Suspense! (And How To Build It)

Introduction

Following on from my previous post, I’d like to take a post to explain one of the most powerful driving forces in mystery stories — and, therefore, in all stories. To briefly recap the previous post: Whether you’re writing a science fiction novella, a western, or a romance, you’ll always employ the techniques relevant to a mystery. The Big Reveal generates Clues, your protagonists follow the Clues to discover the answer disclosed in the Big Reveal.

But there’s a third element vital to keeping your protagonists following those clues (and, of course, to keeping your readers following your protagonists): Suspense.

The Importance Of Suspense

The reason why suspense is so important is simple: You hook your reader with a compelling question. But the reason your reader will keep turning pages is because they want the answer to that question. Suspense pulls them from that first question to bigger and bigger questions, all while satisfying them just enough to keep them hungry for that next answer.

How To Establish It

It’s important never to answer each question, entirely, too soon. In a sense, the Big Reveal is held to the end and provides the context which should answer, all at once, all the smaller questions that have led your reader to the conclusion of the story.

No one clue should answer any one question 100%. On the other hand, a new clue that answers a few questions at once — only partially — is okay. But it also has to raise new questions.

Example time: In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker sees the hologram of Princess Leia looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi. That’s Luke’s first clue that leads him toward the Big Reveal.

But it proposes multiple questions. Luke asks one of them right out loud: “I wonder if she means old Ben Kenobi.” His uncle refers to Kenobi as “that old hermit.” So why is a princess referring to an “old hermit” as her “only hope”?

Later, when the message is replayed, we learn two more things which both answer this question while raising new questions when she addresses him as “General Kenobi” and references his status as a veteran of the “Clone Wars.”

That might not strike us as “suspense” in the context of a mystery or horror story, but it’s the same thing, doing the same job — it’s serving up new questions and giving us just enough of the answers, each time, to keep us hungry for more.

And that’s exactly what you should be doing to your readers.

The Importance Of False Leads

Suspense serves another purpose in storytelling, as well; in this case, particularly in the mystery genre, where it’s critical to the overall reaction to your story that your reader doesn’t guess the Big Reveal.

A reminder: always assume that your readers are clever, intelligent people who are capable of guessing how your book will end. And always be wary of that, because if they succeed in doing so — at least, if they do so too easily — they probably won’t be too eager to pick up your next work.

That’s why your readers, via your protagonist/s, should encounter, and follow, false leads. Your protagonists should be as clever as you assume your readers to be — but even clever people can be mistaken, can misinterpret clues and travel down the wrong path.

To this end, you should leave room in your plot for multiple ultimate solutions to the story. Let your protagonist/s and your readers splash around in the overlap until the false trail comes to a dead end. That’s where your protagonist/s re-evaluates the original interpretation of the clues — and takes off at a dead run, the readers on his or her heels, until they arrive at the actual Big Reveal to surprise and satisfy your readers.

Conclusion

Take a moment to think back to your favorite story — whether in print or on the small or big screen — and think about the strands of clues your heroes have followed in those stories, how those strands led to the Big Reveal of each story.

I can give you the examples I’ve noticed in post after post, but I think that you already have a head full of just such examples. Think back on them — or, better yet, re-read or re-watch them — and see if you can find the dynamic of suspense in each one, regardless of its genre.

Then see if keeping an eye out for it in your own writing doesn’t work for you.

As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the comments.

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