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 [Read more…]