Suspense isn’t purely the domain of horror, thrillers and ghost stories – it’s something every novelist should know how to create, and should deploy at key moments of tension in their story. As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, we thought it would be a good time to share with you some creepy, suspenseful scenes written by budding novelists on our Write to the End of Your Novel course – which includes a whole teaching module on how to create suspense.
For each module on our six-week online creative writing courses, we set tasks to get our students thinking and writing – and to reinforce the teaching material they’ve just worked through. Here, we asked the students to write a suspenseful scene in response to one of the following prompts:
1. A woman, walking home alone, starts to think she’s being followed
2. A child overhears a phone conversation between his/her father and a stranger in the middle of the night
What these pieces from our students do brilliantly is add a sense of unease to the everyday. You don’t need blood and gore to give yourself a fright: you just need a well-paced, hair-raising scene which takes something familiar and gives it that sinister edge.
Take a look at how these writers use techniques such as short sentences, repetition, imagery and snatches of dialogue to build tension. We hope you’ll enjoy their suspenseful scenes:
It was the smallness of the sound that alerted him. The deliberateness of it. One finger on the cradle to deaden the bell, then the muffled whoosh of the dial forwards and backwards. Short, long, long, short. A tantalising Morse code that summoned everyone: Auntie Beryl at Easter, Fat Reginald at the office, the Doctor when his mother had a turn. Tonight, though, his mother was sleeping peacefully, although the usual reassurance of her snores eluded him. It was the unexpectedness of the noise that had done it. The noise had upset the balance of things.
Usually, when he was stuck for an answer, he would turn and gaze at the wallpaper. It had a pattern of ochre hydrangeas, and by the time he’d traced his finger around their stems and the blowsy heads of their petals, either sleep or a solution would have revealed itself. Tonight though, with the moon ellipsed and withering, his fingers lost their way; falling down gaps and crossing boundaries.
As he was on his fourth attempt to trace the flowers, his father’s voice came: ‘You must tell them the war is over.’
The boy’s finger paused on a particularly thorny piece of stem. Tell them the war is over? Hadn’t the war been over for years? What would Miss Netherton, his history teacher, have to say about that? Imbecile, most probably, or drunk if it had been Auntie Beryl.
There was nothing for it. He slipped his feet from the bed and did his trick – the one he’d learned over Christmases and birthdays, when he was supposed to be sleeping and not listening. Pandy, Croccy, Dog, the stepping stones of his toys’ pliant bodies cradled his footsteps as he crept to the door. For once, the fact that it was ajar – an unfortunate condition of his “condition”- worked in his favour.
‘I never sent it, I told you! Am I to be blamed for everything?’
Below the stairs, carried upwards in its spiral, his father’s voice was clearer now. Different, too. A question in a question that sounded like panic.
‘Well, in that case I suppose we’re done for.’
The boy’s shoulders tipped forward, the release of his body’s tension belied by the dampness that was creeping even now across his neck and the back of his ears.
‘No. Don’t ask me to wake them. Let them at least have a night in their own beds.’
How we take these things for granted: our first words, our first day of school, our last moment of innocence. How the boy longed to be back in his bed, then – but whether for himself or his father he couldn’t say. Dog, Croccy, Pandy, his finger reversing over the stem of an ochre hydrangea, his ear deaf to the sound and, before that, the letter he should never have posted.
His father replaced the receiver, not bothering this time to conceal the ding of the cradle. Through the wall his mother snored again so he knew that the next sound was not hers – bleak and sudden, like a seagull’s surprise or the slice of a paper cut. A short, sharp cry of pain.
By the time Sarah made it back to the house, a fine layer of cloud had settled so low that her hair and skin were sticky to the touch. Instead of sneaking into the house via the front door and having to run the gauntlet past her parents’ bedroom, she opted for the back.
The gate from the alley into the back garden was in such desperate need of WD40 that it squawked whenever it opened and shut, and that squawk turned into a howl in the winter cold. Rather than disturbing the gate she hoisted herself over the wall and dropped onto the gravel path. The garden was stark in the eerie moonlight that leached through the fog — devoid of the flowers and vegetables that crowded the beds during the warmer months. The house stood dark and silent, but Sarah still walked with caution along the path trying not to let a single crunch of gravel escape. Just as she reached the back door and placed a hand on the doorknob, the clocktower struck one and made her jump. She jerked open the door more abruptly, and more noisily, than she’d intended.
She paused and waited to see if any lights snapped on around her. They didn’t so she pushed the kitchen door open just enough to let her slip in. Before she stepped farther in, she shouldered the door silently closed and reached down to take off her boots – her eyes adjusting to the dark. Her dinner place was still set on the kitchen table — plate, glass, fork, knife, dessert spoon all in their correct spots and defiant in their lack of use. She could see that a piece of paper – a note, no doubt – was folded and propped up in the centre of the plate.
She flinched, closed her eyes and swallowed her breath. Here came the bollocking for staying out so late. Turning slowly, she expected to find her dad in pinstripe old-man pajamas, silhouetted by the door frame – but she was still alone.
