25 Things You Should Know About Suspense And Tension

It doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing — doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a script, a game, whatever, you’re better off learning how to implement suspense and tension into your work. It’s been on my brain lately, and so it seems a good time for another straight-up “List of 25.” Read. Digest. Comment. And above all else, go forth and write like a motherfucker.

1. True Of Every Story

We assume suspense and tension are reserved for those stories that showcase such emotions. “This is a suspense-thriller about the mad ursinologist who runs around town leaving being enraged bears and the beautiful scientist lady who seeks to undo his sinister plans.” Bzzt. Wrongo. Every story must offer suspense and tension. Will Harry get together with Sally? Will the Millennium Falcon escape the gauntlet of TIE fighters? Will Ross and Rachel finally consummate their love and give birth to the Satanic hell-child that the prophets foretold? Suspense and tension drive our narrative need to consume stories.

2. Predicated On Giving A Shit

A small disclaimer: suspense and tension only work if the story offers something for the audience to care about. If the audience neither likes nor cares to discover the truth about La Bufadora, the Assassin Baby of Madrid, then any suspense or tension you build around this infantile killer will flop against the forest floor like a deer with its insides vacuumed out its cornchute. VOOMP. Just a gutted pelt. Never ignore the Give-A-Fuck factor. And stop fucking with deer and their deer buttholes. Weirdo.

3. Ratchet And Release

Constant tension can be trouble for a story: a story where pain and fear and conflict are piled endlessly atop one another may wear down the audience. Creating suspense works by contrast: you must relax and release the tension before ratcheting it back up again. Pressure builds, then you vent the steam. Then it builds again, and again you vent. This is pacing: the constant tightness and recoil of conflict into resolution and back into conflict. Think of Jenga: you remove a peace and, if the tower remains standing, everybody breathes a sigh of relief. Tension, release, tension, release.

4. Harder, Harder, Haaaaarderrr, Ngggghh

In winding tension tighter, escalation is everything. How could it not be? Tension is about hands closing around one’s neck: the grip must grow tighter for the fear to be there. If the grip relaxes, then the tension is lost. A roller coaster doesn’t blow the big loopty-loop on the first hill. Rather, you see it in the distant. You know it’s coming. Each hill, bigger and meaner and faster than the last. The final hill is the culmination, the climax, a roller coaster loop where you crash through plate glass windows and have jars filled with bees pitched at your head. Mounting danger. Rising fear. The hits keep coming. The Jenga tower teeters…

5. The Bear Under The Table

It’s the Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” example — you create shock by having a bomb randomly go off, but you create suspense and tension by revealing the bomb and letting the audience see what’s coming. The first day of a new school year creates tension not because it’s random (SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKER IT’S 4TH GRADE) but because you know all summer long that shit is coming. Also, for the record, I think we should revise the “bomb under the table” example to a “bear under the table” example. Bombs are so overdone. But two characters sitting there with a Kodiak bear slumbering secretly at their feet? Oh, snap! Sweet tension, I seek your ursine embrace!

6. Danger A Known Quantity: The Power of Dramatic Irony

This, by the way, is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is best friend and old frat buddy to Herr Doktor Suspenseuntension. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters do not. Suspense is created whether or not the characters are aware of the problem, but if the audience is the only one in on the secret, that may go a long way toward heightening tension.

7. The Question Mark-Shaped Hole In All Of Our Dark Hearts

That’s not to say every quantity must be known: the most refined tension grows out of a balance between known and unknown elements. Yes, the boy knows that the first day of 4th grade is coming, but inherent to that are a number of unanswered questions: did his bully and elementary nemesis Brutus “Smeggy” Smegbottom get held back? What will his new teacher be like? Who will he sit next to? Will Peggy Spoonblossom finally accept his Valentine’s Day card? (Smegbottom? Spoonblossom? The fuck is wrong with me?) The first day of school is a known quantity, but what will happen on that day is not.

8. Always Tell Han Solo The Odds

Han Solo says, “Never tell me the odds.” But we need to know the odds. It’s another component of the transparency sometimes needed to create tension: we must know when the stakes are high and the odds of success are totally astronomically fucked.

9. Save The Date!

Let’s say you’re a total dickhead parent to the aforementioned soon-to-be fourth grader. If you wanted to foment tension in that child, all summer long you’d occasionally remind him: “Hey, summer’s fading fast, kiddo. School’s on its way!” Every once in a while you’d lay on him a little something extra: “Hey, I heard Brutus Smegbottom got a new pair of brass knuckles.” Or, “I think I saw Peggy Spoonblossom down at the mall eating a froyo with her new boyfriend.” You’d needle him. Remind him of his tension. That’s what the storyteller does because the storyteller is a total fucking asshole. The storyteller must occasionally — not constantly, but just enough to keep it hovering, to keep it orbiting — remind the audience that, hey, don’t you fuckers forget that something wicked this way comes.

