“I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t put the book down. My heart was thumping; I had to know what was going to happen.” Every writer of fiction has dreamed of this scenario from their audience. The truth is however that few writers master the art of suspense of in their stories. It is this reason why Authors like Stephen King, James Patterson, and J.K. Rowling are best sellers; they have master the art of suspense to keep their readers hooked into turning the pages to the end. If you, as a writer can master this art you will be on your way to the top.
Few books provide great suspense that spellbound the reader, and the books that do are often in print for years and decades. The life span of most short stories is less than six months, due to lack of true suspense, and the short stories that do are often adapted into screenplays or anthologies. As a writer you must study your craft and discover techniques to help you create suspense.
What is Suspense?
Suspense can be applied in four ways:
- Excitement experienced during a period of waiting
Most stories fall under the category of this formula: The Main character (Protagonist) has a problem.
Much of the success of your story depends on if the reader cares whether the problem is resolved or not. The only way the writer can make a reader care is by creating enough suspense to keep the reader turning the page, and demands the writer to involve (emotionally) the reader in events and character taking place in the story.
The writer must make the reader root for the main character (Protagonist) and imagine they are the main character and experience the suspense of being in the main characters shoes (dilemma).
- The Readers Emotions
- Big Problem
- Create Obstacles
- The Obvious Solution Doesn’t Work
- Raise the stakes
- Isolate the Main Character (Protagonist)
- Create uncertainty
- Create a Deadline
The Readers Emotions
No matter what your story is about you must involve the reader’s emotions. Every great story the reader is emotionally attached in some shape or form. Make reader get emotionally involved with the main character by showing them the character is someone they can identify with, by giving the character good qualities and faults. Remember no body is perfect, nor should your characters be. You want the reader to admire the characters courage and strengths, and yet feel pity for the characters faults; do this by “showing” and not “tell”. The character must seem to be a real human being with feeling, and the reader must understand why the character behaves the way he or she does, and if the writer does this well the reader will be emotionally involved with the main character.
One of the best ways to make the main characters problem worse is to make the villain more powerful and cunning.
Ideas to Make Villain More Powerful
- Political Power
- Very smart
- Control over people
- Can silence people
- Pay off people
Note: The problem for the character is bigger, no longer is the main character up against an ordinary person, but someone who is powerful and determined.
Creating obstacles for the main character will produce anxiety and excitement for the reader. The obstacles can be a number of things: personal problems, unrelated, etc. A lot of writers make the main characters personal problems intrude on the problem at hand and make it difficult for the resolution. The obstacles can arise directly or indirectly. It is important to remember that if the writer wants to cause problems, the writer must do it in a way that the reader are not alienated from the either characters of the story, and show the conflict is distressing.
The Obvious Solution Doesn’t Work
By making sure the obvious solution will not work is a good way to create emotional response in a reader and create anxiety. By increasing the main characters frustration is to increase the readers as well. Writers have been employing this trick since the dawn of fiction, and it works well. Have you ever read a book or watch a movie and said, “If I were the main character I would do this,” and come up with a solution, if you have than the writer has done his job, for the writer must stay one step ahead of the reader and show them their solution well not work. The reader will think about what the main character should do, but the writer must show the reader there is no way for the main character to do that, even if the character tries, something always happens to change the solution.
Show the methods to reduce stress for the character is not plausible, and each time the reader realizes that the course of action is not workable tension levels are elevated and thus creating suspense.
Raise the Stakes
Another good way to increase suspense in a story is to raise the stakes for the main character. Box the character in and make it impossible for the reader asks, “why not just walk away from the problem?” The writer must plant some kind of plot devise that makes the main character walking away from the problem impossible, the character has to resolve the problem or suffer the dire consequences.
Isolate the Main Character (Protagonist)
By isolating the main character is another devise to increase suspense levels. Make as few people as possible to help the main character resolve the problem. Cut of as much emotional support as possible and it will increase the reader’s emotional output for the main character. Isolate the character as much as possible, and make it where the main character has to resolve by them self or as few people as possible, it makes it harder for the character to resolve the problem, and puts the character in personal turmoil. And the few people who are helping the main character introduce some important secret that the main character must hide from the others, by doing this it forces distance between the main character and supporting characters. The reader will want to feel that push come to shove the supporting characters will risk their selves for the main character, and another way to isolate the main character even more is to remove that hope, by creating uncertainty.
The writer must keep up the action, and a good way to create action is to make sure the main character always has a problem at hand. It increases suspense levels for the reader. Remember a story without action is usually dull and boring. Keep up the action.
One of the best ways to increase suspense levels is to plant seeds of distrust, but be careful, change the situation to quickly the story will lose credibility and the reader will get bored and close the book, if that happens, the writer has failed. A good way to do this by having the main character realizes one of the few people he can count on has lied, and isolates the main character even more. There may be a good reason why the supporting character lied and may be small, but the main character has no way of knowing why, and seeds of distrust seep in the mind, but be careful, do not over do, it can cause an emotional overload and the story loose it’s credibility.
Create a Deadline
A clock ticking in the background is a sure way to create suspense. Remember, the biggest problems in the world will not create suspense if there is an endless amount of time to resolve the problem. The writer must make reader aware of the consequences if the problem is not resolved by a certain time. The suspense will grow as the time nears the end. By making it as bad as possible for the main character and still maintain a certain credibility as time is running out, the writer has reached the climax of the story, and suspense is as high as the writer can make it, and it has come to resolving the main character problem.
There are no firm guidelines in creating suspense in a story. All the writer can do is to use certain methods that work. It applies in all genres, from science fiction, horror, and to drama. A story without suspense is dead story and will rarely if ever engage the reader to turn the page. Be aware of your limitations and skill, study the craft and the best practice is to write a lot and read a lot. A skillful writer can make a reader believe and accept almost any premise in any genre. A sign of an amateur is a lack of suspense or lack of plot devices that create suspense. Master the craft of creating suspense and who knows it may be you with a number one best seller.
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