What is Suspense?

It is a strange paradox that to give readers exactly what they want, the author must never give readers what they want. In whatever genre and whatever form it might take, refusing the reader what he or she wants is called suspense. A good novel holds out on the reader and frustrates expectations.

Suspense in Romantic Fiction

The heroine is believable, lovable and clearly made for that hunky, irascible hero. What does the reader want above all else? To witness that first kiss and see sparks fly, to see the happy couple together forever. Be warned: if it happens in Chapter Two, the story is over. Giving the reader what he or she wants is a bad mistake. The author’s task is to make the happy couple as miserable as possible, to get them fighting, bring people between them, invent an obstacle course to happiness that would make a crack SAS troop tremble. The reader is frustrated but happy, eager to read on to see if they can overcome all.

Suspense in the Whodunit

As the name suggests, the whole purpose of the whodunit or mystery story is for the reader to try to uncover the villain. The whodunit paradox is that if you allow them to do so, you have failed your readers. You must hide your clues so skilfully that the reader is frustrated right up to that point when you kindly reveal the truth.

Suspense in General Fiction

In truth, it doesn’t matter what the genre, the game’s the same. Never give the reader what they want, and that means never give the protagonist what he or she wants. Every plot hinges on a character desiring something – to save the planet, to save the kingdom, to rescue the princess, to stop the baddies, to triumph in love, career or sport. The achievement of that goal must occur right at the end of the book and constitutes the climax. Leading to that, and leading the reader on a merry chase, is a sequence of ever-worsening setbacks and disasters that seem to put the protagonist further from his or her goal than ever before. The worst is reserved for immediately before the climax and is often referred to as ‘the Darkest Moment’. The reader must suffer. You must make those readers believe that all is lost. Then, and only then, you can give them what they want.

So, What is Suspense?

The term suspense, when applied to the novel, really refers to any unanswered question. Minor questions can be answered a few pages or a few chapters on – meanwhile, the reader feverishly turns pages to find out. The major question, the culmination of the main character’s quest, must keep the anxious reader waiting right till the end of the book.