Have you ever been so hooked by a story that you couldn’t stop turning the pages, even into the wee hours of the night?
And have you ever been so bored by a book that you put it down for days, weeks, years… or even forever???
Yeah, me too, to both of those.
What made these books so different?
There are reasons books fall flat, differing from book to book. But today, I’m going to show you a core element of story that keeps a reader glued to the page with baited breath to see what happens next: suspense and tension.
First, let’s define what these are, separate from one another.
Tension is the feeling of intensity that comes from conflict, whether that be internal, external, or a mix of both.
You know that stomach-tightening feeling you get as you rush through pages, barely breathing? That’s tension.
Some of my favourite stories with examples of great tension are the book In 27 Days, the movie Inception, and the movie The Dark Knight Rises. These stories all left you on the edge of your seat, wild to know what would happen next.
(Funny thing: these are also my favourite examples of suspense. Maybe a case study or two are in order? 😜)
Suspense is uncertainty; essentially, something is held in front of you – suspended – and it’s only partway through its action.
The great thing about suspense is that you can have multiple things suspended at the same time. It can truly create a gripping story.
In the book In 27 Days, suspense was wondering will Hadley stop Archer from dying? There were more things than that going on in the book, but that was the main plot question left suspended for the whole book. It got introduced, then left to hang – and left readers to hang with it.
Suspense + Tension
Suspense walks hand-in-hand with tension. I mean, you can have just one, but really, neither is complete without the other.
Picture it like this:
Suspense is an arc. It begins, building with conflict, and then, at its peak-
You stop revealing stuff.
The reader is desperate to know what happens next, and you amp up the tension with conflict… and then you finish the suspense arc by revealing what the reader wanted to know.
And, as soon as this arc touches down, you start up a new one.
There should always be suspense in a story. Always. Something should always be up in the air, hanging suspended before the reader and tantalizing them. Without this to chase, the story won’t feel like it’s moving. Without these reasons, the tension will seem pointless.
Does this seem like it’s a little out of place in this post?
Well, I’ve got news for you, my friend:
Character is never out of place when it comes to any element of story.
And suspense and tension don’t work without it.
Character drives story; internal conflict drives character. A character’s Ghost drives internal conflict. A reader sees the story through the eyes of the character; therefore, what matters to the character – their desires, their fears (aka conflict), the pain of their past (their Ghost) – matters to the reader.
Did you notice something on that list?
And what is tension?
The feeling of intensity that comes from conflict.
Now, if tension – conflict – builds upon suspense to amp it up, what do you think suspense began as?
Spoiler alert: it should have something to do with the character.
Let’s be honest: you could hold anything suspended. Any tiny, minuscule thing could be left hanging. But, really, why should we care?
The only reason we will is if it matters to the character’s conflict. Notice I don’t say just the protagonist’s; a great way to introduce multiple suspension arcs is actually by giving them to different characters. You introduce one for your protagonist – like the main conflict – and then can start introducing side ones for subplots, side characters, and new pieces of the plot.
What gives them any meaning within the story is character.
How to Write Suspense and Tension
It’s quite simple, really: you take something the character wants to know, wants to complete, desires in some way, and hold it up in front of them. Annoy them. Tick them off. Make them crave it. Force them to fight for it and go through conflict to gain it. But don’t give it to them until it can’t be avoided any longer.
However, here’s a couple tips to help you with your suspense and tension:
You can have some amazing things going on in the background of your story that are interesting to you, but readers won’t find them interesting if they don’t see them. Hold things suspended clearly. Otherwise, how will readers even realize they’re supposed to be captivated?
Don’t Leave Everything for the End
It’s awesome to have a lot of things suspended and then concluded them all in a magnificent flourish at the end of the story. However, no one is going to be around to still read your story if they aren’t kept intrigued throughout the whole thing. 😂
You want to keep readers turning the pages, right? Story is about promises: you basically are making a promise at the start of a plot line that you are going to resolve it. You are promising readers answers at some point to all the questions you create – and all the suspense arcs you begin.
If you have a bunch of suspense arcs in progress, but don’t give any answers, readers will eventually set the book down in sheer frustration, disgust, or boredom.
That, of course, prompts the question of why? You have everything suspended, and tension amping it up even further. You’re doing everything right.
The thing is, there’s no satisfaction. You need payoff to keep a reader going. If they put in all the time and effort to read something, they want to be rewarded. It’s just human nature.
So, give them answers. And you know what else that will give them?
And dopamine is addicting.
Which means… your book is now addicting.
Err on the Side of Revealing too Much
I am like, the master of scrambling everything and hiding it from readers. Which is an issue sometimes, seeing as that means that no one can recognize my genius in progress. *huffs*
Like the dopamine involved with answers, people are more addicted to a story where they actually can see what’s going on. If they don’t see the things that are supposed to be hooking their interest, or worse, are confused, then they’re going to put down the book.
This is actually something I’ve grappled with in my own stories. I love big, epic reveals at the end of my books. But readers won’t be around to see the fireworks set off if I don’t keep them hooked throughout.
Reveal more. Reveal things from the villain’s POV for one scene, and never use the POV again. Reveal things that the protagonist couldn’t possibly know, and then let your readers writhe as they watch the character make bad decisions – and only they know that they’re bad because they saw something the character doesn’t know. Answer questions even before you introduce them, let readers forget, introduce the questions, and then later jog their memory… and let them scream when they realize the character already has the answer. (Or let them get hit with an epic plot twist that was perfectly set up and foreshadowed)
Yes, I am an evil author.
Stakes are a great way to amp up tension. You set the stage, make readers care for the character, show readers something the character cares about, and then put that thing at risk (at stake).
That alone can be intense and tension-filled. But, to take this to the next level, drag the stakes in, then involve them with what’s suspended, and bam! Everything is instantly more terrifying. *dusts off hands in satisfaction*
I wrote a post years ago on questions, but you don’t have to read that. 😅😂 Basically, all you need to know, is that questions are a sort of form of suspense. In fact, they can really make up a whole suspension arc on their own. Hold something unanswered in front of a character (and, therefore, the reader), and then refuse to answer it for as long as possible.
Think about it: we’ve all read stories where we were desperate to get answers. That was suspenseful. You amp it up by adding in why it matters that the character finds the answer – stakes – and then make it as hard as possible for them to do so – tension. Questions are a fantastic (and relatively easy) way to create suspense.
Suspense and tension are kind a chaotic cocktail of setup, payoff, foreshadowing, characters, conflict, and your characters and/or readers screaming in agony. It’s great. *smiles brightly*
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I know I’ve had a lot of trouble over the years trying to understand suspense and tension… and if you have too, then you may or may not want to make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss my next post. *whistles innocently*
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Have a great day, my friend; write on.
What is your favourite book or movie with great suspense or tension?
Do you include questions in your manuscripts?
And, most importantly… are you also an evil author? 😈😜