Suspense and tension building tools

build up suspense

Action means happenings. Suspense means uncertainty.

Suspense is achieved when information is withheld from the reader. Dramatic tension is the potential for conflict to happen and requires the reader to know something is about to happen, just not how or when exactly. Suspense is more than a reader reaction, it’s a technique.

Understand suspension in music to understand true suspension in fiction

In music, suspense is built in three steps. First, a tone appears naturally in one concord (the tone is now prepared). Second, the same tone appears as a foreign elements in the next concord (the tone is now suspended). Third, when the tone is altered to appear a natural part of that concord (the tone is now resolved, the listeners experiences aesthetic pleasure – a pay-off).

How to recreate suspension in fiction

In fiction, the reader involvement in anticipation of the resolution is what holds true suspense and eventually provides the pleasure pay-off.  Provide the reader with a suggestion  (the introduction of a pattern of actions, parallelism, the tone of the author, any type of foreshadowing). This suggests suspends and requires completion. This works because the outcome is not disclosed and the why or how of things aren’t revealed. The reader doesn’t see the full pattern of action until it is brought to completion. Seeing the whole is what provides the pleasure pay-off.

The three major suspense techniques

  1. Mystery: evokes curiosity in the reader. This is resolved through explanation.
    This is a cheap method to force suspense. Deliberately confusing the reader may keep him reading for a bit but not for very long and it comes at a price. Deliberately writing unintelligable doesn’t make the shallow appear deep, it only fogs things up and often leads to a disappointing ending. This method is only effective the first time around, so the reader will not enjoy reading it a second time.
  2. Conflict: evokes uncertainty in the reader. This is resolved by decision.
    In uncertainty, the reader cannot be prepared for the outcome. Most often this is presented in a “will he or won’t he” type of suspense. Uncertainty can only work if all options have equal weight and the reasons for each path must be equally clear to the reader. Note: foreshadowing reduces uncertainty.
  3. Tension: evokes anticipation in the reader. This is resolved by fulfilment.
    Anticipation gives a taste of what’s to come. The word tension comes from tensus, meaning stretch. It is stretched out until it snaps. How do you do this? You announce something is about to happen and then put it off. You leave the reader wondering when it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen and/or why it’s going to happen. Tease the reader with situations that might (but don’t) trigger the expected event. Tension is the only suspense technique that doesn’t put the reader in competition with the author. It is also self-enhancing because the same device that create it also prepares for its resolution.

10 Methods of creating suspense

1 Foreboding: I got this feeling…

A foreboding is a feeling something bad is going on. Unlike foreshadowing, which hints at actual plot events to come, a foreboding is purely a mood. Because you are playing on atmosphere, creating an ambience, remember to use the senses. A foul smell gives a bad feeling. A creepy sound gives a bad vibe. Something is out of place and it makes no sense. Create an ambience of uneasiness and concern.

2 Foreshadow: something big is about to happen…

Before anything major happens, you can start by teasing your reader with little hints (also known as foreshadowing) that something is about to happen. This creates suspense. Do this without telling them exactly what will happen and how it will affect your characters. You can choose whether or not you will reveal when it will happen. Keeping it vague allows you to surprise your readers, but a ticking time bomb is an effective way to build up suspense as well. Only foreshadow 2-3 major events per story, to avoid confusing your reader.

What to foreshadow? Reverse your role

Look at the story from the reader point of view, understand his expectations about your characters and events. Think about conflicts and how characters and event may develop. Make sure the reveal is important to the story. (Nobody cares that Timmy’s scar is from that one time he fell off his bike when falling or bikes have nothing to do with the story.) Consider when the reveal with have the biggest impact. Don’t overdo it.

Hints & Shadows

  • Unexplained physical habits
  • out- of place remarks
  • weird reactions to objects or events
  • misplaced items
  • unexplained absences
  • unexplained presences

3 Tell them what’s normal so they know what’s bad.

Show them once so they know. Now they know what’s normal. Now they have something to compare the unusual with. Now they know what to dread. Don’t jump to eerie, build it up.

4 Set up expectations then delay.

When a protagonist has a desire or expectation, tension is created by making the reader (and character) doubt whether the expectation will be met. Think of expecting your bribe to show up for the wedding, or won’t she? Where is she? Why is she so late? Think of a character repeatedly trying to order a simple glass of water but it keeps being withheld. First the waiter forgot the order, then the order is spilled along the way to the table, then his enemy walks by and snatches the glass of water from him and drink it instead. This technique can be used often without losing its effect.

