The Efficient Author’s Cheat Sheet for Creating Suspense and Tension:
Questions that Keep Readers Hooked
Even if you aren’t a fan of the Marvel universe (and I have to confess that I am), you may have heard some of the uproar over the latest Avengers movie. Without laying down any spoilers, the last ten minutes or so hit most viewers like a plank in the face. Why? Because it didn’t end the way we expected it to.
Most stories offer an inherent promise of resolution: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That’s why we watch (or read, in our cases): for a happy ending, or to see the good guys win, or—with great tragedies and art films and literary books—at least to find some meaning or enlightenment.
Now, like the last Harry Potter films, Avengers: Infinity War is apparently the first in a two-part finale, so I would bank on the end of part two delivering on that inherent story promise. But if, in most cases, we already know how a story is going to end, why do we still want to experience it?
The answer lies in uncertainty.
The appeal of story is the same reason we do a lot of things we enjoy: baking or gardening or bungee jumping. It’s not just to achieve the end product, or we’d go buy a box of doughnuts or an eggplant or just stay down there on the ground. The journey is the point—those moments flailing through the air on the end of a glorified rubber band. For a few breathless moments you get to experience the thrill of uncertainty—will the soufflé rise…how big will my watermelon get…is that thing going to snap in midair? That’s why we read (or watch) stories. And the crucial tools a writer uses to create that delicious uncertainty are suspense and tension.
The terms are often used interchangeably, and they’re certainly intimately related, but I think of suspense as an element of story and tension as an element of scene. Both create a question in the reader’s mind: In oversimplified terms, with suspense it’s “What happens next?” and with tension, “How will the character overcome this obstacle?” And both are crucial to compelling fiction in every genre, not just suspense novels. Your suspense may be whether a character will reconcile with her family, your tension the microaggressions between a mother and a daughter, but the theory is exactly the same.
Here a few “shortcuts” for determining whether you have enough suspense and tension in your story, along with tips for how to develop these elements so that readers are compelled to keep turning pages.
How to Find It
Suspense results from the unknown. An easy way to determine whether you have created suspense in your story or scene is to look for whether and where you create questions in the reader’s mind: What happened? How? Whodunnit? Why did they do it? What’s going to happen now?
Say what you like about Dan Brown as a writer stylistically, but the man is a master at creating suspense that keeps readers frantically turning pages, using an array of techniques for making us need to know something that compels us to read on for the answers—especially at chapter ends, one of the most important places to keep the reader hooked. (How many times have you put down a mediocre book after finishing a chapter and then just sort of forgotten about it?) Questions and uncertainty abound in The Da Vinci Code:
- Prologue: A freshly assaulted art curator realizes that he must summon every last bit of his waning strength to accomplish some “desperate” unnamed task before he dies. [What for? What task? Why is it desperate? Who is the man who killed him, and why?]
- Chapter 1: Robert Langdon, a code expert named in the man’s dying gesture, regards a photo of the curator’s bloody corpse in horror, unable to imagine who could have done such violence to the old man—only to be informed by the investigator that the victim did it to himself. [How could he have done this to himself—and why? (This is also an upended expectation.) Why did the victim summon Langdon? What is the message, and what is it for? Will Langdon be able to decipher it? Is he a suspect?]
- Chapter 2: The killer calls the Teacher to tell him the murder is complete, and the Teacher tells him to retrieve the keystone. The killer then flogs himself with a barbed whip. [Who is the Teacher? Why did he instruct this man to kill the curator? Why does the killer take orders from him? What is the keystone? What does the Teacher mean to do with it? Why is the killer self-harming after succeeding at his task?]
How to Fix It
Once you’ve spotted places in your manuscript that may lack suspense, look for ways you could introduce uncertainty using techniques similar to the ones above:
- Unanswered questions
- Unresolved issues, an unsettled conflict, leaving things in the air
- An unknown—withheld information, secrets
- Bread crumbs/puzzle pieces
- Misdirection or upended expectations
How to Find It
Tension results from an obstacle or conflict. To check whether you have tension in every scene—on every single page—look for whether and where you have opposing forces keeping your protagonist from what they want.
I’m randomly opening the hardcover of Gone Girl as I write this article—Gillian Flynn’s book is rife with tension that keeps readers’ hearts in their mouths throughout. Here’s a summary of a single scene on pages 74-76:
Nick walks into his “coffin of an office” with the officer investigating him as a suspect in his wife’s disappearance, and on Nick’s desk is an envelope marked “Second Clue.” He’s obliged to open it with the officer watching—it contains both a clue to her disappearance and a folded piece of paper marked with a heart. He has no idea what either might contain. The heart note turns out to say how brilliant Amy thinks Nick is—belying Nick’s having told the officer they’d been having marital problems. The cop reads over his shoulder, comments on the sweet note, then points out the pair of women’s underwear flung in a corner of Nick’s office. He waits for an explanation—Nick lies and says the panties are his wife’s and tries to take them, but the officer slides them into an evidence bag. The cop asks Nick what the clue means, and Nick says he has no idea, even though he does.
This short scene is just dripping with tension, from the first line where Flynn uses a word—coffin—that evokes death, to the last: “I lied.”
The forces keeping Nick from what he wants—which is ultimately to be exonerated for his wife’s disappearance—are:
- The investigating cop’s presence
- The possibly incriminating clue
- The unexpected love note
- The exposing of what seems to be Nick’s lie about their marriage
- The underwear from Nick’s affair
- The cop taking them into evidence
- The import of the clue, which Nick knows and cannot reveal to the cop
Even the seemingly casual dialogue in this scene helps create tension—Nick references Freddy Krueger and the cop says he never saw the movies (opposition); the cop comments that Amy is a “sweet lady” after reading her note (though Nick has painted her as anything but); the cop waits in freighted silence for Nick to explain the panties; the officer offers overly jovial assurances that taking them into evidence is “just procedure.”
How to Fix It
If you find you don’t have these kinds of tension in every single scene in your story, look to add opposition using these and other techniques:
- A problem, challenge, or impediment (whether person or thing)
- A looming deadline (ticking clock)
- A disagreement, friction
- A lack of response
- A thwarted desire or goal
- A false front or lie
- An unmet or upended expectation
Whenever possible, take the path of most resistance—and stay on it. Avoid making things easy on your characters. And don’t resolve these tensions too quickly: Wring out all the juice by exploring your characters’ visceral responses and showing knee-jerk reactions rather than intellectualizations. Tension almost always happens in “real time” and in tiny moments, not in summation or broad generalizations.
This is a small chunk of a very large pie—volumes could be (and have been) written on making your story more engaging with suspense and tension. But I want to stress that although I used two examples that lean toward the suspense genre, this idea applies across every single genre. Creating questions in the reader’s mind will deepen reader investment, raise stakes, and make your story compelling on every single page.
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She has worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty-five years. As a developmental editor she works directly with authors through her consulting service, FoxPrint Editorial, as well as through major publishing houses, on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal best-selling authors as well as manuscripts for unpublished writers, single titles as well as entire series. She holds a BA in English literature from Georgia State University and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. As a presenter she’s led editing and writing workshops for many writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences, including RWA National, Pikes Peak Writers, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and has written for numerous writers’ sites and publications.