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5 Steps to Create Tension and Suspense in Fiction Narratives

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Thu Jun 17, 2010 8:08 pm
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canislupis says...

5 Steps to Create Tension and Suspense in Fiction Narratives

Suspense is one of the most powerful driving forces in fiction, and when used correctly, will keep readers turning pages in any story. In this article I’m going to be giving some basic pointers when it comes to using suspense to create tension and draw in readers.

But first, what is suspense? The way I see it, suspense comes down to anticipation and what we anticipate will happen. With that in mind, let us proceed to the article.

Step 1: Goal
Characters must have goals/objectives for there to be a story, right? Since suspense=anticipation, characters must have something they are anticipating. This can be as simple as planning to do the dishes, to the more dramatic goals of a killer trying to kill a victim or evade capture.

Step 2: Raising the stakes
In the first example above—washing the dishes—there is very little suspense involved. Doing the dishes is boring to the reader because there’s no reason for us to care about it. But what if, say, the character hasn’t done the dishes in months because he has a terrible phobia of dish soap? Moreover, people have been complaining about the smell from the rotten food, and his landlord will evict him if he can’t clean it up. If he is evicted, he will have to go and live with his parents again because he can’t afford any of the other apartments in town.

We start to care a little more about the dishes then, don’t we? I know, I know--that's a lousy example. But the more potential harm there is the character, the more we feel suspense.

In the same way, someone paddling in a pool isn’t as suspenseful as an Olympic swimmer trying to win a race, or someone struggling to stay afloat in a fast-moving stream. I'm going to repeat this: In general, the more a character’s wellbeing will be affected by the anticipated event, the more likely we are to care about him or her.

Step 3: Time limit

One of the most common (and slightly overused) methods of creating suspense is the time limit, or “ticking clock.” This is when the character has only a limited amount of time to achieve their goals. In action/adventure fiction this device is extremely common, and we see loads of stories where terrorists will destroy the world in less than three days, or a bomb will detonate in 30 seconds if not defused.

Overused as this device is, however, it is an excellent and almost foolproof way of creating tension and suspense in your story. In the washing dishes example above, I could say that he has only two days before he will be evicted.

Inability to take action: This occurs when a character is in danger but is unable to do anything about it--the hero listening to his girlfriend being kidnapped on a phone, the girl fumbling with her keys as a killer comes up behind her, etc. This is a very potent way of creating suspense, but do not overdo it, because it is very painful to be that anxious for a long period of time.

Step 4: Dramatic Irony

Dramatic Irony is when the reader knows something that the characters don’t—a couple picnicking without knowing about the avalanche coming swiftly their way, the young girl wandering through the woods unaware that a wolf is following her, the guy paddling happily through the waves, not knowing that a great white is approaching.

While this technique does work very well—to end chapters, for example—it is also overused in the same way that the ticking clock is. It can also begin to sound a bit melodramatic if not carefully played. You’ll often find phrases like “Meanwhile, a few miles away,” and “Neither of them noticed the peculiar shadow sneaking up behind them” or the like to help shift between the placid scene and the oncoming disaster. These forms of creating suspense may sound like the author is talking.

[Edit] As Suzanne pointed out, dramatic irony can also occur when one character knows something the others don't. See her comment for more information.

Step 5: Never resolve everything.

Sounds weird, right? But every time the suspense is alleviated, readers have a tendency to get bored. This doesn’t necessarily mean that characters can never have a break; some breathing room is required. But try not to resolve all issues completely until the very end.

Similarly, it is often better to end a chapter with the reader hanging; the classic “cliff hanger.” This doesn’t have to be dramatic, and in fact usually shouldn't be--obvious cliffhangers are quite annoying--but in general it is easier to keep a reader’s attention if issues aren’t completely removed at the close of the chapter.

The same thing goes for subplots—in cases where you have several, try ending chapters without resolving all conflicts so that you can switch around to the other subplots without completely losing a reader’s intention.

Don't overdo it!
When used sparingly, all of these tips can help you keep people interested and reading your story, but if you are too heavy handed, it will have the opposite affect, jarring your reader out the story and making your writing contrived and cheesy.

Good luck!
Last edited by canislupis on Thu Jul 29, 2010 5:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Reason: Suzanne's comment

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Sat Jun 19, 2010 11:45 pm
Emerson says...

This is a great article and it's wonderfully organized. While reading it though, I thought up a few things which I hope you won't mind me commenting on:

Dramatic Irony - It doesn't have to just be that the characters don't know about the avalanche, or the murderer behind them. I'm currently writing a story which involves multiple POVs, and so the audience knows some things regarding a character that the other character's don't, because I'm allowed to follow multiple people. We know their reasons for doing XYZ, while as the other characters aren't aware of this. Of course, that's probably only a possibility in multiple POV or omniscient POV, but it works!

Never Resolve Anything - I understand what you mean by this, but I also disagree with it to a certain point.

...[E]very time the suspense is alleviated, readers have a tendency to get bored.

I know you also added to give breathing room, but I would like to point up that if your novel is all suspense and no alleviation, no conclusions to some subplots (and I do mean full conclusions) the reader is likely to get irritated at the annoying amount of unanswered questions. I agree - don't answer all questions right away. You want to leave your major plot arc open. But you should tie up sub-plots in a timely, nice manner. Don't leave them open up until the conclusion, otherwise you're going to be answering a lot of questions all of once, and you may have already lost your reader.

I also think ending every scene/chapter in a cliff hanger, leaving a certain level of conflict, might get irritating. You should always have some kind of underlying tension or they don't care, but if you constantly write cliff hangers it's going to kill them. Some scenes needs resolution, some scenes can better be hung off cliffs. You also noted that if you end chapters without resolving conflicts, it would allow you to switch around subplots without losing reader's attention? That seems awkward to me because, again, if you're leaving them with all these questions, and also jumping from subplot to subplot, they might get irritated that nothing is being resolved, ever. That can get really annoying.

Again, though, this is a GREAT article, I just wanted to add my opinion to it ^^; I think you're spot on about keeping tension up with cliff hangers, it might have just been the way you described it. I couldn't help but jump in with a few words, no insult met! I really did love this, and I hope more people read it!
“It's necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

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Fri Jul 02, 2010 5:50 pm
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canislupis says...

Thanks, Suzanne! I'm not at all offended--and I agree completely.

I think I'll edit it as soon as I get the chance--especially about the cliffhangers. I don't think my meaning was very clear.

What I really meant was to not resolve ALL the issues--after all, if there was no conflict, the story would be over. I see a lot of stories with an episodic quality on here--by the end of the chapter, everyone is happy. In order to keep people interested, there has to be some reason for them to want to read more--the cliffhanger. (And I agree about lots of them being annoying as well, but for me that's only when it's dramatic and it's obvious what the author is doing.)

Ok, I can see I'm still not making any sense. I will edit as soon as I've had a bit more sleep. :lol:

Thank you so much!


Memories, left untranslated, can be disowned; memories untranslatable can become someone else’s story.
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