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Creating Suspense in Fiction

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September 2011
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By Dave Hood

What is suspense in a short story or novel? Suspense keeps the reader reading. It arouses curiosity and keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. “Suspense is the most essential ingredient of plotting”, according to editor and novelist Sol Stein, who writes an interesting chapter on suspense in “On Writing.”

In this article, I’ll explain how to create suspense in a short story or novel.

How to Create Suspense

The writer can create suspense by arousing the reader’s curiosity, which keeps the reader interested as long as possible in finding out what happens in the short story or novel.

Suspense is created when the reader wants something to happen in the story, but the writer holds off providing it. Suspense is also created when the reader wants something to stop in the story, but the writer holds off. For instance, the writer doesn’t end the danger, resolve the life crisis, or end the confrontation. And so the reader feels a sense of anxious uncertainty.

Suspense keeps the reader turning the page in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” a story about man versus nature. In the story, the protagonist sets out to hike a trail in the Yukon Territory in the winter with out with only a dog as companion. The man is warned by an “old-timer” not to attempt this hike alone because “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after 50 below.” As the story progresses, the protagonist must face setbacks and obstacles, which prevent him from reaching his destination. This creates tension and suspense for the reader.

Suspense can take many forms. Sol Stein identifies several situations that create suspense:

  1. A prospective danger to the character
  2. An actual or immediate danger to the character.
  3. An unwanted confrontation
  4. A confrontation desired by one character and not another
  5. An old fear about to become a present reality
  6. A life crisis that requires immediate action.

The writer creates suspense because the protagonist has a personal stake in what happens. His life might be in jeopardy, his loved one’s might be in danger, what he values might be lost. The point is that if the protagonist loses, it is going to cost him dearly, he is going to suffer, experience a painful outcome, an outcome he wants to avoid.

To create suspense, the writer must delay in resolving whatever is generating the suspense within the particular scene. For instance, the writer delays in bring an end to the danger, delays in bringing an end to the confrontation, delays in resolving the life crisis.

The best way to learn how to create suspense in a story is by reading and analyzing a thrillers or suspense stories that you’ve found riveting, stories that kept you interested, glued to the page. Your task is to learn how the writer created suspense in the story.

In this article, I discussed how to create suspense in fiction. Suspense arouses curiosity in the reader, keeps the reader reading, turning the page to find out what happens next. A memorable work of fiction includes suspense. If your goal is to publish a short story or novel, it will need to include the element of suspense.

In the next post, I’ll discuss Point of View.


1 Comment

  1. the river
    It really makes me think paul pierce

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