Human beings love to be afraid. While this may sound grossly counter-evolutionary, the success of haunted houses and horror movies suggests there may be some truth to this. And yet, it’s not fear that drives us to keep turning pages long after midnight, but suspense—the heart-pounding tension between one unexpected moment and another.
But what does suspense mean, exactly, and how can we use it to create a more riveting story? Let’s dive into the definition of suspense, some suspense examples in literature, and some tricks and tools writers can use to build suspense in a story.
What is suspense?
The definition of suspense in literature is the tension that keeps our attention between one moment and another. As a literary device, narrative suspense creates a dramatic question in the story that holds the reader’s attention as they wait for the outcome.
In literary terms, the dramatic question is the distillation of the major conflicts or questions your characters are facing within a story, or a section of a story (like a scene or chapter). For example, “Will Frodo throw the one ring into the fires of Mordor before it corrupts his little hobbit heart?” Needing to find out the answer to the question is what builds suspense for the reader.
We’ll look at more examples of narrative suspense below.
Your story will usually have one major, overarching dramatic question that powers the events of the plot, and several smaller dramatic questions along the way. An overarching question that encompasses the entire story might be something like “Who really killed Mr. Boddy the night of the party?” A dramatic question that’s raised in just one scene might be, “Now that the protagonist has been caught snooping through her boss’s desk, will she be able to talk her way out of it?”
Suspense happens when these dramatic questions trap the reader’s attention and makes them want to know what happens next.
Why is suspense useful in writing?
Suspense in literature serves one essential purpose in your narrative: it keeps readers reading.
Think about the last novel you read that really hooked you, that made you want to keep reading all the way to the end. What was so special about that book? Regardless of whether it was romance, fantasy, thriller, or literary fiction, you probably wanted to keep reading it because you needed to find out what happened next—in other words, you needed to find out the answer to the dramatic questions. The plot kept you engaged using suspense.
Now think about the last novel you cast aside as a DNF (Did Not Finish). Even if it was in your favorite genre, you probably stopped reading because you didn’t care what happened to the characters in the story—in other words, the story lacked suspense.
By creating suspense in your writing, you’ll ensure that readers will want to keep coming back and to ultimately finish your story.
How does the structure of the story create suspense?
In literary terms, suspense and story structure are interrelated. A strong plot will begin by raising a question or series of questions, introducing central characters that the reader will want to stand beside throughout the entire story, and establishing the central conflict that those characters will be fighting against from start to finish. When these steps are done successfully, your stories will hold the readers’ attention and keep them focused on—or, suspended by—the story’s major questions.
What are long-term suspense and short-term suspense?
Some of these dramatic questions will span your entire narrative, whether it’s flash fiction or a multi-volume series. Some of them might exist in only one scene before being answered. The effect is the same: the reader waits with bated breath to find out what happens next.
Long-term suspense might be a question like, “Will the two best friends find love together?” The writer sets up the question early on in the story, and each piece of the plot contributes in some way to answering this question by the end of the novel—usually at the climax of the plot. In fact, the reader spends the whole story waiting for it to be fully answered. Long-term suspense can happen in any genre, and it’s what makes the reader want to find out how the story ends.
Long-term suspense can be supported by moments of short-term suspense. Each of these moments of suspense comes with its own dramatic question. They might be something like, “How will she react when she learns that he went on a date with someone new?” Or, “Will he receive her letter before he leaves for his new job?”
These brief moments all contribute to the suspense and excitement of the larger overarching narrative, but they also create suspense of their own. Using both long-term and short-term suspense in concert is the key to effective stories: long-term suspense makes the reader want to reach the ending of the story, while moments of short-term suspense keep them immediately turning the pages to the next chapter.
The suspense vs. mystery vs. horror genres
Any story in any genre can (and should!) have both long-term and short-term suspense to hold the reader’s interest. However, three narrative genres in particular are best known for their effective use of suspense: the suspense (or thriller) genre, the mystery genre, and the horror genre. But what’s the difference between them all?
In the suspense genre, the plot brings one surprise after another. The reader asks, “What’s going to happen?”
In the mystery genre, the plot opens with a major turn, such as a robbery or a murder. The reader asks, “How did this happen?”
In the horror genre, the plot usually has a predetermined ending—everybody (with the possible exception of virgins and puppies) dies. The reader asks, “How is it going to happen?”
Every narrative genre comes with its own unique genre conventions that help shape the story, but every successful story will use suspense as a literary device to keep the reader engaged from start to finish.
Next we’ll look at some suspense examples in literature and ways you can enhance the suspense in your own writing.
3 examples of effective suspense in literature
Suspense is a great tool for holding your readers’ attention. Let’s look at how a few authors have used this literary device effectively in their writing.
1. The Christie Affair by Nina De Gramont
The Christie Affair alternates between several timelines, effectively dropping in pieces of information for the reader to gather along the way. It opens with the line,
A long time ago, in another country, I nearly killed a woman.
Then, as the speaker continues to reflect on the events of her story, she recounts:
Recently, when I confided this to one of my sisters, she asked me if I had regrets about what I’d done, and how much pain it had caused.
“Of course I do,” I told her, without hesitation. Anyone who says I have no regrets is either a psychopath or a liar.
These moments use foreshadowing to set up the dramatic questions for the reader and hold them in suspense as they wait to uncover the truth of who the speaker nearly murdered, and what pain she’ll cause and regret.
2. In the Company of Witches, by Auralee Wallace
This mystery novel favors a close first person perspective, which allows the reader to uncover the clues right beside the protagonist. By experimenting with pacing, the author creates rhythms for the reader to follow. Longer sentences and paragraphs allow the reader to slow down and examine the story world, while shorter, choppier ones heighten tension and suspense. This is what happens towards the climax when the main character begins unraveling the mystery:
There it was again.
