“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”
Oscar Wilde’s words demonstrate exactly what is so captivating about suspense in literature: the agonisingly delicious experience of being on the edge of your seat while reading a thriller, hardly breathing as you tear through the pages to find out what happens next.
And what will happen next?
Well, when you read on you’ll find out how to create suspense in such a way that your readers won’t be able to put your story down until the very end.
In this article, we will explore various types of suspense that you’ll find in literature, and discuss the different ways you can create it, along with studying lots of great examples of suspense.
What Is Suspense In Literature?
Suspense is all about who knows what.
As the author, you can withhold information from the reader, releasing it bit by bit to build towards a climactic moment of revelation. Or, writers can give the reader information that your character doesn’t have, ensuring that the reader is nail-bitingly aware of the potential dangers and pitfalls the character can’t see. All this creates suspense.
As we shall see, suspense in literature can be found in a wide variety of fiction genres, from horror to romance. Let’s take a look at how to build tension in other forms.
Narrative/Long Term Suspense
Narrative suspense, also known as long term suspense, is drawn out over an entire story.
Think of Agatha Christie murder mystery novels, or courtroom dramas where the outcome of the trial is only revealed at the end. Long term suspense stories often have a subplot with suspense at its heart as well, which runs alongside and complements the main plot.
In Alex Reeve’s Victorian London-set The House on Half Moon Street, protagonist Leo Stanhope investigates the murder of his love, Maria. Various leads are established and lead on to other clues and complications, drawing the investigation into darker and more dangerous territory.
Alongside that plot thread, suspense is also created with the subplot of Leo’s hidden background as Charlotte, the daughter of a respectable reverend. As he closes in on the truth about what happened to Maria, the life he has created for himself as Leo is also imperilled.
Having these two longterm threads running throughout the narrative ensures that suspense is created and interest sustained across the course of an entire novel. The moments between investigative set-pieces, showing us Leo’s life as a trans man in the 1880s, keep the suspense going as the readers develop their understanding of the personal cost the investigation has for him.
In your own suspense novel (or even movie), consider how you might use a subplot to supplement the main story. This approach adds depth to your story, and ensures your readers are gripped throughout as they don’t know what is going to happen.
Short Term Suspense
Short term suspense is suspense that’s created for brief moments or episodes in a story that otherwise does not rely on suspense throughout. Although all stories have suspense in some sense, short term suspense is for stories without the propelling tension that characterises long term suspense stories.
Short term suspense is often created through conflict between characters. A conversation or confrontation explodes over the course of a scene, though of course it may have been instigated earlier – and have ramifications for the characters and plot long after.
In Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, where Black babysitter Emira is accused of kidnapping the white child she’s employed to look after during a trip to the supermarket, the confrontation (escalated when a passer-by films it on his phone) is over by the end of the first chapter, but its after-effects are felt throughout the rest of the novel.
To create a suspenseful moment in your own writing, you can make use of short, dramatic events. Think about how these brief moments can be used to propel your plot forward or to develop your characters. And remember – even a quick event can have a long shadow.
Mysterious suspense can be found in murder mysteries and thriller novels, where a key detail is kept until close to the end. This type of suspense often has a plot twist, where a surprising ending is, on reflection, inevitable once you look back at the trail the writer has cunningly laid.
In River Solomon’s sci-fi novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, the main character, Aster, works to uncover the mystery of her dead mother’s journals, which initially seem to be nonsensical ravings. As Aster learns more about the HSS Matilda, a space vessel on which she and generations before her have been enslaved, the mystery of her mother’s journals leads her to make an earth-shattering discovery about the ship itself. Words and notations in the journal which originally seem to mean little, come to have vast significance later on.
When writing your own mysteries, there’s a delicate balancing act to ensure you have planted clues throughout that lead towards the final revelation, without making those elements so obvious that your readers can work out the mystery before you want them to.
Imagine a character creeping through a darkened hallway. Behind them, a shadow moves. Is it a person?
Then a noise from ahead.
That’s horrific suspense. Closely related to short term suspense, horrific suspense is when your reader or audience is waiting for something terrible to happen. As the name suggests, it’s most often found in horror stories, though thrillers may have it as well. The key is setting up an expectation that something awful will happen.
Some of the best examples of horrific suspense play with this expectation.
The first episode of the TV series The Walking Dead does this to great effect. Rick has just woken up from a coma in a deserted hospital. Trying to find a way out, Rick finds a stairwell – but it’s completely black. Of course, we immediately assume that the dark contains the ‘walking dead’ (zombies).
The next couple of minutes show Rick inching downstairs, helped only by a tiny pool of light from some matches. At every moment, the audience expects Rick to be attacked – especially when the matches keep going out and the periods of complete darkness get longer, accompanied only by Rick’s panicked breathing.
But ultimately, the climax of the scene isn’t a vicious attack: Rick finds a door and bursts into the sunlight (and the audience breathes for the first time in a while).
When writing horrific suspense, remember that you are setting up and either fulfilling or subverting an expectation. As in the ‘Walking Dead’ example, nothing has to actually happen for it to be horrific – but the reader should expect it to, leaving them following the character’s actions with dread.
Romantic and comedic suspense are similar because they’re both lighter in tone than the examples we’ve discussed so far.
