Creating Suspense to Strengthen the Narrative Arc
Great novels grab your attention and never let it go until the reader looks up from reading, “The End.” That’s a given. But it’s not always easy to grab that reader’s attention. What you need is suspense.
Suspense is created by an uncertainty about what happens next in your story. So–what does happen next? Something unexpected, of course. But let’s go back to the basics.
What happens in a story is conflict; without something bad happening you don’t have a story. Suspense is the reader’s worry about what will happen because of that conflict.
How can you increase the reader’s worry?
Evoke strong emotions. Make sure the conflict evokes strong emotions. This usually means a conflict that matters in some important way. The possibility of walking through a thicket with thorns is trivial in comparison to a life and death situation. On that continuum of what is at risk, push more towards the “life and death” end to increase suspense.
Let readers root for the characters. Likewise, if we care for the characters, we worry more. Good characterization gives us cause to root for a character and his/her eventual success over the conflict. If we know that a woman has been abused, but come out of it and successfully raised two lovely children, then we worry more when she starts dating a man we suspect of being an alcoholic.
Details. In order to characterize well, give readers a person to root for and to evoke strong emotions, you must include great details. This means you must think about what the setting is like in terms of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile possibilities. Use specific sensory details to evoke the situation and give the reader a blow by blow of the action of the story.
Feel the Consequences. Once you place the reader in the situation with strong details which evoke strong characters set into overwhelming conflict, then evoke even stronger emotions by making sure the reader understands the consequences of failure. This is the, “So What?” question. If X fails to do Y–so what? Who cares? You must provide enough details on the consequences or hint at it broadly enough for the reader to guess the consequences.
How can you escalate the reader’s worry?
At any particular moment in the story, you can use the strategies above to evoke worry. But that’s not enough, because a story isn’t static, it quickly moves from one scene to the next. And it’s not enough to just evoke the same amount of worry, you must escalate the suspense of your story.
Begin at the right place. Looking over the broad picture of your story, the need for escalation requires that you start at a place of strong conflict, but not so strong that the situation can’t get worse. You must find a strong enough place to create suspense; yet, that exact situation and time in the story must allow for a progression of scenes in which things get worse. In other words, make sure the sequence of scenes makes sense.
Conflict must change. In some way, as the story progresses, the character’s situation(s) must change, usually by building on the initial conflict. You must ask how things can get worse. This is often a place where I get stuck and find it helps to take the situation apart. Would it be worse at a different time? A different place? With different characters? Or try it from a different stance: what is the worse thing your character would ever have to face? That is the ending scene and how can you back up from there and soften the conflict?
Add uncertainty. As you work with the plot and conflicts, search for ways to bring in or to imply uncertainly.
- No one has tried this approach before.
- Theoretically, this should work.
- Someone tried this and it didn’t work, but we have no choice but to try it again.
Scene cuts. Try using scene cuts to leave X hanging while you present a scene with Y that leaves Y hanging; then come back to X, finish the first scene and transition immediately into the second scene which–of course–leaves X hanging again. Repeat as needed.
Pacing. Much of this is an issue of pacing, which is merely taking the long picture of your story and thinking about how scenes blend with each other. For example, you might follow two fast-paced action scenes with a scene of simple action but more complex character interaction. Here are some suspense building techniques that come from this idea of pacing.
- Include enough details to spread out the story and make the reader wait for needed information.
- Let uncertainty fester: never give a straight answer when a sideways answer will work.
- Stop at unexpected points.
- Deliver the expected, but in an unexpected way.
- Intrigue, but don’t explain–yet. (But don’t cheat here: If your main character knows something, your readers should know it, too.)
Use Dread and Anticipation
Keep in mind the difference in dread and anticipation.
Dread: bad things have happened and even worse things are possible.
Anticipation: something bad could happen unless. . .
Dread builds on past conflict, while anticipation builds on hope of avoiding conflict. Try to use both as you build the suspense of your story.