Suspense has been a problem for me since I was a kid. I was the little boy who picked up a book, read two chapters, and flipped to the back page. “Wait to find out what happens? Hah! That’s for people who don’t have a whole world to conquer,” said a smaller more naive Corey. I didn’t ruin it for other people, but I needed to know.
My mom would wrap presents for Christmas or my birthday and tell me to stay out of the house. “Don’t you let me catching you looking through those windows Corey! You’ll spoil the surprise.” Surprise? I didn’t want to be surprised! I wanted to know right there and then.
My parents would take it a step further. They would toss little snippets out there and have conversations loud enough for me to hear (sneaky parents). “That present was so hard to wrap because it’s so strangely shaped,” or “Boy that box is unbelievably heavy.”
Each observation and statement was another drop of blood in the water, and I was the shark getting hungrier by the second. It took everything I had to not rip the wrapping paper into an explosion of confetti and find out what was inside prior to the appointed hour. “To hell with the consequences!” At least that’s what I said in my head.
Regardless, when present opening time came, it was a whirlwind of torn wrapping paper underscored by shouts from my mother to not destroy the bows so we can reuse them (mom had collected enough bows to create a bow-chain from our house to the moon, and back). The suspense worked. Each statement and action was a crescendo of suspense building and building and building. Then the finale would come and blow my socks off (a Tasco children’s microscope!) or leave me jaded (underwear).
[Side note, the microscope I linked is the exact one I got as a kid. Took me forever to find the one I was thinking of!]
That is the power, and danger, of suspense. It is a tool we use to heighten the conflict we create. (We talked about the basic types of conflict here.) Think of our readers as sharks and we need to chum the waters to keep them circling. Sure, we could chuck a harpoon at them…but it’s fun watching them circle, jump out of the water, gnash their teeth, and beg for more.
Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing, explains, “…if your goal is publication, whatever the nature of your story please pay close attention to what follows because suspense is the most essential ingredient of plotting” (p. 97). This snippet is funny to me because it has a little bit of suspense built into it. I read this and was like, “I need to find out what the following is! By god, you’ve hooked me Stein!”
Now there are more than a few amazing tools and methods we can use to build suspense in our books. We can build suspense through the clever application of dialogue, setting, action, syntax, foreshadowing, and cliff-hangers. This post is setting up those future posts. First let’s talk about what suspense is and build a solid foundation to move from. We’ll turn to the professionals to do this and leave my goofy metaphors behind.
Here are some descriptions and explanations of suspense.
“Suspense arises out of conflict. It is a subset of the dramatic question, Will the character involved in the conflict exercise his will in such a way as to overcome?” (Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell, p. 6)
“I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I’m able to conceal the information I’m trying to conceal. And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.” (Dan Brown)
“The audience wants to know that everything’s going to work out, that it’s going to be all right. They want answers. Comfort. Solace. Don’t give it to them. Not until late (if ever). The longer you can hold out on ’em, the deeper the tensions digs into the meat and marrow.” (The Kick-Ass Writer, Chuck Wendig, p. 155)
“Suspense is the element of both fiction and some nonfiction that makes the reader uncertain about the outcome. Suspense can be created through almost any element of a story, including the title, characters, plot, time restrictions and word choice” (Writer’s Digest, What is Suspense?).
All of these snippets, and my previous two cents, should establish a decent basis for understanding what suspense is and what it can do. In the future we will tackle some specific methods of harnessing suspense and cement our understanding with killer examples.
Do you have a suspense quote/example you love? Do you utilize suspense actively in your work? If so, do you have certain methods you enjoy employing? Is there a specific author who you feel absolutely harpoons the crap out of readers with suspense? I’d love to hear about it! Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!