Suspense is a technique by writers in a variety of different genres and mysteries. Although it is more commonly associated with horror, mystery and thriller stories, it can often be found in fantasy, romance, science fiction and more.
This is because it it can play an important role in any genre of fiction or type of storytelling method – whether that’s for the short story you’re writing or a game you are developing.
There are also different kinds of suspense and different ways in which those different kinds… maybe this is too wordy – getting jumbled up by my own creations here, aren’t I?
Suspense has a variety of roles in your writing and can be a powerful tool to affect the flow and experience that a reader has when reading. That’s what I’m going to breakdown for you in this article – to tell you a bit about the different types of suspense and ways that you can think of using suspense in your stories.
What is Suspense?
Suspense is the method by which a writer can add tension to the scene of a story, or even the whole story itself. It can also conceal answers that you may not want your audience to discover just yet.
Suspense can also help the creation of a twist or a reveal in your story and, arguably, it’s most important function is to keep readers invested and excited to keep turning those pages.
Long-term suspense usually exists throughout the entire life of the story up until a twist is revealed or the answer to a question begins to present itself. This naturally happens in a wide variety of stories and usually unfolds at the same pace as the plot itself.
This type of suspense typically keeps readers interested and engaged enough with your story throughout the entire narrative as they want the answers just as badly as the characters do – as long as your characters are written well, that is.
The downside with this kind of suspense is that the reveal of the answer, the twist or the pay-off and conclusion to a story arc needs to be satisfying enough for the reader, otherwise it can leave a bad taste in the mouth.
It needs to make sense and to be foreshadowed enough that the audience will realize at that moment and connect all of the clues – but this needs to be done with subtlety. It’s also easy to fall into the traps of genre tropes and cliches too – so it’s recommended to read widely in your genres to understand what has been done before, so you can make it more original.
A popular technique used by writers to avoid this is to have several story arcs with their own moments of suspense – which come together towards the big reveal of the story.
For example; in The Shining, we have the warnings given to the characters about the Overlook Hotel and we also have the drinking and slow-burning insanity of Jack Torrance. These questions collide towards the crescendo of the story for a satisfying conclusion.
Short-term suspense is the opposite, and another method of adding suspense to your stories.
Short-term are often heightened forms of suspense and happen in a single scene or moment. Typically, we see this in scenes where the characters may be challenged by an important obstacle or a confrontation between the characters and antagonistic forces.
A single chapter is often the longest that short-term suspense will occur, often only in a single scene within a chapter. This assists the flow of your writing and excites the reader to keep reading.
A great example of short-term suspense would be the moment that the protagonist is about to learn the truth of something or receive information or power that would aid them in their journey, but they are suddenly stopped by conflict or danger.
The third most common type of suspense in writing is mystery suspense. It is often the type of suspense that people think of when thinking about suspense as a literary technique.
Mystery novels, detective stories and other stories such as weird fiction or occult fiction tend to utilize this kind of suspense the most, but can be used in any genre.
It usually occurs when the writer is concealing or veiling information from the reader for a purpose – the reader will never know the truth and it tends to span the entire story or novel.
You’ll typically find this sort of suspense in stories such as Sherlock Holmes for example, wherein the mystery is at the heart of the plot and the audience is kept in the dark, mostly.
However, you do have to be careful of creating a satisfying conclusion to the mystery, otherwise, the audience will feel cheated by the end of your story.
This is expressed in a story when the audience knows something terrible or horrific will happen – such as the attack of a monster – but the exact nature of this is unknown to the audience.
I actually covered this in depth in my Concepts of Horror Fiction Video essay, which you can check by clicking on the title.
But as a brief overview – if a character is walking down a shadowed alleyway, we know that something is going to jump out or happen to that character, but we are uncertain of exactly what will happen and why.
Light suspense can apply pretty much in any genre, but it occurs mostly in the romance and comedy genres.
This is when the the reader is craving the answer to a question presented in a story, but the solution is much lighter than a horrific Cthulhian abomination of absolute terror and instead a “Will they, won’t they” kind of thing.
A perfect example here being in romance stories where the main characters have feeling or are attracted to one another, but an obstacle is presented where they cannot be together or they choose to ignore their feelings.
In the comedy genre, it can be typically used in a scene where we know something crazy or ridiculous will happen and the character will present themselves to be the fool we know them to be.
This is also light suspense and the audience will just be left wondering when they will make a fool out of themselves – usually the character doesn’t realize what they’ve done or are so embarrassed they just want to crawl into a tiny ball.
