I infuse a lot of suspense into my novels, since in addition to romance, each of my books also involves some type of paranormal mystery: either spooky hauntings that need to be unraveled, or supernatural secrets that pose a dangerous threat. Recently, I was invited to meet with a local writing group as a consultant, and one of the topics they asked to cover was methods of injecting suspense and tension into a story. While these two things work together and are even listed as synonyms for each other in dictionary definitions, they are not exactly the same (although the definitions are pretty close). Suspense is "a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen" (source link). In fiction, it's that growing desire to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. Tension is "a feeling of nervousness, excitement, or fear" (source link). In fiction, this is driven by emotions and is the element which causes us to worry about the characters. It can ebb and flow based on the situation. To try to give a simple example, in Silver Lake, my ghost story/romance, part of the suspense comes from wondering what happened to Brandy. Tension comes from the dangerous situations Brandy's ghost's best friend, Rain, finds herself in as she tries to answer this question...assuming, of course, the reader has come to care about this character. A novel doesn't need to be labeled "suspense" or "thriller" to have these elements, either. Romance involves suspense and tension in terms of the fate of the couple and the obstacles they must overcome, and so I use the following techniques in both aspects of my novels.
As mentioned, suspension and tension work together, and below is the list I came up with for my class on ways to create these two elements in a novel. I originally posted this as a feature of Writing Tip Tuesday on The Pearls of Writing Wisdom blog, and I'm sharing it this week on my own blog with a few examples.
*Conflict is key. There should be conflict in any type of commercial fiction. To increase tension, load on the conflict, both internal and external, to keep characters from their goals. (See my post of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict here).
*Escalation of story problems, which add new questions beyond the hook (ex: the mystery of Brandy’s disappearance in Silver Lake—questions move from “Could ghosts be real?” to “Is Brandy’s ghost really trying to communicate?” to “How can we help her communicate?” to “What really happened to her five years ago?” to "How far will this desperate spirit go to expose the truth?", ect.).
*Stack the odds against the protagonist. (ex: In the movie MacFarland, USA, a coach new to a predominantly Latino high school in a very low-income area starts up a track team, recruiting boys with speed and endurance from working in the fields...but they have less time and energy to practice, due to field work, less support from their families, since earning extra income is the priority as opposed to sports, and no money for appropriate shoes and uniforms. All these disadvantages make us anxious to see these underdogs prevail.)
*Make the stakes high. This does not necessarily mean the entire world will end if the character does not meet his or her goal, but the consequences of not meeting a goal should be extremely negative or even disastrous for the character.
*Give characters impossible choices (ex: Katniss in The Hunger Games—she either must kill other kids (both morally reprehensible and potentially difficult) OR be killed herself. Neither is a good choice, but she could decide morals take precedence over her own life. However, her family’s existence depends on her survival, as she provides the source of food. Plus, she’s promised her sister she’ll survive. So now we have a truly impossible choice: Kill other kids, who are trying to survive themselves and kill her, including the friendly boy from her district, OR be killed herself, break her promise to her sister, and possibly condemn her family to death.)
*Have some plans fail. (ex: in the movie The Martian, the character's first attempt to rig a system to create water fails...now we are even more worried for his long-term survival.)
*Create urgency. A time constraint is useful for this (ex: The Finest Hours movie—the Coast Guard rescuers will have to reach the foundering tanker before it sinks into the stormy ocean, or everyone on board will die.)
*Use foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is used to both build suspense and prepare reader for an event or scenario that otherwise might come out of nowhere. There are many methods of foreshadowing, from blatant to extremely subtle.
*Make readers care about the protagonist. Again, there are many ways to do this, including using deep POV to connect reader to character, creating engaging characters with realistic flaws, and avoiding Mary Sues.
*Use dramatic irony to create apprehension. This can be employed when writing from multiple POVs. (ex: In Gull Harbor, the reader sees what the bad guy has planned for Claire from his POV chapters. However, neither Claire nor Max know—this knowledge is only between the reader and the villain.)
These are some of the methods I use...please add your tips for creating suspense and tension! Happy writing!