suspense bear

The Suspense is Killing Me: Writing Suspense

Hey, Lovelies!

I hope you didn’t hate me too much for the little joke yesterday. I couldn’t help myself. It was just too perfect and cute. Today we’re actually going to be talking about suspense. I’m going to relying on a bit of help from the internet and other great blogging minds as I am battling the flu and am not feeling well.

First off, let’s start with our definition:

Suspense: is the intense feeling that an audience goes through while waiting for the outcome of certain events.

In essence, suspense is what makes us stay up until three in the morning turning pages as quickly as we can. However, suspense isn’t a mystery. As Alfred Hitchcock once said:

“There is a great confusion especially in my particular job between the words mystery and suspense. The two things are absolutely miles apart. Mystery is an intellectual process guessing “who’ve done it?” But suspense is essentially an emotional process.”

Remember that suspense is the emotional process that your readers and characters go through. It’s not about finding out why certain things happened or not.

Why is Suspense Important?

According to L. Ron Hubbard in an essay titled Suspense, it’s also “the most intangible thing in this business of writing” – aside from getting paid that is. He also states: “suspense, or rather the lack of it, is probably responsible for more rejects than telling an editor he is wrong.”

If this is the case, how come suspense is easily overlooked by most writers? Well, sometimes we forget because we’re too worried about all the other things we need to worry about, such as character development or adding more action to our plots.

However, suspense is an important tool for all of us writers no matter what genre we’re writing under. It doesn’t have to be blatant, like in a horror, mystery or thriller novel. It can be subtle like in most romance novels. You just need to incite some sort of anxiety in the reader that things may not work out for your characters.

The video below explains this very well and provides some good tips to how to add suspense into your stories.

Overall, there are four factors necessary for creating suspense: reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension. According to Writer’s Digest, this is why these four things are important:

“We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.

We need to escalate the tension in our stories until it reaches a satisfying climax. Raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, intimate, personal and devastating. So, if the moon explodes in Act 1, the entire galaxy better be at risk by Act 3. If tension doesn’t escalate, the suspense you’ve been developing will evaporate.”

8 Ways to Add Suspense to Your Writing

Here are some additional ways to add more suspense to your story:

  • Make BIG PROMISES and then follow through on them. So if you tell your reader that something bad happens to Sally, you’ve got to make sure you follow through on it. That means eventually telling your reader “this is how Sally lost her dog to a pack of wolves.”
  • Put characters that your readers care about in jeopardy or dilemmas. Your readers are going to want their favorite characters to succeed in the story. By putting them in positions where they might not defeat the bad guy or get back together, will make your readers keep flipping those pages.
  • Characters can tell the reader their plans. You don’t have to have an omniscient point of view to build suspense. By limiting your character’s viewpoint, as well as your readers, you can transfer your character’s anxiety onto the reader. It’s not giving your secrets away, but more like hinting at what’s to come.
  • Murder and violence isn’t suspense. It’s the threat of murder or violence that makes it suspenseful.
  • Time constraints can make things easier – or harder – to create suspense. If your character needs to disable a bomb in five hours or else [insert dramatic event here], can cause anxiety in your reader over whether or not they can meet that deadline. However, you’re going to want to make sure that your time constraint isn’t hindering character or plot development.  Also, they will need to fit into the story’s escalation.
  • Secrets and withholding information. There are a lot of directions that you take with this one and both are good at adding suspense to your story. In one of my stories, the best friend has been violated and her love interest doesn’t know about this and it taints how their relationship is. I create suspense by having her withhold information from her love interest, which makes readers wonder a) what was done to her and b) if she will finally unite with her true love.
  • Foreshadowing. It is handy but please use in moderation. Overdoing it on the foreshadowing front will get annoying and distracts from the plot.
  • Multiple viewpoints and plot lines. Switching viewpoints can leave readers guessing, especially when you leave one character in a juicy moment. Also running two plotlines at the same time, while promising that they will meet up somehow, will keep readers engaged as well.

Most importantly, how you display this information to your readers, and when, will have a huge impact on suspense.

That’s it for me this week! Next week we’ll be talking about pace.

Until next week!



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


13 Responses

  1. I haven’t read all of the post, but I will offer that we absolutely need what the CHARACTERS are experiencing by what they do and say, to give the reader a feeling of suspense, or any other feeling.

  2. The cliche image of suspense limits our ability to apply it in our writing, because we are used to thinking of it in terms of the mystery, when the character, alone in a darkened house, is drawing nearer to the closet door, which was NOT slightly cracked open just 5 minutes before, and now they’re intend on opening it the rest of the way.

    1. Mysteries use suspense in an obvious way, and it has definitely led to our cliche image of what suspense is. Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, among many others, further compounded that image with the popularity of their works.

      I just find it interesting that most people forget that there is suspense in every genre.

      1. “What will happen?” When the reader gets itchy with that question, we have suspense. Remember the original Alien movie, when Ripley was in the escape shuttle, and we can’t believe the alien is gone. Then it appears! She gets into the space suit while the thing is 10 feet away. Will it close in before she’s ready to spring her final surprise? Is the cat okay? WHAT is she going to do for her final surprise? We’re asking ourselves, and watching, closely, forgetting to breathe.
        Turn on the TV in the reader’s mind, and they go through that, only more so.
        It’s an act of creation no matter what genre you’re working in. It, like everything else, is supposed to bring the story to life in that ssme reader’s mind.

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