Suspense is an important element of any novel, though we often associate it with characters in danger. But it’s really just the reader's anticipation of something.
Waiting for the killer to strike, hoping for that first kiss between beloved characters, wondering when a life-changing bit of information will finally be revealed—these are all things that create suspense.
And they keep the reader reading.
Which is what it’s really all about. A reader who doesn’t care what happens next won’t read on to find out. It's our job as writers to create a situation that’s so tempting, so exciting, so emotional, that readers can’t put down our books.
The key to creating suspense?
Pose questions, and make the reader wait for the answers.
“Questions” can mean any number of things however. It can be a literal question a character asks, a situation that suggests a question, a mystery that makes readers and characters wonder, the meaning behind an odd detail or bit of dialog—whatever works for the story.
It typically doesn’t mean questions the reader asks because of confusion about what’s going on. Confusion does not equal suspense.
The Literal Questions
These are questions posed in the story by the characters. The protagonist might say or think, “Where is Papa going with that axe?” and readers want to know as well. Literal questions are designed to make the reader wonder the same thing as the character, then tag along to find out the answer.
It's not uncommon to see literal questions within goal statements, such as, "Did Bobby kill that boy? I had to find out." They're flashing lights that tell readers this is what the plot is going to focus on for a while.
(Here's more on using the rule of three to building suspense)
The Situational Questions
These are questions created by an unusual situation that draws the reader in and makes them curious about what’s going on. Who are these people with guns lurking outside a school? Why is that woman agreeing to be put to death? The clues that provide the answers to these questions are missing and readers will read to find out what this is all about.
This type of “what’s going on?” is different from the confusing type though. With a situational question, what is actually happening in the scene is clear, but the reasons behind it are a mystery. It’s more about discovering the who or why than the what. For example, readers can see that armed men are studying a high school, but who they are, why they’re studying it, and what they plan to do is uncertain.
A confusing "what's going on?" scene would be if you showed a bunch of people planning an attack on a building, but didn't mention it was a school or that they had guns. The compelling parts are missing, and there's not enough context to understand what's going on at the basic level.
(Here's more on ways to build suspense like a master)
The Reaction Questions
These are questions created by emotions. Something is brewing in the story that will cause the protagonist (or another character) to react emotionally in a way readers anticipate—both negatively and positively. Dread is just as strong as hope in these types of questions. Readers might know Bob is in love with Jane, and are waiting to discover if he’ll finally get up the courage to tell her. They might also fear what will happen when Sally finds out her husband is in love with another woman.
The emotional suspense could also come from wondering what a character might due if/when certain circumstances occur. If the protagonist is clearly headed toward something bad (or even good), readers will be holding their breaths to see what will happen and how the character will react to it. Readers might even fear that outcome, knowing what it's going to do to the character they love.
(Here's more on the physiology of foreshadowing)
The Information Questions
These questions focus on the discovery of information. Usually the type of information the protagonist is looking for is clear, and revealing that information is the goal--such as the protagonist discovers a co-worker broke into his office and searched it, and he sets out to discover why. Sometimes it’s more subtle with clues dropped by the author that only readers see--such as hints that suggest the protagonist doesn’t know the truth about herself; perhaps she’s adopted, or unaware of the real identity of a parent, or she has a special ability or terrible illness.
How something came to be is another example, and one commonly seen in genre fiction. How does a world that forces its children to fight to the death on TV happen? Why is an ordinary man obsessed with killing the president? Why is everyone scared of an eight-year-old girl? Readers want to know how or why something is the way it is and they'll read on to find out.
(Here's more on working with dramatic irony)
The Teaser Questions
These are questions posed when answers to previous questions lead to other questions (still with me?) Sure, readers get an answer to something they’ve been dying to know, but it only opens the door to more mysteries, more delicious reactions, more unknowns. Perhaps the protagonist finds proof Howard shot the sheriff, but readers know Howard was in another state at the time. Or a teen girl wants to know why she keeps blacking out and fears she's dying, but discovers she's travelling to a parallel dimension during those blackouts instead.
(Here's more on using what characters don't know)
A word of caution about questions: When done well, questions add suspense and keep the tension in a novel high, but if used poorly, they irritate the reader and make them impatient to get to the point. Questions that drag on and never get answered can be frustrating and weaken the suspense of other questions (because why worry about something if the author has proven they won't answer it?). Too many questions can leave readers struggling to remember details. Questions left unanswered a little too long can have less impact because readers don't fully remember why they wanted to know the answers in the first place.
Consider how you space out your questions and how it affects your novel's pacing. The right balance keeps readers flipping those pages.
(Here's more on pacing)
No matter what genre or market you write for, suspense in all its forms will help keep readers hooked.
What are some of your favorite suspense novels? Or suspenseful moments in a novel, whatever the genre.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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