We’ve looked at suspense and how to create it in past articles; however, in this article we’ll look at why writers should take advantage of this useful tool and seek to use it at every available opportunity.
Writers understand what suspense and atmosphere is, but very few understand the significance of this literary device, which is why many self-published novels have zero atmosphere or suspense. Writers sometimes don’t pay enough attention to these elements and the result can be an awful, lacklustre read.
Why use suspense?
Readers rely on and interpret descriptive stimulus to help them understand the nature of what they’re reading. They need to feel empathy with your characters, to feel close to the anticipation or expectation within the story, to feel fear, concern or other emotions. They want to feel impending danger, become embroiled in action. They want to feel the escalating tension until right to the end. In simple terms, readers love drama.
We often associate suspense with atmosphere, but they’re not the same. They work well together, but atmosphere is the state which is created by the mood and tone of the work.
Creating suspense is about building anticipation, and depending on the scene, how much the writer reveals to the reader, to keep them guessing what will happen next. It’s otherwise known as dramatic tension - the sense of impending or implied danger. Suspense relies on the elements of uncertainty and tension, and on occasion, misdirection, whereby the writer deliberately wrong foot’s the reader in order to create suspense.
Why is suspense so important?
No matter what the genre, every story requires suspense, and that’s because readers love the expectation of guessing what will happen next. Uncertainty creates trepidation, unease, tension and a certain amount of anticipation about what will happen next in the story, or what might happen to the protagonist. It’s this premise that is vital to telling a good story, and there are plenty of writers who have no idea what suspense is or how vital it is to telling a story.
We use suspense to turn the ordinary into something completely different – whether that’s something foreboding, menacing or just edge of the seat action; suspense is like an electrical charge that runs through the story; it creates a buzz at certain intervals for the reader, to keep them interested.
Without any dramatic tension, a story will be flat and uninspiring and will fail to engage the reader on a deep enough level for them to care much about the story. Take this example, where there is very little suspense:
Her bedroom opened ajar to the shadows in the hallway, but Kate remained in slumber, despite the room growing cold.
The door wavered. The shadow in the corridor lurched. A silence descended and the darkness filled the stairs and hallway as though shrouding something from view. The bedroom swung wide open.
The scene lacks any sense of anticipation, emotion, menace or foreboding, and so the reader won’t care much what the character does, but more importantly, they won’t care what happens to the character. They won’t care if the hero is in imminent danger if you don’t give them any suspense.
Now compare the same scene, but with suspense added:-
Her bedroom door opened ajar to the shadows in the hallway; they sucked out the warmth and left a slicing chill, but Kate remained in slumber, despite the room growing cold. A teasing stream of vapour coiled into the air as she breathed.
The door wavered as though a soft breeze had swept past. The shadow in the corridor lurched, grew black.
A stilted, oppressive silence descended like a clammy mist and clung to the cold air. The darkness brooded; it grew thick with each minute and filled the stairs and hallway as though shrouding something from view. The bedroom door silently swung wide open. Like an invitation…
This example shows suspense; it creates dramatic tension, a sense of menace, leaving the reader to guess what might happen next – is it something bad, something evil? What lurks in the dark? What might happen to Kate? The choice of certain descriptive words, together with the structured sentences and the perception of the slowing of time all help create suspense.
The good thing about suspense is that it isn’t there just to try to lead the reader into something terrible. It also works even if nothing bad actually happens in the scene, but instead there is the feeling of something bad might happen. This is what gives many scenes suspense - the sensation that something bad or unfortunate could happen.
If you use suspense at the right moment, i.e. the important or key scenes, it will heighten the anticipation within the narrative. You will also find that it creates plenty of atmosphere.
In fiction, you have to engage the writer at every available opportunity. And by creating suspense, you will engage with the reader, which means they will care about your characters and what they do next.
The advantages of using suspense:
- It creates anticipation and/or expectation.
- It keeps readers guessing.
- It creates uncertainty.
- It can wrong-foot them.
- It creates dramatic tension.
- It engages the reader, makes them care.
- It heightens the feel of important scenes.
Next week: How to create backstory.