Picture this: it’s the middle of a dramatic story and the main character is being lowered into a pit of ravenous crocodiles. Meanwhile, the villain is launching a doomsday device which will destroy the whole world!
Does this strike you as suspenseful? Are your nerves shredded by the metaphorical food processor that is tension? This scene certainly seems to have high stakes, but does it really?
Chances are it doesn’t. Why? Well, will you really kill the main character in the middle of the story? Is it believable that the villain will kill the whole world? Probably not. I’m not denying there’ll be loads of suspense, but there’s more to creating suspense than just having high stakes.
What is Suspense?
Suspense is tension created by readers anticipating and wondering what will happen next. It’s a vital storytelling ingredient because suspense drives readers to keep reading. Fill your story with enough suspense and you can just about guarantee that readers will finish it.
The Ingredients of Suspense:
The higher the stakes, the more suspense there’ll be. For example, there’ll be little suspense if readers are wondering who stole a pencil. There’ll be bucket-loads of suspense if readers are wondering if the main character can save his dad before the bomb explodes.
Creating interesting, compelling chracters will make readers care about their struggles. Let’s take two scenarios. In scenario A, Bob must rescue one minor character who the readers have spent some time with from a fire. In scenario B, Bob must rescue two characters we’ve never met from a fire. Objectively, the stakes are higher in scenario B. However, there’ll be far more overall suspense in scenario A because readers care more about the outcome.
Believability of consequences
When it comes to crafting suspenseful situations, most writers focus on upping the stakes. This is important, because having low stakes will cannon your chances of crafting strong suspense. However, the only way to have edge-of-your seat, white-knuckle-ride and (insert other James-Pattersonisms here) suspense is to make the consequences believable. If you’re threatening to kill a character, your readers better believe you.
This is why the suspense in Man of Steel is far lower than the suspense in The Dark Knight. In MoS the Earth will be destroyed if Superman fails. In TDK the two boat-loads of people – perhaps 500 in all – will be blown up if Batman fails. MoS has much higher stakes, yet there was way more suspense in TDK. This was because Mos’ consequences are totally unbelievable, and if your audience doesn’t think that there is a chance of you following through with the consequences, suspense is greatly reduced.
This is where the meta element enters this discussion. Readers know that your story isn’t real. As a writer, you must always remember this. When it comes to creating believable consequences, ask yourself: given the readers’ knowledge that this is fictitious, does my threat (i.e. of killing a character) seem believable?
For instance, readers know you won’t kill your sole protagonist 60% of the way through a novel. It is conceivable that you might kill them at the end, however, and as such you can create more suspense in the climax. If you’re writing a series, also keep this in mind. Readers won’t believe that you’ll kill the main character in book 2 of a trilogy, but you might kill the main character’s best friend. Therefore, you should threaten the best friend to create maximum suspense.
Creating suspense is never as simple as simply upping the stakes. If you want to develop authentic suspense, you must remember that readers know your story is fictitious. Once you realise this, you’ll be on the road to writing a novel readers won’t be able to put down.
What are your thoughts on suspense? Do you think suspense is important? How important is it to have believable consequences? I’d love to hear your opinions!