On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
Table of Contents
- What creates suspense
- Five big reasons why the audience just doesn't care
- And a few more tips to balance and manage suspense
- So, in summary!
What creates suspense
A suspenseful scenario is any scenario that poses a question the audience wants answered. For example:
- "How will the protagonist get out of this mess?"
- "What is this person about to do?"
- "What's the real story behind this person?"
- "What's lurking in the bushes?"
- "Will everyone get out of this alive?"
- "What did that stranger's warning mean?"
- "What is the villain planning?"
- "What's in those crates?"
- "What's going to happen on their date?"
- "Will they end up together?"
- "What's inside the old ruins?"
And that's it. Any time the audience wants an answer, you have suspense. So the first step in building suspense is to set up a scenario that creates at least one unknown for the audience. And as your story progresses, you'll probably want to escalate and build off of your initial scenario.
For one example, let's say we have a protagonist who finds a strange carving on a tree. This raises the question of what the carving means and what it's doing there. The protagonist goes and asks a relevant expert, who reveals that it's the symbol of an evil cult whose presence threatens the town. The protagonist then decides to go and do something about that - but in doing so, attracts the personal attentions of the cult leader, who decides to put a stop to the protagonist's actions. Ultimately, it ends up with the protagonist coming very close to getting a knife between the ribs and the whole town getting sizzled by otherworldly forces!
The questions the above scenario poses to the audience are:
- "What does this symbol mean?"
- "How is the main character going to protect the town?"
- "Is the protagonist going to get stabbed?"
- "Is the town going to be okay?"
Notice how the danger is ramped up and how things get more personal as the story progresses! For most stories, the way to go is to build the suspense up to a peak near the end of the story, where it will be resolved in its climax. There's no one way to do it, but as a general rule, various methods boil down to things like increasing the risk or danger, heightening the sense of urgency, or upping unpleasant emotions like fear, loneliness, etc. Basically, things progressively get worse until they finally get better, perhaps following a trend not unlike a line chart, upon which the line goes up and down - but there's more upswing than downswing, so it ends up rising upward nonetheless.
How much suspense does a story need? It depends. If your plot is just about someone trying to enter an art contest, you probably don't need to escalate to the point where the character's life is in danger. On the other hand, if you're writing an action-heavy story where your main character faces off against a band of ruthless criminals, it's probably going to seem pretty boring if it never feels like your character is in any personal danger.
But again, it must be reiterated: the answers must matter to the audience, and it's all too easy to end up posing questions where they just don't care. Why might the answers just not matter? Let's look at why.
Five big reasons why the audience just doesn't care
There are five main reasons why people don't care about the answer to a particular question. Here they are, along with some ways you can avoid ending up with these problems yourself.
1. They feel like they already know all of the important answers.
- "Oh, of course they won't end up together for good. This author never lets characters stay happy for long."
- "It's pretty much been a paint-by-numbers plot so far, so I can see where this is heading - and I've seen it a million times."
- "This character so powerful and always wins easily, so I already know how this is going to play out."
The fix for this simple: Make sure that you don't fall into a routine or constantly follow the typical conventions of the genre you're writing. Shake things up to keep people guessing!
2. They don't care about the characters.
- "He's always so whiny, mean, and selfish! Who cares if he gets that promotion?"
- "She just mopes around and complains about everything, even when people go out of their way to be nice to her. Why should I like her and care whether she gets what she wants, again?"
- "This character is so boring, it's like watching paint dry. I can't sit through this any longer."
- "There's no point in getting interested in the new character. The author only uses these kinds of characters as a cheap gimmick to grab attention. This character will be gone in a few episodes, anyway."
People need to have some reason to root for the protagonists. It usually helps to give them at least a few likeable qualities and give them some relatable problems - without making them so wonderful or so contrivedly troubled that they're no longer believable.
They also need to find a reason to find your character interesting. Interesting characters are those who make interesting things happen in some way. Perhaps it comes from some opinion they feel the need to express, or perhaps it comes from an unusual or dramatic response to a given scenario, or perhaps it comes from some strange, silly, or adventurous thing they decided to do. Either way, characters who just aimlessly mill around and have no opinion on anything are boring.