‘What? No —’
Her father’s voice, muffled by a closed door. She padded in stocking feet across the kitchen, every muscle in her legs trying to make her footsteps silent. She knew she should take her chance and “go directly to bed, do not pass go, do not collect berating,” but she never made the should decision.
Her dad was behind the living room door, talking at a surprisingly normal volume given it was past one in the morning.
‘No, I can’t accept that. You’re being unreasonable.’
There was no light leaking around the door. He hadn’t turned on any lamps.
‘Can’t we talk tomorrow? I’m tired. I’m tired of it all. Please —’
The door wasn’t fully shut — it rested on the latch. Sarah moved closer and pushed the door open by an inch. The curtains of the bay window were drawn back and the fog outside had become so thick it had turned the glass into an opaque wall. The phone cable stretched taut across the room from the phone jack beside the sofa, but her dad was still out of view. He was breathing sharply as he listened to the words she couldn’t hear. She leaned her weight forward to her toes and the floorboards beneath her gave out a tattle-tale squeak. The cable jerked as her dad reacted. Clamping her mouth shut, she snapped her hands into fists. Her shoulders and stomach muscles tensed, and she started to calculate how fast she could reach the back door, knowing that the deadbolt on the front door would slow her down too much.
‘I have to go… What? No. Wait — shit.’
She should go right now.
The shadow of her dad crossed in front of her. Stooping down, he replaced the phone on the end table and leaned over to click on the lamp. The flood of sudden light made Sarah recoil and screw up her eyes. When she opened them again, Dad still stood with his back to the door, and to her. His head hung down and he had his hands clamped to either side of it as if to stop it falling any further. He looked wrong to Sarah. Wounded. He should have been shouting.
She pushed the door again and this time it swung all the way open and exposed the whole room to her.
‘Damn it, Sarah. Get some sleep. You’ve got school in the morning.’
I love the autumn – that sense of freedom as the grip of heat is released and life starts to change. The warm colours dropping from the trees, carpeting the floor in shades of caramel and ginger. Kicking through them, a child again for a moment, I stroll home from a day of office-based adult life, brimful of it all – the promise of pumpkins, parkin and cosy candlelight.
Stopping to cross the road, I put earbuds in and choose my current book to accompany me the rest of the way. Living within walking distance of work has both advantages – no more trains or traffic; and disadvantages – I am always the emergency call-in. But this new job has been just what I needed. And the park is my favourite place since moving here.
The daily commute consists of a walk through the park, nodding acknowledgements to the regulars: The dog walkers with their tennis balls and eager tail wagging canines, joggers in baseball caps and fellow commuters on their way to wherever they need to be, sporting coffees cups and newspapers.
Working late today means I’ve missed the home-time regulars. The sharp wind throws a cold scarf around my neck and I zip my hoodie up. The ducks are rounding up and the light is fading as I pass the edge of the pond.
That’s when I notice him.
Leaning against a tree across the other side of the duck pond.
A quick glance around tells me I am otherwise alone. No one else is on this footpath. Pulling up my hood to hide my face, I try to shake off my suspicion: I’m imagining it, surely – it’s just a stranger waiting for his dog or something. But I unplug and remove my earbuds anyway, stuffing them into my pocket as I walk.
‘You’re being ridiculous,’ I tell myself. But I turn to look backwards as my pace quickens …
He’s moving now.
Definitely a he and I’m not imagining it.
Headlines of lone females being attacked in parks, on subways, in the dark, even in broad daylight run through my mind – and I wish I was naïve and carefree again. I wish I saw the world as I once did, kicking through leaves with wellies on.
Another glance over my shoulder, and now I recognise the heavy gait, the black bomber jacket … This is far worse than I’d realised.
My march turns into a sprint – the crunch of leaves underfoot a backing track to the loud thumping in my ears. My headphones fall out of my pocket – twisted white spaghetti on the ground – and I leave them there, my focus on home.
With each breath, cold air cuts through my fast-constricting throat. I think of the five months since I last saw him: My new house, new job. New life.
I’m at my gate. Not daring to look back I plough straight through, letting it clang behind me.
My keys drop to the floor and I scramble for them with shaking hands and then scrabble at the lock.
Finally in, I slam the door and lock it, still quivering – with rage or fear I’m not sure. I will not give him the audience he’s after, so I pull closed the downstairs curtains and sit behind them, breath coming in rasps. Trying to hold back the tears, I wonder how he’s found me. Rubbing my eyes and nose on my sleeve, I sniff back the despair, and I listen.
For a sound.
Without looking out, I know he’s there.
Sitting on my garden wall.
If you want to try writing a suspenseful scene of your own take a look at this blog from Anna to pick up some great tips …
To really get going with writing your novel take a look at our 6-week online courses novel-writing courses all starting in January 2019: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel, and Edit and Pitch Your Novel
And for those of you thinking of applying to one of our selective-entry novel-writing courses for next year, applications have just opened for our 6-month Spring courses: in London with Laura Barnett or online with Lisa O’Donnell.