First off, I've got another review up on Bookshop Talk, this time for Shadow Spinner, one of my all-time favorite YA must-read books of pure delight on paper.
Now, for more conference report! Dan Wells, author of "I Am Not a Serial Killer" gave an amazing class on suspense. Despite being a very nice person, his scary-skills are so honed that after this class, the little blinking light on the smoke detector in my hotel room kept me up at night. Yes, I stayed in brightly-lit places right after this class, but I learned some amazing things.
I'm not writing horror, but the things he talked about easily translate to creating suspenseful scenes. So, here's my not-so-scary notes (the actual class came with film clips; my notes come with book examples that jumped to mind).
1. Establish "normal," then break it. Something is rarely scary out of context. Imagine Lord of the Rings opening with Frodo screaming, "Ah! Nazgul in the Shire!" This isn't tense at all. What's a Nazgul, and where's the Shire? Once Tolkien establishes that the Shire is a place where spoon-theft ranks as a high crime and that these Nazgul are somehow connected to that creepy old ring, well, then I'm on the edge of my seat. When the Scouring of the Shire comes, I'm petrified.
2. Familiar Things Become Unfamiliar. This is similar to #1. I just finished James Dashner's The Maze Runner, and he's a pro at all of this. He establishes how something works (one new boy will emerge into the Glade once a month), but then it doesn't work that way (the day after a new arrival, a girl shows up -- with a note). As an added bonus, the character's panic feels real because I'm panicked. This just can't be a good thing.
3. Let the readers wait for the other shoe to drop. This made me think of The Hunger Games. I know Katniss has a death-match waiting for her, but the Suzanne Collins lets this tension build, build, build for a good chunk of the book. By the time Katniss reaches the arena, I'm a nervous wreck (and it's 1:00am, but hey, who cares about sleep?).
4. Push fear buttons. If you talk about or show creepy stuff, it creeps people out. Ah, the power of perfectly chosen setting details. In Shadow Spinner, the story largely takes place in a harem that saw a bloodbath some years before. That aspect of the setting seeps into the scenes, adding tension to every page. A floor that's been scrubbed clean. Lots of now-empty areas that were full before the purge. Marjan wondering what dead girl occupied her room before her. These are scattered throughout the book, but the author doesn't let you forget what happened and what could happen again.
5. When the time comes, show the monster. Dan Wells had just enough time to shout this sentence, without explanation, as filed out to run to our next classes. Consequently, I've spent too much time thinking about it. Not all books have monsters, after all. Personally, I think it ties back to #3. Wait for the other shoe...but when you let it drop, let it really go. The end of Mistborn left me holding my breath, probably for longer than my brain cells appreciated. For most of the book, I have a good idea that our hero, Vin, is going to end up confronting the Lord Ruler. When she does, Brandon Sanderson doesn't downplay the moment. There's certainly no tea and crumpets. When the shoe drops, it explodes. Awesomely.
I gave macro-examples, but this works on a scene-by-scene level, too. After this workshop, I rewrote a lackluster scene where someone was about to be arrested, but she didn't know it. I had it start with all sorts of people being awake too early (#1). The guards didn't address her by her title (#2). Originally, I let the information all drop at once, but I held it back and let her (and hopefully the reader) worry about what had happened (#3). All the details, from the cold floor to the stale smells, were foreboding ones (#4), and when the bad stuff happened, I let it all happen at once -- worse than I hope the reader could anticipate (#5).
Dan Wells also has an amazing presentation on story structure available on You-Tube. Very smart guy, that Dan Wells.