Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Suspense Versus Surprise, by Chris Eboch

Several years ago, I had the chance to work as a ghost (Halloween tie-in!) writer on a novel about a certain famous girl sleuth. That was fun, and I learned something valuable from the editor. She asked me to look again at my chapter endings, and said,

“I would like to see more of a slow build-up toward the intense action. In horror movies, it’s always the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door that scares us the most, not the moment right after she opens the door.”

She’s noting the difference between suspense and surprise. When something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, that’s a surprise. If you are going about your business, perfectly happy, when a car slams into yours, or something hits you in the back of the head, or a phone call reveals bad news, that’s a surprise. But up until that moment, there was no suspense.

This is an important difference to remember when writing. We know the importance of surprise twists, and we may be tempted to keep secrets and let them out with a bang. But true suspense comes from suspecting that something will happen and worrying about it or anticipating it.

Something Is Coming...

To build up truly dramatic moments, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is going to happen. Here’s an early version of a chapter ending from my middle grade novel Haunted:The Ghost on the Stairs (more ghosts!). The narrator, Jon, isn’t sure he believes his little sister Tania when she says she can see ghosts, but he goes with her to look for one as their stepfather films his ghost hunter TV show.

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

Tania turned to me. The look in her eyes made my stomach flip.

The moment isn’t bad for a cliffhanger chapter ending, but it could use some more buildup, more time for Jon to suspect something’s wrong. Here’s how the chapter ended in the published book:

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

She didn’t back up. She swayed.

I took a quick step forward and put my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. I looked down into her face. I’d never seen anyone so white. White as death. Or white as a ghost.

“Tania,” I hissed. I gave her a shake. She took a quick breath and dragged her eyes away from the staircase and to my face. The look in them made my stomach flip.

The revised version is longer. To get the most out of dramatic moments, you actually slow the pace by using more detail. It’s ironic, but you want to write slow moments quickly, maybe summing up a boring afternoon in a sentence or two, while writing a fast moment slowly, drawing out every detail.

Learn More

Of course, not every chapter can end with dramatic physical action. My essay “Hanging by the Fingernails: Cliffhangers” in Advanced Plotting (written as Chris Eboch) also discusses how to use cliffhangers in quieter moments. I covered that on my blog as well – along with 10 other posts on cliffhangers! You can tell I love the subject. See my cliffhanger blog posts here.

See also my brother, screenwriter Doug Eboch’s, post on Suspense with movie examples.

Personal News

I have two webinars coming up, on “The Elevator Pitch” and on Theme. Recordings will be available to class participants, both for review and for anyone who can’t attend a session live. Use the links here for a special “friend of Chris” discount price.

The Elevator Pitch with Chris Eboch
Wednesday, October 29, 5-6:30 pm PDT/8-9:30 EDT

Writers often need the dreaded one-sentence synopsis. But how can you possibly sum up your work in one little sentence? In this workshop, we’ll discuss the key to a great one-sentence synopsis – finding your story’s hook. Then practice turning your hook into a one-sentence synopsis and get feedback to help you refine the results. Finally, expand your pitch into thirty-second and one-minute versions. 

If you are attending a writing conference where you may get to meet editors or agents, this session will get you ready! You’ll also gain confidence and insight into creating a powerful query letter, and sharing your work with potential agents, editors, or readers wherever you might need them.

Theme: the Soul of a Story
Wednesday, November 19, 5-6:30 pm PDT/8-9:30 EDT

What do you want to say? If plot is the skeleton that provides structure, character the muscles that move the plot, and setting the skin that gives a uniform appearance, then theme is the soul that truly brings a story to life. But often writers don’t put as much energy into developing theme as they do with the more obvious elements of plot, characters and setting. The result can be a weak or obscure theme. In some cases, the reader may even get a completely different message from what the writer intended. You don’t want your message misunderstood. Learn to identify what you really want to say, and bring it out in writing. This class is both for beginning and experienced writers.

And finally, my Middle Eastern fantasy, The Genie’s Gift, is part of an e-book “boxed set” of six middle grade novels, temporarily on sale for $.99. The set is very heavy on female leads, so it’s a great option for middle grade girls – or boys who like action, if you want to encourage them to see girls as heroes, too. This blog post briefly describes each of the novels and includes buy links to the major e-retailers. 


  1. This is a great post!!! And just in time, since I am scoping out material for a community college class I'll be teaching on writing for children. I am pretty sure I'm going to be linking to a Project Mayhem post about every 5 minutes!

  2. I love cliffhangers too, Chris. Thanks for all the links, as well. I look forward to studying them.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!