Suspense is vital to the success of most stories. It maintains interest and keeps readers turning the pages, excited to know what happens next. It is as important to romance or science fiction as it is to thrillers.
So how can you maintain suspense?
To use suspense well we have to understand what it is.
Alfred Hitchcock, the master of this sort of storytelling, defined the difference between suspense and surprise as a matter of knowledge. If the audience doesn’t know that there’s a bomb beneath the characters’ table then you can achieve a few seconds of surprise when the bomb goes off. If the audience knows about the bomb but the characters don’t then you can achieve a whole scene’s worth of tension, as the audience wait with baited breath to see whether the bomb will be uncovered and what will happen when it explodes.
This is the essence of suspense – keeping the reader fascinated by keeping them informed, desperate to know where the situation is leading. There are dozens of ways to achieve this. Let’s look at some of the fundamentals.
Situational tension is Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. It involves creating a feeling of anxiety within events. This could be because a character is in danger, because an old fear is arising, or because an unavoidable and terrible confrontation is brewing.
For this to work, the stakes have to be high. In some stories this means a character’s life is at stake. In a romance, the stakes might be true love. In a heist it might be a vault full of gold.
There was a magnificent example of this late on in the TV show The Wire. A drug dealer with whom the audience empathises has been seen talking to a detective. We know that the dealer wasn’t informing on his colleagues, but that they now see him as a threat. He doesn’t know what they saw. As he stands on a darkened street corner, danger is coming his way. His life is at stake. Can he defend himself, with words or with weapons? Will he even see the danger coming? The director draws out the situation, keeping us in suspense as we await the result.
Another way to create suspense is through character flaws. In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, readers are aware of the limits of Katniss’s understanding of the world, but she isn’t. We are left constantly hoping that she will gain greater insight, making her life safer. We live in constant dread of the mistakes she will make through that lack of understanding, which puts both her life and her relationships in peril.
This sort of tension relies on flaws and misunderstandings that keep us rooting for the character, and longing for them to grow as a person.
Empathy for characters is vital to creating any suspense. To provoke the anxiety necessary to keep the reader hooked, you have to use a character they care about and for whom the threat has consequences. If the bomb is beneath the table of a newly introduced stranger then the audience aren’t invested enough to create much tension. If it’s beneath Superman’s table then we care less because it won’t hurt him. If it’s beneath the table of a beloved grandmother, we’re really going to care.
That scene in The Wire worked so well because the character had been built up over five seasons, and been shown to be in a vulnerable position. For all his flaws, viewers cared about him.
In his book Solutions for Writers, Sol Stein explains how to further heighten the tension using the structure of your story.
To do this, you need different story threads happening in different places. As you reach a peak of tension within one thread, don’t resolve it. Leaving the bomb ticking with three seconds on the counter, and shift to a scene in another plot thread.
Now build up the tension in that other thread. Perhaps a character is having a conversation with her lover, unaware that he is waiting to catch her in a lie. Just as she lets slip something that could ruin her, but before we see the results, shift scene again – perhaps back to the bomb, perhaps to another thread. Repeat this pattern through to the climax.
By switching at points of high tension, you keep readers in suspense over one plotline while exploring another. Even in the most mundane moments, a thread of anxiety trembles beneath the surface of your text, keeping readers turning the pages to see it resolved.
This is the power of suspense.