The Seven Secrets of Suspense

Or how to keep the reader reading to the last word with some examples from Freud

Posted Jun 14, 2014

Number One:

Put a vulnerable creature ( baby, dog, young person, foolish person etc.) in a dangerous situation. Take Freud’s young Dora who comes to him with a plethora of ailments: cough, pains in the leg, loss of voice, fainting fit, and even a suicide note. Or Little Hans, four years old, who is terrified to cross the street. The Wolfman arrives hardly able to stand in the consulting room after two imminent doctors have failed to cure him ( Ziehen and Kraeplin) .

Number Two:

Create mystery. Arouse questions in the mind of the reader. Why is this young girl, only seventeen, so ill? Why is Little Hans, a cheerful child, suddenly too frightened to cross the road? Why is the Ratman obsessed with the rat torture the cruel captain has related? Why does the Wolfman dream of wolves? Why does the President Schreber believe he can save the world if he changes his sex?

Number Three

Create conflict by making your characters active. Let them fight against their fate and thus delay the moment of revelation and reversal.

Freud uses repression or the patient’s inability to admit or confess to what the doctor has decided, in order to create conflict. Dora insists she does not remember being in love with Herr K ( her father’s mistress’s husband.) The Ratman hides his face and cannot bring himself to tell Freud what the torture that obsesses him consists of: ( rats up the anus.)

Number Four

Make sure the reader believes your story. Give us credible and precise details. Take your time or keep the longeurs as my editor would say. Use evocative objects: reticules for example which Dora fingers and is thus accused of masturbation. Create scenes. Freud gives us a wonderful scene from the Ratman’s childhood where in a rage with his father he tries to insult him by calling him a table and lamp. Who could have invented such a detail we feel.

Number Five

Raise the stakes by creating real drama, so that the reader is caught up by the emotion of the character.

Dora is being asked to both ignore and allow Herr K’s seduction. The Wolfman has supposedly seen his parents making love a tergo one summer’s afternoon at eighteen months old.

Number Six.

Use repetitive imagery to hold the whole together. Freud uses the sexual imagery of Dora’s reticule; the jewel box in the dream and the station to hold the case history together. Rats in the Ratman symbolize children, faeces; money, and even Ernst Lanzer ( the Ratman) himself. He has once bitten as a child in a rage.

Number Seven

Sum up and prove your point like Sherlock Homes. Make sure in the end all the details lead us inexorably to your conclusion. In the end for Freud it is often the father who is at the heart of the matter. Dora has transferred her love of her father onto Herr K; Little Hans is afraid of horses with the black thing around their mouths because they look like Papa. The still staring wolves are the reversal of the standing active father in the primal scene.

It is not strange that Freud was given the Goethe prize rather than the Nobel. He writes case histories which he himself marvels at as resembling great short stories with all the necessary structure and suspense therein.


Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.