The Role of Suspense and Tension in Writing

How do you use suspense and tension in your fiction writing? Few techniques in storytelling are as effective at captivating readers as suspense and tension. The skilful use of suspense and tension can take your writing to new heights. Whether you’re writing a thrilling mystery, heart-pounding adventure, or gripping psychological drama.

Let’s dive into the important parts of suspense and tension in writing, and how you can use them to hook your readers.

Good stories need suspense and tension to keep you interested, but what are they? Let’s back up a step and define tension and suspense. 

Suspense refers to a feeling of uncertainty, apprehension, or anxious anticipation about the outcome of a situation. It happens when there is a gap between what the reader knows and what the characters know, or between what the reader expects and what actually happens. Suspense keeps readers on edge, eagerly turning the pages to find out what will happen next and how the conflicts resolve.

Tension is when you feel all the emotions because you’re invested in what’s happening to the characters. When the stakes are high and things get tough, we get emotionally invested. Tension comes from not knowing what’s going to happen, or from the characters facing difficult moral choices.

Why is Suspense and Tension Important?

Suspense and tension work together to make the story gripping. A skillful balance of suspense and tension throughout a story captivates readers. This keeps them eager to discover the resolution of conflicts and the fate of the characters.

Types of Suspense and Tension

There are different ways to create suspense and tension in a story, and they all impact the reader differently. Here are some suspense and tension types that writers often use:

Immediate Threat

This type of suspense arises from a direct, imminent danger faced by the characters. It keeps readers on edge as they fear for the safety and well-being of the protagonist.

Examples include a looming physical attack, a ticking bomb, or a life-threatening situation.

♦ The sound of heavy footsteps echoed through the empty hallway, growing louder and closer with each passing second. Sarah’s heart raced as panic coursed through her veins. She knew she had little time before her pursuer would catch up to her.

She could feel their presence, a looming that sent shivers down her spine. The air became electric with danger, time slowing to a crawl. Each passing second felt like an eternity as she struggled to free herself from the clutches of the monster hunting her.

Psychological suspense really messes with the reader’s head. The main character’s thoughts and doubts make you feel on edge, not knowing what’s real and what’s not. Imagery, internal conflict, and the unknown antagonist increase readers’ unease.

Dramatic Irony

When we know more than the characters in a story, that’s dramatic irony. It’s like a secret between the reader and the story that makes it more exciting. The reader can’t wait for the characters to catch up and find out what they’ve been missing.

♦ As Sarah tiptoed through the dimly lit hallway, her heart raced with a mix of anticipation and dread. Little did she know that the danger she feared was lurking just around the corner.

As Sarah reached the room’s threshold, a chilling breeze sent a shiver down her spine. The atmosphere crackled with foreboding, but she pressed on, unaware of the trap closing in around her.

The reader had found out something Sarah didn’t know—a dangerous plan that could endanger her.

Moral Dilemma

Moral dilemmas introduce ethical conflicts that challenge the characters’ values and principles. Reader anticipation builds when characters face tough decisions. This type of suspense taps into the readers’ own values and beliefs, evoking introspection.

♦ John stared at the two buttons before him, his hand trembling with indecision. Sweat trickled down his brow as he grappled with the weight of his choices. He knew whichever button he pressed would have far-reaching consequences, and the burden of his decision weighed heavily on his shoulders.

One button represented the path of self-preservation—a guaranteed escape from the perilous situation he found himself in. Pressing it would ensure his own safety, but at the expense of innocent lives. The other button symbolized sacrifice—a chance to save others, but with the risk of personal harm.

This example makes for a suspenseful situation as the main character deals with vital decisions. The main character’s struggle between staying safe and doing the right thing keeps readers on the edge of their seats waiting for their choice. After the resolution, it left readers with tension because they’re still thinking about the ethics of the choice.

Psychological Suspense

Psychological suspense focuses on the mental and emotional state of the characters. It plays with the reader’s mind, generating a sense of dread or anticipation. Basically, it’s about making things unclear by messing with your head. You might not know what’s real or who to trust. They might only give you bits and pieces of the truth until the end.

