strangeness) of the letter by way of the Dursleys’ reaction to it.
Now that Rowling has us in suspense about this mysterious letter, how does she keep us invested until we discover its contents? Again, it’s all about pacing. She doesn’t let us read the letter in the very next scene – that would be a buzz kill – but she doesn’t make us wait too long either.
- Rowling writes eight short, consecutive scenes – totaling only ten pages – that are solely focused on Harry trying to get his hands on that letter. These quick bursts of action coupled with their narrow focus keep us interested and curious – “I’ll read just one more page.”
- Now that Rowling has us hooked, she slowly reels us in by having each scene become progressively longer and more elaborate until we finally get to the letter. But notice that she doesn’t toy with our patience too much; the longest scene is still only three pages.
- And with each of these scenes, Rowling has Uncle Vernon go to more and more desperate measures to stop Harry from getting the letter. Eventually the family ends up in a dilapidated shack . . . on a deserted island . . . in the middle of the sea . . . during a terrible storm. By creating a setting this extreme, Rowling conveys to us how incredibly important this letter is – and also how incredibly hopeless it seems that Harry will ever get to read it. (Rowling knows the more unlikely it seems that something will happen, the more we want to read on to see if it does – and the more rewarding it will be when it does.)
The Most Important Part: The Big Reveal
If you build up something this much, as Rowling has, you had better be ready to deliver. It’s true that you can lose your reader by not having enough suspense, but it’s just as risky to pile on truckloads of it only to give a ho-hum ending. Notice that when Rowling finally allows us to read the letter, she doesn’t just paste it on the page. She has it delivered by a literal giant who crashes through the door and puts a pig’s tail on Dudley’s rear end. Rowling rewards us big time for sticking with the story.
But what now?
It’s one thing to perfectly pace a scene and get your readers to turn a few pages. It’s a whole other beast to grab their attention from the very beginning of a story and carry it all the way to the end. How does Rowling manage to keep us in suspense for the entire 309 pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Check out part two of “Pacing in Harry Potter”: How Rowling Sustained the Suspense All the Way to the End.
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