Right, those are a brief overview of the kinds of suspense you can use. Now, let’s talk about a few techniques on how to add suspense to your writing.
How To Add Suspense
The primary methods of creating suspense in a story are:
- Setting up a question
- Limiting the perspective
- The Setting
- Style and form
- Dramatic Irony
Setting Up The Question
This concept is fairly common in creative writing workshops and courses around the world. And nobody said it better than Lee Child:
“As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.”
Setting up a question at the beginning of the story can engage the reader and hook them into wanting to know the answer – this lends itself to long-form suspense and mystery suspense, but can work in other scenarios too.
This may include things such as:
- Why did Harry Potter survive?
- When will she realize the truth about her partner?
- What is the creature that lives in the well?
These are great examples of setting up a question at the beginning of the novel – just make sure you write your character well so that the audience cares about them as well as the answer.
Limiting The Perspective
H.P. Lovecraft was a master of limiting the perspective of his characters so much that it created suspense in itself or helped to conceal the big reveal till the very end.
By limiting the perspective of your story to a single character, you can often conceal and reveal information more easily than a story with multiple perspective.
This allows you to better control the pace at which the audience will also connect the dots OR, if you don’t want that, you can always write an unreliable narrator so that they are always second guessing.
Just make sure that conclusion is good! And make sure that the narrator is not omniscient.
The setting you choose in your writing is also vital to enhancing the suspense of your stories.
Why did Bram Stoker choose a castle? Why are there many mystery and thriller stories set in Victorian London?
The locations, areas and buildings lend themselves to the suspenseful atmosphere and help to create tension. Weather such as fog and rain can also add to the mystery and suspense of the place as it limits the senses of the character, and therefore limits the senses of the audience too.
Just try not to fall into the territory of cliche and include fog in every one of your scenes where the monster shows up… unless fog is a big aspect of that creature I suppose.
Style and Form
Your sentence structures can often affect the pacing and therefore the way suspense is conveyed.
Pauses… Shorter sentences. Longer sentences that reveal crucial information or build the world further.
The length of your sentences and how you use connectives and other punctuation can really increase the intensity and speed of a scene. All of this helps in the building of tension and suspense and can even be used to dramatic effect to punctuate certain scenes and moments in your story.
Just don’t get carried away with freight-train sentences – nobody likes those.
Please don’t hate me in the comments for that one.
Sweet dramatic irony is when you reveal a part of the truth, the answer or solution to the audience but not the characters themselves.
For example; you may start the story with the knowledge that a character has a drinking problem or that there is a shotgun just above the local pub’s bar.
In and of itself, the audience will know of that item or fact and may not think anything else of it until it becomes relevant OR may in fact continually wonder why the writer decided to include that object or scene – they’ll be questioning when and how it will happen.
This is particularly strong but requires subtle use of foreshadowing to pull off correctly. You don’t want to ram anything down your audience’s throats.
Cliffhangers are common knowledge at this point. But, they are moments in your story where you cut off during the middle of a dramatic situation OR you are holding back on crucial information because something else occurs.
For example; the character is about to learn the truth of his birth father, but then raiders storm into the village and they must run for their lives.
Cliffhangers can often be very satisfying as a writer to create – but definitely test out your ideas with friends or family members because it needs to be satisfying and exciting.
Actually, this is probably just a good tip for writing in general – test out your ideas.
See what works, see what doesn’t and analyze why. It’s one of the reasons why I love roleplaying games with friends because I can get immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t and what the players tend to prefer doing.
Anyway, back to the point of this post.
I’ve mentioned this a few times throughout – but careful foreshadowing is a technique that you really have to practice in order to become a master of writing suspense.
Essentially, you’re leaving careful clues throughout the story which hints at the potential answer to the question. Don’t get heavy-handed with this technique – use it sparingly and purposefully.
- There are different kinds of suspense – long-term, short-term, mystery, horror and light.
- Create a question at the beginning of your story and have the audience waiting for the answer.
- Foreshadow the answer or twist carefully by revealing hints throughout.
- Use short-term suspense throughout to affect the pacing – do this by putting characters in uncertain, dangerous or high-stake situations.
- Change your structure of your sentences and flow of the writing to match the suspense you are wanting to create.
It just takes practice to get better at adding suspense to your writing, but I believe if you practice the methods and techniques mentioned today, you’ll succeed.
If you’d like to learn more about writing and storytelling, I’ve created a video playlist of my favourite advice so far.
And please let me know what you think of the methods and advice I have shared here today for you.
That’s the whole reason I create this content for you all – to help you all become better writers.
Thanks for stopping by. I’ll see you in the next one.