Suspense: What it is and Ways to Create It

We’re looking at tension, conflict, and suspense this week.  You can find tension and conflict here.  Onward to suspense . . .

What is Suspense?

“Suspense is any unresolved tension in the story that makes the reader want to see what happens next,” says James Scott Bell.

Raymond Obstfeld agrees:  “On a basic level, suspense is merely the reader anxious to know what will happen next.”

As does Robert Kernen:  “Suspense is the audience’s anticipation of what will happen next, the delicate balance between not knowing, yet wanting to know.”

How do I create suspense?

“Suspense is achieved by arousing the reader’s curiosity and keeping it aroused as long as possible,” says Sol Stein.

Here are some techniques to do just that. (Sure, there’s some overlap, but I think looking at the same thing from a variety of angles is good for the imagination.)

1. The Objective.

“The first step toward creating anticipation is having an objective (or destination) in mind for your character,” says Noah Lukeman. “Once they have them, we suddenly want to know if they’ll achieve them. Anticipation begins.”

“When characters have different goals and are intent on achieving them, conflict results,” says James N. Frey.

But “only when readers are made aware of what each character wants can they anticipate the potential for conflict,” says Chris Roerden.

2. Raising the Stakes.

“Once you’ve located the struggle, heighten the stakes,” says Mr. Lukeman. “[O]ne way to raise the stakes is to increase the importance of the objective.  This is not quite as easy as it sounds, since importance, we must remember, is relative…. So consider the importance it has for your character…. [or] for other people.”

3. The Obstacle.

An obstacle “is something that stands in the way of achieving a goal,” says Karl Iglesias. It’s a temporary change, but “it causes a character extra thought, effort, and time to overcome it.  Once the obstacle is surmounted, the character is back on track.”

“Think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist,” says Sol Stein. “And be certain there is a two-way urgency:  your protagonist wants a particular, important desire fulfilled as soon as possible, and the antagonist wants to wreck the chance of that happening, also as soon as possible.”

4. The Complication.

A complication “alters the course of action that follows,” says Mr. Iglesias.  It “takes you on a completely different track, and things just aren’t the same” afterwards.

5. The Danger or Threat.

“In short,” says Mr. Iglesias, “suspense is about the potential of bad things happening to a character we care about.”

“Keep in mind, though, that even danger is relative,” says Mr. Lukeman. “So, for danger to be effective, it must be dangerous for your character personally.”

This danger or threat could be, “a prospective danger to a character” or “an actual immediate danger to a character,” says Mr. Stein.  And make sure you “don’t let the character overcome the immediate danger without facing an even greater danger.”

6. Uncertainty.

“The reader and protagonist do not know exactly what will happen next (even when the character is taking decisive action), keeping both on their toe. You don’t have too much predictability,” says Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld.

“The point to remember about conflict is that it arises because something is not going as expected,” says Nancy Kress.

To this end, uncertainty can mean reader’s uncertainty, as in “uncertainty of outcome.  This means the sympathetic character must have equal odds of succeeding and failing, which keeps the reader guessing and doubting,” says Mr. Iglesias.

Or it can mean the character’s uncertainty.  “A great trick for inducing a constant underlying tension is to portray your protagonist as uneasy, uncomfortable, or somehow at odds in each scene,” says Jessica Page Morrell. “As a writer, you should constantly look for opportunities to make your character feel out of sync with her surroundings.”

7. The Ticking Clock.

“Adding a time limit goes a long way in creating suspense,” says Mr. Lukeman.

“The time bomb can be started as early in your plot as the inciting incident,” says Robert Kernen, “Or you can use a smaller time bomb to create tension in a single important sequence.  The key to the time bomb method is to put the protagonist in a circumstance that must resolve itself in a given time frame.”

8. Incapacity.

“Another way to increase suspense is to remove the capacity of the Lead to do something essential,” says James Scott Bell.

Mr. Lukeman agrees: “One of the most powerful forms of suspense comes when a character has an important objective, but is unable to take action.”

9. The Unknown.

“There is nothing more terrifying than the unknown,” says Mr. Lukeman.  “We can bear nearly any form of torture as long as we know what it is we are getting into. But keep us in the dark, give us time to ponder the possibilities, and the suspense will be unbearable.”

