We’ve all had heart-pounding experiences alongside fictional characters. We held our breath when Ethan Hunt made a last-ditch attempt to stop an explosion in Mission Impossible, pored over Pride and Prejudice for hours to discover one family’s future, and perched on the edges of our seats when Thanos, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man faced off in Avengers: Endgame. But why do these scenes capture us, and how can we replicate the effect in our own stories?
Suspense, in its most basic sense, equals believable stakes. When a character pursues a goal, he might forfeit what he wants or loves most, which places readers in a state of anxious anticipation. In the Mission Impossible films, Ethan’s friends are often in jeopardy. The Avengers risk crushing failure, personal loss, and their lives (which viewers care about more than the protagonists do). In Pride and Prejudice, a family’s reputation and a woman’s future are on the line.
Every great story contains friction, but the form will vary. Though the world could have ended in both Avengers and the Mission Impossible films, the events of Pride and Prejudice affect only a handful of people. However, an avid reader of romance will be more enthralled by the conflict in the latter than the former. Big stakes aren’t more compelling than small ones. The character must care deeply about the child, love interest, or village that’s in danger. Otherwise readers will be indifferent.
Suspense isn’t exclusive to thrillers and should be present in stories with stakes of any size. Without it, a story will feel as limp and lifeless as a wet page, but an extra pinch of tension can catapult readers forward and leave them eager for another ride.
Adding pockets of intensity doesn’t require much effort either. By wisely selecting details to reveal, we can create tales readers can’t put down.
1. Highlight the Results of Success and Failure
We need to demonstrate the consequences if a character doesn’t accomplish his objective. If he can base his fear of defeat on another individual, that heightens the importance of winning.
In the film Gifted, Frank is fighting his mother for custody of his unusually intelligent niece, Mary. Viewers learn through Frank’s testimony and multiple court hearings that his mother made his sister’s life miserable, which led her to commit suicide, orphaning her daughter. His sister is an example of the tragedy that could befall Mary if he doesn’t adopt her. This tinges his case with urgency.
Another strategy is to write scenes where a character temporarily prevails. Of course, this won’t always be possible, but if we insert moments where pieces of the chaotic world briefly align, readers can glimpse the potential sacrifices and rewards. In Gifted, happy bonding moments between Frank and Mary indicate that their relationship will break if the court doesn’t rule in Frank’s favor.
2. Add Elements of the Unknown
Tension can’t exist unless readers are uncertain how and if characters will overcome challenges. If an aristocrat is sentenced to the guillotine during the French Revolution and manages to escape before the execution, it must come at a cost. And, before the conflict reaches its climax, readers need to understand this cost, or victory will seem empty.
Sometimes readers know that authors won’t murder characters. If the protagonist is under the guillotine’s blade at the story’s beginning, he can’t die because his adventure has to continue for three hundred pages more. But we can plant multiple obstacles in his path so that readers wonder how he will survive and what he will sacrifice.
Though the aristocrat might get beheaded, his friends are going to attempt a daring rescue, and we worry more for them than him. We can also threaten his development. Readers usually want the protagonist to become a better person, so they’ll cringe when he backslides.
To prove that readers have reason to doubt where the story is headed, we could kill a prominent character or let the protagonist act foolishly and amplify the fallout. Each important scene must alter the story, whether to a minor or major extent. When readers question the author’s mercy, curiosity drives them on.
3. Share Secrets with Readers
A character plans to break into an executive’s office to steal vital information, and his organization will disown him if he gets caught. But what if hitmen are waiting inside the villain’s office, and the protagonist is unarmed because accessing the building is easier without weaponry?
When we disclose problems that characters are oblivious to, that’s called dramatic irony, and the stakes triple. Even if the story focuses on high school instead of espionage, a bully could have embarrassing photos of the protagonist that he’s eventually going to publicize, and we’re waiting for that moment.
To pull off this trick, however, we’ll need to rely on omniscient point of view or another character’s perspective. Hinting at the hazard through the protagonist will make him look dense. Who wants to root for an idiot who consciously walks into a trap?
4. Hide the Protagonist’s Intentions
This is a micro-level tactic to employ within an individual scene. Instead of revealing information the protagonist is unaware of, we shield his thoughts from readers by limiting descriptions to his actions and surroundings. Without inner monologue or dialogue, readers will be left in the dark.
Maybe our spy character must discreetly pickpocket an ID, so he beelines for the villain while passing him in the hallway. Or perhaps the high schooler knows about the embarrassing photos but ignores the bully’s warnings and brazenly strikes up a conversation with his girlfriend. If readers don’t realize why the characters are behaving strangely, they’ll rapidly flip pages to find out.
5. Manipulate Time
This is a classic move for ramping up tension. When the protagonist is in a time crunch, reading speed accelerates too.
We can emphasize the ticking clock by mentioning footsteps growing louder as the high schooler is trying to delete the embarrassing photos from the bully’s phone, or having a sidekick remind the protagonist that he only has minutes to search the office before the executive notices his missing ID.
Better yet, we could shorten the deadline mid-scene—and conceal the protagonist’s rationale. That way, when our spy approaches the executive to lift his ID, readers will be shocked that he’s wasting valuable time.
Whether the danger is earth shattering or not, the same tactics apply, and readers will be drawn in.
Every Scene Doesn’t Need Extreme Tension
Tension entices readers to finish a book and remember it afterward. However, a constant stream of it prevents readers from slowing down and processing the segments that give the fast-paced scenes meaning. The protagonist needs space to think, feel, and plan too. So we must aim for balance. If readers are gripped by our intentional infusion of tension, our stories will stand out as works that push the boundaries of genre.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 19, 2019. Updated June 5, 2023.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.