As pointed out in the above quote from Leigh Michaels, suspense cannot be regarded as “a spice to be added separately”. I agree. However, as with other elements of writing craft, it’s possible to consider and discuss this specific aspect of storytelling. That’s what I aim to do, in this post.
This topic was suggested by a member of my Twitter community, who felt that it would build upon and complement my recent post about creating atmosphere.
Basically, to create suspense and tension in our work we need to place a character, or characters, in danger.
First things first, though. Your reader needs to care about your characters. I’ve written posts about creating believable characters and character development, which might help, if you’re unsure about this part of the process. My post on writing dialogue does also tie in somewhat, on the character development side. When I talked about first chapters, I mentioned that starting with a bang or a chase isn’t always as effective as many writers assume – and the reason for that is that the reader doesn’t yet have any reason to care about the fictional people involved.
Now, let’s return to the danger part.
The precise definition of danger, in this context, will vary, according to genre. Physical danger – and, ultimately, danger of death – is the most extreme, from a survival point of view. But the fear of getting caught in the act of burglary – or adultery – are also going to result in feelings of tension. Or, for a school kid, getting caught cheating in an exam. And it’s all relative and individual. Someone with agoraphobia can experience terror when stepping outside his or her front door, or entering a store. I know this is true, since I have agoraphobia myself. The conflict can come in many forms, but it must be important to the character.
Keep raising the stakes.
Imagine a graph, with multiple peak points, each slightly higher than the last.
The tension shouldn’t be relentless.
Allow the reader to breathe, now and again – but never for too long. It can be effective to switch between multiple storylines, leaving the reader hanging. Do so with caution, however. You must create sufficient interest in each storyline, to retain reader attention.
You need the reader to keep asking questions.
Let some answers, or partial answers, trickle through, but hold something back, and introduce further questions. Fear of the unknown is often the greatest fear of all.
Inner conflict is important, too.
A combination of inner conflict and external pressures will push your characters to their breaking points – which is ideal, from a storytelling perspective.
Make that multiple sources of both internal and external conflict.
You know – that world closing in feeling. The stress is becoming unendurable. The characters – and readers – can’t take any more.
Sometimes it can help to speed things up.
Experiment with the overall time frame. Could the novel’s events take place in a week, instead of a month – or one year, instead of ten? Or cut to the action, losing significant chunks of time. Only make these changes if you feel they would benefit your story – if it seems to drag in places.
Shorter sentences – and paragraphs, and chapters – can definitely be effective, in conveying heightened tensions.
Don’t overdo it, however. It’s a useful narrative technique, but like most such devices, loses its impact, if used too frequently.
Suspense does tend to arise naturally, but it can still be useful to refer to checklists, such as the one I’ve aimed to provide here, particularly during the revision stage.