How Do Authors Create Suspense?
Suspense is a critical part of any story. It builds tension and keeps readers engaged. Without it, stories risk falling flat and your readers will move on to something else, leaving your story unfinished. There are many ways to create suspense and keep your readers turning those pages. Here are a few:
1. Create Compelling Characters
Characters are arguably the most important part of any story. Having strong, compelling characters that your readers can root for (or against) is the strongest way to build suspense. When readers are invested in a character, they want to know what happens to them.
Don’t limit yourself to creating suspense from purely external factors. Suspense can come from the character’s actions themselves. This works especially well with characters who aren’t “good people”. When you have a character who is capable of heinous deeds, like Joe Goldberg in You by Caroline Kepnes, suspense comes from not just what might happen to the character, but also from what the character might do next.
Another way to create suspense is to take a beloved (or hated) character and place them in danger. Suspense in this case comes from either the reader’s worry about their favourite character, or the anticipation of seeing a despised character get their comeuppance.
The most obvious method of this is threatening the character with death. However, consider other types of danger. Readers know that in most stories, the main characters will survive, so near death situations don’t always generate the kind of suspense you might be hoping for. Consider other consequences, like failure, injury, loss, or even a combination of several different consequences.
Revealing enough information to your readers, without giving away too much is a careful balancing act that every writer must grapple with. If the reader has too little information, they can become confused and stop reading. However, if your plot is predictable or the reader can guess everything that’s going to happen, there is no suspense. Clever plot twists will help prevent predictability, but be careful because too many plot twists, or ones that aren’t properly foreshadowed can instead anger your reader.
A deadline or a countdown is an easy device to create more tension in your story. Knowing that the reader must accomplish something within a certain time frame adds more stakes to the story. Be careful, though, because instead of manufacturing urgency, an improperly used countdown can actually remove suspense from your story. I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples where a bomb is set to go off at a certain time, only to have the hero defuse it with one second remaining. Instead of biting their nails, your reader will be rolling their eyes.
One of the most effective uses I have seen was in the novel Battle Royale by Kousun Takami, which takes place in an alternate history Japan where the government kidnaps third-year junior high school students and forces them to kill each other until only one student remains. At the end of each chapter, the novel provides a countdown of how many students are still alive. The reason this countdown works so well is because it’s unique. Even though we’re told only one can survive, we don’t know how long it will take or who will be next.
5. Other types of suspense
Horror, and thriller are the genres that leap to mind when discussing suspense. However, all stories need an element of suspense to succeed. In a romance novel, anticipation is built around how or when the couple will get together. In a coming of age story, we want to know how their lives will turn out and how the character will grow. In a mystery, suspense comes not only from the possible danger the detective faces, but also how and when they will solve the mystery.
Knowing how to employ suspense is an important skill any writer should develop. It doesn’t matter whether you write thrillers, romances, or any other type of fiction. Suspense builds tension and feeds reader curiosity. Without it, your stories will be dull and predictable.