Suspense is an emotion and is a critical element in all fiction. Suspense is what keeps readers reading, keeps them turning the pages. In its simplest form, suspense is wanting to know what happens next.
Suspense must always end. It can end happily, say with two lovers getting together, or sadly, as with the death of a character or when two lovers decide to go their separate ways. But it must end, and when it ends the story is really over.
“Dark” suspense is what I’m most interested in as a writer. This kind is based on threat and fear, either of the unknown, or-—sometimes—-of that which is known only too well. Unfortunately, because we are all constantly bombarded with dark suspense in entertainment, as in movies from the current crop all the way to old favorites like Jaws, Alien, and Die Hard, it has become increasingly hard to induce suspense in both movies and writing. If you as a reader are feeling a little jaded, a little like you’ve seen it all before, maybe it’s because you have.
The ante is raised for today’s readers. And for writers. The need for suspense is greater than ever, and it’s harder than ever to achieve. A first step in creating good suspense is recognizing that there are two kinds: quick and slow.
Quick suspense is how a lot of books and movies start out. The opening scene shows a ticking time bomb, or an assassin sighting in his target through a sniper scope, or a brake line being cut. It gives us a splash of blood, or a scream. It provides an in-your-face introduction of a threat. It’s also the least effective of the two.
Slow suspense is slow developing, and fully involves the reader (or viewer) in the process. It grows out of characters that the reader cares about, and it can’t be achieved on page one because no one really knows the character yet. When readers care about characters, you don’t need the threat of a bomb blowing up or a president being killed to create “nail-biting” suspense.
For example, I just don’t care for baseball. For me, it moves too slowly and lacks anything in the way of suspense. However, when my son was playing Little League Baseball I found his games incredibly suspenseful. He was a pitcher and always seemed to get sent in when another pitcher had already loaded the bases. I chewed a lot of fingernails and sat on the edge of a lot of seats when Josh was playing baseball. It’s because I cared about him that I suddenly found baseball suspenseful.
If you can create characters readers care about, those readers will feel suspense no matter what kind of event the character is expecting, whether big or small. In my next post, on November 26, I’ll talk about some of the things that writers do to create these kinds of characters.