(Author of Cohesive Story Building)
ension and suspense can be described as the sensation of uncertainty and anticipation in the reader. Without them, your reader is uninterested and uninvolved in your story—cardinal sins where any work of fiction is concerned.
Tension is any type of awareness that brings the story to the fever pitch of anticipation. Tension must begin at the start of the story and must be kept intense throughout to prevent your reader from being disappointed or bored.
While many writers probably don’t see a difference between tension and suspense, in the structure of a story I believe tension is the milder of the two. Tension is anxiety, where suspense is agony. So tension could be considered the positive form of the two, because there’s an element of hope in it. With suspense, there’s danger, and it’s generally because something dreadful is coming.
Think of the movie While You Were Sleeping. There’s no real danger in this romantic comedy, outside of the fact that the heroine might marry the wrong guy. The film crackles with hopeful tension—the viewer worries because she desperately wants Lucy to end up with Jack, not his good-looking but mimbo brother, Peter. What’s at stake is happily-ever-after for two wonderful people. Viewers feel tension, not suspense.
The danger in the Aliens movie series is of the global-annihilation sort. Viewers are held in agonizing suspense, knowing that if these creatures escape and multiply, the worst thing imaginable will happen—and the viewer dreads it. What’s at stake is total elimination of the entire human race. No happily-ever-after for anyone.
Both tension and suspense are tricky to achieve and sustain. In each, you’re bringing your audience to the snapping point, and then and only then giving them what they want—temporarily. The tricky, sticky part is that you’re withholding a resolution that the audience desperately wants. If you keep it out of reach too long, you’ll lose your audience. If you give them too much of what they want too soon, they’ll have no reason to stick around.
Tension and suspense are absolutely necessary in every story.
Release and Downtime
Release as any temporary easement of either plot or romantic/sexual tension. Some of the many forms release can take are a kiss, the resolution of a red herring or a clue that seems to solve part of the mystery, or an answer that leads the character closer to getting what he wants. Release, like tension, is part of the causal chain of events essential to reaching resolution. It has to make sense in that chain and become part of its natural progression.
Downtime is a form of release, but it’s more intense and, like the climax, it happens only once during the course of a novel, during a time of incredible tension. This is the bleakest portion of the story, when all hope has seemingly been lost. The obstacles standing in the way are too numerous, too monumental, too impossible. The main character takes release from the action to reflect on what’s happened and what could have been, and, by all appearances, he seems to give up the fight. During downtime, the character now has a glimpse of the happily-ever-after he’s convinced has slipped from his fingers. This is a temporary respite from the extreme suspense. Characters—and readers!—need this desperately. If you don’t include it, the reader will get so exhausted from the fast pace, she won’t care how the book ends. She’s too tired to care.
Following downtime, the black moment, as the climax of downtime, comes. The character has no choice but to act at this point. Remember John McClane in Die Hard 2: Die Harder? He felt he’d expended all viable options to save his wife and stop the terrorists. He’s depressed, brought to his lowest point, and he reflects on all that’s happened and what he’s about to lose (this is the downtime). But then the pilot brings a swift end to all dithering when he takes the chance of blindly landing the plane—at exactly the same time the terrorists are attempting to make their getaway (black moment). At that point, John has absolutely no choice but to find a way to succeed. This provides the momentum for the final showdown.
Here again, I see a difference between release and downtime. Like tension, release is the milder of the two. Release is temporary relief from anxiety, while downtime is temporary relief from agony. Release could be considered the positive form of the two because there’s an element of hope in it. With downtime, the character believes he’s lost everything, danger’s on its way back, and he’s convinced there’s no stopping it. The ultimate dread is produced, because few people can relax when they know everything they ever wanted is about to go down the toilet. That naturally produces restlessness, recklessness, and intense edginess.
Release and downtime are also absolutely necessary in every story. But only with a cohesive logic in the build-up of downtime, suspense, and black moment, and with an equally meshed logical resolution, will your reader be left satisfied and smiling upon closing the book.
