How To Build Suspense in a Piece of Writing

Dawn Bevier

Why characters matter as much as conflict

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What is the thing that draws us into a half-over television show when we step into the living room to pick up a dirty pair of pants that needs to be thrown into the wash? The thing that finds us immobile thirty minutes later, sitting with said pants still in our hands, perched on the corner of the recliner?

Suspense.

What is the thing that keeps us up late turning the pages of our favorite book on the night before a huge speech we have to give, or a presentation we have to offer to a very important person?

Suspense.

Suspense is imperative for all fiction writers. It is the thing that makes a reader keep turning pages, and the drug that leads us to that same author’s next book, hoping that a similar “high” will be our reward.

So how does a writer manage to implement this all-important technique?

It all starts with characterization.

Create relatable characters readers care for.

Why was the epic book series and corresponding television series Game of Thrones so widely read and watched? Especially the last couple of episodes?

If you will remember, all of the characters were gathered together fighting the Army of the Dead. The villains we cursed and the heroes we loved all fighting the same enemy.

Of course, we rooted for the noble hero Jon Snow, a man tortured by his own status as a bastard and dedicated to the cause of honesty and integrity even when it seemed to work against him.

Why were we so drawn to him-so concerned about whether or not he would survive in his seemingly insurmountable final fight?

The authors and producers made us care for him. We have all experienced feelings of inadequacy, of alienation. We related to Jon for these reasons. We related to his struggles. We admired his ability to overcome them and not sacrifice his moral code.

Easy enough to understand. But what about the villains of seasons past?

Many of the series’ villains died in the final episodes of the show. Why were we devastated at their demise when episodes earlier we had openly wished death on them-perhaps deaths even more horrible than the ones they actually encountered?

Because the authors and producers gave us keys to unlock these characters’ own complex history and humanity, a humanity that was deeply flawed but still afforded us glimpses of their inner good or valor, we cared for them more perhaps than we actually realized.

We, at some point in the story’s plotlines, saw the cruel forces that life imposed on these villains and, while we didn’t like their immoral reactions to these events, we still felt pangs of sympathy and, in some way, we understood their actions. Because we all have felt the desire for power, for revenge, or for violence.

This is what good authors do. They create characters we care about. Even antagonists we care about.

How do they do this?

Give characters backstories and history.

To give a character history does not mean that you have to write a lengthy section on each important character. You can, of course, achieve this backstory in a number of ways depending on the story or novel you are writing and its specific parameters.

  • For instance, if your novel has a longer scope, you can provide parallel plots, each focusing on a specific character, and eventually intertwining all of their stories into one as separate characters come into contact with each other.
  • You can use flashbacks or memories in the middle of the action. If for instance, a character is committing a murder, you could flashback to provide a sympathetic reason for his or her actions such as poverty, abuse, or other traumatic past events.
  • You can reveal a character’s history through other characters’ conversations and thoughts about said character.

Give characters flaws, temptations, and needs.

Nobody is perfect. No one makes good choices all the time. It should be the same for a fictional character. We need to see his humanity, his fallibility. This is the only way we can empathize and relate to him.

In fairy tales, for example, all the “good guys” or protagonists are reliable. This is boring. And this does not occur in real life.

Unreliable characters create suspense.

And when do characters become unreliable? When their needs, desires, or flaws are spotlighted or put into important areas of the plot.

And these needs, desires, and flaws need to be sympathetic ones. Ones we have all been victim to or have seen our own personal characters sacrificed at the hands of.

Family. Anger. Survival. Envy.

Of course, our protagonists must still achieve the upper hand against most of these compelling forces to continue to be protagonists.

And our antagonists must still give in to these forces more than stand victorious over them in order to continue to be antagonists.

But a careful interweaving of their victories and defeats against these needs, desires, and flaws is what draws us in.

We have, for instance, seen the hero falter enough so that it presents the possibility that he may do this again.

And we have seen the antagonist embrace his moral side enough to believe that, perhaps, when the moment is of utmost importance, he may finally overcome his flawed or cruel nature.

The not knowing is what keeps us reading. The not knowing is what creates suspense.

The bottom line:

Bestselling author Jeffery Deaver explains his ultimate goal as a writer, stating that it is "to give [his] readers the most exciting roller-coaster ride of a suspense story that [he] can possibly think of."

And any writer who wants to achieve the same goal needs to place as much emphasis on character as he or she does on plot. By doing so, readers will keep coming back for more every single time.

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Sanford, NC
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