Nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. Think about it. When you’re reading a book and the characters don’t know what’s going on or who the killer is or why bad things just keep happening, they come up with guesses and explanations. And so do you!
And you know what, nothing in reality is as bad as you whip it up to be in your head. You will come up with the worst, chaos loving, irrational, there’s no dealing with them criminals in your head. People who are cruel solely for the sake of being cruel. People who have no rhyme or reason for doing horrible things. Monsters that feed off of pain, sorrow, and stress so of course they try to cause it.
This also goes towards character’s backgrounds. Don’t just spell out their background, everything on the table. Hint at things that make the characters them. Readers will be curious, want to figure out what happened. If it’s something bad, hint at the emotional damage. If it’s something the character did that’s bad, hint at them running from the law or do something to cover their tracks at get caught so everyone wants to know what the deal is and gets freaked out when the character won’t tell them. (Think Kate in Lost.)
It’s the unknown that makes us panic, because what if, what if, what if.
When I was 20, I was studying on a Saturday morning in February. The biggest worry in my life was Organic Chem (fucking Organic Chem!) and my phone rang. It was my dad. Him and my brother Andrew were out skiing. I thought he was calling to say hi while they took a snack break.
I answered with a hello and my dad didn’t say anything.
“Hello? Dad? Hellooooooo.” I grinned, taking a sip of coffee. Probably calling to say how great the powder is today and that I should’ve gone with them.
“Amie,” my dad said, voice faint and broken. I sat up straighter in my desk chair, putting the coffee down. “Um, Andrew’s been in an accident.”
I took the phone away from my ear and scowled at it. What was he, twelve? Maybe he’d had a drink with an early lunch or something and that made him think a prank was a good idea. “Dad, that is not funny.”
“Amie,” Dad said very slowly, like he was having trouble getting words out.
My heart rate picked up and I shot out of the chair, walking the six steps to the door and turning to walk back to the desk and back again. If I kept moving… if I kept doing things, Andrew wouldn’t… couldn’t be…
“I’m not joking,” dad said, a little faster.
I stopped, electric sparks zipping up my thighs, making them shake. They flushed and my knees knocked together so hard I sat down at my desk again.
“Is…” My breath caught in my throat and I took a deep drag of air, then another. I couldn’t breathe! My lungs were closing up like when I was kid and would have asthma attacks. Was that happening here? I tried again. “Is he okay?”
“No,” Dad said, voice still so quiet. “They’re life-lighting him to the U right now.”
My chest clenched and I put my hand over my breast bone, trying to rub out the pressure. My thighs sparked again, shooting fire up my thighs before going pure numb.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“I… don’t know. He’s alive. He… he hit a tree. The snow patrol… and they said he’s got some broken bones and may have hit his head. I’m meeting them at the hospital.”
“Okay, okay,” I took a deep breath, allowing myself one my “Okay,” before clenching my fist and digging my nails into my palm. “Are they at the U or Primarys?”
“I don’t…” I could practically hear him licking his lips. “The U, they said the U. The… bone doctor, Ost… I don’t remember. He’s at the U.”
“Okay, I’ll get Mom and Tonya and we will meet you there. It’ll probably be about an hour. You call us the second you know anything.”
“Yeah.” He hung up.
I stayed in the chair, one moment. I got one moment. Five seconds then I had to tell Mom. Andrew’s been in an accident, he’s broken some bones, he’s alive. I count to five, then I get up. What if he dies? What if he has brain damage? No, no, can’t go there. One...
Now, this isn’t exactly how that played out because I don’t remember the exact words after my dad told me Andrew was in an accident. I know I remember saying that wasn’t funny. It just came out, probably because it was so horrible, I couldn’t contemplate it.
This story has a happy ending. My brother broke both his legs and his left arm. He had a scar on his head and a concussion but no brain swelling or damage. They put him in surgery, put titanium rods on his legs and casted his arm and had him in physical therapy to work his legs again a week later. He was home after two weeks and just in outpatient physical therapy. He handled the pain and the work like a man twice his age. He did so well and recovered beautifully, so much so they put him in their brochures.
Now the only thing left over from that are the rods on his legs and a soreness when a storm’s coming in.
But in the moment, when that was all happening and none of us knew if he was going to live, let alone make practically a full recovery, all of us thought the worst.
When you were reading the passage, did you get that? Did you feel the heart racing, the panic, the mind going to the worst possible scenarios? When you’re writing, you want to draw it out. Make the suspense give your characters ulcers and think they’re five seconds away from a heart attack, because then your reader will feel that too. Basically, make them suffer.