How to create and maintain suspense: the riveting ‘Black’

Black.jpg

I read this book in one sitting. NOT because it’s short (it’s actually 276 pages). NOT because I was reading-deprived after a month of writing (which I was, but that’s not the real reason). NOT EVEN because I didn’t want to go to bed before I figured out what super-scary stuff was going down that would otherwise give me nightmares.

No. I read this in one sitting because it’s that damn good.

I lent it to an author friend and she couldn’t put it down either.

Black‘ by Fleur Ferris is totally worth reading.

Obviously, me being me, I then wanted to figure out why this book was unputdownable for two sleep-deprived children’s writers.

Roughly speaking, it’s split into two almost equal parts. Part One, where we’re anxiously trying to figure out what is happening and waiting for it to all go bad. And Part Two. Where it goes bad, and we’re caught up in Ebony ‘Black’ Marshall’s fight to regain herself. I understand what makes the second part tick. I can write action and up the stakes and have people fight for their lives.

But the first part of the novel is a brilliant study in creating suspense.

I knew I had to work out how Ferris had done it. Want to know too? Read on.

Ferris scatters little clues along the way, uses beautifully emotive language, and even brings the weather in on the whole ratchet-the-tension-up thing.

Firstly, that creepy creepy cover

I don’t know anyone who reads a book without first reading the blurb and looking at the front cover. Girl running through sinister forest, and these words:

‘Shut the windows.

Lock the doors.

You don’t know who’s coming.’

I mean, that had me ready to be scared and entertained straight away. So I opened the book knowing that things were going to go wrong both for Black and whatever poor bloke she took to the formal. I just didn’t know how or when.

Chapter 1 sets the scene

The fourth line of page 1 makes it clear Black is not your average teenager as she leaves school ‘without saying goodbye to anyone, like always.’ Why? There are refs to the mysterious Oscar on pages 2, 7, and 9, before we finally are told he’s dead on page 10 (Chapter 2).

Chapter 1 ends with our first contact with Father Ratchet, and he’s super-creepy. We know this, because of the language Ferris uses.

‘pulls the warmth’

‘black hearse… waiting for a coffin’

‘a ghastly tune’

‘Goosebumps crawl’

The chapter closes with Ratchet looking down the street…

‘Directly at me.

Like he always does.’

Our antagonist is clearly set by the end of the first chapter

We know Ratchet is the main bad guy, but we still don’t know his motives. On page 12, Ferris reinforces his evil status by using more great descriptors around him:

‘chill’

‘lurking’

‘really disturbing’

‘sinister’

‘unsettling’

Not one to waste a scene, this flashback sequence of Ratchet at Ged’s house also serves as a seed to a plot twist that comes later.

And it’s at this point that the idea of a curse is first mentioned.

The abandoned house

Late afternoon, alone in the forest, a little lost, a decrepit house with unknown visitors and urky black mud? Great moment to first meet the house that is so important in the plot. It scares Black. It scares us. Best of all it scares her mum when she finds out Black was there.

But. We. Don’t. Know. Why.

20 pages further on, on page 49, the house crops up again, this time with Black’s dad. He doesn’t like that she’s been there, and he’s trying to stop her learning more about it.

We know this house is important, and the use of identifiable black mud is clever, because Ferris can spook the socks off us by mentioning mud from then on.

Page 74 we learn some of the story of what happened out there, and that Black’s dad was involved. We get that horrible feeling him finding that poor girl lines up with the night Black’s mum didn’t wear that beautiful new red velvet dress… speaking of which…

The red velvet dress

Unworn by Black’s mum, but she won’t say why. Black’s worried, and so are we. We are introduced to the ‘element of mystery’ surrounding Black’s birth. Black frets that her parents split up for a while. We, the reader, know there must be a far darker reason.

‘Since then I’ve often caught myself wondering what they were protecting me from.’ (p 46)

Bad things, girl! Don’t go outside! Run and hide under your doona! And for goodness sake, don’t wear the damn thing…!

But she does. She wears that dress to the formal. That symbol of whatever fear or danger overcame her parents, goes with her. I call this the second night of the red velvet dress.

The weather

On page 54 Black is heading home to get ready for the formal, and the weather is deteriorating even before she dons the dress.

‘icy crosswinds’

‘clouds are building’

‘face stings’

The storm breaks when Aiden drops her off after the formal. Which is when things start to go really downhill.

Aiden’s head

He’s late to pick her up. We fear something has happened to him. But then he turns up, and we’re back to fearing something still will happen to him.

And he’s got a lump on his head.

His headache gets worse over the course of the evening. I just wanted someone to send him home, and for the love of little green apples, is that aspirin? Don’t take aspirin after a head injury! Has this boy never taken a first aid course?

After the storm

Things spiral down after the formal. Ratchet is openly talking to the demon he thinks is inside Black. Her mum is scared.

Ged is hand-delivering terrible lies, and Black curses her. And we remember what one of the A’s said earlier in English about Macbeth’s ghosts:

“whether they were real or imagined, they had the same power as if they were real.” (Anita, p34)

So there’s that feeling nothing good will come from that, either.

The end of the first part

Pages 122 – 125 we finally hear the truth of what happened on the first night of the red velvet dress, when Black’s dad drove past the old house. We know what we’re up against. We know one of the who’s as well – Ratchet. But there are so many others that had to be involved. As readers, we can’t be sure of anyone in Black’s entire town.

We’ve spent roughly half the book tied to our seats trying to figure out the mystery, and waiting for Aiden to fall. And then we spend the second half tied to our seats wondering how Black will get out of this, and who she can trust.

It’s a great study in how suspense can keep a reader riveted.

 

Highly recommended, and a hearty well done to Ferris!

 

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3 thoughts on “How to create and maintain suspense: the riveting ‘Black’

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and only come across great reviews like yours. I even went out and bought the book! I think I might have to jump into it next, the last few novels I’ve read have been so-so…
    Thanks for reminding me that there are some fantastic books out there *cough* onmyshelves *cough*
    Happy reading – and well done at all your hard work during NaNoWriMo

    Liked by 1 person

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