How to Build Suspense in Your Writing
3 practical tips to keeping readers engaged
You’ve all heard the ageless adage of “Show, Don’t tell,” and if you’ve heard of it, chances are you’ve rolled your eyes and squinted at the ambiguity of the advice.
There are times when it is beneficial in your work to draw out a scene, to show the character’s completing the actions and to have them react to situations. If done right, readers following along will follow the rhythms of your characters; they’ll feel angry when the protagonist is angry, sad when he is sad.
However, while showing vs. telling is crucial to building suspense in your work, it is something that will be underlying throughout your stories and novels.
Tension, on the other hand, and the building of it as a plot device, is a much more digestible concept. Tension can happen in your story in a variety of different ways.
The reader knows something that the character does not —> Think of Hitchcock’s example (Found here), where there’s a bomb under the table. The bomb exploding causes surprise. Surprise is temporary - 15 seconds of shock.
However, if the reader knows about the bomb that the characters do not, you draw out this tension over several pages, keeping the reader in suspense of what will happen.
One character knows something the other character does not —> This also is a powerful device. The reader is, in many ways, an omniscient figure to the story. They can read the thoughts of different characters, and as a reader privy to the protagonist’s deepest thoughts, you begin to form an opinion on how that protagonist views the world around them.
Once you know a protagonist’s ulterior motives, you are drawn to the (seemingly) surface level conversations they have with others, as the reader will always be looking to see how those motives manifest.
- Another important source of suspense, and the essence of storytelling itself: Conflict. Creating conflict has been the make-or-break it factor of any story. Stories that fail to do that are put aside by readers, whereas stories that excel at conflict cannot be put down.
By understanding more about the character’s backstory (their motives), we raise the stakes. We become invested. Suspense is then created when we put obstacles in the way of the character' achieving these goals. This creates conflict.
How will the protagonist overcome this conflict? How will they prevail? If at all . . . This uncertainty is what keeps readers engaged.
(TL;DR) To summarize:
Showing, Not Telling leads to a higher level of empathy and engagement felt by the reader toward your characters. If you can show your characters in action, your reader will feel more invested in them.
You can create Tension in one of two ways: having readers know something the characters do not, or having the protagonist know something the others do not
Create Conflict by asking yourself first what your character wants to achieve, and then by placing a series of obstacles in their way of achieving it.
Editor's note: Tevis runs our How to Write Short Stories online Workshop. Check it out here.