Has life ever put you in a state of suspense? Was it waiting for a test score—or test results? Was it waiting for a Christmas bonus? A lottery drawing? The final card in Texas Hold ‘Em? The last, ninth-inning pitch of a baseball game? Wondering whether a double-twist vault landing would stick?
Has life ever hung in the balance for you? Not just in the sense of live or die, but in the two seconds after the proposal of marriage, the two minutes of waiting for the pregnancy stick, or the ultrasound result, or the cancer screening? Have you every waited for your attorney’s nod of victory, or a courtroom verdict?
Have you ever ripped open a letter in haste? The letter from your first-choice college? The one from the draft board? The one that began, “Dear John…”? Have you ever been at a loss for words, not known what to say, how to act or what to do? What you ever waited for an answer that you desperately needed, but which was impossibly slow to arrive?
Have you ever queried an agent?
My point is this: For fiction writers, suspense is not just a genre with high stakes, ticking clocks and a race to get away or prevent disaster. It’s not just an unsolved mystery or life-and-death peril. Suspense is a feeling we have in many different situations.
Suspense is the breathlessness of not knowing something, at least not yet. It’s the hollow feeling when we discover that things are not as we thought. It’s the fear we feel of what could go wrong, or what is going wrong, or what might happen, or what might not happen. It’s hoping for something wonderful that may or may not come about, or dreading something that is all too horribly likely.
Suspense is a feeling that there is more to come, things will get worse, available help will not be enough. Whatever it is, it is not yet over. It’s a feeling of breathlessness, urgency with no time left, peril without possible rescue, a future of bleak prospect. It’s a heart yearning for completion but still not fulfilled. It’s a feeling that—when done right—keeps us taut and dangling like the final, drawn out beat before the resolution chord in a song.
There are many ways to create and use suspense in a story…that is, if you know what suspense really is.
What Suspense Really Is
Start with this: Suspense is a feeling. Its strongest expressions are dread, anticipation and fear.
Suspense is not a mild emotion. It’s a high feeling. It’s extreme. When we feel suspense, we have a sense of being pushed out of bounds and against our wills. Forces bigger than us have taken over. We cannot control what will happen or bring about what we wish. We are—for the moment—powerless.
Let’s start with dread. You could argue that dread is born of doubt, but I’m cautious about that word. Doubt can arise from confusion, perplexity, distrust, disbelief, misgiving, reluctance, hesitance, irresolution, vacillation or wavering. Such inner states are circular. They don’t take us anywhere except back to where we were. On the page, those feelings can result in churning passages of hand-wringing. In life, worry is well and good. It signals a need to act. In fiction, worry is a dead zone. It doesn’t bring a story to life.
Dread, by contrast, takes us out of time and into a state of tomb-cold paralysis. Dread can’t be softened. It has no escape hatch. It locks us in. It’s a sickness with no cure, an emptiness with no light, an absolute knowledge that the worst not only can happen but has, that every belief we have is useless, every faith we treasure is void, that evil is real. Dread is the death of hope. It is the scythe that reaps our will.
Next, anticipation. It has two aspects: 1) the negative one of fear, 2) the positive one of hope. Anticipation can derive from possibilities, calculation, conjecture, probability, supposition, surprise, or looking ahead to good things. Again, though, I’m cautious. Better than the merely possible is the inevitable. Worse than fearful calculation is an undeniable conclusion. It might be…odds are that…let’s suppose that…those are tentative. That which is probable is fine, but why not make it definite? Why settle for conjecture when you can have something conclusive? Nothing that might be is ever as useful as what actually is.
Suspense does not hedge. It’s full on. It’s happening. It’s real. It’s now. That’s just as true as when we’re hoping for something good as when we’re anxious about something bad. When good is the hope, suspense rises when that good begins to look even better; when the good that we may desire will not just please us but save us.
But back to the negative. The aspect of suspense that we call fear is absolute. It’s not a partial feeling. Simple dismay goes away. Agitation settles down. Distress doesn’t last. Qualms vibrate for a limited time. Revulsion is temporary. Cold sweats freeze us only for a while. Genuine fear, by contrast, is full on and unrelenting. Time can’t cure what causes it. It sinks in, becomes part of us, defining us, never to be forgotten.
We all have known fear but when we think about those experiences, we do not recall common, everyday occurrences. When we think of true fear in our lives, we remember times when all options were gone, no help was left, and all we had waiting for us was abject failure, which is to say a very palpable kind of death.
There’s nothing tentative about death. Death is a hard stop. It’s over. We’re done. Call it existential, if you will, but for me feeling suspense means that we are hanging over the abyss.
You can probably guess where I’m going with this: Suspense can be part of any story. It doesn’t matter your genre, style or story intent. In reading any story, we can feel breathless with dread, anticipation and fear. Let’s look at some practical ways to provoke that.
Over what does your protagonist have control? What could happen that would take that control completely away? What force is bigger than your protagonist? Who wields such force? How does that person use it? To do what? What could befall your protagonist that would leave him or her feeling utterly powerless?
What would cause you protagonist to feel that the very worst thing is not only possible, but happening? What signals that? What light goes out? What help won’t arrive? What last gambit is crushed? What convinces your protagonist that hope was vain and winning was never possible? In despair, what does he or she have to let go?
What good thing does your protagonist, and others, hope for? Why is it needed? What will be better if it happens? Who will benefit the most? Who has the greatest faith that this good is possible? Who absolutely trusts your protagonist to bring it about? What will be different on that great day? What dream is precious? Who has died for it? What makes that great good the most important thing for your protagonist, the reason that he or she lives at all?
Why is time running out? How is it impossible to get to the right place? Who predicted failure and will be right? Who believes in your protagonist but was wrong?
What is the thing that your protagonist most fears—fears in a way that no one else does? What does that black fear feel like? When in its grip, what does your protagonist become? Why is there no way out? When has this happened before? Why can it never be permitted to happen again? When it does, how does your protagonist metaphorically die? Who witnesses that and mourns? Who else must let go, turn away, or give up?
To create suspense, aim for your protagonist’s failure. Make us hope your protagonist will succeed. Make the reasons to succeed good ones. Shorten time, take away help, close down possibilities. Then drop the hammer. When all is lost, our suspense is greatest. Failure has happened…but the story isn’t over. Not yet.
How are you making your story suspenseful? Share!
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