This in no way, however, means that you can’t throw a twist in at the end of your story—provided that it fits logically and cohesively with what you’ve already set up in the beginning and middle of the book.
Most twists come at the end of a story. But this isn’t to say you couldn’t have twists at other points in the story as well as more than one twist, each coming at various intervals. Adding twists to your stories are exciting to read because the author leads the reader so effectively to believe one thing (a thing that also makes perfectly logical and cohesive sense) while completely turning the tables at the last minute.
Putting twists into each story spark is a sure-fire way to turn a suspenseful story into a nail-biting one. To get started, ask yourself, In light of the rest of my story and the cohesiveness I need to provide, what’s the most shocking thing I could have happen? What is the reader absolutely not expecting?
A twist should be set up properly from the very beginning of the book to make it believable. It must fit logically and cohesively with what you’ve already set up in the beginning and middle of the book. Using an outline can help you prepare for that without requiring you to write an entire draft before you realize your resolutions are too predictable. Resolutions need to fit perfectly with every angle this twist presents.
Think about the book (and the movie, which is just as good) Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow. If you haven’t read or watched this before, I encourage you to do it at your earliest opportunity. The twist at the end utterly haunted me for years afterward. The truth was there before my eyes the whole time, yet I never saw it, and it punched me in the stomach brutally when it came.
A twist is so breathtaking because it comes out of nowhere (despite the fact that the reader will have to concede that all the evidence to point to it was there from the start) and it satisfies the reader worlds more than a predictable outcome ever can. In some cases, the twist may be the very thing the reader wanted to happen but didn’t dare let herself hope for.
When I finished the outline for Undercover Angel, the seventh book in my Incognito Series, I found myself with a story that made complete sense, following the course that I’d set up from the beginning and throughout the middle to the end. Nevertheless, I was ultimately disappointed with the outcome and knew my readers would be, too. The resolutions were simply too predictable to truly satisfy me. So I sat down and thought to myself, What is the most shocking thing I could possibly make happen in order to make the reader gasp when she gets to the end of the story? When I realized what it was, I went back into my outline and reshaped it from start to finish to fit this new twist as well (better, really) as the predictable resolutions did. When my critique partner read the outline, she said she’d fully expected the predictable resolution and never had the slightest clue about the twist until it hit her square in the stomach—and she loved it. This trick worked to fulfill the breathtaking longing in the reader for an unexpected shock.
Always look for the unexpected twist in your story because it makes it so memorable. There are always obvious scenarios that can be developed in response to the sparks introduced in your story but your goal is to generate the unexpected in your readers. Discombobulate them within the confines of logic, satisfactory resolutions, and cohesion.
Six Tips for Creating Tension and Suspense
1. Use doubt to create suspense.
The unknown is the “it” factor when creating suspenseful novels—and novels must indeed be suspenseful or your readers will have nothing to stick around for. If you can truly make your characters (and readers) believe that the main character will never reach his goals, you’ll have succeeded in creating a book that absolutely can’t be put down. Involving the reader means making sure that your story is cohesive enough to draw her inexplicably in, right where you want her. A cohesive story will never allow the reader to become too comfortable.
2. Let mood and senses create the atmosphere you need for suspense.
Remember that mood is a carefully constructed means of building suspense. Essentially, it’s a springboard with limited purpose. In order to sustain it, you must involve the reader. Prepare for it with cohesive characters, setting, and plot, then use all of the senses to build the appropriate tone. You wouldn’t want a slapstick tone in a drama any more than you’d want a sensual tone in playful story intended for children.
Mood (or tone) is a carefully constructed means to build tension and suspense, and the mood almost always fits the genre, though of course the mood of an individual scene is more changeable. Science fiction generally has an adventurous tone. Suspense has a tense mood. Gothic has a heavy feel of foreboding.
The most effective way to capture mood is to use the senses. Where are the characters in your scene; what are they seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, tasting, feeling (the little-acknowledged sixth sense)? What emotions are they dealing with?