Mr. Bell calls this hypersuspense.  “Hypersuspense happens when the character does not know what the forces are that oppose him–and neither does the reader.”

10. Sexual Tension.

“What is most important to remember is that the suspense disappears when the courtship is consummated, when the lovers are content,” says Mr. Lukeman. “To keep suspense, then, the writer must prolong courtship as long as possible, or have the lovers break away so he can have them court again. If all is well in their world, he must find ways to sabotage it.”

11. Dramatic Irony.

“‘Dramatic irony’ is when we, as readers or viewers, are privy to something the characters themselves are not–often something that is about to affect them,” says Mr. Lukeman.

“Dramatic irony is about putting the reader in a ‘superior position’ to the characters by revealing information not known to the characters,” says Mr. Iglesias.  “It’s like being let in on a secret. Based on this information, the reader knows what might happen (or not happen) to the oblivious characters and he can only hope they make the right choices.  This hope and fear takes the reader to the future and thus creates anticipation and active involvement.”

12. Worrying About the Future.

“Tension is built inside the narrator’s worried mind,” says Sandra Scofield.

“A simple way to increase suspense is to increase the sheer amount of time a character spends anticipating something,” says Mr. Lukeman.

“If your character is apprehensive about an unwanted confrontation, make sure you hold off that confrontation as long as possible,” says Mr. Stein.

13. The Time Stretch.

“Suspense is also the clever balance of timing,” says Mr. Kernen. “It is giving the audience a piece of information and then knowing just how long you can keep them waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“Real time is not fictional time. Nor should it be. You are free to slow down time anytime you like, and the time to do it is when you can stretch the tension,” says Mr. Bell.  “Go through the scene beat by beat.”

“The more suspense you want to create, the longer you have to suspend the payoff,” says Raymond Obstfeld.  “Basically, you’re teasing the reader, getting her excited by dangling the Snickers in front of her, then pulling it away.  There are two basic dangers with this formula: (1) the longer you suspend the payoff, the greater the risk of losing reader interest; (2) the longer you suspend the payoff, the more satisfying that payoff must be. There’s’ no magic formula for avoiding those dangers, but being aware of them and rereading suspense scenes with them in mind will help.”

14. The Interruption.

“Poop happens,” says Peter Dunne. “We are tied to too many things for one of them not to blow up in our face now and then. We need to develop a keen awareness of this and use life’s little interruptions to our benefit. Keep notes on some of the life interruptions that have amazed you or tickled you. Then use them in your script when you need a diversion or roadblock.”

Mr. Bell calls these microobstacles.  “A microobstacle is a seemingly small incident or object or character that enters a scene with the potential for huge ramifications”  But be warned:  “These microobstacles enhance the pleasure of a reading experience if–and this is a big if–the readers already care about the characters. If they don’t, microobstacles become annoying speedbumps.”

15. The Subplot Splice.

This is where you “end a subplot at a crucial moment, leaving the audience dangling,” says Mr. Lukeman.  “The audience will then be in suspense while they are taken through the other subplots, always waiting to get back to it.”

16. The Secret.

“For the secret to be used to suspenseful effect, we have to know there is a secret,” says Mr. Lukeman. “The realization of the secret brings no suspense; the suspense comes in knowing it is there while not knowing the answer.”

“It should be character-oriented,” says William Noble, “that is, it should be something that one or more persons hold closely, guard jealously, and it should involve them; it should not be ‘quest-oriented’ in the sense that the secret becomes a prize to be sought. And don’t forget it must be terrible; it must be a hell-on-earth for the person or persons who guard the secret. They must be willing to go to great length–perhaps even at the cost of their own life–to protect the secret.”

“When working with secrets, pick fragmentary indicators of what you’re withholding and drop them in. Don’t explain,” says Donald Maass. “You may worry that your readers will guess what you’re concealing, but mostly they won’t.”

17. The Unpredictable Character.

“Not knowing a character can create suspense,” says Mr. Lukeman.  “You might deliberately suggest some element of unpredictability, some sense of mystery about him.  This way, getting to know him becomes prized by the audience, and, more important, it creates suspense, since we never know how he’s going to react.”