With romantic suspense, the reader or audience is primarily invested in the will-they-won’t-they drama – think of Ross and Rachel from the series Friends, for example. In this type, suspense is often created by misunderstandings, miscommunications, and obstacles that work to make the characters’ relationship seem impossible.
Akwaeke Emezi’s romance novel You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, throws some significant obstacles in the way of the main character Feyi, a young widow and artist who has begun to open herself up to love again. However, the person she is most drawn to is not the person she’s begun a relationship with, Nasir, but his father, Alim, who understands her grief in a way that Nasir cannot.
With comedic suspense, the key is inevitability. The reader or audience should have a clear expectation of what hilarious consequence is going to ensue, and seeing it develop only heightens the humour. This can be achieved either with dramatic irony, when the audience knows something the character doesn’t, or with an expectation that arises logically out of the situation.
In the courtroom scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the tension of the trial is broken with the comedic suspense of Bassanio and Gratiano’s pronouncements that they would both rather their wives were dead than their friend Antonio. Unlike the audience, they are unaware that their wives are right there in the courtroom, in disguise as lawyers, and are clearly unimpressed with their statements.
Now that we know the different types of suspense, let’s have a look at ways we can create them.
How To Write Suspenseful Stories
To create suspenseful stories, you can employ a variety of techniques, such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, red herrings, obstacles, and pace.
Foreshadowing is when you drop hints in your suspense story about something before it arises.
In Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books to keep: ‘Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over’. Here, Zafón foreshadows later events where the book, and the mystery behind it, do indeed take over Daniel’s life.
Flashbacks are used to show a reader something that occurs before the main action of a story. In Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, flashbacks are used to reveal the backstory of Mia Wright, including the shocking secret she’s been hiding from her daughter. Suspense is added with the additional understanding that an insight into the past benefits the reader.
Red herrings are false or misleading clues that you can lay for your reader to conceal the truth from them. You want a red herring to be a logical assumption that nevertheless turns out to be false, while it is obvious in hindsight that the real truth was hinted at all along.
Obstacles are key to ensuring your story has effective suspense.
In Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, we follow Zhu Chongba, the assumed male identity of a peasant girl who rises in power and influence to claim her destiny. In addition to the trials of someone moving up a rigid class structure, there are the extra challenges of Zhu concealing her identity from the people around her.
Pace is the speed at which a narrative appears to be moving. You can create an agonisingly slow pace that draws out the tension to the breaking point, or a fast pace that puts the reader on the edge of their seat with breakneck action. Paragraph and sentence length are one of the most effective ways to achieve this: longer sentences for a slow pace; shorter, sharper sentences for a fast pace.
Creating Suspense: Top Tips
To use suspense well, take a look at the following ideas.
This can be short term, like a countdown on an explosive; or longer term: for instance, if the character knows they are sick, and wants to complete a task before their impending death, like the villainous Von Rumpel in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
Point Of View
One way to tell your story is from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, who knows everything and can impart information to the reader that the characters do not know.
You can also use third person limited – your narrator is external to the story, but the reader mostly only knows what the character does. Or first person, where the reader inhabits the mind of your character(s) entirely.
These points of view allow you to make different choices about when to retain or reveal information.
It’s not for nothing that the Latin root of ‘suspense’ is from the word ‘suspensus’: suspended, hovering, doubtful. Ending a chapter at a dramatic moment without revealing the outcome guarantees that your reader will be desperate to turn the page and read on.
You can build all the suspense you like, but if the reader doesn’t care about your character then it’s all for nothing.
That doesn’t mean your character has to be blandly perfect; but we must be invested in them, care about their journey, and be waiting to see what happens to them. Giving your character a vulnerability is one way to ensure your readers care about them; another is giving your character something to care about themselves. (That is why John Wick has a puppy.)
Raise The Stakes
The aforementioned She Who Became the Sun does this wonderfully. At first, peasant Zhu Chongba has little to lose if her concealed identity is uncovered. By the time that she has risen to commanding armies, with hundreds of people who rely on and respect her, the stakes have been raised to unbelievable levels – which means the suspense has been, as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is An Example Of Suspense?
An example of suspense is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where we follow a father desperately trying to keep his child alive in a dangerous and dying world. Their challenges – finding food, staying warm, evading capture – become increasingly terrifying and insurmountable, and readers are constantly on edge as they wonder how it is possible to for the two to stay alive (and retain their humanity) in such a world.
How Would You Describe Suspense?
Suspense is that nail-biting, edge of your seat, holding your breath feeling that comes when you are waiting for something to happen, or waiting to find out what will happen. It is achieved through the controlled release of information by the writer.
What Literary Techniques Create Suspense?
Suspense can be created with these literary devices:
- Dramatic irony (the reader knows something the character doesn’t)
- Pace (fast or slow action)
- Foreshadowing (hints about what is to come)
- Flashbacks (moments from the past interspersed in the present-day narrative)
- Point of view (how the story is told, such as first person – from a character’s viewpoint – or third person – from a narrative voice external to the story)
Build Suspense And Meet Reader Expectations
Whether you want to include a plot twist, raise tension, hide answers, or keep your reader up past their bedtime, suspense is a highly effective tool in your writer’s kitbag.
Remember the key is control of information: as the writer, you have all the answers – but you can choose when to reveal those to your characters, and to your readers.