♦ Emily sat alone in the dimly lit room, her heart pounding in her chest. Shadows danced on the walls, casting eerie shapes that seemed to mock her fragile state of mind. The silence enveloped her, broken only by the sound of her own breath, shallow and trembling.

Images of the past flickered in her mind, fragments of memories that refused to fade. Whispers echoed through the corridors of her thoughts, insidious voices that whispered doubts and planted seeds of fear. Was she losing her grip on reality, or was there something more sinister at play?

Psychological suspense really messes with the reader’s head. The main character’s thoughts and doubts make you feel on edge, not knowing what’s real and what’s not. Imagery, internal conflict, and the unknown antagonist increase readers’ unease.

Mystery and Intrigue

Mysteries are all about solving a puzzle or uncovering a secret. By dropping hints, keeping secrets, and throwing in surprising plot twists, it keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Figuring out the truth or who did it creates a sense of tension that’s hard to resist.

♦  The old mansion stood silent and imposing, its grandeur fading with time. Lily, a curious young detective, stepped through the weathered front door, her eyes immediately drawn to the peculiar symbols etched on the walls. It was an invitation she couldn’t resist.

The sound of a creaking floorboard echoed through the empty halls, sending a shiver down her spine. Someone—or something—lurked in the shadows, watching her every move. Was it a friendly ally or a hidden adversary? She couldn’t be certain, but the uncertainty only fueled her determination.

In this example, a mysterious setting, hidden secrets and an obsessed protagonist keep the reader engaged. You’ll get hooked trying to figure things out with the detective as the clues slowly appear and danger gets closer.

Supernatural or Paranormal Suspense

Supernatural suspense has strange elements like ghosts, monsters or supernatural powers. The tension comes from not understanding what’s happening. Readers are left hanging in this world where the regular rules don’t apply, which creates a feeling of both wonder and fear.

♦ The abandoned house stood at the edge of town, its decrepit facade shrouded in an otherworldly aura. Emily, a skeptical journalist, stepped through the creaking front door, her senses tingling with a mix of apprehension and curiosity. She had heard whispers of activity within these walls, and now she was determined to uncover the truth.

Suddenly, a door at the end of the hallway swung open, revealing a room enveloped in an ethereal glow. Emily’s heart pounded as she approached, uncertainty and excitement intermingling.

The creepy mood and the unexplained give it a touch of the supernatural. Making it scary. Mixing real and mystical elements creates a captivating mystery

Remember, these types of suspense and tension can often overlap or coexist within a story, enhancing the overall reading experience. When you mix these techniques, it keeps the reader engaged from start to finish.

The Elements of Suspense and Tension

Various elements come together to create suspense and tension for readers. Here are a few:

Conflict

Conflict lies at the heart of suspense and tension. It can be external – a physical threat, an antagonist – or internal inner struggles, moral dilemmas. Make things tough for your characters, push the story forward, make it more exciting, and create tension by introducing conflicts.

Uncertainty

Suspense thrives on uncertainty. Keep readers guessing by withholding or gradually revealing information. When you leave your readers guessing, asking questions, and wanting more, it heightens the suspense. Allowing readers to fill in the gaps can enhance their emotional investment and heighten suspense.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a powerful technique for building anticipation and suspense. Plant little seeds that hint at what’s to come, making the reader feel like something bad might be just around the corner. It’s what makes the story juicy and keeps readers excited.

Pacing

Control the speed of your story to build up excitement and suspense. You can make action scenes more exciting by speeding things up, or you can create unease and anticipation by slowing things down. Keeping readers emotionally invested means shaking up the rhythm.

Timing

Timing is crucial in suspenseful writing. Choose the right moments to introduce twists, revelations, or confrontations. Surprises can shock readers and build tension.

Setting and Atmosphere

Creating the right setting and atmosphere can make your story really suspenseful. Create a vivid backdrop that complements the story. Use vivid descriptions, sensory details, and play with light, sound, or whether to make things more intense.

