Suspense = uncertainty of outcome to conflicts

Swing the pendulum between hope and fear.

Tension comes from uncertainty of outcomes. You must therefore provide positive, neutral and negative outcomes to points of conflicts and keep the audience guessing. Positive outcomes should be mere temporary solutions and if you tally all outcomes up, the overall outcome should be negative.

Note: There must be comic moments amidst the conflict. These humor beats allow the reader to relax their guard. When the devastating moment arrives, it packs a real punch. This also protects the reader from despair.

Sources of suspense

1. Conflict: Will the protagonist goal be accomplished?
2. Relationships and Emotional Significance: how will these connections be affected by the difficulties?
3. Mystery and Uncertainty: the need for the puzzle to be solved and the uncertainty of what will happen
4. Surprise: the action doesn’t go as the audience expected, making us anticipate other possibilities.
5. Anticipation: the audience has an expectation, they try to predict what will happen next, they anticipate.
6. Time: will they find the bomb and diffuse it, before it goes off?
7. Control: The hero is tied up, seemingly helpless in a dangerous situation.

Building suspense in 9 steps

Step 1: (1 short paragraph) state Protagonist goal and why. Show anxiety.

Step 2: Protagonist knowingly enters a dangerous situation. Emphasis on a barrier such as a door.

Step 3: Danger increases. Allies let him down or get cut off. Show anger/frustration/apprehension.

Step 4: Protagonist faces henchman, outfit or defeat him.

Step 5: (fast pace) Protagonist makes a narrow escape of some kind.

Step 6: (one paragraph – slow pace) brief moment of assumed safety. Lets protagonist and reader catch their breath and relax before tensing up again.

Step 7: Protagonist fucked up. Show panic, intense fear.

Step 8: Protagonist faces scene antagonist. Show intense fear.

Step 9: (aftermath) Protagonist either escaped, became imprisoned (doomed) or defeated the antagonist. Protagonist assess the situation. End the scene with a resolve for specific actions in coming scenes.


End every scene and every chapter with a cliff-hanger of some kind:

  • A startling realization
  • Announcement of danger around the corner
  • an announcement of what will happen next/soon
  • disaster arrived
  • an important question has been raised (continue reading to get the answer)
  • after ‘action’ fase but before ‘reaction’ phase