Suspense: that elusive element of every awesome book that writers strive to understand and create in their work.
- How do you define suspense?
- How important is suspense?
- How do you create suspense?
First of all, I want to clarify something. When I began researching this, I started with the word tension instead of suspense. When I went to look up tension, I got a lot of definitions about stretching things out. That’s when I tried searching dramatic tension. All the references for dramatic tension redirected to suspense. And in truth, suspense is what I wanted. But not the genre, the concept. So, in short, dramatic tension and suspense are generally equal. Here’s a pretty good definition I found online.
1. a state of mental uncertainty, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, accompanied by anxiety or excitement.
2. a state of mental indecision.
3. undecided or doubtful condition, as of affairs.
I agree with those definitions. But is it really necessary to create suspense in a book to keep the reader going?
Answer: Yes. Yes it is. It doesn’t have to be nail-biting, murderous-stalker-lurking suspense, but suspense needs to exist or the reader will feel like nothing is happening, despite the hundred pages they just read where lots of actions take place. Ever have that feeling while you were reading? Now you know why and here’s where it gets fun. How do we create suspense?
I’ll post my answer to this question one technique at a time. Ready?
Not “Danger” but “possible danger”. There’s a big difference and it’s a simple concept. Not that danger can’t create suspense, it’s just not going to be as reliable as possible danger. Here’s why.
Imagine your MC in a Western. He’s just been challenged to a duel. He’s standing in the middle of the dusty road, hand hovering over the grip of his pistol, facing one of the fastest draws in the territory. That’s danger. And, there’s suspense.
But let’s add in one simple thing.
As your MC stares into the eyes of his opponent, something pops into his mind. Did he reload his pistol after the bar fight last night? He fired five of the six rounds and passed out at some point. When he got up this morning, all he could remember was strapping on his belt with his gun already in the holster.
Now that’s suspense.
Let’s try another. This time without any actual danger involved.
A new mother is kneeling next to the tub, bathing her eight month old when the doorbell rings. She’s expecting a package she’ll have to sign for and doesn’t want to miss it. The bell rings again — an impatient deliverer. The front door is just around the corner from the bathroom. Little Lucy will be fine by herself for twenty seconds. Besides there’s only an inch or two of water in the tub. She dries off her hands and scampers to the front door.
I don’t know about you, but that creates some suspense for me. That’s what possible danger can do for you, your characters, and your novels. And that’s only one technique. Expect another in my next post.