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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
* * * * * *
Tiffany Yates Martin helps authors find the best version of their vision and get it onto the page effectively, compellingly, and truthfully.
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.
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Good post. I write mysteries and romantic suspense, and recall Deb Dixon's advice. "Give your character choices. But make sure they're between "It sucks" and "It's suckier." The worst writing advice I ever got was when I was starting out in an on-line group, and the group leader said, "Don't let anything else bad happen to Sarah."
Thanks, Terry! Hilarious about your group leader--hopefully she meant she was so invested in your character she couldn't bear to see her face more troubles. 🙂 I always say that writing fiction is the exact opposite of life--in the latter we tend to try so hard to avoid conflict and find the easiest and most comfortable ways to get what we want...and in fiction authors have to do the exact opposite to their characters. I love "sucks" and "suckier." 🙂
That's fabulous - sucks and suckier...Deb Dixon is the shiz. 🙂
Love this way of thinking of it. I also try to think as I write — or more likely, as I edit — whether I'm giving the reader enough questions to ask or issues to worry about. Which will all be resolved at some point, but you're right: It keeps the reader reading! Thanks for breaking it down, Tiffany!
Yeah, questions are such a great way to think of it. I find when I watch shows or movies, if I am really invested or on the edge of my seat I try to analyze exactly why--what they have made me desperate to know or find out. Thanks for the comment, Julie!
Thank you, Tiffany! I feel like I just got a free editorial letter. Writing your bullet points on a notecard to use to double check as I go through my edits!
Fantastic reminder as I go into my revision, Tiffany! Thanks as always, for your wisdom.
You're in revisions! Aces! When are you gonna email me that file?
Thanks, Laura and Fae! Cool idea--keeping a "checklist" of questions to look for in edits/revisions.
Wow, Tiffany, thanks for such an extensive breakdown. I can apply these to my current romantic suspense and the psych suspense in planning stage.
Thanks, Sue! Great to hear it's helpful. Good luck with your WIPs!
Thanks for a great post, Tiffany! I definitely need to keep this post handy in planning and revising my stories. I've shared the post online and will be sure I connect with you on social media. All best to you.
Thanks for the comment, Victoria! I'll look forward to connecting.
my brain goes to--did the cop have a warrant? if not, he wasn't allowed to take the underwear or read the letter, etc... fruit of the poisonous tree
when leaving clues...try to make sure things ring true. I believe in artistic license, but when things aren't true, it makes it harder for the reader to believe
Ha! See how you are asking even more questions...? 🙂 It's been a while since I've read GONE GIRL, but my guess is Flynn had this pretty closely combed for verisimilitude. But good point--readers are notorious for finding the holes in stories if an author isn't careful and well researched.
Thank you for this. Very helpful!
Glad to hear it, Lori--thanks!
Tiffany, I found this so helpful. Will you be presenting a lecture at RWA this year? If so, I want to attend.
Hi, Debbie! I'll be at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers this year, presenting a couple of workshops. Any chance you'll be there? Glad the article was useful!
darn! Do you have a newsletter that informs when you'll be doing various presentations? Thanks!
I don't, but I try to post it on Facebook. That's a good idea, though--thanks. I may add a calendar to my Web page.
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Nice, Tiffany! I'm keeping this one. Never really considered the difference between suspense and tension and I'm on novel #3! Better late than never.
Thanks, Densie. I think a lot of authors know intuitively how to use them without necessarily drawing the exact difference in semantics. More important that you lace them throughout your writing (which you do!).
[…] Yates Martin shares the efficient author’s cheat sheet for creating suspense and tension, while David Corbett explores the relationship between the whiff of death and moment of […]
Great article and reminder because I can be guilty of going too easy on my characters. Need to make a copy of the fixes to keep on hand when I'm writing and editing.
Thanks, Tracy--glad to hear it's useful! Yeah, be a sadist--torture those characters. 🙂
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