Many writers ponder what how to create suspense in their fiction and I’ve been asked this question by new writers because they wrongly assume it’s very difficult, when in fact it isn’t. My answer has always remained the same: creating or building suspense, and maintaining it, will only work if the writer understands the very core of the story they are telling within the genre they want to write.
Crime novels, for instance, have a sense of mystery and therefore they keep a lot of the secrets from the reader until the end, in order to keep them guessing, while some novels, like thrillers, set out their stall early on by letting the reader know most of the facts and building tension and conflict around the succeeding events in the story in order to create suspense.
Suspense is the thing that keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next...
Mention the word suspense to most people and they will automatically think of fear, after all, it’s used to great effect in horror movies. Suspense can create fear – fear of the unknown - and because there is an unknown element at play, that uncertainty in turn creates intensity.
Fiction employs the same strategy. The premise of the unknown, what might happen next, what might the character do next...the anticipation created in this way builds intensity and keeps the reader in a constant state of wondering what will happen next. Uncertainty, facing choices, facing fears, raising intensity, creating danger...they all help build suspense within the narrative.
Greek philosopher Aristotle said that suspense is an important element within literature, that there must be a real sense of present danger, but also a glint of hope that all will end well by the end of the story - this in turn creates a fine balance. Danger and relief must always find balance within your story.
That’s all well and good, but how do you go about putting this into practice?
You can create suspense by playing on your character’s fears and anxieties. By giving them fears and making them face those fears, you also allow the reader to face those fears. Or you can make the unexpected happen – for instance, killing off a likeable main character, which may put pressure on the protagonist and which leads the reader to ask...what next?
Force your main character to face impossible choices. How can they possibly choose? This is a dilemma, and thus it creates suspense with the reader, wondering how on earth the main character will choose.
In my second novel, one of the main characters is faced with an impossible choice: He is in a forest, hiding from German soldiers, and is called upon to give himself up. If he does, he will save the women of the town from being brutally murdered by the antagonist. It will mean he will be sacrificing his own life to save them, or he can stay hidden in the woods and watch them all die in order to save himself to face the antagonist in the end game. What should he do?
Dilemmas like this help create lots of suspense because the choice that the character makes – from a lose-lose situation – will keep the reader guessing as to what happens next.
There are many ways to create suspense –like when the reader knows something the character doesn’t. It’s known as Dramatic Irony. Lots of writers employ this method of dropping snippets of information for the reader, leading the reader to wonder...how will the character cope, what will they do, what will happen next? This foresight allows them to glimpse the perils that might lie ahead; it builds on their anxiety and instills fear.
Another useful strategy is the use of time constraints. Thrillers employ this to great effect – the race against time. The main character needs to achieve his goal before a set time – a bomb set to go off, or a ransom needs to be delivered or the hostages die etc. Every moment the hero is held up creates tension and suspense and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. (And of course this creates conflict, which is the very heart and soul of fiction).
String out the anxiety for a full effect. Think about reality TV shows like American Idol or X Factor. The build up created prior to announcing the winner is down to making the audience wait for as long as possible...is it A or it is B? Who’s won? By stringing out that wait, it creates suspense and tension. Fiction works the same way too. Keep your reader guessing; keep them on tenterhooks for as long as possible before the final reveal.
Suspense also comes from being unpredictable. Nothing should be simple for your main character. Make their life difficult, put them in danger, take away some of their most cherished things, be horrible to them, make it look like the antagonist might actually win the day. Remember that action creates reaction. That in turn creates the ‘what happens next’ effect.
Of course, it isn’t just the actual story that provides the suspense. You can dangle a virtual carrot in front of the reader every time you finish a chapter. Try to end each chapter by luring the reader to continue reading.
· Know the genre and know the story you want to tell.
· What’s at stake? Create a sense of danger.
· Impossible choices – make the character face them
· String out the tension for as long as possible
· Time constraints – is your character racing against time?
· End a chapter with a lure to the next one.
· Be unpredictable
· Create the unexpected
· Use dramatic irony – let the reader in on something that the protagonist won’t know.
The unknown = uncertainty = anxiety = fear, what happens next = suspense.
If you become stuck wondering about suspense and how to inject it into your narrative, always ask yourself the following question:
What happens next?
Next week: Creating imagery in fiction