I Can’t Stand the Suspense!

photo by Rosa Furneaux

by Lynda Nash

‘Have you heard,’ I asked my friend, Andrea, ‘that Nigel’s stuck up a tree?’

Andrea looked at me quizzically. ‘Who’s Nigel?’ she asked.

And so I had to explain that Nigel was a guy I knew from college, who had a D in maths and wants to climb Mount Everest but he’s scared of heights and is related to Mrs Jones who runs the corner shop and has a dog called Butch. It took ever so long, and then Andrea had to run for the bus and I never did find out if she’d heard about Nigel.

Later on I bumped into Frank. ‘Have you heard about Nigel?’ I asked. ‘He’s stuck up a tree.’

‘That silly beggar’s always doing something stupid,’ Frank said, and he walked away chuckling.

Let’s talk fiction writing. Unless Nigel is a recurring character in your stories your reader is going to respond much like Andrea when they read that he is indeed out on a limb. In a short story it would be unwise to stop the narrative to fill the reader in on Nigel’s background but, unlike Andrea, your reader won’t mind learning about Nigel as the story unfolds.

If Andrea hadn’t had to catch her bus and if Frank hadn’t walked away laughing, they might next have asked, ‘How did Nigel get stuck up a tree?’

The answers to this question are infinite. To add drama I could embellish the truth: he was caught with his trousers down in his next-door neighbour’s bedroom and Mr Herbert chased him out with a hammer. Or I could keep it simple: Nigel wanted to get closer to nature.

Whatever response I give will prompt another question, the answer to which will prompt another question and so on until the listener has to go home for tea or is satisfied that they have been told the whole tale.

The last question they ask will inevitably be: ‘How will Nigel get down?’

Having the fire brigade turn up and rescue him might be a pleasing conclusion in the real world but in the world of fiction a reader will expect more. They’ll expect Nigel to get out of the tree using his own initiative – or at least try to before someone intervenes. And while Nigel’s working out how to get down, your reader will get an insight into the who, what, where and why of his predicament. But don’t let your fictional Nigel get off too easily – while he’s up the tree, throw things at him! Give him petty annoyances, scupper his plan to disembark (pun intended!), add an element of danger and make sure the reason for him climbing down is as compelling as the reason he climbed the tree in the first place – otherwise leave him up there and end on a cliff- hanger. (I really wanted to write branch-hanger but you might not have twigged…)

To create suspense, put your character in a dramatic situation, stack the odds against him and make him work hard to sort out the problem. And while you’re doing this, endeavour to make your readers care enough not to go running for a bus.

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One thought on “I Can’t Stand the Suspense!

  1. I have so much to learn about the short story form and your article goes straight to a truth that I’ve been hiding from myself: short stories need conflict. I have a tendency to write great characters and situations (well at least from my point of view) but for some reason the story never seems to go anywhere. I also have a hard time seeing what’s missing. With this new knowledge I’m rewriting a short story hoping it sparks a successful story. I know one day I’ll get it. I’ll just have to keep working at it.


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