37. Suspense


A hole appeared, it grew faster and faster, and then…

ONE SIMPLE TECHNIQUE to get the audience leaning into your story is to add suspense. Introduce the character. Make the hole appear. Then pause before the big reveal.

This is the opposite of what happens in the typical company pitch. You tell the audience who you are, a bit about the problem, then immediately give them the solution, the business model, and every other detail they are expecting. The lack of suspense is one major reason most company pitches fail to be memorable.

A great story leaves the audience purposefully leaves the audience in a state of suspense, wondering how it will end. For a simple example, let’s take an old folk tale you learned as a child: Red Riding Hood. Let’s outline the pitch version:

Hi, I’m Red Riding Hood and today I’m going to tell you the tragic story of my grandmother. She was feeling sick one day, so I put some goodies in a basket, donned by trademarked red cape and headed over the river and through the woods to her house. When I got there she didn’t sound like herself. Turns out a wolf had invaded her house and ate her. It tried to eat me too, except a woodman heard me scream and saved me. The end.

This version leaves out the meeting on the road with the wolf, which foreshadows the later meeting at grandma’s house. It leaves out the part of the story when the wolf gets to grandma’s house, as that too foreshadows the final encounter with Red Riding Hood. Most importantly, it leaves out “but grandma, what big eyes/ears/teeth you have,” bit, which is where the four year olds get scared as it builds and builds and builds toward the climax of the story.

Look at Goldilocks and the Three Bears for a similar buildup of suspense. First the bears notice the porridge. Then they notice the chairs. Then one by one they notice the beds.

It can be hard to remember what those stories felt like the first time you heard them, but you can find suspense in moderns stories too.

One by one Red 1 and Red 2 and Blue 3 are picked off by the Empire until Red 5 is the last and only hope. The tension builds as the distance counts down on his targeting computer. Then pshaw, his droid is fried, the bad guys are right behind him, and all hope seems lost. The tension builds and builds until the shots are fired, and then what happens… nothing, as for almost a second we see nothing change. Then finally boom!

Go back to Steve Jobs’ presentation of the first iPhone in 2007. Notice how slowly he unveils his big announcement. After the signature “one more thing”, he is excited to show us a touchscreen iPod, a phone, and an internet device. He repeats that magical list of three items just like you heard dozens other suspenseful lines repeated before: “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” Then, just when you think you are going to see the rumors come true, you instead get a joke. Not giving the audience what they want when they expect it can grow their desire.

The challenge in adding suspense is in making your story seem padded or contrived. Don’t force it, but put it on the list of story elements you try and include. It is not as difficult as it may seem.

Back in Chapter 4 the clock was ticking for a tomato at Cold Hubs. That was a suspenseful story. “Oh no, it’s happening again” at the start of the Zijani story was a tiny taste of suspense. Now that you know to look, key an eye open for suspense in the other stories from the fledglings, the TED talks, and any other story you might copy.


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