Part of me was trying to remember something. I could feel my subconscious furiously digging to bring it up to the surface. It was so close. Right on the tip of my tongue.
That was it!
Why hadn’t I seen it before?
I had to go!
I ran down the driveway. I had to be sure.
Pacing in narrative works much the same way as pacing in music; short, fast beats will accelerate the heart rate and give the rhythm a sense of urgency. You can use this to build suspense and grab hold of your reader’s emotions.
3. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Magpie Murders is a murder mystery within a murder mystery, and uses several moments of surprise and suspense to keep the reader glued to the page. One of the most suspenseful scenes comes towards the end, when the protagonist finally uncovers the killer—someone she had thought to be a friend:
I was glad that Charles had made it easier for me. The two of us had known each other for a very long time and I was determined that we were going to be civilised. I still wasn’t sure what would happen next. I assumed that Charles would telephone Detective Superintendent Locke and turn himself in.
The murderer is not, of course, going to telephone Detective Superintendent Locke and turn himself in. The reader knows this, but we watch as the two old friends share one last drink together before their relationship is irrevocably broken, waiting on the edge of our seats for the moment of no return that we know is coming.
How to create suspense and tension in writing: 5 sure-fire methods
Now that you know what suspense is a useful tool in a story, let’s look at some tricks writers can use to build suspense.
1. Create suspense with time constraints
Imposing a time limit for your characters is one of the most effective ways to create tension and suspense in your story. By giving them a ticking clock, you give your reader a sense of the limitations your character is facing that make their objectives even more urgent.
For example, maybe your character needs to uncover some important information before an upcoming event, like a wedding or coronation. Or your character might have only a limited window with which to obtain something—for instance, searching another character’s room while they’re out attending a meeting.
If you find yourself struggling with a flat scene, ask yourself if there’s a way to impose a time limit on your characters. This will heighten the suspense for the reader and give the characters’ goals a new dynamic.
2. Create suspense with character flaws
When you design the characters that populate your story world, all of them should have both strengths and weaknesses that the reader can identify with. An effective way of creating suspense is by showing the way your characters fight against their weaknesses.
For instance, if your main character has a problem with addiction, the reader knows that they’ll be constantly on the precipice of succumbing to this weakness. Every time we watch your character come into direct or indirect contact with their vice, the reader will feel the suspense of them fighting against their desire to indulge.
Another example might be a character who always makes the wrong choices in love. If you show them meeting a new potential love interest, the reader will understand the battle happening in the character’s mind and the sorts of dangers they’re facing. Each of these examples raises a dramatic question for the reader: will the protagonist succumb to their weakness this time, or will they be strong enough to resist? What will the outcome be? The details in these scenes hold their attention as they wait to find out.
3. Create suspense with cliffhangers
A cliffhanger raises a big, dramatic question and then leaves the reader hanging as they wait for the answer. These are one of the most effective ways to create suspense in a story; however, if they’re used too often, the reader can grow desensitized, and they won’t have as powerful an effect. Try not to use them more than once per chapter, at the most.
The classic cliffhanger involves putting the characters in danger; for example, showing your characters caught in a devastating avalanche. Did they survive? If so, how will they escape? If the reader puts down your book now, they’ll never know.
A cliffhanger might also be something like showing your character receive a polarizing job offer, but then moving the narrative away into a new scene before the reader finds out if the character accepted. This makes the reader ask, “Did they say yes? Did they sacrifice their ethics for ambition?” They’ll have to keep reading to find out! All of these details create suspense that keeps your reader’s attention.
4. Create suspense with foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device that lays clues for what’s to come throughout the story. This creates a subtler, slow-burn kind of suspense. Readers who are familiar with story structure—even on a subconscious level, absorbed from a lifetime of reading—will know that everything in a story happens for a reason.
For instance, maybe early on your character loses their house key, so a neighbor lets them in. Not a big deal, right? Except your reader knows that you wouldn’t have written this into your story if it wasn’t important, so they’ll spend the next hundred-or-so pages waiting for the moment where the main character really, really needs that key, and not having it becomes a major problem.
You can also use foreshadowing overtly to establish expectations for the story. Maybe you open your story with a reminiscence: “At my wedding, I danced with two people: the one I married, and the one I should have married.” The reader then spends the entire story wondering, “Which is which? What drives them to marry the wrong one?” This example of foreshadowing reveals the outcome, but not how you arrive there. This creates suspense for the reader as they wait for bits and pieces of the path to become clear.
5. Create suspense with dramatic irony
Dramatic irony happens when the reader knows more about what’s happening than the characters do. This is a beloved mainstay of the horror genre: you show the reader that the killer is hiding behind the nursery door, and then show the protagonist moving closer, closer, closer… Because the reader knows what’s about to happen, they feel the weight of the suspense as they wait for the inevitable outcome to happen.
Dramatic irony is also a great way to create suspense in romance novels. For example, maybe one character sends a letter to another; the reader knows that the letter went astray and was never received, but the sender doesn’t know and thinks they’re being ignored. Misunderstandings and shenanigans ensue. In this case, the writer creates suspense as the reader waits to see how the two characters will react to the misinformation and how they’ll finally come together.
Use suspense to keep audiences riveted
Suspense is so integral to engaging readers that it has become its very own genre. But suspense can—and should—be present in all kinds of stories,written for all kinds of audiences. By using suspense to create tension in your work, you can build a story that will hold the reader’s attention to the very end.