Story structure is the skeleton of a work of fiction, but suspense is its life’s blood. Twists, subplots, clues or foreshadowing, red herrings, and conflict – all those essential ingredients are designed to increase suspense.
Suspense isn’t just an important in mysteries, thrillers, or novels of romantic suspense. All fiction needs it, and all successful novels – even the ones we studied in school – have it.
“Suspense is the art of marking the reader care what happens next,” Marie F. Rodell wrote in her
classic textbook Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique. “Mystery alone – merely something hidden or disguised – will not include suspense unless the reader is made to care about finding the truth.”
It’s not enough that the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He or she must also want to find out. That only happens if he or she identifies with the characters.
In the original 1956 edition of The Mystery Writers Handbook edited by Herbert Brean, a now-forgotten writer named Eleazor Lipsky had a short article on suspense that was the most insightful I’ve ever read. He said that what he called “storytelling doubt” arises from the reader’s emotional identification with a character’s doubt. That’s why a suspenseful story retains its suspense on multiple readers.
Will the protagonist’s goal be reached? Will her boyfriend succeed in making her his next victim? As readers, we know may know the answer – but the protagonist doesn’t, and we identify with her. That’s also how we can be in agonizing suspense over the fate of a series hero like Jack Reacher, Aloysius Pendergast, or Dirk Pitt who certainly will survive the novel to make more money for his author.
How do we create that doubt about the outcome that leads to suspense?
Story structure is based on crisis and resolution. In a novel there are many minor goals on the way to the main goal of solving the murder or finding the treasure. There is suspense in this anticipation, this doubt over each minor goal. “When anticipation ends, the story is over,” Lipsky notes.
But until that point, each resolved crisis leads on to a bigger crisis for the protagonist. How will it turn out? The protagonist, whom we care about, doesn’t know – and therein lays suspense.
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