NOTE: I originally wrote this article for the now defunct blog of the Indiana Writers’ Consortium, a non-profit organization I interned with a few years ago which ceased operations and dissolved while I was with them. I was going back over it and several other articles I wrote for them which I realized would be useful to this audience as well.
I also noticed some of these articles were posted with grammatical errors in them, which I guess is something we all missed back then. Those were busy days. Still, I am happy to bring some of these old articles and rewrite them to not only fix the errors if there are any, but also to update them with my newfound wisdom, experience, and insight.
A story must be written before a reader can experience it. This means by the time you get the tale in your hands, what happens is already set in stone. The story is published. What is said is final.
This has unfortunate implications for the creation of suspense. Stories told in novels, or other similar mediums, do not have the benefit of a dynamic environment; a place where things can happen which neither the reader, nor the writer, could have anticipated. Novels are static. All the events which happen in the story are foretold. The outcome has already been decided before you even know what it is. The plot is predetermined, and what you read is what you get.
With that said, it can be reasonably assumed things will turn out alright in the end. It may not be exactly what the reader wanted. A favorite character may be dead, or an important battle lost. However, in the end, a reader is usually safe to expect some sort of satisfying conclusion because the events are set in stone. The reader is not influencing the outcome, so what do they have to worry about? Nothing. Not really. So then, how do we create suspense in such a static environment? How do we make the reader feel tense? How do we make them feel worried? Is it even possible? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The answer may ultimately depend on the reader, although there are some things we can do to artificially create that suspense.
I’ve heard and read many strategies one may employ to create suspense in a world where the events have already been written, and I’ve seen three main themes reoccurring. To create suspense where none inherently exists, one can make the events of their written world urgent, unpredictable, and undesirable.
Make it known to the reader that the protagonist’s objective is time-sensitive. Thus, when compounding variables impede their progress, worry may build in the reader’s mind about whether the protagonist will be able to succeed in time, or if it will be too late. Even though it can be reasonably assumed that something will work out in the end, make sure the reader knows that events may not unfold perfectly if the protagonist doesn’t rise to the occasion on time.
This is probably something every writer should try to achieve. The reader may not find your story enjoyable or enticing if they can predict everything that’s going to happen a page ahead. This is even more crucial if you’re trying to create suspense in the reader’s mind. If things are happening to the protagonist which they never expected, their sense of worry for the fate of the characters and the world can be increased. You don’t want the reader to be ahead of your story. You want your story to be ahead of the reader.
This accounts for the reality that a reader can reasonably assume things will work out in the end. Yes, they probably will. If they don’t, that can implie in the mind of the reader that there will be a sequel to the story they just finished. In such an event, if there is no sequel, then you leave your reader dissatisfied with the results of your story. Things must end. Every story needs a conclusion, and your story won’t work if the reader doesn’t walk away satisfied with the results.
So then how do we confront the reality that every story must end, and that end has to be satisfying in some way? How do we create suspense when the reader knows everything will be alright when all is said and done?
Simple. Give the protagonist what they asked for, but not what they wanted. Make the results satisfactory, yet undesirable at the same time. If you’re looking to create suspense, you probably shouldn’t end your story with “and they all lived happily ever after.” No, they didn’t. They lived, and they had to learn to accept what happened. They weren’t happy about it, but they’re happy it’s over and done with.
Another method I feel compelled to share is to give the reader a broader awareness. That is, share what the antagonist is doing when the protagonist is not around. This can emphasize what is at stake in the minds of the audience by revealing to them what consequences there may be if the protagonist fails.
When considering this strategy, I urge you to ask yourself, does this really help the story? Isn’t the protagonist going to prevail in the end anyways? I ask this because I always find it breaks immersion when we’ve been following a certain character almost exclusively, and then we briefly see another perspective, seemingly just for the sake of creating suspense. If such a switch in perspective is to be employed, I would personally advise it to be a consistent element of the story. Otherwise, it just feels contrived. At least, that is my opinion. Others may disagree on this point though.
I used to think there was no such thing as suspense in a predetermined story. And honestly, I still wonder sometimes. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe the suspense we create for our reader is just a false sense of uncertainty; an illusion to keep them guessing. Whatever the case may be, creating suspense is a difficult job in a written world, and I hope my take on things helps to set you on the path toward crafting that gripping tale.
What are you thoughts on this subject? Are you an experienced fiction writer? How do you create suspense, or how have other writers made you feel suspense in the stories you’ve read? Please, feel free to share your insights if you have any.
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