If you’re story feels flat, you may want to look at the plot and ask yourself, “Do my readers have a sense of anticipation yet uncertainty about what will come next?” If the answer is “No,” then your story lacks suspense.
“Suspense” is difficult to define if only because there are so many different thoughts about exactly what it is. Further, suspense for one genre, such as a mystery story, may be more subdued than in others, such as a western or science fiction tale.
At its core, though, suspense in any genre occurs when the outcome for a character is uncertain. The more a reader is invested in finding out the answer to that uncertainty, the more suspenseful the story. In large part, suspense is enhanced by the building of tension.
Writers can develop suspense in a number of ways:
• Create characters with problems – If your main character has no central problem to solve or has no motive for solving it, you don’t have much of a story. Deepen the suspense by giving the main character good reason to be resistant to resolving the story’s central problem.
• Withhold the hidden story – As a writer, you know the full backstory of your characters and how the plot will unfold. Don’t spill that to readers. Divulge it in small portions, and only when necessary to further the plot.
• Hide characters’ motives from one another – While readers need to know why your main character behaves a certain way, other characters don’t need to know that. Your main character then doesn’t understand why other characters act as they do, and this inexplicable behavior can lead to conflict between them.
• Employ the Hitchcock Effect – Movie master Alfred Hitchcock allowed the audience, through a character’s dialogue and scenery shots, to infer a danger. Whether or not the character then might step into that dangerous situation creates suspense.
• Add some action – If your main character has nothing to do, then there are no problems to resolve, and the story quickly loses momentum (Of course, the classic “Waiting for Godot” has virtually no action, but the author utilizes other methods of creating suspense to make up for this.). All action should have a point to it, however; mainly, it needs to impel the main character to resolve the story’s central problem.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.