Writing advice

Suspense

And now a few thoughts on suspense.

Many of us are fans of (or at least are familiar with) “suspense” fiction. This includes horror, mystery, detective, and the thriller, among other subgenres. In these subgenres, suspense plays a major, if not the major, role. But even if you don’t write suspense fiction, you cannot afford to ignore suspense. For suspense is important for all fiction, perhaps even all forms of writing.

Why?

Suspense is the device that keeps the reader turning the pages, keeps them asking “what happens next?” Without suspense, the reader will not keep reading. They will not care. And, after all, isn’t our overall goal to keep our readers interested?

So how do we create suspense in our writing? Particularly our fiction? I have narrowed it down to five general rules.

1. The reader must be engaged.

They must buy into and care about the world you’ve created. Without this important first step, nothing else you do, no matter how brilliant, will matter because the reader will never get to it. They’ve already put your work aside and moved on to something else. There’s an old saying about art that applies here: “the audience can love it, or they can hate it; the only thing the artist must avoid is that the audience doesn’t care.”

2. The protagonist must face a challenge/enemy.

There has to be conflict for there to be suspense. It could be anything from trying to win a promotion, to trying win the love of his/her life, to saving the world from nuclear war. It doesn’t matter. But remember, if you haven’t engaged the reader (see #1) they will not care about the conflict.

3. The protagonist must meet the challenge largely with his/her own resources.

There is little suspense to having a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, if all he has to do is call for an extraction and he’s rescued in fifteen minutes. Something has to go wrong and he needs to overcome it.

4. The outcome of the conflict must be in doubt.

In fact, the worse the odds against the hero, the deeper the suspense. There is little drama in easy.

5. The resolution of the conflict, whether the protagonist is fully successful or not, must be organic to the story.

In order for the reader to be fully satisfied, the story ending must be a logical consequence of the story events and the characters involved. You can’t have the Marines sweep in to rescue the hero if there had been no sign or mention of the Marines in the earlier parts of the story. That leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Follow these five basic rules and you should have no trouble successfully creating suspense in your work. Do it right and creatively and you will “hook” your reader and have them sitting figuratively on the edge of their seats.

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