Suspense is one of the storyteller’s biggest teases. It’s a state of waiting, of growing unease in the reader.
Most stories consist of raising questions and delaying the answers. Suspense in its purest form heightens that sense of uncertainty. This might be a situation of physical danger, such as walking along a narrow parapet outside a high-rise building – will the person fall? It might be emotional jeopardy, where a character is becoming involved with a person who is not what they seem – will their heart be broken?
The key to suspense is anticipation, and a suspenseful situation usually makes the reader bond more closely to the characters – whether they’re in an action-filled genre or a quieter, more thoughtful work. So whatever you write, here are some guidelines for adding suspense.
Dramatic irony and viewpoints
Dramatic irony is a key way to generate suspense. Essentially, it’s a situation where the reader has more information than the characters. Two friends alone in a house together, and the reader knows that one of them intends to kill the other. Or two characters meeting in a café, and the reader knows there is a bomb under the table. It is our extra knowledge that gives the situation its bite.
To use dramatic irony, you need an omniscient point of view, or more than one narrative viewpoint – and you need to represent the antagonistic forces. They must keep presenting fresh threats, increasing the pressure, or the suspense is lost. They might be a person, a group, or perhaps a natural force like an impending earthquake – in which case you might find it useful to personify the danger with a group of seismologists monitoring a geological fault.
Here’s a difference between suspense and mystery: in a mystery, we might follow a number of viewpoints, but they’re all usually the good guys, trying to solve the puzzle. The viewpoint of the antagonist remains offstage because their identity and plans are usually the big reveal. But in suspense, the narrative pressure comes from the reader’s big-picture view and the rising sense of danger. Plus, the reader usually feels the protagonists aren’t being careful enough – like a parent who fears their child doesn’t understand the true risks of a course they are embarked on. Which is why this kind of danger-suspense is so primally compelling.
Antagonist forces and the story arc
So the antagonistic forces are significant players in the dramatic-irony brand of suspense. If your antagonist is a person or group of people, they must be smart and inventive. They have to keep the protagonists—and the reader—on the run.
You also need to allow your protagonists to make progress, otherwise they will seem ineffectual. If appropriate for the genre, it will also be more satisfying if the protagonist can force the antagonist to work harder and change their plans – and this can, in turn, make life worse for the protagonist. So if you’re plotting this kind of suspense story, think in terms of a game of cat and mouse, planning so that it escalates in pressure. Allow the protagonists to get ahead sometimes so they look capable; and think of switching the threat into a new direction as the antagonists up their game.
The extreme antagonist
The antagonist must be credible, but they don’t necessarily have to be understandable or civilised. Stories generally take the protagonist outside their comfort zone – which is why the events are a true ordeal for them. Suspense antagonists often have villainous impulses that are beyond our experience and comprehension – such as Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan (recently filmed by Tom Ford as Nocturnal Animals), a story-within-a-story where a family is run off the road in a remote part of Texas. Even though these antagonists are extreme, their behaviour should have its own underlying logic and the psychology must be sound. Their actions mustn’t seem random.
Suspense involves putting the reader in a state of anxiety, so be sure you’ve made the reader understand what’s at stake. (It’s easy, in our writing bubble, to forget to do this! We know what the threat means; the reader might not.) If the impending disaster has personal consequences for the protagonist, have you made the reader aware of them? Do they have a loved one they need to protect or rescue? Do they need to prove their innocence in an incriminating situation? The protagonist must have a good reason to keep fighting and the reader must be anxious for them to prevail. For more information on incorporating stakes into your story, see these gems by Jami Gold and James Scott Bell.
Think active, not passive
One of the biggest problems with manuscripts in progress is that the protagonists are passive. This can be very irritating to the reader. Although a protagonist may be a victim in some ways, it’s far more rewarding to watch them get into trouble actively by making choices that aggravate the situation. And the reader should be thinking STOP, DON’T DO THAT! even though they know it is inevitable. So the protagonist should provoke the antagonist to worse actions.
But that provocation doesn’t have to be tough-guy action. It might be something conventional, such as involving the police, which the antagonist might take exception to. Our good guy might make a misguided attempt to reason with the antagonist, and thus expose their own worries and weaknesses, giving the antagonist valuable ammunition. These are all actions by ‘normal’ protagonists that could escalate the situation. But – and this is the crucial difference – they are attempting to solve the problem within their own boundaries. They’re not sitting back and doing nothing.
A ticking clock makes suspense all the more agonizing. If the characters have to stop a threat or solve a problem, could you add a deadline?
Some suspense is predictable; if your character is dangling by one arm off a cliff, we know there are a limited number of ways the scene could go. He falls or he doesn’t.
But what about this: your character sees her mother open a letter and gasp at the news. Before she can tell us what it is, she realises the pot on the stove is boiling over and has to sort that out. Meanwhile, the letter is simmering in our minds – what was in it? Who did it involve? This is a simple way to prolong the anticipation before a revelation.
Inability to take action
I’ve talked a lot about action, but another strong source of suspense might be a character’s inability to act. So they might witness a crime but be unable to help, perhaps because they are scared, had their hands full with something else, or were too far away to shout a warning or intervene. This sense of helplessness can be powerfully emotional, especially if you want a reader to remember a situation that preys on the protagonist’s mind.
Suspense is a slow-burn thing. Good storytelling has a keen sense of emotional timing – how long to spend on each event for maximum effect. This actually follows the way real life works because we don’t see time in seconds of equal length like a clock does; we experience it stretching and shrinking according to our attention and emotions. Adrenaline – the anxiety hormone – can make everything appear to take much longer. In Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, a character falls into the water—an action that the casual observer would see happening comically fast, in just a few seconds. But Murdoch describes it from her character’s point of view, and it takes more than a page as everything goes through his mind – and it doesn’t seem too long.
So don’t rush a suspenseful passage. Make the reader feel every moment.
If a story in its purest form is a question with a delayed answer, suspense is one of the ways we can colour it with emotion –make the reader more curious and more invested. Make them shiver.
(Psst! I’ve got a lot more information about suspense techniques, active protagonists, and emotional pace in Nail Your Novel 3: Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart)
Roz published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than 4 million copies – and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. A writing coach, editor, and mentor for more than 20 years with award-winning authors among her clients, she has a book series for writers, Nail Your Novel, a blog, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London. Find out more about Roz here and catch up with her on social media.