All stories—not just mysteries or thrillers—must include surprise and suspense. Although similar, these related concepts do differ. Adding a surprise to your story will temporarily thrill your reader. It’s exciting when something you didn’t see coming happens. Suspense keeps them reading. Will the couple get together in the end? Will the killer get away with it? Suspense makes readers turn pages. This post will show you how to use surprise and suspense in your novel.
Surprise and Suspense are Different
Surprise is when a bomb goes off in a café. Surprise is when the killer is revealed to be the mild-mannered next-door neighbor. Surprise catches you off guard. You thought things were going in one direction only to have them reversed at the last minute. Surprises are fun because they fill a reader or watcher with adrenaline, but the high doesn’t last.
Suspense, on the other hand, is the slow burn. Suspense isn’t surprising, per se. Suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re on the edge of your seat to see how it actually unfolds. Suspense is when you know the serial killer is in the house, yet the residents are unaware. That makes the victims’ last, normal activities filled with dread because you, the reader, know what’s about to happen.
When to Use Surprise
Surprise is used to excite the reader and enhance suspense. Like I said earlier, surprise wears off quickly, so even the most heart-racing surprise won’t last very long. Instead, use it to kick off more suspense. Take Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. I remember being very creeped out the first time Scrooge gets visited by Marley’s ghost. I didn’t realize Scrooge was going to be haunted. But then the surprise of this apparition lead to suspense. Who was going to visit next? What would Scrooge learn? What other phantoms would come to him that night?
Another great time to use surprise is at the end of the book. Readers love a surprise ending—so long as it makes sense in retrospect. Think about Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster twist at the end of Gone Girl. When you really thought about it, you could totally see it. It was a surprise, but it was nonetheless logical. This is the type of ending you want to go for. Never, ever have it all be a dream—that’s just disappointing. You don’t want to add in an alien or a ghost in the last five pages if the story has otherwise taken place in the modern world. But an expected surprise ending? Go for it!
When to Use Suspense
Every single story needs an element of suspense. It’s the thing that propels readers to turn pages. Suspense is what makes readers ask: I wonder what happens next? I wonder if she’ll win the blue ribbon. I wonder if he’ll find his father. I wonder if they’ll catch the terrorist in time. Suspense is the necessary ingredient in story telling because it engages the curiosity of the reader.
Whether you’re writing romance or mysteries, you want to give your reader enough information to root for the main character, yet see what obstacles are in their way. Knowing all of the obstacles the protagonist faces, the reader will want to see how they’re able to deal with these hardships. This is suspense, and it’s a mandatory tool of the novelist.