What is suspense at the end of the day? Merriam-Webster defines it as ‘a mental uncertainty’, and also as ‘a pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome.’
What is it about us, readers and humans, which makes us so drawn to being in the unknown of a story—to a withheld resolution? I’d like to think that we are a naturally curious people. That is why we’re reading in the first place.
The Suspenseful Question
Writing suspense is a skill. Suspense sells the worst and best books out there, because readers love the hunt. We love not getting what we want, for as long as we’re interested.
And what do we want? The answer to the suspenseful question the story made us ask. Does the couple find their way to each other? Does the soldier make it out alive? Will the hero be able to save the world from darkness? Whodunnit?
Your story should have a question the readers want the answer to—a reason for them to keep reading and find the answer. I suggest not telling the reader the question until they have a reason to care about the world you’re creating. The best way to do this is through…
The best suspense stories use the question they give their stories against the readers, so that the reader is stuck alongside the protagonist, who also does not have the answer.
For example, a detective story. The protagonist detective is trying to solve a mystery and the readers follow his or her path to that discovery. This means the protagonist should be someone a reader would want to spend a whole book following around. If your protagonist is lifeless, impersonal, boring, or just a wholly unlikeable character, the reader won’t want to spend time around them.
Make your protagonist someone interesting and your readers will be interested enough to keep asking the suspenseful question.
The Fight to the Finish
Your protagonist, as they strive to answer their suspenseful question, should and must come across obstacles between them and the answer. Nothing worth having is easy to get in these worlds.
Create successes and losses for your protagonist as they move forward. It’s a ‘win some, lose some’ situation, kind of like life. Every pitfall your characters come across should make finding the answer more difficult and more desirable because of it.
You can do this through red herrings, through finding a new piece of information, through losing a fight. The situations are endless and you, as the writer, can choose which best serves the suspense in your story.
Finally, you have the answer to your suspenseful question. It’s the reason your protagonist has been moving forward, why your characters get up in the morning. They, and the readers, have made it!
Creating the best answer to the suspenseful question is more all-grey than black and white. This is up to the creator. It doesn’t have to be the expected answer, or the happiest answer. There doesn’t even have to be an answer. This is all part of the experience you want to create for your readers and your characters. Teach them a lesson, satisfy their curiosity—that’s up to you. Just make it a good one.