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Suspense – what keeps the pages turning

All stories involve suspense. In a Romance, it is whether the girl and guy will make the relationship work, in a quest, will the heroes make it, and who will live or die? In a mystery, well it’s obvious.

One way to create suspense is a time limit. The problem must be solved within a certain time or the world will end. Or they may wish it had. That puts pressure on the character to make choices and it makes the wrong choices more poignant. It is important for you character to experience failure because that makes it believable that they might not succeed. The previous failure adds to the suspense of this attempt. Think of a pole vaulter trying for a world record. People are much more intent if they’ve already missed twice. Do not artificially try to pump up the suspense. Having a character debate at ten seconds on the clock whether to cut the red or the blue wire is a sure fire way to lose your reader. If I were a mad bomber I’d make all my wires hot pink and it wouldn’t matter. The colour is not important, it is the path the wire takes. The same goes for last minute remedies from poison etc.

Another way to create suspense is through secrets. One character knows more that the other, or the reader knows more than the character.  The secret needs to be something that will significantly change the dynamics of the plot. Hating pizza is one thing, Admitting that you’re a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy is quite a different thing. The more difference between what some people know and what others do will build suspense. One note about secrets. They have to significant to the plot. If you have a spy novel and the big secret is that one of the characters is a double agent, at some point it needs to come out and create a huge mess. If it doesn’t your reader will wonder why you bothered.

What is less obvious but even more important is the difference between what the character thinks they want, and what they will want at the end of the book. Those two should almost never be the same thing. Usually even the reader won’t know what the end might be until close to the conclusion though they will know that the character is getting it wrong.. That is what keeps the pages turning. It is this dissonance that fascinates the reader. If you balance it right you will have them up all night to find out what your character learns.

Suspense is about both character and plot. You need to pace your plot so that suspense builds gradually and occasionally lessens. Even the most intense thriller needs some relief. But all that careful plotting won’t matter if the reader isn’t cheering the character on and hoping that they figure out the puzzle before it is too late.

Suspense is also created when what the reader knows is different than what the characters know. If there is a bomb under the table (wired all in hot pink) the reader knows it’s there because they saw the colour blind bomber put it there. But the characters don’t know it’s there. They bumble about pouring tea, dropping spoons, getting close to discovering the bomb until the reader wants to shout at them. When it is discovered, the tension is already at a high enough point you don’t need artificial suspense to add to it. This dichotomy between the reader’s knowledge and the characters is not only about individual scenes, but can carry through the entire story.

Like everything else, suspense needs to serve the story. If the object of suspense doesn’t matter in the end, there is no pay off and the reader will be disappointed. If you don’t work on building up the tension around an object, it won’t carry the weight it needs at the climax.

Use suspense and tension to create an ebb and flow in the story. Edge of your seat moments and relaxed interludes. Also use it to reveal character and the inhabitants of your story work through the plot. Your reader will thank you for it.