18. Flaws and Fears.

“Story’s job is to tackle exactly how we handle … conflict, which boils down to this: the battle between fear and desire,” says Lisa Cron.

So “embrace vulnerabilities,” says Ms. Morrell.  “When a reader is aware of a character’s vulnerabilities (created by his flaws and fears), she is more tuned-in when dangers occur, and this awareness increases suspense.”

And “when an old fear is about to become a present reality, don’t relieve the fear,” says Mr. Stein. “Make the situation worse than the character anticipated.”

19. The Puzzle or Mystery.

“Give the audience just a piece of the puzzle, a fragment, denying them the other pieces until later,” says Mr. Kernen. “Creating suspense is all about revealing part of the picture, but not the whole picture.  Knowing a little bit about a situation, an audience will almost always desire to know more, and it is the author’s withholding of this knowledge that creates suspense.”

But make sure you give the reader a hint that something “is ‘off,’ thus alerting us to the fact that there’s more going on than meets the eye,” says Ms. Cron.  “You want us to try to figure out what that might be.  To that end, you can mislead (as opposed to lie to) us along the way.”

20. Truncating.

“Another means of fragmenting the audience’s understanding of events and to create tension is to truncate a scene,” says Mr. Kernen.  “There are two ways to do this: One is to start a scene late, after some unseen crucial event has taken place, and the other is to cut out of a scene before its action has been completed.”

21. The New Wrinkle.

“While you want to lay out the conflict in a clear way early in your plot, try holding back some key fact that will make the character’s plight more difficult,” says Mr. Kernen.

22. The Dilemma.

“A simple way to create a time conflict is to schedule two important events for your character at the same time,” says Mr. Lukeman.

But, of course, a dilemma could also involve more stressful choices, such as in Sofie’s Choice.

23. The Pause.

“A pause is a scene that reveals critical information surrounding the conflict and the protagonist’s relationship to that information.  While most plot points should have a lot of ‘punch,’ this type is like the blow that misses,” says Mr. Kernen.  “The result of these plot points, ironically, is an increase in tension. Since what was expected didn’t occur, the likelihood of it occurring in the near future increases.  Simultaneously, the audience will feel less certain of when to expect something horrific, since it didn’t occur when they thought it would.”

24. Subtext.

“Sometimes the tensest scenes of all are fought in subtext,” says Ms. Scofield, “which is made up of those things not said that bubble beneath the surface like so much boiling lava.  When there is underlying tension being suppressed while character talk about something unrelated, it is said to be like having an elephant in the room.”  (More on subtext later in the year.)

25. Change.

“Here’s an easy equation for maintaining tension throughout your story:  Change equals tension…. Change equals torment.  Torment your characters, and tension must result,” says Ms. Morrell.

26. The Backfire.

“If a character’s life crisis requires an immediate action, make certain that the action backfires,” says Mr. Stein. “Prolong the crisis.”

27. The Cliffhanger.

“Cliffhangers,” says Ms. Morrell, “occur at a scene or chapter ending and interrupt the action so that it must be continued in the next scene or chapter.  Since cliffhangers always appear at the end of a scene or chapter and leave the events unresolved, the reader is propelled forward to see what happens next.”

28. Blatancy or The Tell.

Suspense is created when “a character or narrator speaks directly to the reader about what has already happened or is about to happen,” says Ms. Morrell, such as the narrator saying to the reader something like: “‘But this was a decision I would come to regret.'”

29. The Question.

Jim Mercurio says “Asking a question and inserting a pause can create suspense out of nowhere.”  Insert a pause by adding in backstory or setting description or whatever you want.

30.  Bread Crumbs.

“If we don’t know there’s intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot,” says Ms. Cron.

“Suspense depends on anticipation–the expectation of something about to happen,” says Mr. Roerden.  “For readers to feel anticipation, they need information, not its absence.”

Think: What makes this scene or section or whatever so interesting to me, the writer?  Whatever that piece of information is–make sure the reader knows it too.

Top Books on Suspense

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me 

What about you?  What suspense techniques do you love?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next, On Wednesday

We’ll look at how the masters create conflict, suspense and tension.  See you then!


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