Characterization

Suspense and tension rely on having characters the reader is invested in. Make your characters interesting by giving them unique personalities, fears, and goals. If readers care about their fate, they’ll be emotionally invested in the conflicts and dangers they face.

Conflict Resolution Delay

To keep the suspense and tension, don’t resolve conflicts or unanswered questions right away. The longer you keep the readers guessing, the bigger the payoff, so build it up and don’t give it away too soon. Gradually unveil important information, leaving breadcrumbs for readers to follow.

Reversals and Betrayals

Plot twists and backstabbing are great ways to build suspense. Flip the script on your readers by turning friends into foes or exposing hidden motivations. These bombshells shake things up, leaving readers unsure about what the characters want and ratcheting up the suspense.

Emotional Engagement

To make readers feel the suspense and tension, connect them emotionally to the characters and their struggles. Create scenes that evoke powerful emotions, such as fear, worry, or compassion. The more readers care about the characters, the more invested they become in their journeys and the higher the stakes. Emotions serve as powerful conduits for generating tension.

Chapter Endings

Leave readers hanging at the end of chapters by introducing a sudden twist, a shocking revelation, or a compelling question. This leaves them desperate to turn the page and discover what happens next.

With the right use of these elements, you can create stories that leave readers captivated and dying to know what happens next.

Examples of Suspense and Tension

Now that we know the types and elements, let’s look at how some authors have used pacing in their writing and see what we can learn.

Bird Box

In Bird Box by Josh Malerman, a mother and her children must survive a world where opening their eyes could cause madness and death. The unknown threat raises tension, forcing characters to rely on their senses and instincts.

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn is a psychological thriller about a reporter investigating murders in her hometown. The author uses dark family secrets, an eerie atmosphere, and keeps readers guessing to create suspense.

Red Queen

The tension in Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard comes from how messed up the society is with the poor people and the rich people. The book keeps us on edge with suspense as the main character is forced into a dangerous world full of powerful people, making it hard to know who to trust.

The Thirteenth Tale

If you’re into creepy mysteries, read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. It slowly reveals the dark secrets of a reclusive author’s past. The writer keeps readers hooked with a complex plot and a sense of mystery surrounding the truth.

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is a thrilling book that blends fantasy and suspense. It’s about a woman whose life gets wrapped up with a group of immortal folks. The author keeps us on edge with surprise encounters, changing perspectives, and the looming conflict between two opposing groups.

10 Tips to Improve Suspense and Tension

There are lots of ways you can improve tension and suspense for your fictional novels. My advice…

1. Use cliffhangers: End chapters or scenes with unresolved situations or unexpected twists that leave readers eager to know what happens next.
2. Use strategic reveals: Keep readers on the edge of their seats by disclosing info bit by bit. Space out the reveals for maximum impact and suspense.
3. Foreshadow effectively: Drop subtle hints and clues that foreshadow future events, creating an atmosphere of anticipation and unease.

4. Unleash unexpected twists: Shake things up with unexpected turns that will leave your readers dying to know what happens next.
5. Cultivate uncertainty: Leave readers questioning what is true by providing conflicting information.
6. Introduce moral dilemmas: Put the characters in tricky ethical situations that make them doubt their principles, building suspense and hooking the reader.

7. Amplify danger and threat: Keep a constant sense of anticipation by realizing the danger of failure.
8. Craft suspenseful settings: Craft immersive and suspenseful settings that heighten the overall sense of tension, painting a vivid picture through detailed descriptions.
9. Exploit reader curiosity: Have you ever wondered what secrets lie within the abandoned mansion on the hill?
10. Use sensory details: Engage readers’ senses by describing sights, sounds, smells, and textures in a way that amplifies the tension and immerses them in the scene.

Last Words on Suspense and Tension

You have to be able to make your readers hold their breath with the suspense and tension you create in your writing.

Want people to keep reading? Reveal things little by little, make it intense, and make them care. So, embrace the art of suspense and tension, and watch your stories come alive with palpable excitement and anticipation.

Take Care

Linda

 

Feature image by Peter H from Pixabay.

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