10. Character You Love Does Something You Hate

An easy way to create tension: when a character the audience loves does something the audience hates. It’s the whole, “Oh, I’m going to go investigate the creepy noise rather than flee from it and load my shotgun and call all the cops.” John McClane jumps off the building’s edge! Harry ruins his relationship with Sally! They mysteriously elect Jar-Jar Binks to the Galactic Senate! It’s a moment when the audience winces. One’s butthole tightens up so hard it could pulverize a walnut. You say, “Oooh. That was a bad call. This is not going to end well.” That septic feeling in one’s gut — the anticipation of worse things to come — is the splendor of effective suspense.

11. Character You Hate Does Something You Hate

Of course, it’s also effective to have a character the audience hates do something bad, too — that, then, is the power of a killer antagonist, nemesis, and villain. That sense of OH GRR GOD SO MAD RIGHT NOW is a powerful one. Tug on that puppet string whenever you need to for maximum storyteller cruelty!

12. Physical Tension Is The Shallowest Of Tension

A threat against one’s life and limb is totally workable — a character in physical danger is a good way to create fast tension. But sometimes you want to go deeper. You want to stab your sharpened toothbrush shiv into the heart and the brain. Emotional tension is the most palpable and troubling to the reader (and that’s a good thing): fear of damaged love and intimate betrayals and irreversible emotional wounds creates a more vibrant and spectacular tension in the audience. It’s cruel, yes. But as noted, it is not the storyteller’s job to be kind. The storyteller should not be a safe haven. She is not to be trusted.

13. The Pain Sandwich

For maximum evil, ensure that the tension is multi-layered. The protagonist’s wife being in danger represents both physical (she might die) and emotional (he might lose her) tension. Apply with the mayonnaise of escalation and the bread-and-butter pickles of dramatic irony for one dastardly sandwich.

14. Personal Suspense Above Global Suspense

Sure. The world’s gonna end. That’s tough. Mos def. I feel it in here. *thumps heart with fist* Except, really, I don’t give that much of a fiddly fuck. I never do. The global threat is never ever (and once more for good measure: ever) as interesting as the personal threat. Yes, all the world is going to die but if that happens so too shall the protagonist’s daughter die. Boom. Personal. Connection. Meaning. Suspense and tension are best when personal in addition to (and ultimately above) the global or cosmic.

15. The Tongues Of Tension, The Speech Of Suspense

How you write matters in terms of creating suspense and tension. If you’re trying for a tension that is fast, frenetic, a tension born of collapsed moments and microscopic beats, then you wouldn’t use big ponderous paragraphs to tell that tale. Just the same, you wouldn’t hope to convey that slow creeping sour-gut dread with short sharp truncated sentences. As with all things, language matters. The architecture of your language means something — are you building a Gothic cathedral, a one-room studio apartment, or the Winchester Mansion?

16. Drug Dealers And Cliffhangers

The storyteller is a drug dealer dealing out pain and pleasure in equal measure — a hard slap to the face and then a free taste of balm and salve to soothe the sting. Once they’re hooked, you keep them hooked with cliffhangers. Not all the time, no, but whenever they might start to pull away, you surge within the audience that sense of suspense by leaving them dangling from the edge of the cliff. “My favorite character is in danger! Who just walked into the room? Is that a Kodiak bear under the table?” Mm-hmm. It is. Come on back and keep reading and keep watching. Daddy Bird will feed you, little baby.

17. Flaws And Foibles And Frailties And Other Awesome F-Words

Character flaws. Use ‘em. Excellent tension creators. Knowing that a character has a drug habit or a propensity to break hearts lets us know that at any point they might fall off the wagon and lash out with the whip of their most intimate frailties, sending ruination far and wide. But we must know that the flaw is on the table, or at least have it hinted at — this does not work in a vacuum. You know what else doesn’t work in a vacuum? A vacuum. True story!

18. Agitation And Discomfort

Comfort is the enemy of tension. You want characters and readers alike to remain in a state of agitation and discomfort. Even during times where the tension is relaxing rather than ratcheting up you still want to create a sense of dread and foreboding, using language, circumstance and situation to deepen discomfort.

19. Failure Most Certainly Is An Option

The audience needs to know that things can go wrong. If they become trained by you as a storyteller that you’ll save everything and everyone at the last minute, the storyteller will no longer suspect you of being an untrustworthy malefactor. You are not the reader’s buddy. Failure must be on the table. You must be willing to let things go all pear-shaped once in a while. Tension without fear is a defanged and declawed tiger dressed as a banana. Harmless and deserving mockery over fear.

20. Speak Of Ke$ha And Ke$ha Shall Appear

Sorry. Tic-Toc joke. I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. (And shut up, I actually like that song.) (I SAID SHUT UP.) Never be afraid to use a ticking clock to instill tension and suspense. Character’s only got one week to save the little girl? One day to get the random? One hour to defuse the bomb? Works in any type of story — “The girl of my dreams is about to board a plane in 30 minutes! Can I make it to the airport on time to profess my life and tell her that I got her cat pregnant? Uhh? What? Nothing! I didn’t say anything about a cat being pregnant! Let’s go back to talking about Ke$ha.”

