Every story benefits from some level of suspense. Plot relies on it. For suspense to work well, readers have to care about or be curious about what will happen to one or more characters. This means that as important as plot and suspense are, characters are equally so because plot and suspense reveal the characters for who they really are and characters propel the plot forward, based on what they say or don’t and the actions they take or don’t. Suspense, as with anything, should never be used to fill space. It must be relevant to the story and relevant for the characters, based on their role in the story.
Readers may believe they know the characters you’ve created for them and will rely on them to be true to themselves, if you’ve developed them well, but readers still anticipate the feeling of suspense as they wonder what a character will say or do in certain circumstances. Think of it like baseball: as exciting as it is when the batter hits the ball, the real suspense happens in the moments that immediately follow the sound of the crack, when leather meets wood.
Suspense arises as a result of some form of conflict. Conflict in plot development works best when it shows up then builds, whether just in a particular scene or throughout the novel (though, every scene must contribute to the overall plot and character development). This may involve some form of danger, but it can also be an inner experience for a character as well.
Suspense is about risk, whether it’s between one or more characters or within the character. Suspense can be anything from a character in a darkened room becoming aware there is something or someone breathing heavily on the other side of the door, or how a character will perform in a personal challenge such as facing a job interview panel or facing an angry lion that needs to be re-captured, or the ten-year-old boy working up courage to confront a bully. It can include any resistance a character feels-toward themselves, one or more others, or life events. Resistance is often about characters facing their worst enemy-themselves, in whatever circumstance they find themselves in.
Here’s the main purpose for suspense: To keep readers reading the book and not wanting to put it down. But, suspense and conflict do not have to come from one dastardly event occurring right after another, like Dominoes falling. Suspense has all to do with the structure of the novel. Relevant and even life-changing events, wrapped in their own form of suspense, must happen as part of a logical sequence of events. You’ve done a good job with suspense when readers care about what’s going to happen and don’t want to stop turning pages, or if they must stop reading, they’re eager to return to the book as soon as possible. You can use and build suspense in many ways; however, you don’t want to overdo this or it will slow plot momentum. Worse, it will become obvious to readers that you’re more interested in distracting them from less than stellar plot and character development than making sure the story engages them.
Other forms of suspense include seeking something significant, big discoveries that are made, time running out, physical attacks, as well as emotional or spiritual attacks. Something as simple as an envelope with a significant message inside received but unopened and forgotten about or an important fax that falls under a nearby piece of furniture creates suspense. There’s something there a character needs to know about-readers know about it-but the character is operating in the dark. This creates a promise to readers: at some point, the character will either discover or be impacted by this.
Suspense must happen organically within plot development; and three of many ways to do this involves the use of clues, false clues, and red herrings. “A clue is a mistake by another name,” said the character James Hathaway in the PBS series Inspector Lewis). Clues provide information to a character (and to readers). These can include tangible objects such as fingerprints, or a button torn from a garment during a struggle and later pried from the clenched hand of the victim, or a circled listing in a newspaper. A false clue can be used on a character by another character (a character lies to the private investigator), which is learned by the P.I. later in the story. You can also use what’s called a red herring, which is an event or statement that misleads characters (and readers); but this must be logical and have relevance to the story. A red herring keeps readers from figuring out what’s really going on sooner than you wish to reveal what is going on.
I wish you the best with your writing, process, and progress.
About Joyce Shafer
Services for Writers: Let Joyce L. Shafer be your writing coach or developmental editor. Details about her services, including Critiques and The Chapter-by-Chapter Get-Your-Book-Written Writer’s Incentive Coaching at http://editmybookandmore.weebly.com/