Leaving readers unenthusiastic isn’t what reading a book is about. Readers want to engross themselves in the lives of your protagonist and join them along their journey. Without suspense, you risk readers losing interest before the story’s even begun.
But how are you supposed to engross your reader before the meat of the story’s started? That’s a good question, and one we’re covering in today’s article all about leaving your readers asking, “What’s going to happen next?”
What is suspense?
Suspense is what keeps readers at the edge of their chair. It’s what keeps them biting their nails. It’s a story element that makes readers uncertain, even if the protagonist usually wins. It’s an intense sensation a reader experiences as they wait for the outcome.
Without suspense in your story, how are you supposed to:
- Increase tension between characters or during dramatic scenes
- Conceal answers you don’t want your protagonist—or readers—to know
- Empower a future plot twist your readers don’t see coming
- Keep your readers turning page after page—and biting their nails!
Suspense is something that’s easy to implement into your story because you can create it through so many story elements. You can enact suspense through your book title, character arcs, and internal dialogue, word choice, or restrictions set upon your characters.
- Will your protagonist finally defeat the villain?
- Will they overcome or fall prey to their obstacles?
- Will the protagonist unlock the door before being found?
- Will they make it home before they die?
Depending on what you’re writing—whether that be a novel, short story, poem, etc.—it can be a series of suspenseful events that increasingly enthrall your reader and makes them anxious about what’s going to happen.
It’s that uncertainty that keeps them reading, because if they already know how it ends, what keeps them reading? Its why people put disclaimers before their spoiler-heavy reviews. Some readers crave that aura of mystery.
But, on the same note, suspense can be difficult to execute well. It gives your readers a chance to care about your protagonist, but you need a protagonist worth caring about to make suspense successful, and that’s were some stories fall short.
How is suspense different from trickery?
Trickery is where the expected resolution doesn’t happen, and what happens instead is something that has not been foreshadowed or alluded to before it happens. When a lackluster or nonexistent amount of planned foreshadowing happens, you risk leaving readers confused and frustrated.
So, how can you leave your readers in suspense?
Drive your characters into peril—keep the stakes high
Create reader empathy by giving your character a desire and a struggle oftentimes referred to as the lie your character believes. Create reader concern by upping the heat in your novel with impending danger and escalating tension.
These key factors are necessary to successfully execute suspense. Who wants a book to read like a monotone recollection?
Put your characters in peril when it makes sense. By doing this, you’re ensuring your character’s struggle is always at the forefront and they’re forced to address it whether they want to or not, which is what leads to character growth and development over the course of your story.
But to do all this, to create reader empathy and concern, you must write compelling characters readers care about reading. To do this you need the three key aspects of a character arc—the Desire, the Lie, the Truth—and a thoughtfully profiled character with a history to draw from.
Consider flashbacks or flashforwards
Flashbacks and flashforwards are a great way to increase suspense and keep your readers asking questions.
Meaningful flashbacks can reveal character backgrounds that didn’t mean much at the time but will now help them overcome their obstacles. Flashforwards can make readers wonder how they got there—and it might not be the way they think!
Whichever you choose to use in your story, make it vivid, impactful, and relevant. Too often they’re used as story extenders when the hint of information they include could have naturally discovered throughout the story.
Make—but keep—more promises; include less action
Suspense builds during the moments in between the action-heavy. Even in the middle of a fight scene, you’re building the tension when you end your paragraph—or chapter—on a cliff hanger. You’re building suspense when your character sucks in a breath.
Something to remember is that when readers complain that there’s “nothing happening” in a story, they’re more often complaining about the lack of promises and delivery, than the lack of action and movement.
Promises are the hints of intrigue that keep readers engrossed in your story. But without the delivery—oftentimes embedded in action—you’re left with a story where a bunch of things happens, but nothing gets resolved.
Foreshadow key story elements (red herrings)
The best stories include clues that lead up to the big event. They might read innocuous at first glance, but more often then not you’ll remember them fondly at the end or as you reread the book.
It’s like a little breadcrumb trail that leads to the final climax, but it shouldn’t be as cut and dry as most information you give to the reader. If the bit of foreshadowing is too obvious or too frequent, the reader will catch on and that will actually decrease the suspenseful moment, which is the exact opposite of what you want.
Red herrings and tidbits of foreshadowing can be used in other story elements—like, a flashback—but they should be added with care. If something the reader perceives as foreshadowing doesn’t come to fruition, they might feel betrayed.
Race against a ticking clock
At the beginning of the plot point or scene, you’ll need to establish how much time the protagonist has to accomplish their goal and what’s at stake if they fail. The second part is most important because if nothing is at stake, there’s no tension and no suspense.
Keep in mind that if you pose the drama too early, readers might forget or cease to care about it at all. Especially if it isn’t emphasized between the start of the clock and the clock’s fatal mark.
Putting the goal against a clock ups the intrigue and suspense surrounding the event, but it doesn’t work for every scene. Or every book. If the overall plot of the novel uses a ticking clock to build suspense, additional ticking clocks might feel boring or repetitive or distract the reader from the overarching plot.
However you choose to execute suspense, you must leave your readers tantalized by the impending event.