Suspense is an important element in many genres. For sure, thrillers and mysteries need it just as horror novels do. But, if you give it some thought, you’ll see that suspense seeps also into many others genres. Maybe only for a scene or two, but it’s there nonetheless.
So if you’re serious about writing, handling it effectively from the get go is as necessary as it is a thorough knowledge of grammar–even if you’re going to break some rules now and then.
What is Suspense?
According to the Online Oxford Dictionary, in literature suspense is a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen.
This is a pretty straightforward definition. It is also pretty vague. Yet the power of suspense can be huge. In fact, just think about how many less-than-stellar books you’ve read to the very end just to see how they ended.
Sure, also sheer curiosity is at play here. But while curiosity doesn’t create a sense of pressure and doesn’t build any momentum either, suspense does both these things. And as a result it makes it more difficult for a reader to free herself from the flow of the story.
Tips to improve suspense
Keep your descriptions at bay. Choose a few relevant words and stick to them. In fact, lengthy descriptions slow down the story irremediably. And your task as a writer isn’t that of describing a resort or a dress. It’s that of telling a story.
Less description means a story that moves at a faster pace. In general this is a plus, unless your story already moves at a breakneck pace, that is.
The strength of pared down descriptions lies in the fact that create a sense of vagueness and uncertainty that readers naturally tend to fill with assumptions and theories of their own.
A) Her lips were as red as coral. And so perfectly shaped she didn’t need any makeup. Her voice was husky. But not from smoking, which she did a lot. Hers was the voice of an adolescent…
B) She spoke rarely. But the last time she did, Lena had cried for two days.
As you can see the second example keeps the ball going while also adding interesting questions. Why does she speak rarely? Why did she make Lena cry? And when was the last time?
These questions are of extreme importance. Because dilemmas and red herrings are another important way you can heighten the suspense in your story.
Red herrings are often used in thrillers and mysteries. But a red herring is anything that tries to sway the reader’s attention in the wrong direction.
In a crime story red herrings are typically a way to steer the suspicions of the readers toward the wrong character, and so away from the real villain.
More generally, red herrings can be used to create false expectations. In such a way writers can later on surprise their readers with developments that are perfectly logical once explained, but that had been hidden behind a screen of, indeed, red herrings.
Another important tenet of suspense is about the main character, who should be likable. Alternatively, at the very least, the main character should be one readers can relate to. Otherwise it is next to impossible to create any meaningful degree of suspense.
The reason is simple. If you’re reading about a character you don’t like–assuming you keep reading–you’re not at all worried about what might befall him or her. On the contrary, you end up hoping he or she may die soon. The sooner the better. So that you can put the book in your shelf and move on to another one.
They need to be given depth, intelligence, complexity, and so on. Because a complex villain is one whose actions are less predictable, and the reasons behind such actions could be mind-blowing.
I mean, Why does the killer gnaw the left forefinger off his victims? Is an interesting question. The vivid and graphic description of a murder not necessarily so, especially if it is done only to induce repulsion and disgust.
Another way to add suspense is resorting to vague language. For example, a sentence like Malcom was a man whose ideas were upsetting can mean many different things.
Maybe that Malcom was a satanist, a neurosurgeon, or an iconoclast economist. But from the point of view of his daughter, upsetting may simply refer to the fact Malcom was a widow who, after many lonely years, desired to start seeing other women.
Last but not least, to use a hackneyed phrase, writers can always offer their readers tidbits about what is about to come. Anticipation in this way works wonders. Because there’s nothing so satisfying as knowing something someone else doesn’t.
In fact, if readers know at least in part what the villain is up to, they’re going to bite their nails through the whole novel. Not only during the actual action scenes.
This technique can also be used to set up false expectations. The day was clear and the street deserted. The first rays of sun splashed the front lawn when he left his home at seven. To never return.
Readers again could be induced to think he might be about to die. But then, maybe, later on they could discover that as a result of a short circuit the house has caught fire and burned down.
Quantity or Quality?
Like everything else in fiction, and in life as well, suspense depends only marginally on quantity and is instead strongly linked to quality and intensity.
Some writers can make whole universes crumble, and yet win only a modest interest from readers. Instead other writers seem to know how to transform even the simple choice of a dish into an ordeal. An interesting ordeal. Especially if you’ve been invited to dinner by someone like Hannnibal Lecter.