Even the simplest story is driven forward on the back of the basic questions ‘What will happen next?’ and ‘What is really going on?’ They are the devices which create and increase suspense. But what are some simple, practical ways to introduce them into your story?
Here are some ideas:
1. Accuse someone.
Early on in your story, have someone dramatically point at someone else and, in the hearing of your protagonist, accuse them of something serious. Perhaps a murder victim indicating who did it? This creates the expectation in the reader that your protagonist will eventually encounter this person and they will be watching for it.
2. Give the reader a false break.
You’ve all seen this in horror movies. Have the unprotected character search around the old, abandoned house - and apparently find nothing. Then, just as your character sighs with relief and relaxes a little, pounce.
3. Lure someone deeper in.
Labyrinths and dungeons are great ways to make readers wonder what will happen next. Lead your characters deeper into someone’s lair. In Polanski’s film Macbeth, Banquo’s murderers are guided away from the exit of the castle, down into chambers that they have not seen, to their sudden and watery death. With every downward step, tension goes up.
4. Introduce a shark tank.
This one is common in James Bond films. The villain has a shark tank - or some kind of hungry thing in a tank - and the viewer or reader sees it at work early on in the story. In the back of their mind, the reader/viewer knows that that horror will come back later and be used with frightening effect.
5. Give some clues.
Detective fiction thrives on this one. Agatha Christie sold two billion books with it. This isn’t because readers like to see detectives figuring things out from obscure details, but because they themselves entertain the delusion that, given enough clues, they will be able to piece together whatever it is that is going on. Lay out all the clues you like, hardly anyone will get it - but you will have glued them to the story all the way.
6. Exclude someone.
Throwing someone out of Paradise or a city or even a house increases tension because the reader knows that that person will return and will be unconsciously waiting for them. Your task then is to make sure they come back a) when they are least expected and b) in a surprising way.
7. Introduce disorder.
Everything in a room is where it should be - except for one thing. Putting an out-of-place thing next to something captures attention. Why is it there? What will happen next? Readers and viewers naturally lean towards order, so disorder suggests action and movement.
8. Set up a moment, then intentionally disappoint.
Trick a reader or viewer into thinking that you have set them up - the prisoner is captured, the chase is over, the mystery is resolved - and then don’t follow through on purpose. Have the prisoner somewhere he or she isn’t supposed to be; have the chase continue in a new way; introduce a deeper mystery.
9. Hide someone.
Whether it’s your hero hiding from the bad guy, or a bad guy waiting to pounce on a hero, or a neutral and innocent bystander about to get in the way, putting someone out of view instantly notches up the tension. This includes hiding someone behind a mask.
10. Don’t show everything.
This one might seem obvious, but there are so many ways of doing it. A screenwriter can fill the screen with shadows, as Ridley Scott does in the film Alien; a writer can have a hidden room or a character the reader never meets as Charlotte Bronte does in Jane Eyre, or a letter that they don’t read. There’s nothing like an unknown for gluing attention.
11. Use symbols.
In Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most powerfully eloquent scenes doesn’t have any words and doesn’t last more than a few seconds. When the Nazis capture the holy Ark of the Covenant, they place it in a crate and stencil a Nazi swastika onto the container. A little later, accompanied by a deep humming which drives nearby rats crazy, audiences see the swastika burned off. That’s it. More said and done in those few seconds than some stories accomplish in several chapters.
From George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, from Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird to Pi in Life of Pi, one great way to heighten suspense is to take a character and lock him or her out or away from family and companions. This works especially well if for the bulk of the tale they have been surrounded by other characters: being abruptly on their own throws them on their own resources and makes the reader’s heart beat faster.
And at the end of the day, it’s all about controlling readers’ heartbeats: using the questions ‘What will happen next?’ and ‘What’s really going on?’ you can get the emotional commitment you need to create the effects you want.