Mother Nature gave me an interesting lesson on Sunday night. Not that I didn’t know how to build suspense before but the experience was so unique it nicely illustrated a few points. On Sunday night, there almost was a thunderstorm.
It was a hot and sticky night, and I reclined peacefully in my hammock on my third story balcony. Then the sky lit up. At first, I thought it might be the festivities of the Summer Festival, closing night and all. Fireworks or huge lamps brushing a cloudy sky.
The sky lit up again but not from the same place.
There was no way any party could enlighten the whole thing. It was a lightning, for sure. But then why wasn’t there any thunder?
Element number one: doubt. Will it or won’t it? It piques the readers/spectators curiosity and gets them invested in the event.
Another lightning struck in a third direction. I waited for the thunder – it had to come, this lightning was much closer – all in vain. Lightning struck and struck and no thunder came. Until it did!
Element number two: surprise. Everyone who has read one of my story know very well how much I like plot twists. I don’t think I know a reader who genuinely enjoy figuring out the whole thing (except for mysteries).
The thunder began to grow louder as new lightning zinged across the sky. And louder. And louder. Then I could hear the roar of hard rain creeping toward me. And creeping. And creeping. How could it possibly not be raining on my head yet?
Element number three: gradual. The readers need to know it is coming. To expect when it’ll happen. To feel the tension build gradually. As soon as the rain falls, it’s over.
I stayed up past my bedtime because I wanted to see when the sky would burst. A thunderstorm isn’t Oscar-worthy entertainment and yet I had to see the rain. It had to be any minute. Any minute now… I finally went to bed still surrounded by lightning, thunder and the roaring of hard rain. But dry.
Element number four: oppression. It’s weird and tense to feel so small and lacking anytime of control.
I fell asleep and no rain had fallen yet. When I woke up in the morning the sidewalks were dry. How could the storm literally surround my neighborhood and not break? Or did it break but weirdly dried before sun up.
Element number five: unexplained. The lack of humidity both smashed my expectations and challenged my knowledge of the world. I had to adapt and it involved me emotionally to revisit my perceptions because of an event. I thought about it for a whole day. I even wrote a whole blog post about it.
In high concentration, the elements I mentioned can create a nice horror experience. In controlled amount, or by using just one of them, we can craft suspense and emotionally involve a reader during the story and a while after.
Mother Nature did it without any conscious effort. So can we!