Creating Suspense & Atmosphere – Part 1
Firstly, let’s start with suspense.
Writers love nothing more than dangling an imaginary carrot in front of readers, teasing them to the point that they can barely stand the suspense. But carrot dangling is one of the most effective ways of creating suspense, making the reader desperate to know what happens next. It keeps them turning the page.
There are several factors that create suspense:-
- Characterisation and reader empathy
- The reader’s concern and worry
- Anticipation and expectation
- Exploitation of fears and emotions
- Impending danger and high stakes
- Escalating tension and climax
Reader empathy is about giving the main character(s) a deep desire to reach his or her goal and we also give them internal and external struggles to deal with, the kind that readers can identify with, the kind they have been through themselves – things like fears and hopes, or feelings of loneliness, being on the outside and looking in, not being understood, feeling unwanted etc.
We all have hopes and fears. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all have vulnerabilities. So should your characters. In essence, they are just like us.
The key is to create the kind of characters that have desires and needs and plans. In other words, complete characterisation. The more we know about a character, the more we empathise with them. And the more a reader can empathise with the character’s struggles, the more likely they are to connect with that character and the story; they start to care about that character and what happens to them.
Once that happens, they will instinctively worry about what happens to them, just like in real life when we worry about the people we care about.
Creating suspense is all about creating a sense of uncertainty.
The reader’s concern and worry
Think about novels you’ve read. Suspense usually builds when characters find themselves in danger. What will happen to them? How will they escape the danger? What kind of danger is it? How will it threaten them? Is it physical, emotional or psychological?
Whj WWWWhen you show that something terrible might happen to the characters they care about, then you have created a sense of suspense. You are dangling that imaginary carrot; you are effectively holding the Sword of Damocles over their heads throughout the story. This creates apprehension and tension and above all, suspense, right until the last page.
And suspense is all about anticipation and escalating the tension, to keep tightening the screw, to bring the whole story to the boil for the climax.
Anticipation and Expectation
Create a sense of both anticipation and expectation for the characters and the reader. They need to anticipate the end goal, yet the expectation is high and seemingly out of reach.
Have the main character fail at certain points, so expectation is dashed, but then build it back up again with more expectation. It’s a rollercoaster – it creates tension and suspense in equal measure.
Don’t be predictable with tension and suspense either. For example, if you have a story about zombies and a character is trying to escape them, and he or she finds an abandoned house to hide in…we all know what will happen. Zombies will find the house and attack the character. This is predictable writing, so the way around it to be unpredictable.
By being unpredictable, you create a sense of suspense, because readers won’t truly know what will happen next.
Exploitation of fears and emotions
We all have fears and phobias. Your main characters will be no different. Is your character afraid of heights? Then place him in a situation where he has to face that fear. Fear of the dark, fear of spiders or rats, fear of death…all of these are common to most people, so they will identify with your character the moment they come face to face with those fears.
This is exploitation of fears – you are exploiting fears within the reader, but also fears that your main character has.
Writers also build atmosphere and suspense by manipulating emotions. Emotion is such a strong feeling – we all feel it, and so will the reader. If you show the main character’s emotions changing in response to conflict and confrontation, immediate danger or a life changing event, then you will be able to create a sense of suspense and build on it to keep your reader turning the page.
Never be afraid to make it personal for the main character. It may not necessarily mean his or her life is in immediate danger, but it might be their child or a mother or father is in danger. This leads to what is known as high stakes, and it ramps up the emotions.
Impending danger and High Stakes
Knowing what is at stake for your main character should come at the beginning or very early on in the story. Immediately we know what is at risk – life, the world, something personal…whatever it is, let the reader share it. They will become emotionally invested from the outset, so when it looks like everything will fail, but doesn’t quite, it creates suspense.
Always try to keep the stakes high. Create danger and fear, create conflict. This could be in the form of isolating the main character – without friends to help, how will he or she cope? How will they evade the danger?
Writers love making their characters vulnerable, for instance your protagonist is fleeing a pack of rabid dogs through woodland, but he drops the knife that would have given him some protection. What now? What can he do? The dogs will tear him to pieces…or will they?
Escalating tension and climax
A writer should always apply pressure and push the protagonist to his or her limits, right to end the end of the story. In other words, keep escalating the tension.
By creating dilemmas and seemingly unsolvable problems and challenges, then placing barriers in their way, you create tension and suspense. This will resonate with the reader and keep them hooked.
Nothing should ever be straightforward for your protagonist or your antagonist. Push, pressurise, create conflicts, take them to the brink until the climax…never make it an easy ride. Not for your characters and not for the reader.
In a nutshell, suspense is all about creating a sense of what happens next?
In Part 2 we’ll look at creating atmosphere and how it works in relation to suspense and they keep the reader on the edge of their seats.
Next week: Creating Suspense & Atmosphere – Part 2