If you want to create a sensual atmosphere, describe the scent of a candle burning, the touch of silk against bare skin, the strains of romantic music playing, or a heroine’s reaction to the appearance of her lover. If you want to set the mood for danger, make the character tangibly aware of the temperature (cold—goose bumps on skin); the lighting (darkness or shadows); a revolting smell; a sudden sound or the eerie absence of sound. If you want to create a tone for character shock, have him in the middle of a bite of what had previously been a delicious meal. With this mood, the food becomes sawdust in his mouth, the taste unnoticeable or unappetizing, and he chokes when he finally attempts to swallow it.
Use sense descriptions at their most potent times. This kind of description brings the reader directly into the story. You give her something tangible in your vision. She moves and uses his senses right along with your characters. Create a natural means to blend all the elements of your story.
3. Contrast to keep readers on edge.
Pair a pessimistic hero with a bleeding heart heroine. Paint the image of a beautiful rose growing steadfastly in a desolate landfill. Develop character personalities and backstories, settings, and plots that make these contrasts blend together naturally.
4. Pace your story to keep it flowing smoothly, even as tensions run high.
Don’t rush to pick up story threads. Keep the reader guessing. Draw out scenes involving rescues and explanations, and offer readers unsatisfactory alternatives to the problems your characters face. Cohesion is crucial when pacing your story, since organic mingling will create the need for (and enable) pacing that matches. Imagine that you introduce into your plot a time element. If the hero doesn’t act by a certain time, the worst horror he can imagine will happen. Pacing picks up considerably. Now imagine that this hero is given a glimpse of his happily-ever-after, but he no longer believes he can succeed. After all, he’s tried everything and failed. The pacing will naturally slow down because he’s at the bottom. Suddenly, conflict arises and the hero has absolutely no choice but to act. He finds a way to save what he cares about most. The pace picks up again. All of this works causally with your characters, setting, and plot.
5. Foreshadow by hinting at what is to come, not by answering the crucial questions of a story.
Foreshadowing needs to be built into a story in advance. A writer can’t foreshadow something he doesn’t know will happen. Properly developed foreshadowing brings together all the elements in your story. In Conflict, Action & Suspense, William Noble calls foreshadowing “a fine technique for developing suspense and extending action because it offers a possibility that will pick at the reader.” If your reader cares about your characters, she’ll pick up on foreshadowing immediately and every time it’s touched afterward. It’ll worry her to no end. And that means she’ll be involved and hanging on every word.
6. Use flashbacks to slow down the action and/or provide missing details, hidden motivation, or even an answer to a mystery.
Flashbacks can be in the form of a scene, a paragraph, a sentence, or even a single word. Flashbacks will come naturally out of character, setting, and plot development. It’s tricky to write an effective flashback. Therefore, the purpose in using it must always be clear to the author and the reader.
The best part of a tension and twists are that your readers will invest themselves in it mentally, emotionally, and possibly even physically (if you can make them cry or bite their nails, you’ve got them hook, line, and sinker!). You’ve created a net the readers won’t want to get out of until they know everything, and they’ll feel like they’re leaving a piece of themselves behind each time they reluctantly set the book down—especially that last time when they read “The End.”
In addition to being a popular writing reference instructor and writer, professional blurbologist and freelance editor, Karen Wiesner is the award-winning author of over 130 titles in nearly every genre. Her newest fiction releases are entries in her Friendship Heirlooms Series (Christian romance), Adventures in Amethyst Series (romance/suspense), and Peaceful Pilgrims (comedic women’s fiction). Her newest writing reference is Writing Blurbs That Sizzle—And Sell!. Karen runs a Blurb Service for Authors where you can find information about signing up for her workshops. When she isn’t writing, she can be found reading, playing videogames or piano, and visiting her son—also a writer and copyeditor—where he attends college. Visit her website at www.karenwiesner.com, and connect with her on Facebook.