One of the best ways to understand suspense is to see it in action.
It’s raining outside. The power is down. The vehicles aren’t working. You’re surrounded by dinosaurs, but you can’t see them. Suddenly, you hear a distant boom—maybe thunder, maybe the power trying to come back on. Another boom. The ground shakes, the windows rattle. Finally, you look at the cup of water on the dashboard. It ripples.
Now, you know for a fact something is coming.
You are in one of the most suspenseful scenes in movie history: the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park. What makes it so memorable? It’s not the T-Rex. Other scenes have featured dinosaurs, but they haven’t made the hair stand on the back of our neck quite like this one. What’s the secret formula that brings audiences to the edges of their seats?
It all comes down to one word: suspense.
What Is Suspense?
Let’s start with a literal suspense definition. Suspense is the feeling of anxiousness when you’re uncertain about what’s going to happen. If you want to create suspense, sure, you need danger, but what other elements should you consider?
- Stakes: If the situation doesn’t go the right way, are there going to be terrible consequences? As legendary literary agent Donald Maass put it, “if you can’t answer the question ‘so what?’, then the stakes of your story aren’t high enough.”
- Characters: Do we care about the characters, one way or the other? If it’s the hero, do we like them enough to want them to escape? If it’s the villain, do we want the opposite? Without emotional investment in who the suspense is happening to, we won’t resonate with the feeling.
- Tension: Has the storyteller established the imminent danger? Is that danger credible and realistic, or at least realistic in the rules of its own universe? There may not be any dinosaurs anymore, but after Jurassic Park spends over half an hour building a somewhat-credible scenario in which dinosaurs can exist, it makes the T-Rex feel real, too.
Examples of Suspense
Suspense is more than just having a character enter a scene with a gun. To craft your thriller in an original way, you need to know how the masters develop suspense. Let’s look at some prime suspense examples that highlight the art of building tension:
Let’s break down why the first T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park works so well.
- Stakes: If a T-Rex shows up, there are indeed going to be terrible consequences for our characters.
- Characters: Not only are two children present, but Drs. Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm are two fleshed-out, distinct human beings with unique personalities and quirks.
- Tension: By showing the water vibrate from a single footstep of an approaching T-Rex, one thing is clear: This monster is so powerful, we can’t help but feel suspense.
Alfred Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense” in movies, once said something interesting about creating tension:
Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters in the movie. Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.
When the spectator senses danger approaching, but a character doesn’t, it’s automatic suspense. Consider the famous shower scene from Psycho. The audience watches as the murderer shows up, but Marion Crane is washing up in the shower and has no idea about her fate. It’s this brief moment of horror that creates edge-of-your-seat suspense.
The Silence of the Lambs
Let’s turn to the novel by Thomas Harris—particularly, one aspect of its psychopathic villain, the serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. On the surface, there’s nothing to sympathize with. He is a murderer, plain and simple.
But Harris doesn’t play out the first meeting Lecter so conventionally. Lecter is oddly mild-mannered, even polite. When FBI agent Clarice Starling enlists his help in catching Buffalo Bill, Lecter agrees—in exchange for a small request. He just wants a window with a view.
Okay, not exactly heartwarming. But by giving us a glimpse of Lecter’s humanity, Harris sets up the greatest terror of all. When Lecter later escapes, all of Harris’s character-building work—establishing Lecter as intelligent, charming, even strangely human—only makes him more menacing. By the end of the novel, there’s no telling what he’ll do next.
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What do Jurassic Park, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs have in common?
Establish a Credible Threat
Each work took time to develop the credibility of its central threat. Jurassic Park uses exposition of how modern-day dinosaurs were first made possible. Psycho lulls us down a misleading road, fixating on Marion Crane’s flight with an envelope of cash, then has us meet the strange and lonely Norman Bates. The Silence of the Lambs sets up Buffalo Bill as its chief antagonist, then unleashes Hannibal Lecter as a villain far more intelligent and dangerous.
You don’t need a realistic threat to construct suspense, either. If the audience believes the main characters fear the threat, that’s enough. Consider Sauron, the villain from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Sauron isn’t real. But by following the story’s internal logic, we see there’s only one way to defeat Sauron, which makes suspense linger over the entire world.
Put Something “On the Line”
If the audience cares about your characters, any imminent threat to their safety will be enough to create suspense. Let’s go back to Donald Maass’ famous question: so what?
If the main character doesn’t achieve their goals, what’s so bad about that?
Spy adventures and psychological thrillers are famous for adding massive consequences to the actions of the main characters. In Ian Fleming’s Thunderball, James Bond’s personal mission coincides with stopping SPECTRE from using nuclear weapons against innocent civilians. In Tom Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Jack Ryan works to prevent the Soviets from developing world-changing anti-missile technology.
Take Away a Character’s Option to Turn Back
The stakes of your thriller don’t always have to include a villain threatening the world with nuclear destruction. Suspense in literature often adds to the stakes without resorting to cliches.
For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, we have the story of an individual criminal trial. Happens all the time. But author Harper Lee attaches significant cultural and emotional weight to the trial.
Lawyer Atticus Finch isn’t fighting a T-Rex, but To Kill a Mockingbird is still a master lesson in how to create suspense. There are emotional stakes in every scene because the reader knows what’s truly on the line: not only is a man’s life in the balance, but Finch has to risk his personal reputation and well-being in mounting a legal defense.
Create the Possibility Your Main Character Can Lose
In Psycho, the woman we thought was the main character—Marion Crane—is murdered halfway through the movie. When Marion’s sister arrives at the Bates Motel to investigate, the movie has established Norman Bates as a very real and credible threat. There’s suspense around every corner because the audience knows he’s still at large.
Even a spy thriller where “the world hangs in the balance” can lose its suspense if the audience never believes an author might allow something bad to happen. George R.R. Martin of A Song of Ice and Fire is famous for killing established, lead characters. A prominent character dies in book one, and for the rest of the series, the audience has to wonder if their next-favorite character is about to die whenever they’re in a tough situation.
(Note: you can add to the suspense if you end just before the character is about to die or be rescued, creating a cliffhanger for the next chapter).
The Difference Between Suspense and Foreshadowing
Suspense is the tension at the crux of a story. In a suspenseful situation, things can go either very poorly or very well for our main characters. We tend to think of suspense as the tension of impending doom. But that’s not always the case.
Foreshadowing, for example, can add tension to the plot without necessarily raising suspense. Using this device, the author merely hints at the future danger or a mystery without making it a part of the present. In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway briefly describes an autumn season with a premonition of death: the leaves falling early.
If you want to merge the two, consider adding a “Chekhov’s Gun” to the plot. Chekhov’s Gun is often used in theater. If the play’s set features a prominent display of a shotgun upon the wall, that shotgun had better become an important part of the plot at some point. The gun’s presence not only establishes the credibility of a threat, it also adds to the air of suspense—when will the gun be used?
How to Write Suspense
Whenever your characters’ goals are in danger, there’s the possibility of writing great suspense. It might be obvious suspense—like characters fighting off a Russian spy who’s just pulled a gun. Or literary suspense—the impending threat of a character losing their internal self-respect. But as long as you give the reader a reason to care about how the story turns out, any scene of an immediate threat will spring to life. Especially if it has dinosaurs.
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