Suspense is not merely the domain of the thriller or horror writer. Even if you are writing a romance or comedy, suspense is the crucial ingredient that will keep your reader turning the pages. Your characters may be dynamic, your plot may be ingenious, but without a sense of suspense your readers will soon lose interest.
Suspense is essentially created by asking questions with your writing and allowing time before the answers are given. This means that information within your novel or play has to be paced to the greatest effect. This pacing occurs on two levels. Firstly, your reader will be concerned with the overall question (e.g. will the protagonist succeed in his/her quest?). Secondly, your reader will be confronted with secondary ponderings to be resolved throughout (e.g. Why does he/she hate his/her father? Why does he/she always wear odd socks?). Ultimately, unanswered questions will keep a reader engaged.
In partnership with the questions that you are proposing, characterisation is vital in creating suspense (see Creating Believable Characters). It is crucial that your readers care enough about your character to need to know the answers to your questions. Your main character doesn’t necessarily need to be absolutely likable, but the reader must be able to empathise with their ‘quest’, so strong motivations are crucial (love, ambition, survival) and the stakes should be high. To increase suspense, increase the stakes. Take your character to hell and back, but never be predictable.
A useful way of raising the stakes and maximising suspense is to set your character ‘against the clock’. Taken literally, this means that your character has a limited amount of time to achieve their goal before heinous consequences occur (their lover will leave, they will die, the world will explode). This is a great technique when used with integrity. If too contrived, the end result can seem a little ‘Hollywood’.
Building suspense begins with the very first line of the first page, so open with a bang. Throw the reader deep into the story as soon as possible. Drag them into your vision, vary your pacing throughout and knock them out with the unexpected so that you take them on a journey they will never forget.
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