People also need to feel relatively confident investing emotionally in them, too. If they know that the character will soon be removed from the story and/or sooner or later turn out to be a villain, there's no point in getting emotionally invested - they're just setting themselves up for heartbreak that way. So don't let yourself get predictable with this stuff by falling into a routine.
3. They don't care about the outcome.
- "So what if they fix this problem? They're all still doomed, anyway."
- "They're all so horrible, it really doesn't make any difference who wins or loses."
- "This drama has been going on for so long now, I don't actually care how it ends anymore. I just want it to stop so the plot can move on."
Make sure that what your protagonists are trying to do would actually make a meaningful difference if they succeeded. If the outcome doesn't actually matter, there's no reason to stick around and find out what happens.
Try to avoid dragging out your plots, plot arcs, and subplots. You might be dragging a plot out if...
- You're using a lot of contrivances - EG, an improbably high number of misfortunes, setbacks, last-minute escapes, new enemies out of nowhere, unlikely misunderstandings or mistakes, etc. - to keep it from resolving.
- You have to make your characters overlook some relatively simple solution that would end or fix the whole mess once and for all if they used it.
- You're throwing in a lot of twists or complications that could be removed entirely without the story's outcome changing at all.
- You're throwing in a lot of filler - IE, material that doesn't actually move the plot forward.
- You're retreading some ground you've trod with it before.
- You have the characters go for long periods without doing anything that advances the plot - despite nothing actually standing in their way.
Similarly, waiting too long between installments can kill interest, too. People will eventually get bored of waiting and move onto something else, and when you do finally release the next installment it may be too late to get them interested again.
4. The question seems trivial compared to something else.
- "Can we please stop angsting over who the real father is and move on with saving the world from imminent destruction already?"
- "I think finding out what the aliens are plotting is a bit more important than finding the missing dog here!"
- "I really do not care to see how many pies this character sells today. When do we get to find out what's in the enchanted forest?"
There are various things you can do to fix this. One big one is to keep perspective on where the big stakes in your story lie. That's where your primary focus should be. Of course, you can still have the smaller issues pop up, too - they just shouldn't force the big one to take a backseat for an extended period of time. Ask yourself - does your character have the choice between tackling a big issue or a smaller one? If so, why isn't your character tackling the big one already?
Another thing to do is stop and think about why your audience would be here. If you're writing a vampire story, you know they're probably going to come to see vampires - so don't dilly-dally with stuff that isn't actually that important to the plot before showing a vampire or few.
You also need to manage people's expectations before they start your story. This means that if your story is a romance that happens to have a few vampires in it, don't talk up the vampires as a big reason to check it out - instead, it's the romance you should be trying to focus on. Otherwise, you're going to have people sitting through the story the whole time wondering when the darn romance is going to get out of the way and when the vampire action is finally going to start. And at the end, they're probably going to hate your story because it never gave them what they wanted!
5. They're too confused about what's going on to even know what the question is.
- "I'm not even sure how the virus spreads, so is this character actually at risk of infection or what?"
- "Wait, what is this supposed to accomplish? How is this actually supposed to fix the problem?"
- "Hang on, why is the bad guy after her again? What was it he wanted from her?"
- "Wait a minute, why is this character the villain? What did this character do that was so bad? Why should I want to see the 'hero' beat this character?"
There are a few common reasons audiences don't know what's going on, and they are:
- Things weren't explained or shown thoroughly enough.
- Things were explained or shown in an unclear or rushed way.
- Things were explained or shown in a scene where the audience was distracted from it by something else (EG, a fight, irrelevant dialog, some overly eye-grabbing visual somewhere), and so didn't take it in.
- Multiple contradictory explanations (or at least explanations that sounded contradictory) were given, and so the audience doesn't know which one is factual.
So pay attention to what you're putting together, and ask yourself whether you might be falling into any of these traps yourself.
