Friday, October 25, 2013

Kris Bock on Suspense Versus Surprise || WHISPERS IN THE DARK

Whispers in the Dark: Kylie Hafford craves adventure when she heads to the remote Puebloan ruins of Lost Valley, Colorado, to excavate. Romance isn’t in her plans, but she soon meets two sexy men: Danesh looks like a warrior from the Pueblo’s ancient past, and Sean is a charming tourist with a dark secret. The summer heats up as Kylie uncovers mysteries, secrets, and terrors in the night. She’ll need all her strength and wits to survive—and to save the man she’s come to love. 


Several years ago an editor 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’re walking in the street when someone knocks a pot off a windowsill and it lands on your head, 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.

Surprises are jarring, which can work as a sudden shock, but if you have too many surprises without suspense leading up to them, readers are likely to feel jerked around and confused. Suspense, on the other hand, will keep the reader turning the page to see how the story plays out.

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 a paragraph from my romantic suspense novel Whispers in the Dark where the heroine, an archaeology student, is trying to get used to her remote campsite in the Four Corners area of the Southwest:

I had expected quiet. Yet the night filled with sounds as dusk fell. Birds, insects, and rustling in the dark. I strained my ears and tried to identify the sounds. Bird calls were easy enough. That low buzz had to be some kind of insect, and I convinced myself it was only creepy because I wasn’t used to it. Rustling in the bushes was harder to dismiss. I forced myself to breathe deeply and repeated in my mind, Just animals. Just animals. You’re safe here.

Because the narrator is getting nervous, readers should get nervous as well, even though nothing dangerous has happened yet.

Powerful Paragraphing

To get the most out of dramatic moments, slow the pace by using more detail, especially sensory detail – what your character can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. 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.

You can also affect the pace of your story by your sentence and paragraph lengths. Description or introspection can usually be put in longer paragraphs, slowing the pace and lulling the reader into a false sense of security. When you come to a big action scene, though, try breaking it up into short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs make the story read faster, because the eye moves more quickly down the page. You can also emphasize an important sentence by starting a new paragraph or even putting that sentence into a paragraph by itself. For example, consider the following two versions of a chapter ending, adapted from Whispers in the Dark. The heroine, Kylie, is being chased by villains. It’s dark, and there’s a cliff nearby.

Example 1:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop and couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back. Something sharp caught me across the shin, causing me to yelp and stumble forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me. Unfortunately, the foot found no place to land, so I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind. Then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

Example 2:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back.
Something sharp caught me across the shin. I yelped and stumbled forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me.
The foot found no place to land. I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind.
And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

These use nearly the same words. The only differences are that in the second version, I broke up some long sentences into short ones, and I used four paragraphs instead of one. I think the second version captures more of the breathless panic that the narrator would be feeling. Think about that phrase “my life flashed before my eyes.” Life really does seem to slow down in the most high impact moments. Capture that on paper, and your readers will race through the scene breathlessly, wanting to find out what happens.

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.


Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Whispersin the Dark involves archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows two friends on the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page.

Kris writes for children under the name Chris Eboch. Her book Advanced Plotting provides advice on building a stronger plot.

Whispers in the Dark Amazon book page
Barnes & Noble Author Page
Website with blog and contact button or for children’s books
Write like a Pro! blog:


  1. Thanks for your enlightening explanation. Very helpful!

  2. Kris, thanks so much for being my guest here today. I love your insights, especially the part about slowing down the pace by adding sensory detail. Spot on. :-)

  3. Great post, Kris! Will have to check out your cliffhanger posts.

  4. Excellent post, Kris. Both suspense and surprise play important roles in keeping a reader turning the pages, but they're certainly not the same. I like to use both--they also help change the pace of the story.

    1. Good point, Alison. Surprises also have a place in strong plotting! In general, I think it helps if the surprises are set up a little, so they still seem surprising yet also inevitable, or at least believable. I imagine there are exceptions, though.

  5. I love the craft articles and this one did not disappoint. Somewhere deep in my brain I had learned this, but a great article like this one helps to bring that all important knowledge back to the surface where I can use it.