Friday, January 6, 2012

How do you write good suspense?

I was asked to blog about how to write good suspense, and that's just what I'm going to do. But not yet. I’ll wait till later in the article to tell you, because if I tell you now, you’ll have no reason to continue. Great. I think I just accidentally told you how to write good suspense. Oh well. Moving on!
Suspense is nothing without mystery. Mystery and suspense are two powerful forces pulling against each other throughout each and every story you’ll write. Mystery compels the reader to move forward, while suspense pulls back on the reigns, as if to say, “not yet, but soon.” Without good suspense, the mystery will fall flat on its face. Suspense sweetens the mystery, but you must always be sure not to sweeten it too much, or it will become sickly. There is a perfect mixture in every story, and it is up to you to strike the right balance.
A mystery isn’t simply a who-done-it. Mystery comes in a variety of forms. It could be something as rudimentary as,will Gary end up with Cindy?, or as complex as how on Earth did this monkey get inside a sealed bank vault, and why is it wearing a wet suit and a tiara? A writer’s job is to establish the mystery, and slowly reveal clues to its resolution as the story unfolds. The longer you hold the tension, the more suspenseful your story will be. If the scene with the monkey played out, and one of the characters quickly explained how the monkey got in the vault and why he was wearing the odd costume, there would be no suspense at all. That would be the end of the story. But revealing a cryptic note scratched on the inside of the tiara, gives the reader a reason to continue on. Continuing this process for several chapters will make the resolution much more exciting and rewarding for the reader. This is what we call macro-suspense. It happens across the entire story, from plot point to plot point, right up to the resolution.
Micro-suspense happens within a scene. Like macro-suspense, the mystery is presented, and the reader must wait for the resolution, but there is a small twist. With micro-suspense, the writer uses the thoughts and emotions of the main character to build tension, as he applies suspense to lengthen out the mystery. Imagine this scenario: the main character hears a noise coming from downstairs in the kitchen, and he goes to investigate. As each moment passes, the intensity of his fears and paranoia leak into the mind of the reader. His fear of the dark mixed with rumors that this new house he has moved into may be haunted, draws the reader into the gravity of the moment. The suspense holds the reader back from the resolution, while tension breaths energy into the scene. Good suspense requires a good mystery and a precise amount of tension. Never give the reader everything up front. Don’t tell them what is in the wrapped gift as you hand it to them. You’ll ruin the surprise!
Imagine your story like a poker game. The mystery is: who will win? The suspense is: how long the card game must last before the winner reveals his hand. The more twists and turns, and the more drama that erupts, the more exciting the reveal will be. Don’t let the audience have what they want right away. Dangle it in front of them. Let them feel as though the game is going poorly for our hero, then turn the tables, and give the audience a thrill. Let the tension of each moment build in suspense, until all your reader can think about is seeing those cards fanned out on the table. That is how you write good suspense. And remember, your resolution is your gift to the reader, make it something they would have never expected, and something they will treasure forever.


  1. My problem with the poker analogy is I always take the cards and throw them out the window because I get bored playing poker. lol

  2. Cool! Very helpful! I'll try to remember all the points so I could write a good suspense-mystery book one day. So, is the "monkey in a sealed vault wearing a wet suit and tiara" gonna make it in a real book? It is indeed a mystery. Is the monkey dead? I assume he is, being in that sealed vault there is no way he'll be coming outta there up and jumping! Lol! :)