By David E. Sharp
No matter the genre, suspense is a critical element of narration. It's regular a topic in critique sessions. Suspense is that enigmatic quality of writing that creates urgent curiosity in readers. We keep turning pages because we HAVE. TO. KNOW.
- Will our beloved characters be all right?
This book is about as suspenseful as a color test pattern.
- Is the murderer really the Archbishop?
- Can the star-crossed lovers ever find happiness?
- Where is Waldo hiding this time?
As a reader, I eat this stuff up. As a writer, I have to understand the nuts and bolts to make it work.
Tool #1 - Questions
Suspense at its basic level gets readers to ask questions.
Good questions don't have obvious answers, should involve real consequences for the characters, and should have concrete solutions.
Every question is a variation of What is going to happen?
Don't over-explain. You may feel you need to make sure your reader understands everything happening in your story. It's far better to give them just enough.
Tool #2 - Stakes
Questions need to have impact. Will Veronica have a sandwich or a salad for lunch? Readers don't care. Unless the sandwich is a face-eating alien monster, and Veronica has no idea her life hangs in the balance of an otherwise trivial decision. Now there are stakes!
There are stakes for Veronica. But what about the reader? Do I care about Veronica? Or is she just a movie-set extra to me? If I told you she was going to get her face eaten by that monster right now, you wouldn't lose any sleep over it.
Who's the monster now!?
|Look! She loves puppies|
and warm beverages!
Tool #3 - Empathy
The easiest way is for readers to identify with Veronica. Veronica is an underdog in a tough world that doesn't share her compassion. We know what it's like to be an underdog. She works hard at her job, but her boss only comes around when she's taking a two-second break. That's happened to me! It's uncanny!
I don't want Veronica to get her face eaten.
My mirror neurons are firing, and if Veronica falls prey to that alien sandwich, it will feel like my face is being eaten too! Okay, fine! I care already!
Tool #4 - Delay
You're a writer. You must be sadistic. You can't just tell your readers what's going to happen. You have to toy with their minds.
First Veronica leans toward the salad. She wants to make a healthy choice, not realizing how extremely healthy that choice is in this case. Whew! As a reader, I am relieved. Problem solved. I can go about my...
Wait! What's happening? Veronica thinks she's been good this week? Maybe she should reward herself with a delicious sandwich! No Veronica! You can't do this to me! Think of the carbs, woman! Those vicious face-devouring carbs! I can't lose you, Veronica! We've been through a whole blog post together! Remember that puppy I Photoshopped into your picture a few paragraphs ago!?
Tool #5 - Expectations
Address the questions you've raised.
Veronica chooses the salad and goes about her day none the wiser. Not exciting, but there are possibilities. You could foreshadow her next encounter with the alien. This sandwich better come back into play again somehow, because the dramatic conflict hasn't resolved itself.
Veronica chooses the sandwich and dies a horrifying death at its hands? Tentacles? Tuna salad? Initially more exciting, but ultimately dull. The reader knew the alien was planning to eat Veronica. Then it did. Suspense isn't about action. It's about questions.
Let's do something unexpected! Veronica chooses the sandwich. She carries the plate to a table near the back of the diner. The sandwich monster is doing whatever its version of drooling is and waits for the perfect time to spring upon its prey.
At the table, Veronica upends her plate and smashes it upon the table surface on top of the sandwich. It squirms and tries to wriggle out of its predicament, but Veronica holds it down with surprising strength. "Listen to me, you culinary slug!" says Veronica, in an unearthly language, "I don't know what you're doing here, but this is my planet, and you can tell all your face-eating friends if they want to make trouble here, they'll have me to deal with!"
Veronica! What!? How!? I don't even know who you are anymore! I feel betrayed! And possibly in love with you. How could this happen, Veronica? So many questions.
|Now we have oodles of suspense!|
For more tips on spicing up the suspense in your writing, check out some of these resources:
Six Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense
Forty-one Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense
Suspense Writing: Seven Hacks