One of my favorite things to do while traveling through Wyoming is to search for and keep a tally of the pronghorn antelope that graze near the highway.
Pronghorn antelope spend most of their days in a leisurely stroll from one delectable sage bush to another. Mothers keep their babies close by. I’ve often spotted them lying in small groups, and at other times, drinking from streams. But one of the group is always watching for danger. They don’t laze among trees, but are always out in the open where they can quickly spot a predator.
Their pace is unhurried. But I suspect that God has built into the little antelope the wisdom of conserving energy for times of threat or danger. When I’ve seen the critters actually run, its pretty thrilling, for pronghorn are the fastest land animals in North America, reaching speeds close to 60 miles per hours.
But if the pronghorn was always running, I’m sure it’s speed would one day fail to wow me.
Because of its conserving of energy, the pronghorn makes me think about the writerly craft of building and sustaining suspense in stories.
I once read a suspense novel where every scene was so packed with action that I grew annoyed. Has that ever happened to you, too? Each new chapter dunked me into the dark water of crisis— assaults, break-ins, phone threats, chase scenes— and gave me no time in which to process the high action of the preceding scene.
I’ve had some well-meaning writer friends advise me to keep each chapter “hopping” and to never let the reader catch her breath. This is advice I fully plan not to take.
The most effective suspense and thriller stories weave back story and relationships and motivations into a strong braid in order to build fascination and tension. This takes time. Just like the antelope who doesn’t always run. Oh, the speedy little antelope might run a few yards at the clap of thunder or the shadow of a hawk, but he saves his biggest race for the biggest danger.
In a delectable and suspenseful read we need some down-time. Not every scene has to give the reader a heart attack. Here’s what I love:
- It’s the writer’s dropping of what seems inconsequential bits of information during a relaxed conversation. Later in the story you—the reader—smack your forehead and say, “Oh, that’s why he mentioned the snake!”
- It’s the setting-up of a seemingly decent relationship between friend and friend, or business associates, or girl and boy, but with little expressions or movements or phrases between the two that clue you in to, “Something’s not quite right, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
- It’s letting the reader know that the threat is real and it’s coming, but when?
- It’s delving into each character’s history so we gain empathy.
- It’s the occasional scary scene that makes us think, “This is it.” But it’s not. Yet.
And when the threat turns into imminent danger, the characters—like the antelope—begin their real run for their lives.
But if everything—for the antelope and the writer—is a race?