What is suspense?

Here’s a riddle for you. What can run, but can’t walk? I’ll tell you the answer in a minute.

The original meaning of the word suspense comes from the Latin ‘to hang’, as in a suspension bridge. So you might imagine that it has come to mean leaving the reader hanging, keeping them waiting for something with baited breath, on the edge of their seat. They may even feel worried or afraid, but in a pleasurable way! If you’ve ever had to cover your eyes or hide behind the sofa while watching something, you were in a state of suspense. Think of Joey in Friends putting The Shining in the freezer! Later he puts in Little Women too, which shows that not only scary or dark books have suspense.

There are lots of synonyms for ‘suspenseful’ that you might also hear, such as tense, gripping, riveting, and so on. You might see reviews that claim: ‘I was glued to the pages’ or ‘I couldn’t put it down’. So when we say a book needs to have suspense, we mean it needs this quality of keeping the reader turning the pages.

Why do we turn pages? To find out what happens! So to put it very simply, if the reader is dying to know what happens next in your story, they will keep reading on.

‘Suspense’ is sometimes also used to refer to a genre of novels, usually part of crime fiction, though this is more of an American term in this context. It’s true that crime novels are the most likely to be very suspenseful, but we need it in every type of book, to keep the reader engaged.

In the following module we’re going to look at all the different ways you can add suspense to your work, whatever the genre.

And the answer to that riddle? By waiting to tell you the answer, I hopefully got you to read through this whole chapter. Perhaps you are impatiently waiting to find out the solution and it might become annoying if I still didn’t tell you now. This is why suspense is not just about withholding information, it’s about controlling the flow of it, to keep the reader riveted but also satisfied, so they don’t wander off and read something else instead, or more likely, pick up their phone and start scrolling. 

(Answer: a river!) 

Complete and continue