Fear Tactics: Creating Terror and Suspense
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
-Old Scottish saying.
Walking through a graveyard on Halloween night is more frightening because of what we imagine we might see rising from under the next gravestone or lurking behind the next tree than because of anything we’re actually likely to run into. What we imagine is always more frightening than reality. This is true in real life and it’s even truer in fiction.
Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock said it best, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
Watching a character we care about unwittingly approach an evil lurking at the top of the stairs will keep us turning the pages of a book far more effectively than actually seeing a murder take place. It’s a principle any wannabe writer of thrillers or suspense novels would do well to understand if they want their work to succeed.
Creating a sense of foreboding and carrying it throughout the book was one of my major objectives when I sat down to write my first suspense novel, The Cutting. It’s one of the things that makes the book work. And it’s a key reason so many readers say they couldn’t put the book down, they had to keep reading until they found out what happened to a young woman named Lucinda Cassidy.
We first meet Lucinda in chapter one of The Cutting. In the opening pages, she and her dog Fritz set off on an early morning jog through fog-shrouded streets of Portland Maine’s upscale west end. Lucinda doesn’t know it but a psychopathic killer is waiting for her in that fog. He could have killed her right there and then but if he had the story would have been over on page ten. So instead of that, for the next three hundred or so pages, he holds Lucinda captive in a small dark room. She has no idea what terrible fate he has in mind for her. But the reader does. And so does the hero of The Cutting, Detective Sergeant Michael McCabe.
Anticipation of impending doom is a classic technique in suspense fiction. But it works. As one reader/reviewer said of The Cutting on Amazon: “ I couldn’t put it down till I had devoured every page…Towards the end, I was so spooked.. I had to sit in the park and finish reading the book, because my boyfriend wasn’t home and I was too scared to come home to an empty house.” Happy Halloween.
Like McCabe, I’m a native New Yorker. He was born in the Bronx. I was born in Brooklyn. We both grew up in the city. He dropped out of NYU Film School and joined the NYPD, rising through the ranks to become the top homicide cop at the Midtown North Precinct. I graduated from Brown and joined a major New York ad agency, rising through the ranks to become creative director on accounts like the US Army, Procter & Gamble, and Lincoln/Mercury.
We both married beautiful brunettes. McCabe’s wife, Sandy dumped him to marry a rich investment banker who had “no interest in raising other people’s children.” My wife, Jeanne, though often given good reason to leave me in the lurch, has stuck it out through thick and thin and is still my wife. She is also my best friend, my most attentive reader and a perceptive critic.
Both McCabe and I eventually left New York for Portland, Maine. I arrived in August 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, in search of the right place to begin a new career as a fiction writer. He came to town a year later, to escape a dark secret in his past and to find a safe place to raise his teenage daughter, Casey.
There are other similarities between us. We both love good Scotch whiskey, old movie trivia and the New York Giants. And we both live with and love women who are talented artists.
There are also quite a few differences. McCabe’s a lot braver than me. He’s a better shot. He likes boxing. He doesn’t throw up at autopsies. And he’s far more likely to take risks. McCabe’s favorite Portland bar, Tallulah’s, is, sadly, a figment of my imagination. My favorite Portland bars are all very real.
You can visit our website at www.jameshaymanthrillers.com.