We are naturally drawn to suspense. Whether in fiction, films or television, suspense grabs and maintains our interest whilst the absence of it invariably leaves us feeling let down. Sadly this happens more often than not. Pick up a book and scan its blurb. How many times have you read a book description that promises a suspenseful read, only to find said book falls far short of your expectations? The fact is that few authors really master the art of suspense and those who do are the ones who come to understand its underpinning psychology. Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, John Grisham or Harlan Coben would surely make any notable list of The Best Suspense Authors. Bestseller after bestseller each of their publishing records speak volumes.
In simple terms, suspense comes from the relationship between what we know and don’t know. Our innate desire for answers and our ability to empathize. This is the starting point for a master wordsmith as they begin to weave and construct the fabrics of their fictions. Sometimes it seems there’s some elusive pseudoscience at work but in truth, the mastery of suspense in fiction is within any authors grasp. Troll the internet and there are endless posts dedicated to the mastery of suspense in fiction but as with all sage advice, it’s often hard to see the wood for the trees!
We’ve read hundreds of such posts. Lingered on the good points discarded the repetitive and whittled them down to the absolute essentials because these are the foundations upon which great suspense is built.
- Time is crucial to building suspense. It should be like the grains of sand in a sand timer. Relentlessly slipping away with your protagonist in a neck to neck race to beat the clock.
- Unpredictability is essential to mastering suspense! Real-life is full of curveballs, things rarely run to plan and we invariably make trade-offs to get the things we want. It shouldn’t be any different for your protagonist. Each win should come at a cost and that’s true for your antagonist too.
- The higher the stakes the more we stand to lose. This goes to the heart of our ability to empathize and to make suspense real for your reader you need to create a crisis that could shatter your protagonist’s world.
- Turn up the heat! This might seem like a repeat of point one but there is subtlety at work here. Not only should your protagonist be temporally challenged, their unique skills and strengths should be stretched to buckling point with the prospect of failure always a hair breadth away.
All 4 of the above are crucial to the underpinning psychology of suspense and The Best Suspense Authors employ each without exception. Are you?