How to create suspense
Every writer wants to keep their reader gripped right through to the end of their story - that elusive thing called 'narrative-drive' – but how do we achieve it? Theoretically it's simple enough – create a desire in the reader for something, delay the satisfaction of that desire, then deliver what the reader wants in an anticipated yet unexpected way – the desire-delay-deliver pattern. Simple right?
Right. But knowing something and being able to do it are two very different things. Suspense is one way of achieving powerful narrative drive - and here are some practical techniques for creating it.
Dramatic irony is when the reader or audience know something that the protagonist doesn't and if used well can be a very powerful means of creating suspense. The key is that knowledge the reader has implies a dramatic or significant event that will happen to the protagonist. It's a device that can be easily understood from films but is applied in exactly the same way in fiction. For example, we see a man break into a house and hide himself in the bedroom cupboard - then a young woman enters the house. We immediately have a suspenseful situation. For as long as the girl is unaware that the man is hiding in the bedroom suspense is maintained. A classic filmic example is the shower scene in Psycho. Bear in mind that as soon as the protagonist becomes as aware as the audience are, suspense is lost because the audience now gets the pay-off – the delivery of the anticipated event.
There is a subtlety here – although the event is anticipated it cannot be predictable otherwise the reader will get bored waiting for what it knows will happen. Suspense implies a dramatic pay-off but the outcome should by no means be certain. What will happen when the woman discovers the man in her bedroom? Is he a threat? Will she fight him off? Or perhaps there's a twist – maybe he's her husband.
Cross-cutting is the device of jumping between two converging story-lines. This is essentially another way of using dramatic irony but it can have a more accelerative impact as cutting between the two storylines will have the effect of rapid movement toward the anticipated dramatic event – a powerful combination of suspense and pace. It is in effect though just another way of exploiting dramatic irony.
This is a device whereby there is an inevitable event that is time driven e.g. a bomb will go off in ten minutes, the plane will crash in thirty seconds, the protagonist has a wound that will kill him if he doesn't get it seen to. This can be employed with or without dramatic irony. Once again the principle of narrative drive is the same – a dramatic event is promised, that event is delayed and its consequences will be dramatic and uncertain.
In this case the protagonist being aware of the ticking clock can actually increase narrative drive, as a protagonist striving for a goal (e.g. to disarm the bomb, rectify the planes descent or get to the doctor) has a propulsive effect all of its own, couple this with the suspense of the ticking clock and you are pretty close to a story that's unputtdownable.
As I say, suspense is just one mechanism for exploiting the desire-delay-deliver pattern that creates narrative drive, but there are many other ways to use it. Romance for example – the reader wants two characters to be together, the writer delays that coming together, then delivers it.
But that's another post.