The word most often misused by new novelists is "suspense."
Somewhere along the line, many of us educated in American schools picked up the misunderstanding that suspense in fiction meant the withholding (story) information from the reader as long as possible. That's not what suspense is. Instead, it is creating the feeling of eager anticipation in the mind of the reader about "what will happen next." It is raising questions in the reader's mind the reader will have to read on to find the answer to.
Too often, we associate suspense only with mystery novels. Mystery novels differ uniquely from other novels. Non-mystery novels tend to be characterized by the forward focus, forward motion, forward objective, and eager interest in what is going to happen next – suspense.
But the mystery novel has a different component: It leaps from, grows out of, and comes alive by something that either happened early in the novel or before the novel started. So for the majority of the novel, there is an unrelenting question: How did that happen? Or, who did it? Or why did something happen? Yes, there is also suspense in a well-written mystery novel because the reader is carefully led to want to know, "What's going to happen next?" But the catalyst that propels it forward is behind the scene at hand, not in front of it.
It is suspense that keeps us up late at night, making little deals with ourselves: "I'm just going to read ten more pages. "Or, "I'm just going to read until the end of this chapter." It's just that in the mystery, we are also trying to find out how something happened, and in the pure suspense novel (absent a mystery), we are trying to find out how this is going to end up. This becomes the dramatic question of the novel – solving the mystery.
In virtually all types of novels, the source of suspense for the reader is first the antagonist. We tend to know what the protagonist is going to do, but we know less about what the antagonist is planning. The second, third and fourth sources of suspense are how well or poorly your protagonist can achieve intermediate goals, how his own flaws will limit his ability to do what he wants and what misfortune, bad luck or turn of events act as further obstacles to the easy achievement of the protagonist's goal.
Protagonist's screw things up, come up with dry holes, get blindsided by clever antagonists and often are their own worst enemies. All this makes the reader wonder, "What the heck could go wrong next?" "What's around the next corner?" "What other mistakes will make the antagonist's job that much easier?"
Characters are at their most interesting when they are at their worst.
Let lots of things go wrong, and you have suspense. Let things go easily, and you have a boring story.
So when you say or hear "suspense," know it means writing or reading with the focus on what's going to happen next, not withholding information from the reader to trick him into reading on.
Suspense engages the reader's expectations and curiosity. And it is the novelist who sets up those expectations causing the reader to read on to find out if what he expects actually happens and answering the questions we put in his mind in the first place.
Your best tool for incorporating suspense is to place questions in the mind of the reader: Why did she say that? Why didn't she tell him about the phone call? Why did she slip that pistol into her clutch purse on the way out the door? Why did she lie? Then, make sure you pay off the answer promptly.
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