Over on the Top Suspense blog we’re trying out a form of online craft discussion in which a bunch of us tag-team the post over a number of days. Here’s my contribution; hop over and check it out in the context of the others’ thoughts and comments.
My take on suspense is a pretty straightforward one, I think. You have a character with whom the reader empathises, who needs to achieve something. Bad things are going to happen if he or she doesn’t achieve it.
As they set out, everything seems set for success. But then obstacles arise – immediate, unplanned-for problems that have to be solved before your protagonist can move forward toward the greater goal. Meanwhile, the bigger situation deteriorates and the bad consequences loom larger.
Solving the lesser problem may get your protagonist closer, but gives rise to further problems that will impede progress even more. This is where the art comes in. Those problems have to be entertaining, and the effect of the delays and diversions has to be a pleasurable one. Suspense isn’t about making the reader uncomfortable. It’s about deferring closure in a way that heightens the anticipation of it.
The reader is trusting you to deliver an ultimate reward. But there’s only a slim chance of success for your protagonist. And it gets ever slimmer, the closer you get to it. Will that slim chance disappear altogether just as you get there, or will your protagonist make it in time? For me that’s the essence of suspense.