Lights-Out Techniques: 5 Ways to Build Dark Story Suspense (and Should You?)
Have you ever watched a movie where the main character is being chased by something lurking in the corners of a dark space? As you sit on the sofa funneling nachos,** is your temptation to yell at said character, "turn on the lights!"? For one, turning on the lights is sensible. But, it could totally kill the scene. Or, can it?
When creating suspense or tension in a story, whether the story is visual or written, there's a fine balance between believability and audience tolerance. Keeping the audience in the dark is easy enough, but the big question is in examining its purpose. Is darkness a matter of advancing the plot or just lazy writing? Is the writer withholding information because it makes sense to the story, or is it because it's not time, story-wise, for the information to be disseminated to characters or the audience?
Now, put that in the setting of a true horror movie. You want to keep the scene dark because it dramatically ups the tension odds. The character is being stalked, we're feeling our pulses rise, and lights on would blow the whole shebang. The main character reaches for a switch, but guess what? Electricity's out. Big storm blew all the power lines. The whole thing make sense in light of (😉) the scene, the mood, the atmosphere, rather than the character simply forgetting about lights and switches, and the general electricity that he/she/they grew up with.
5. Keeping the scene dark, literally
This is probably the most obvious method for creating tension, and it generally works well. Before you write it in, ask yourself: does it lend itself to the atmosphere? What are you hiding? Is there a compelling reason the lights are off? (i.e. Is the main character hiding from someone?) In the hysterically underrated Mark Duplass movie Creep, one of the characters is being stalked in his home. The first thing he does when he wakes to a sound in the middle of the night is run from room to room switching on all the lights, saying, "Lights on, lights on, lights on..." It makes sense, it's funny, and it's probably what 99% of us would do in that situation.
4. Ending the scene on a major cliffhanger
Should you go there? On occasion, sure. Cut scenes, big tension cliffhangers, "oh, shits," "did they/didn't they"... these are all great reasons to keep a reader turning to the next chapter or holding off a viewer a few minutes longer on that potty break. However, there are a few things to think about here. First, how far along into the story are you? Have you given your readers/viewers enough time to settle in and become invested? Second, does the scene deserve a major cliffhanger, or should you flow with the adrenaline and deliver on the promise you've started? (Ooooh, how satisfying. Breaking Bad, anyone?) Third, overdoing cliffhangers can be draining, and guess what? The reader/viewer is likely to start getting annoyed.
And remember, if you're going to end a scene on a cliffhanger, be ready to deliver on it when next we meet up with the characters. No reader enjoys a cliffhanger that is poorly resolved!
3. Allowing characters to be unobservant
How realistic is this? Is your audience aware of the ghost in the room, but the main character isn’t seeing it? That can work to a point, and it certainly raises the tension stakes. If you’ve seen Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem, his main character Heidi is stalked by her demon a few times before she sees it. The key here is a few times - too many, and we’d be shouting, “COME ON” at the screen. But, Zombie (Rob, that is), only does this to his audience for a couple of scenes to create palpable tension before bringing the actor face to face with the scare.
2. Allowing characters to keep key information to themselves
An important character has story-changing information. What’s their motivation in staying quiet with it? Make sure it’s real and worth it. In the opening scene of David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, we see a character running wildly out of her house. It appears that her father doesn’t seem to be aware of what’s going on with her, and we aren’t sure why. Maybe our instinct is to yell at the screen, “ask him for help!” Keep watching the movie… as it turns out, good ole’ Dad can’t help one bit, and this opening makes total sense.
When you allow characters to keep information to themselves for no other reason than 'it's not time to tell,' you will only succeed in frustrating your reader/viewer.
1. The author isn’t sure where the story is going
This almost never works, especially in a story that requires an ongoing mystery, thick suspense, and an idea of direction. If you find yourself keeping your audience in the dark because you aren’t sure of the story’s direction, this is likely, wait, nope, definitely going to result in plot holes later on. Stop now, create an outline, storyboard, or talk things out with your imaginary demons before proceeding.
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