How to Use Traps to Create Suspense in Fiction

 

Image Credit: Sigurd Decroos (via sxc.hu)

Image Credit: Sigurd Decroos (via sxc.hu)

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing, you need suspense to keep readers turning pages. Adding a trap can increase suspense because not only will your reader worry about whether or not your character will fall into the trap, they’ll also worry about how (and if) your character will escape. Will they escape unscathed or irreparably damaged? What will they have to sacrifice to get away?

You need to be a bit diabolical to write a great trap. For those of you who don’t find this comes naturally, I’ve put together a list of four ways to set a fantastic trap.

#1 – Use their greatest weakness or their greatest strength against them.

Say you have a character who’s terrified of the dark. If your villain knows this, and he knocks out the streetlights on the path she normally takes home, she’ll be redirected to the path he wants her to take.

Or you have a character whose strength is how patient and altruistic they are when it comes to the elderly, who maybe even works in a senior’s residence. Lure them using a senior in need.

The important thing with using your character’s greatest strength or weakness against them is to establish that quality well in advance of springing the trap. Anything that’s going to be important to the plot should be shown two or three times before it becomes a central plot element.

#2 – Find a plausible way to remove all the reasons your character would avoid the trap or realize it’s a trap before it’s too late.

Unfortunately, traps are difficult to do well because you don’t want your readers to feel that your main character is too stupid to live. (Come on, admit it. We’ve all been annoyed because a character did something incredibly stupid that no sane human would do, like chasing after the bad guy in the dark, unarmed and alone.)

A good example of removing the reasons your character might avoid the trap is found in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. When Susie meets her neighbor walking home after dark, you’re screaming at her to run. But, of course, she doesn’t.

If she’s uncomfortable with adults and cold, why doesn’t she leave?

The natural authority of his age, and the added fact that he was a neighbor and talked to my father about fertilizer, rooted me to the spot.

As an excuse to leave, she tells him her mom likes her home before dark.

“It’s after dark, Susie,” he said.

He tells her that it will only take a minute to show her the “hiding place” he’s built in the cornfield. Why, though, does she go into the underground structure he’d built when he’s been looking at her lustfully?

“What is it?” I asked. I was no longer cold or weirded out by the look he’d given me. I was like I was in science class: I was curious.

Susie enjoys science and the underground structure he’s built is fascinating enough to a teen who loves science that her curiosity overcomes her fear. (This is also a good example of using a strength to set the trap. Susie loves science and her neighbor uses that against her.)

And once she was in, there was no way out.

By having Susie make the objections the reader might be making, and then dismantling them one by one, Sebold makes sure we find the trap believable.

#3 – Let the reader know about the trap a few chapters before it’s sprung.

A trap works best when the reader knows about it and the character doesn’t because it gives the reader the chance to worry longer and wonder whether each choice your protagonist makes will be the one that throws her into the trap or saves her from it.

If you’ve chosen to include scenes from your antagonist’s POV, cluing your reader in prior to springing the trap is easy. If you haven’t, you can also create a trap where your reader doesn’t consciously know ahead of time, but when it happens, they still feel like they should have seen it coming. To do this, you need to layer in hints—with a light hand—using symbolism, atmosphere, and other little details.

#4 – Don’t let your character out of the trap on their first attempt.

Seeing a character succeed at almost anything the first time is boring. The reader wants them to succeed eventually, but you can’t make it too easy for them. This is where the try-fail cycle comes in. As a general guideline, your character should fail twice before you allow them to succeed.

There are two ways for your character to “fail” at their escape. You’re asking the question, “Will my character escape?” You want to create one (or both) of these two answers initially.

YES, BUT…

Yes, they escape, but it actually makes their situation worse than it was before.

Your character escapes out of the window only to break their arm on the fall down.

Or your character escapes…but finds out that they’re now in the middle of nowhere, in a blizzard, in their underwear. It might have been bad to be in the villain’s clutches, but now they’re facing hypothermia, starvation, and being eaten by a polar bear.

NO, AND…

Not only does your character not manage to escape, but their attempt makes it worse.

They try to make it out the window, but the noise they make alerts their captor to their escape attempt and now their hands are tied behind their back.

If you put these four elements into practice, you’ll be able to create a great trap and increase the suspense in your fiction, regardless of what genre you’re writing.

What are you favorite examples of well-set traps in fiction? Or have you set traps for your characters in your own writing?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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