I still have to make some grammar and writing corrections but I would like to know if this dialogue Has this has enough suspense to engage the reader (so that he or she wants to read more)?

“Excuse me, have you seen a girl that looks like this coming here?” he said while showing the picture of the girl.

“Sorry,” the bartender said apologetic, “I’m new, I don’t know many people here,” the bartender replied. “As you can see, there are not many people around,” he continues, “You are the first person I’ve seen for a while.”

He continued cleaning some glasses for some minutes. “Is this person lost?,” he finally asked.

“Not sure, but...Well, I can’t find her.” he replied.

“Maybe you should report to police.” the bartender said.

“No, she is just someone I...someone that I used to be with,” he continues, “We lost contact for a long time. We used to come to this place frequently. We used to drink vodka and eat Mexican chicken here, then we walked in that bridge over there,” he said pointing to a big window.

“Reconciliation with a past lover, uh?” the bartender said.

“Well, actually, I already have a girlfriend,” the young man added.

“Cheating, uh?” the bartender joked.

The young man seemed to ignore the comment.

After an uncomfortable silence, the bartender finally added, “Why don’t you just call her?”

The young man thought for a while,“I did many times, but...each time I call, she doesn’t pick up the phone”, he said while taking another shot, then he continued.

“Well few days ago, she called, she said that she would meet me in that bridge...but she never showed up.”

After finishing that sentence the young looked out of the window, while the bartender kept quite. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the ring of the phone.

Would you suggest any improvements?

  • 2
    I'll answer when I have time, but I wanted to say this question is a really great example of what can be done and asked within our critique guidelines. :)
    – Standback
    Apr 17, 2011 at 12:58
  • @Standback Thanks (I think the beginning of the dialogue didn't engage you that much).
    – wyc
    Apr 17, 2011 at 13:31
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    One question that I just have to ask (and I hope it doesn't sound insulting): is English your first language? Because this doesn't sound like it is. If my hunch is correct, then I strongly advise you to write in your mother tongue, even though you'd lose this avenue for critiques. Apr 17, 2011 at 17:24

2 Answers 2

  1. too much dialogue.
  2. too much information about what you want the reader to guess (that is, the suspenseful bit).
  3. not enough information about the characters to care.

The point of suspense is to leave the reader wondering what else is going on? what's going to happen next? This is talky without making us interested. We should get enough information to wonder, but not enough information to figure it out.

It should read more like:

The man came in, looking worried and a bit windblown. He glanced around the bar, wiping the palm of one hand repeatedly on his jacket.

After a long moment, he approached the bartender.

"What can I get you?"

"Nothing, thanks. Listen — you haven't seen this girl, have you?" The man pulled a tattered photograph out of his pocket. She was young, dark-haired, pretty. Wide expressive eyes and a broad, inviting smile. From the clothes and hair, it might have been ten years ago.

"No, sorry. I'm actually kind of new here," the bartender apologized.

"But you haven't seen her? You're sure?" the man persisted.

The bartender gestured to the room. There was one guy at the far end of the bar watching a hockey game on the TV, and two men at a table in the corner having lunch. Other than that, the room was empty. "We don't get a lot of people here. I'd've seen her if she came in."

The man fidgeted. The bartender picked up a glass and began to polish it.

"Is she lost?" the bartender finally asked.

"I don't know," the man admitted. "She won't answer my calls."

"Sounds like she wants you to get lost, buddy," the bartender said, not unkindly.

The man shook his head. "We were supposed to meet here a few days ago and she didn't show. She doesn't answer her door either."

The bartender pointed to the shiny black phone on the bar next to the register. "So call the police."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

The man didn't answer. The bartender went back to polishing glasses while the man stared out the window.

Abruptly the phone rang, shatteringly loud in the quiet bar.

"Worried and a bit windblown": why is he worried? was he running? running from someone?

"wiping his palm": wiping off sweat? nervous?

"tattered photograph, ten years old": He's held on to this for a LONG time. It's a last memento, it's the only link he has to this woman.

"pretty, inviting": she's inviting us from the photograph.

"persisted": the guy REALLY wants to find her.

"fidgeted": nervous. maybe hiding something.

"finally": the bartender has to draw him out. He has to pull the information out of the man. that heightens tension.