This isn't to say that your work can never contain any ambiguity (ambiguity can be used to great effect in the right places!), but the audience needs to at least be clear on what's at stake and what the focus characters are trying to do. Otherwise, there's nothing to make them worry or wonder about - except what the heck is even supposed to be going on, but that doesn't build suspense.
And a few more tips to balance and manage suspense
If your work will contain more than one plot or plot arc, or will have several plots or plot arcs that will add up to one metaplot, you should aim to make suspense go in cycles - where suspense rises to a crescendo, is resolved, then is followed by a new scenario where the process starts up again. (Though the suspense at the next plot might start out a bit higher than the one before due to something that was built up in the first plot that will not be resolved until the end of the arc or metaplot!) In any case, you can't keep the amount of suspense continually rising on the same upward curve indefinitely; otherwise you're going to end up with dramatic hyperinflation.
Remember that high-tension scenarios feel a bit like being underwater, so let your audience up for air now and then. You can do this by giving them an occasional break from the tension your suspense has built up. For example, many TV shows have the occasional "breather episode" where the characters do something that isn't quite so stressful or serious. Some stories might include a segment where the characters end up bunking somewhere safe for awhile and having a little fun together before continuing their quest. Some stories might show a moment of tenderness or intimacy.
Of course, these breather moments can (and most likely should!) be relevant to the story in some way - for example, important information can be delivered (and delivering critical information in a slow scene can help ensure people won't be too distracted to absorb it!), something important can be picked up or found, or we can be shown something that tells us how characters are progressing in their relationship. Potentially, lots of things could be done in these moments to progress the story.
Remember that taking people out of the moment will kill your suspense. As an example of this, in many creepypasta stories the narrator will suddenly shift gears to describe events in such a way that we're reminded that we're being told a story that took place in the past - for example, "Now, what happened next, I still have no explanation for" or "I don't remember what happened next." Don't do this if you're trying to maintain your suspense - write in a way that keeps things in the moment.
Breaking people's suspension of disbelief will ruin the suspense, too. Your audience will be reminded that the story is just a piece of fiction. This is one reason why if you're writing a real-life subject your audience is going to be familiar with, you need to research it, and why if you're writing a fantasy world where you make up the rules yourself, you need to keep them consistent and logical per the way your world works.
Having too many false alarms destroys your ability to create suspense. The rare false alarm here or there won't hurt your story, but if false alarms become commonplace, people will start expecting them and so won't feel any trepidation when the real deal rolls along. So unless you want people lulled into a sense of safety, keep your false alarms rare.
If the payoff's a dud, you've just wasted everything. You've wasted your own effort, and you've wasted the time, emotions, and possibly even money of your audience. Check out On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast for more information on making a payoff worthy of the suspense that leads up to it.
So, in summary!
- Any time the audience is faced with a question it wants answered, you have suspense. That's the whole thing in a nutshell.
- Over the course of your story, you'll most likely want to gradually build suspense up - where it will peak at the climax, where it will be resolved and the story will end.
- There are five main reasons why your "suspenseful" scenario won't actually put people in suspense - they feel like they know the answers already, they don't care about your characters, they have no reason to care about the outcome, the question doesn't seem like an important one, or they're just too confused to understand what the question is.
- If your story contains more than one plot or plot arc, you need resolve the suspenseful scenario of any given plot and scale things back down again, or else you're going to end up with dramatic hyperinflation.
- Watching/reading high-tension scenarios feel a little bit like being underwater. Give your audience a chance to "breathe" by taking an occasional break from the tension your suspense has built up.
- Taking people out of the moment by, for example, writing something that reminds readers that the story is something that already happened in the past, kills your suspense.
- Too many false alarms will destroy your ability to create suspense. Unless you're trying to lull people into a false sense of security, keep false alarms rare.
- If your suspense leads up to a dud of a payoff, you've wasted everything. Check out On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast for more information on making a good payoff.
Also, you might be interested in:
On Plot Structure & Plotting
Plot & Story Development Questions
Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings: A Few Pointers
Stuff You Should Cut From Your Story
On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It