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How to make your writing suspenseful - Victoria Smith

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What makes a good horror story? Hideous monsters and fountains of blood might seem like a good place to start, but as horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Writers harness that fear not by revealing horrors, but by leaving the audience hanging in a state of suspense. Victoria Smith gives some tips for adding suspense to your writing.

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TED-Ed Original lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed original? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Victoria Smith
  • Director Silvia Prietov
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Producer Julian Andrés Sánchez
  • Compositor Julian Andrés Sánchez
  • Animator Jenaro Gonzalez, Ingrid Solano, Diego Doncel
  • Storyboard Artist William Cifuentes
  • Designer Ronald Reyes
  • Illustrator Ronald Reyes
  • Character Designer Ronald Reyes
  • Composer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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Additional Resources for you to Explore
What novels or short-stories have you found most suspenseful? What movies or TV shows have really gripped you? Think about which of the techniques discussed in this lesson were used by the writer to build your anticipation. If you’re looking to learn from the best, try reading some classic novels which create a powerful feeling of suspense: Dracula, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Warning: some of these tales might keep you awake and reading all night…

The writer Lee Child thinks that only one device is needed to make the reader feel suspense: a question. Because once a question is introduced, humans are hardwired to want to know the answer. Read his blog explaining ‘A Simple Way to Create Suspense’ in the New York Times.

Mark Billingham wrote an article in The Guardian arguing that the real key to suspense lies in the creation of empathetic characters. Do you agree that this is the most important factor for gripping a reader?

Alfred Hitchcock, a film director and producer, is sometimes referred to as ‘The Master of Suspense.’ Turn out the lights and watch some of his movies (here’s a list) and then consider how his plots and camerawork make use of some of the techniques discussed in the lesson. Hitchcock explains how suspense isn’t always the same as fear, and how surprise and suspense are two very different things in his interview about ‘Mysteries, Surprise and Suspense’.

If you’re writing a novel and you want to keep your reader interested, you should also think about your hero’s journey: try watching the TED-Ed lesson, ‘What makes a hero?’ If the concept of dramatic irony has got you intrigued, take a look at the TED-Ed lesson ‘In on a secret? That’s dramatic irony.’ It shows that this technique is equally important in horror and in comedy.

The creator of this lesson, Victoria Smith, runs a London-based Educational Consultancy, Griffin and Bell Education, which specialises in private tuition and homeschooling. Victoria also has a blog called ‘Live, Learn and Prosper’ about education, creativity and confidence.

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Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

About TED-Ed Originals

TED-Ed Original lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed original? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Victoria Smith
  • Director Silvia Prietov
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Producer Julian Andrés Sánchez
  • Compositor Julian Andrés Sánchez
  • Animator Jenaro Gonzalez, Ingrid Solano, Diego Doncel
  • Storyboard Artist William Cifuentes
  • Designer Ronald Reyes
  • Illustrator Ronald Reyes
  • Character Designer Ronald Reyes
  • Composer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

Share

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