How to add SUSPENSE

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There's something that makes a book a page-turner. It's what keeps people up until the sun rises reading. It makes us want to know what happens next. It seduces the reader, claws at their souls and grips them. And then its hold tightens.

What I'm referring to, readers, is (WAIT FOR IT.....


..... WAIT FOR IT........


Suspense is when you're upstairs in your room, listening to music and minding your own business. Then you hear pots and pans clinking in the kitchen. Your mom's light footsteps and the creak of the pantry door. You turn down your music and listen to the dull thump of the bag of flour set on the counter. You hear the crack of eggs and the rustle of flour and sugar poured into the big mixing bowl.

You go turn your music up again and resume your own life.

An hour later, you've got your music back on full blast, idly tapping your pencil in time with the beat. It's a great song, huh? I like this song. But wait! You freeze as your stomach growls, and you wince. You grab your stomach and reflexively look down at it, frowning. Will there be anything to eat downstairs? Was there anything in the fridge? Did someone go shopping--

And then you smell it: the warm, sugary scent of cake.

You pound down the stairs as the creak of the oven opening reaches your ears. You stand before it, staring at the delicious cake baking inside. Waves of heat radiate out at you as you lean closer. It smells so good. Your mouth begins to water, and your breathing quickens. You need that cake.

Then your mom shuts the oven door. "Give it another fifteen minutes."

Your heart drops.


To add suspense, you need to tease the readers. At first it doesn't seem like anything. but then you start getting hungry, and then you can smell the delicious cake baking downstairs. And your stomach growls, which ups the stakes. You're hungry and you need food and that cake smells delicious so you must have that cake or else you're going to implode. Now you're personally invested in eating this cake.

But when you get there, you've made so much progress, so close you are just inches away from the pan and it smells even better up close-- and then you're denied it. The door is shut, and you have to wait even longer. But you're starving. Your stomach is growling and you need to have that cake!

Suspense is tricky to get right because if you tease your readers too long, if you make them wait endlessly and never pay up on their expectations eventually, you'll lose their interest. They'll be like, "GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!" (The romance in Inuyasha, Ranma 1/2, and just about every story written by that author...) If you give them what they want too soon, well, you didn't build any suspense.

Finding that balance means going with your gut while you write, put the scene away for a couple months, and return to it reading it as if you've never seen it before. Are you getting bored? You added too much suspense. Or maybe you're bored because there wasn't enough suspense and you're revealing every answer the moment a question is posed. Don't give your readers instant gratification when you're writing a suspenseful scene.

I'll end with this awesome quote:

"All writers struggle at some point with the problem of balance between authority and involvement, seduction and revelation. Specifically, beginning writers wonder how much description to employ, and more advanced writers ask how much plot is too much or too little. And there is no better place to find answers than in the Victoria's Secret catalogue–or in any ad for lingerie–where the arts of seduction and revelation are so successfully practiced. After all, the secret of the effective lingerie ad is the secret of effective storytelling–to provide, moment by moment, the illusion of imminent expose, to give the viewer (read: reader) the uncanny sense that something fundamentally compelling is always just about to be revealed. Lingerie ads and storytelling balance the veiled and the unveiled, the seen and the unseen, the shown and the about-to-be-shown. In short, it is the art of the tease, the craft of selective 'coverage,' that, not just in lingerie but in storytelling, works to enthrall."

--Julie Checkoway

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