I came to the conclusion of what to write today by watching far too many episodes of Prison Break and subsequently being unable to sleep. Which is a good thing. Why is this a good thing? Because it made me realize something that many of the manuscripts I read don’t have: Suspense.
Suspense isn’t something that necessarily means that “oh my God, tension” is something good in large doses. But it keeps making me want to read/see more. Prison Break has me practically dancing in my seat – and I’m only watching it on Netflix. I can only imagine what the people watching it weekly had to put up with. Man.
Some good examples of tension in book format are Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas”, the first few books of Terry Brooks’ “Sword of Truth” series and “The Sword of Shannara” by Terry Brooks.
Dictionary.com defines suspense as the following:
1. a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.
2. a state of mental indecision.
3. undecided or doubtful condition, as of affairs: For a few days matters hung in suspense.
4. the state or condition of being suspended.
Every good story has some suspense. It has conflict and it keeps the reader coming back for more.
Now, of course, the universal question, “Well, if you’re so smart how do we create suspense?” I don’t blame you for asking and while a lot of you definitely know this already, I’m going to just give a couple suggestions for it that, in my experience, work.
Settings can intrinsically develop suspense. For example, something in the middle of a warzone tends to have a good deal of suspense – having a bunch of Jewish runaways in the middle of Nazi Germany immediately sets the reader up to wonder “are they going to get out”, “what are they doing there” and leaves them concerned that they’re going to get caught. The setting intrinsically creates a sense of conflict and suspense. Does every novel need to be like that? Absolutely not. But it’s just a chance to set everything up to keep the reader guessing right off the bat.
Betrayals at the last minute, characters being drawn out to believe something the reader knows isn’t true, love affairs that never quite make it, all of these are devices that utilize suspense and will – if done properly – keep the reader on the edge of their seat. And begging for things to work right.
Now, I just said “if done right” – there’s a right way and a wrong way to do suspense. The right way keeps the reader rooting for, or yelling at, the character, urging them onward. They’re on the edge of their seat, kept up at night wondering what’s going to happen next, unable to put the book down. The wrong way to do it creates friction and the reader wants to just yell “JUST DO IT ALREADY!” out of frustration, and not in the way that we feel about Moulder and Scully having feelings for each other. Well, most of us.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to draw out the suspense too long for some things – also don’t constantly leave it at a screaming pitch. There can be an overarcing feeling of urgency, but there has to be a curve, up and down. Build it and let it ebb. I hate to keep referencing the same thing, but again I bring up Prison Break. Right before commercial or at the end of the episode you’re left with a big sense of “Uh oh.” Or “Yeah! Go, man!” so far (I’m just beginning Season II) and while there’s an overall, growing tension of “how are they going to handle this whole thing?” (no spoilers, I promise), the tension peaks and falls with each episode, leaving you a little breathing room here and there. Occasionally. Do that for your readers. Peak the tension and then have them open the right door, or give them a break. Let them get a second of “whew!” or have the lovers (who aren’t admitting it) kiss and the reader will cheer you on. Never give them that second to breathe or that kiss and people will be rolling their eyes.
Also, don’t over-dramatize it. Dramatics are good, they can really get a reader by the guts and hold them, but if your novel reads like a soap opera, chances are you’ll have more people disgusted than enthralled (unless your novel is explicitly meant to be that way… in which case… good luck to you).