Writing Suspense: More is More

Suspense is a hard thing for most authors to write. They don’t want to give away the story too soon, yet if they don’t tell enough, they will bore us readers. We need to know where the author is going, we need enough clues to be able to participate in the journey, and we need a stake in the outcome. If a character agonizes for pages about a decision she has to make without us knowing what the problem is, we won’t care. We will skip ahead or, even worse from the author’s viewpoint, toss the book aside.

For example, while getting dressed for an appointment that she’s dreading, a character is dropping things out of nervousness and arguing with herself or another character about keeping the appointment. We might have empathy with her indecision, might even wonder what’s going on, but there is no real suspense because we have no stake in the matter.

If we find out she’s getting ready to go to the doctor to learn the results of some tests, the suspense is a little greater, and we have a little more empathy, but the scenario is still not detailed enough to build tension.

If we find out she has uterine cancer and needs to meet with the physician to decide on a course of treatment, that raises the stakes for both the character and the reader. And the tension level rises.

But if we find out that her mother died an agonizing death even after undergoing years of treatment for uterine cancer, and she is trying to decide whether she is willing to undergo the same treatment or whether she would rather live out the remainder of her days the best way she can, then the author has created real tension, and we care. We wonder what she will do, what we would do in her place, how we would feel if we had to make the same decision. It gives us a personal stake in the outcome, and we keep reading to find out what she is going to do.

As an added bonus, we get to know her better and can empathize with her even if we don’t agree with her final decision.

So, by not withholding story points, the author can create tension, develop a character, and please us readers. Not a bad day’s work.