How to create suspense

Suspense is what keeps the reader interested in your story. It is what keeps her going. She wants to find out what is going to happen next, and she is thoroughly interested in how it is all going to end.


So, what can you do to build up this interest and keep it burning?

There are quite a number of ways.

Often the best way of doing it is by promising excitement. This involves hinting at certain outcomes.  You do it in such a way that the reader looks forward to these outcomes. In addition to promising something, you must leave room for uncertainity. This means you must also imply that the expected thing, whether good or bad, may be avoided, thwarted or unfulfilled.

However, the reader should not only expect things to go a certain way, but she should also desire a certain outcome. The hope that things will turn out the way she predicts or desires is what keeps her going.

So to create suspense that intrigues the reader, you as the writer, has to make the reader feel for the character. If you are writing a love story, for instance, then to create suspense, you will have to make the reader want or desire a certain outcome. In her heart, for example, she should be hoping that John and Sarah eventually get married. She should desire that nothing comes between them. But, at the same time, you must also imply that something may come between them. So she will keep on reading, as if to ensure that what she desires happens.

Therefore, to create suspense, you must hint at a certain outcome.  The reader then follows the story expecting to see this outcome or hoping that it does not happen.  Hinting at something bizarre, unconventional, or downright frightening is in fact a great way of creating suspense.  

However, it is not just about hinting at outcomes. As you develop the plot, bring in events that seem to contradict the expected thing. This is what is known as irony. A perfect blend of expectation and irony is what achieves great suspense.

For example, look at the following excerpt:

She looked at him straight in the eye with a very dark expression across her face. In a cold tone that sent all the hairs on his body standing on end, she said:

“Luis, you are going to die.”

Upon hearing things, Luis staggered backwards, aghast. His eyes bulged out and his face turning pallid.

Upon reading this, don’t you suppose that the reader will want to continue reading the story further? Yes, indeed, she wants to find out if Luis is really going to die. And if you have done it well, she will desire that he doesn’t.  Apart from hinting at doom, you should also leave room for the possibility to avoid this impending doom. Your reader, therefore, will read along to see what will happen, but more importantly, to see that what she desires is fulfilled. Any event that works against her desires accounts for the suspense or excitement that she feels.

Here is another example:

Mubanga knew that no one who ever ventured into the forests came out alive. But he was determined to show his friends that he was something out of the ordinary, that he was not just anybody. He was the greatest hunter the village had ever seen. Therefore, that day, at dawn, he set out for the forest.

In this excerpt, the writer hints at impending doom. He clearly shows that the character is faced with inevitable doom. But he implies that this character will avoid this doom. So the reader will read on to find out what is going to happen. Furthermore, this writer has grafted the character in such a well that the reader feels for him.  Her desire to see him survive is what keeps her going.

Good writers are the ones who are able to understand the emotional makeup of their readers and are able to predict how their readers will react to the way they develop the plot. More importantly, they make their readers expect a certain outcome, and then as they develop the plot, they bring about events that seem to work against this desired outcome. This is what creates the suspense.

Please read more of LJ stories to see how he creates suspense. Once you master the art, you will keep your readers gripped from start to end.   

Return from Suspense in Short Stories to Writing Short Stories

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