5 Withhold information.

People have a deep need to understand things and people. They read books to gain more understanding. They will read till the end of the final page to finally understand why Ellis truly left Danny at the alter. To create dramatic tension, change something and don’t explain why it happened. Of course the change needs to fit the story and the reader must eventually be able to understand what and why it happened, but delay the explanation. The change must motivate the character to seek the reason and put him into action. The tension comes from what’s at stake.

6 Delay resolution by slowing the pace: get into the juicy details

When something big is about to go down, get into the details of things. Your words are everything in this moment, even de background music. Detailed description will make for a vivid imagination in your reader. In moments of great suspense, your reader is dying to know what happens and how it ends, this is a perfect time to slow down the pace and leave the reader thirsting for more until finally the ending is revealed.

7 Leaving information out to leave the reader wondering

Diving right into the action without explaining what’s happening. The reader must continue reading to discover this. Starting with action creates strong momentum.

8 Misdirection

Misdirection, without lying to the reader. Get him to look to the left while you set things up on the right. Don’t worry too much about doing this on the first draft. When improving your draft, you will discover dropped threads and forgotten characters you can have fun with. Rewrite the scene or character to clean up the path. How to make it happen:

  1. Decide where you want the reader to think situations are different than what they actually are.
  2. Look for characters and props you can use that can conveniently be made to appear or disappear.
  3. Figure out the second line of the story and figure out the reason why.
  4. Go through and add places where the character makes mistakes that leave the reader uneasy.
  5. If done well, the reader should think “I should have seen that, damn.” when the big reveal occurs. If the reader thinks “Huh? What happened?”, you’ve done it wrong.

Plot-Hypers: an element of uncertainty and tension by injecting an unexplained event or circumstance. Create an opportunity that might complicate things. Require a sense of proportion that tries to keep the bag in the bag but opens the bag just a bit. Come up with at least one plot-hyper, the key must be planted somewhere in the text. Offer one thread of information. Force the reader to deduce the relevance. Don’t highlight it or bury it. Avoid any unreasonable obfuscation.

Example: Sherlock Holmes – the watchdog doesn’t bark the night of the accident. This is the neglected clue that solves the case in the end.

9 Up the ante

First, create conflict. Conflict should always fit into the story. It reveals the characters and pushes the plot further. There are several ways to up the ante on existing conflict.

  • Withholding what they desire. Dangle the carrot in front of the hungry protagonist but keep it just out of reach.  You can withhold all sorts of things, emotions, information, objects, you name it. Withholding love is a great way to elicit sympathy, empathy and concern for otherwise unlikable characters or dramatize sympathetic characters.
  • Insert danger. Put the protagonist or someone he loves in danger. This is one of the most immediate ways to capture the attention of your reader. How the protagonist responds to the danger reveals his character.
  • Reveal a surprising revelation. Revelations can come with devastating emphasis (Luke, I am your father). They can also provide relief and comfort. A revelation can change the fate of a character in an instant.

10 Step by step action

Step by step action is a technique commonly used when the situation gets heated. In step by step action, the reader closely follows every move the character makes. There are four rules to sustain the suspense when using this technique:

  1. Every step has to be meaningful: don’t tell me the character got up from the chair unless he just remembered he left the gas on.
  2. Every step has to provide critical information that moves the story forward: don’t explain colour blindness to me unless the character is colour blind and attempting to dismantal a time bomb.
  3. The reader has to care: bad things happening to bad guys make me happy. Bad things happening to a background character’s uncle? I don’t care.
  4. Use step-by-step when the action is hottest and things are happening in a whirlwind: if you rush through the climax, you won’t know what just blew by you. It will not be memorable, it will not be lived or experienced fully by your reader. For the most important scenes, write down every critical event that happens in it. Get every last detail in there and make every single one of them matter to you and to the reader.

Things that make a scene extra spooky/scary

  • It’s human nature to be nervous in the dark. Use this through night time settings, basements without windows, thick forests, blindfold etc.
  • Describe the shadows.
  • The light flickers. It appears and disappears.
  • Describe sounds to intensify danger and fear.
  • Use similies to compare something innocuous with something ominous.
  • Use the colours red (danger) and black(death).
  • Every step through a door is a step further away from safety, like a final barrier cutting you off.
  • A gradual drop in temperature.
  • Hints of danger, for example a sign that says “Keep out”.
  • The setting isolates the protagonist away from his friends/help.
  • Bad weather causes conflicts.

Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.
Hill, R. (1977) Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook.