There is an old saying that comedy equals tragedy plus time, meaning that sad things will seem funny after time has passed. Well, I believe that suspenseful writing has a similar formula:
Suspense is Answers to Questions plus Time
What I mean by this is that suspense is postponing answering questions the readers have about the text they are reading. If they are given a question or a gap in information and then that gap is filled in, they simply are reading an informational text. For example, a textbook might begin by asking the reader, “What is the scientific method?” and answer that question in the next sentence by giving the definition of that concept. There is no wondering when the reader will find out what the scientific method is, everyone knows this book is going to tell us about it very soon.
Yet, with fiction, timing between giving the reader something to wonder about and answering that question is what causes suspense.
Take this example from Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. The main character's family was murdered in one night with her older brother being charged with the crime yet, a few people claim he is innocent. So, the question Flynn is putting in the reader’s mind is “Did her brother kill the family?”
As the story goes on, Flynn switches between giving the reader information that makes the brother seem guilty and information that makes him seem innocent. In one chapter, he is moody, rebellious and talks about the rage he feels towards his mom and sisters. In the next chapter, we see his vulnerable side and how he is willing to put up with an abusive girlfriend just to feel loved and wanted. Flynn doesn’t give us a concrete answer until the end which keeps the suspense running through the book. If she simply told the audience he was guilty or innocent from the start, there would no need to keep with the story as the reader would have no question to seek an answer for.
Now that you understand that spacing out the time between raising a question and answering it is the key to writing suspense, check out these tips for keeping the suspenseful tension in your story.
Have One Question Lead To Another
It may not be completely feasible for you to wait for the end of the novel to give the reader the answer to the main question they’ve had since the beginning of the book. You are free to answer the first question as long as it provides another question for your readers to latch on to. For example, let’s say you are writing a detective novel where the main question is “Did the detective’s best friend kill the victim?” It turns out the friend has an airtight alibi for the night the victim was killed, so that leads the reader to ask a new question, “Who actually killed the victim?” As long as you keep your readers on the hunt for new information until the conclusion you are bound to keep the suspense flowing throughout the book.
Keep It Exciting But Believable
Your story is supposed to compelling but even the most interesting and exciting people in the world, spies, world-leaders, ER trauma surgeons, etc., still have moments in their day where there is stillness, boredom, and monotony. The president still needs to brush his teeth and the ER surgeon will still take a coffee break in the employee lounge. The excitement of a hostage situation or a life-threatening surgery will get old if you never break the tension to let the characters do normal every-day activities.
Avoid Constant Cliffhangers
There is some advice for thriller writers floating around on the internet that says every chapter of your novel should end with a cliffhanger. I disagree with this advice. I find books that do this to be tedious and annoying. I know the writer wants me to continue reading but there are times when constant cliffhanging feels forced. Mix up your chapter endings so some of them with have cliffhangers and others will not. If your central question driving the suspense is strong enough, you won't need constant cliffhanging to keep your reader interested.
Don’t Think Your Genre Doesn’t Need Suspense
While this article is mainly for thriller or mystery writers, suspense is an element that should exist in all stories. You should want your readers to ask themselves, “Will he get the girl?” or “Will the astronauts save Earth from the invasion?” If you give up that information too fast, there is no point for your readers to continue on. Regardless of what genre you write, make sure you are asking yourself, “What information does the reader want to know?” when writing your novel.
Now that you have some pointers on writing suspense in fiction, sit down with a new word document and try it for yourself!