21. Deny Your Audience The Satisfaction As Long As You Can

Storytelling is Tantric. You withhold the audience’s orgasm as long as you can. The audience wants to know that everything’s going to work out, that it’s going to be all right. They want answers. Comfort. Solace. Don’t give it to them. Not until late (if ever). The longer you can hold out on ‘em, the deeper the tension digs into the meat and marrow.

22. Look To Your Life For Suspense

Seriously, that example of the first day or school? Or a new job? Or that feeling you get when you speed past a cop car? Or when your mother goes sniffing around your closet and almost finds the leather-clad gimp you keep in there? That’s suspense. Harness those feelings from your own life. Find out what makes them tick. Replicate in your fiction. And seriously: gimps are so 199os. Get a hobo butler like the rest of us.

23. The Fear-Maker’s Promise

Suspense and tension are about fear. Plain and simple. Not just fear in the characters, but fear — actual honest-to-Jeebus fear — in the audience. Find a way to invoke fear and dread and you’ve won.

24. Suspense Keeps Them Reading

This’ll be a future list — 25 Things That Keep Them Reading — but for now, be content to know that effective implementation of suspense and tension will keep them coming back and turning pages.

25. Suspense Keeps You Writing

Thing is, it’s also what keeps you going. Creating powerful suspense takes you along on a journey, too — the writer is not immune to his own magic, or shouldn’t be, at least. If you feel like you’re not engaged or that your own sense of suspense and dread just isn’t in play, then you might need to look at what the problem is. Just as readers need a reason to keep reading, writers need a reason to keep on writing. And you, as writer, are the Proto-Reader, the first line of defense. If the tension is as limp as a dead man’s no-no stick, you’ll feel it. And that means it’s high-time to find a dose of high-test narrative Viagra to tighten everything up.

* * *

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24 comments

  • More awesome advice. With bears.

    We have two kinds of bears in Australia. The koala bear, which of course isn’t a bear at all. And the drop bear, which also isn’t actually a bear. Or indeed anything. It is what you tell people lurks in trees around here and drops on unsuspecting tourists unless they smear vegemite on their faces. That is the trick we Aussies snicker up our sleeves about – vegemite is really just a joke. Not a food, although we sell it in little jars to idiot foreigners and tell them to spread it on their bread. Not a face paint to ward off drop bears. A JOKE!

  • Ooh. Great idea about making a character the reader hates do something the reader will hate.

    ::starts brainstorming next torture scene with sadistic super villain::

  • #24…I see what you did there :)

    I’m pretty sure you just inspired an excellent way for me to tie the B plot tighter to the ending of my novel. If I can succeed in making people care about these characters, this is going to be gooood.

  • Cool post!
    Donald Maass writes about creating micro-tension on every page, he says your reader shouldn’t just need to know what’s going to happen at the end of the book, your reader needs to know what happens AT THE END OF THE PAGE. And that makes your book into a page turner. And personally, I don’t recommend hobo butlers as they are too unreliable.

  • This could not have come at a better time. Seriously. I’ve been writing like a fiend, and I stopped last night and thought, “Am I holding off on this important scene too much?” They’ll know it’s coming, but I think that’s the awesomeness of a romance novel. Once you know who the principles in the romance are, the ENTIRE rest of the book is a suspense. Because you have to keep reading to find out when the heck they’re going to get together! And it won’t be until nearly the end. So they just have to keep reading anyway, might as well screw with the reader a little along the way.

  • So, I hope one day you get to do like an honest-to-whiskey book tour and you come out here to the Emerald City (no need to bring flannel shirt, but you can). I’d like to personally thank you for the seeming psychic connection you have to my writing brain. You give me that mental kick in the ass more times than not. It also helps that you understand the whole pantsless thing.

    Thank you, sir.

  • Very true that we care about personal peril, not world-wide peril. I just advised someone in my writer’s group that the diffuse threat to civilization was insufficient to carry the plot forward when the protagonist seemed happy and content.

    I am leery of #10: Characters you Love doing Something you Hate. I can lose sympathy for stupid protagonists, or characters clearly acting in nonsensical ways for the benefit of the plot. I would prefer loathsome things happen to characters I love, outside their control. That said, if the protagonist has a good reason to feel duty bound to do something, I’ll be along for the agony.

  • “you create shock by having a bomb randomly go off, but you create suspense and tension by revealing the bomb and letting the audience see what’s coming.”

    Love this statement.

    Great post.

    Time to stick some bombs under random tables. Oh yeah, and write notes in paper airplanes to fly to the tables once people sit by them.

  • This is great – yes, exactly, not just for thrillers but for all of us who write and want an audience to keep on reading.
    Yep, rather have a bear under the table
    Excellent stuff
    thanks

  • “Daddy Bird will feed you, little baby.”
    I honestly started to crack up! But I really, REALLY needed this list, right now – suspense and tension is EXACTLY what I need for my writing! This will be bookmarked and stalked like moviestars and paparazzi.
    Also, I had to read Ryan Jassil’s comment to realize what you did with #24…I promise you! I do have an education! My lightbulb of a brain is just blowing up a little, that’s all!

  • “beautiful scientist lady who seeks to undo his sinister plans”. Totally read pants there…

    And don’t tell me that’s not something you could have written.

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