When you read a book, what is the one element that keeps you turning the page? Most likely, it is suspense.
Everyone has their own definition of suspense. Some dictionaries describe it as a state of excitement, anxiety or mental uncertainty. For works of fiction, book coach Samantha Skal defines suspense as “the question asked.”
It’s an odd definition, to be sure. But think about the myriad of questions you ask yourself, however subtly or subconsciously, as you read a story.
* Will the hero stop the bomb in time or will it explode?
* Will the couple get together at the end, or won’t they?
* Will she keep her baby or give it up for adoption?
* What will they do next?
“Suspense is the engine that keeps the story going,” says Skal who spoke at a recent Pro Writing Aid Romance Week event. “It increases reader engagement, reader satisfaction and improves pacing of the story.”
There are different types of suspense. There’s the big, scary kind where the serial killer terrorizes the town. Romantic suspense teases readers with the promise of two people getting together. There’s emotional tension, too, when the main character is battling internal demons, such as guilt or resentment. Finally there’s goal tension when readers wonder whether the character will finally earn that promotion or new job.
The simplest way to achieve suspense is to put obstacles in the way of the characters. Whether you’re writing a thriller, science fiction or a romance, several techniques can be used to add suspense to your story.
- Reveal inner thoughts and reactions of the main character. This is especially true if you’re writing in first person or third person close. By revealing the main character’s thoughts and perspective. In this way, readers are able to see the action in the same way and at the same time as the main character. So when the character feels tension makes an assumption about another character or misinterprets what they see or hear, readers witness that experience too. That moment when the character experiences a crisis creates tension that the readers feel.
- Use hanging questions. Ending chapters with a hanging question often leaves audiences wondering what will happen next. For example, the character may ask themselves how they got themselves into such a mess, which may make readers wonder how they will get out of it. Hanging question keeps the action going, and keeps readers turning the page to find out what really does happen next. Make sure you answer the hanging questions right away, preferably in the next chapter. A word of caution though. If you have too many hanging questions in consecutive chapters, it can appear redundant. In other words, boring.
- Ramp up tension gradually. Skal suggests establishing tension as close to the action as possible. Then gradually ramp up the intensity with each chapter. At the halfway point of the story, something in the story changes, moving it in a new direction. At the resolution, wrap up all loose ends. But just to be sure you haven’t lost readers’ interest, add another twist or surprise revelation at the 95% mark.
- Emotionally manipulate your readers. Skal says it’s okay to do that since most readers expect certain things to happen at certain times in the story. In mysteries, for example, readers look for the mystery to be solved. In thrillers and suspense stories, they want to feel a low-grade fear the whole time, and they want to feel their heart racing.
- Be intentional about what you reveal – and when. Details about a character’s backstory, family history, and personality should be sprinkled throughout the story, when it makes sense to a particular scene. If you reveal everything at one time, it can be overwhelming for the readers. Also remember that if you mention a detail early in the story, it should have a purpose later on. For example, if your character notices a clock that has stopped early in the story, that detail should come into play later on.
Without suspense, your story won’t keep readers interested until the very end. By paying attention to these techniques, you can create stories that will keep readers turning the page.