Mysterious Doings: Why Suspense?

There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.
–ALFRED HITCHCOCK
As a suspense writer, I love this quote! Think of the scariest movie you’ve ever seen or the most suspenseful book you’ve read–wasn’t it the steps leading up to the main event that had you biting your nails?


The movie “Taken” with Liam Neeson is a great example of action and suspense that never stops.

I felt like I was going to have a heart attack in this relatively short, non-stop film.
You want your reader to feel the same way. This is why suspense and the correct elements of suspense are so important in your writing. The suspense needs to be so intricately crafted and drawn out in a way that your reader is sweating, inhaling your words in the race to get to the satisfying conclusion.

But is that type of suspense found only in thriller novels? I don’t think so.
Can suspense only be created by the threat of some catastrophic event, a murder, or a kidnapping?
In my opinion every book, no matter the genre, employs an element of suspense on some level.
How?

Sometimes suspense can be created by a simple unanswered question, even a twitch of an eyebrow or one missing shoe. Those types of things are found in every book.

• Suspense: 1. A state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.
2. A quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen.

What books have you read lately that have evoked the feeling described in #2 of the definition?

When I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I definitely felt excited and anxious about the future of Katniss and her family. I devoured that book. Yet, it is not a suspense or a thriller by definition of genre. The trilogy is a fantasy/sci-fi according to the author, but they are some of the most suspenseful books I’ve read of late.

I’m high-lighting those books to illustrate my earlier point, that every genre employs suspense. And yes, I believe that even romance—good romance—utilizes suspense to hook a reader and keep them turning pages. No way, you might argue, we know the girl always gets the guy in romance.

But how does the girl get the guy? Are there moments where the reader is wondering which of the two men the heroine might end up with or how she’ll come to terms with her attraction to the wrong “kind” of guy? There are ways to keep your readers in suspense in any book.

Suspense can build to a small or large event. Suspense creates unanswered questions and curiosity that keeps your reader salivating for more.

My first novel, WRONG NUMBER is suspense or it could be categorized as a thriller. See Josi’s post on classification here.

As I wracked my brain to think of how I could make my book more suspenseful, I threw out several ideas that were just props to elicit the palm-itching nerves of suspense. Instead I honed in on how each scene would add to the overall thrilling plot of the book. I analyzed each chapter of the book to make sure the action was moving toward the overall plot line and toward a satisfying ending.

You may have seen a movie or read a book in which flimsy suspense tactics were used. Like the cliffhanger that is tacked on at the end of the chapter or scene just to keep you watching. Instead those suspense facades can upset the reader/viewer and make them lose faith and trust in the storyteller’s skill.

The best suspense tactics evolve carefully out of details that elicit first a curious question, then a raise in heart-rate, and finally a point where the reader is yelling, “No! Stop! Don’t open that door.”
Take a look at your favorite book and see if you can spot the elements of suspense utilized to create a great storyline—one that kept you up at night turning pages.

Examine your work in progress and make sure if you want your character to sneak down that forbidden corridor that there are no holes in your creaky hallway (unless, of course you put them there.)

I’d love to hear about some of your favorite suspense novels/authors and why you enjoyed them.

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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3 Responses to Mysterious Doings: Why Suspense?

  1. Mary Higgins Clark is one author who does a great job of raising questions in the reader’s mind that build suspense and keep the reader turning pages. Great blog, Rachelle, and great point that ALL novels involve suspense, not just the suspense/thriller genre.

  2. Carole Thayne Warburton says:

    I love the quote you started with as well. I don’t think anyone has surpassed Hitchcock as the master of suspense. Today’s films often show too much, too much gore and violence and not enough of what Hitchcock did so well

  3. C. M. Malm says:

    Keeping the reader/viewer guessing and imagining and predicting is really the key. If you can’t keep your audience wondering “what happens next???”, you’ve lost them.

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