"admitted": He didn't want to have to say that he didn't know. he's hoping she's okay, but she might not be.

"she doesn't answer her door": a hint that in fact there IS something bad going on. most people would be willing to let a call go to voicemail, but people rarely flat-out refuse to answer the door if they're home.

"I can't call the police": Now that's very interesting. Why not?

"shatteringly": to emphasize how tense the man is.

  • @Lauren Ipsum Thanks a lot! How did you learn to write like that? Is it natural or your learned it?
    – wyc
    Apr 17, 2011 at 14:27
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    I can only call the Muse; she does as she wills. :) Good literature criticism classes in college, and many many many years of voracious reading. I also edit on the side, so I'm accustomed to analyzing text for what does and doesn't work. In this case your ideas worked but your presentation didn't, and it was simpler to show you than to break down each sentence of yours and explain the problem. Apr 17, 2011 at 15:11
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    ...Don't take this the wrong way please, but I actually like the original better. I'm in no way an expert writer, but I'm an avid reader, and, personally, I felt more drawn in by the dialogue in the question than this. I think the problem is it's too good. A real conversation (like mine) would be more like the one in the question. Stops, restarts, and awkwardness between two strangers talking about something that both would probably consider private...This is more suspenseful, but the original's more sympathetic. That's just my opinion, though. And I emphasise that I'm a reader, not a writer.
    – kitukwfyer
    Apr 19, 2011 at 3:10
  • A perfectly valid viewpoint, and thank you. I think @alexchenco needs to hear that his raw prose is appealing as well. :) Apr 19, 2011 at 12:07
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    Perfect. I can't imagine a better way to learn; write, get corrected and see a rewrite with the corrections explained to boot! Apr 19, 2011 at 20:01

Suspense is all about anticipation.

What you've done very nicely is set up an immediate problem, probably a threat - the missing girl. You've also established a mystery - the guy's past and present relationship with the girl. The reader can anticipate both of these being developed and, eventually, resolved. So that's a good start.

But suspense can get you a lot farther than that. Consider - after reading the dialogue, does the reader know what to expect from the next page? If he does not, I'd argue that he's not in a lot of suspense - he can't anticipate what will happen over the next few pages, so obviously he can't look forward to whatever is happening.

I'd further say that you don't provide the reader anything to anticipate immediately. We don't know what the guy's going to try next (asking more people, I guess). We don't know what the next step with the girl will be, because we know nothing about what's going on with her. We don't know why the ringing phone should interest us. The reader is likely to trust the author long enough to find out the answers to those questions, but right now, he's not anticipating anything in particular - just trusting the author that, whatever winds up happening, it'll be interesting. That doesn't mean the piece isn't good, but it's not very suspenseful.

So what would add suspense would be making clear to the reader what he can anticipate, what he should be looking forward to. Here's some examples of details you could add in that I think would provide readers with the sense of immediate anticipation that you're looking for:

  • The worst thing the guy thinks might have befallen the girl is...
  • If he doesn't find anything out here, the guy will have to try...
  • If he doesn't find the girl soon, that'll be bad for the guy because...
  • If the girl got in trouble with anybody, the guy thinks it was most likely with...
  • The guy does/doesn't think it likely the girl deliberately stood him up to hurt him, because...
  • The thing that worries the guy most about asking questions in this bar right now is...

Notice how all of these set up possibilities for the next scene, or that might affect the next scene, or some scene very soon. If the worst thing that could have happened is the girl being stalked by her other ex-boyfriend, then the next scene might be a confrontation with him. If the guy's tense because there's some danger to him in being in the bar and asking his questions, the next scene could see that danger come to fruition. That's the feeling you want to be encouraging, if suspense is what you're after: that the reader knows what's going to happen next, is looking forward to it, is dreading it. They just don't know how it'll turn out.

The other major way to increase suspense is to focus on the hooks you've already got, and get the reader invested in them. You can do this by increasing their investment in the characters - if the reader cares about a character, then any threat to that character creates suspense - and, if this is the tone you want to take, by ramping up the possible threat to the girl (from "I can't reach the girl I haven't been in touch with for years" to "a girl I've got a complicated relationship with is in clear and present danger.")

Hope this is helpful :)


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