How Suspense and Tension Work Together to Increase Story Impact

Image: through a gap between stairs are visible just the feet of a woman and a man on a train platform.
Photo by cottonbro

Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).

No matter what genre you write in, suspense and tension are the propulsive forces that draw readers through your story. The terms are often used interchangeably, and while they work in tandem, they fulfill different functions.

  • Suspense creates questions in the audience’s mind—and it’s the engine of every “unputdownable” story.
  • The fuel that powers it is tension—creating conflict, obstacles, friction—and it belongs on every single page.

In the basic “boy-meets-girl” story trope, suspense is whether or not boy gets girl; tension is everything that stands in the way of the resolution of those questions: the missed call, the argument, the parental disapproval.

Harness them both in your story, and you’ll grab your reader from page one and hold them all the way through to “the end.”

The overarching suspense question

Every good story has an overarching suspense question—the big-picture uncertainty readers are reading to find out: How does Sherlock solve the case? Will Ahab get that whale? Where did you go, Bernadette? How does Stella get her groove back?

They tend to have big, overt, direct scenes of suspense as well: the battle, the chase, the argument, the cut-throat negotiation, all of which carry some version of the basic suspense question, “What’s going to happen next?”

Enter: the accompanying tension

What makes these questions effective is the accompanying tension that keeps us uneasy, unsettled, that calls the outcome into question: the relentlessly ticking timer of the bomb as the hero battles the villain, who seems to be overpowering her; the un-take-back-able words that escalate the lovers’ conflict; the pounding heart and shaking hands of the woman walking home alone at night and hearing ever-quickening footsteps behind her.

Suspense and tension aren’t limited to key scenes

Suspense and tension are the propulsive force of every scene in story, not just the high-action, high-drama ones. The thrilling bursts of speed and overtaking maneuvers in a Formula 1 race happen only as brief amped-up moments of excitement amid the drivers’ steadily fighting to gain position and forward momentum for the entire 190 miles. Creating questions and friction in reader’s minds throughout your story is essential to hook them and keep them engaged—but that doesn’t have to mean nonstop major action or melodrama.

Imagine this scene: A man is making breakfast for his family. He cracks the eggs into the pan, fills up the glasses with orange juice, puts the bread in the toaster and hits the lever.

Are you hooked? Probably not. This is a pretty pedestrian domestic scene. Things are happening but they don’t really impact readers because they don’t seem to mean much.

Now introduce an element of tension, something unexpected or that creates friction. Let’s say he throws the bread in the pan and cracks an egg in the toaster.

Immediately a question forms in our minds. Why is he doing that?

That single moment of tension—the unexpected act of juxtaposing the egg and the toast—grabs readers’ attention amid the complacency of an otherwise ordinary scene, and introduces the first tiny threads of suspense as our minds keep asking questions to try to puzzle out the answer: Is he aware he did that? Is he confused? Distracted? Why?

Already we’re engaged—as soon as our minds start asking questions, we’re part of the story. As the scene develops, some of these questions will start to be answered; that initial suspense will be resolved. To keep your reader on the hook, keep introducing new ones, always buttressed by tension.

Let’s say the man immediately realizes what he’s done, curses, and upends the toaster over the sink to get the egg out. He’s trying to clean the appliance when his wife walks into the kitchen, looks at the stove, and says, “Toast is burning,” as she opens the fridge for a protein drink.

“I’m a little busy here,” he says, not turning around.

Here’s another tidbit of tension. The wife ignoring the burning toast in the pan to get her own breakfast and the husband’s terse reaction both suggest tension in this relationship…and that leads to more questions (suspense) in the reader’s mind: Why? What’s going on with these two? Is that why the man was distracted while he cooked? Why, has something happened between them?

Now imagine the same scene without any of the tension elements. Would you care about what was going on? Would you wonder, or just think it’s just another ordinary day of domestic life? Even if you introduce a suspense question—let’s say that the man is wondering whether his spouse is having an affair—would the scene have as much impact without the moments of tension?

If you remove the suspense elements—say, we know that these two who are a couple whose usual dynamic is bickering, and the man is lately suffering from some focus issues—then the tension elements lose their steam too. These are no longer elements of friction—they’re exactly what we might expect in those circumstances.

Good authors unspool every scene like this, constantly creating questions in readers’ minds and threading in moments of friction in large moments and small to keep them off balance and invested in the answers.

One tees up the ball and the other takes the swing, over and over and over, suspense and tension working in tandem back and forth, keeping the motor of the story fueled up, running, and moving forward.

Layer your tension and suspense

Think of tension and suspense as layers of cake and frosting—each one a little less satisfying alone, but together they create something delicious.

Early in The Princess Bride, Princess Buttercup has been kidnapped by three rough men who have bound her and are sailing her away to an uncertain fate.

This sequence is layered with suspense, from the initial uncertainties of “Why has she been kidnapped?” to “What will they do to Buttercup?” to “Will she escape?” to “Who is in the ship following them?”

Heightening these suspense questions is that sweet, creamy tension filling—moments of friction, opposition, and conflict: a defiant, bound Buttercup challenging a hostile Vizzini; dissent in the ranks as Inigo and Fezzik first begin to question his leadership; that relentlessly closing ship behind them.

Together both elements create a strong effect on readers—as Peter Falk’s grandpa character realizes when he abruptly stops the story in the middle of Buttercup’s wide-eyed panting fear (tension) in the face of the charging Shrieking Eels (suspense—“Will she survive?”), reassuring his worried grandson to whom he has been reading, “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”

The suspense of the moment is defused—for the sick child and for the viewer. Once we know the answer the question loses its power. The film returns us to the same scene, the same tension of Buttercup’s helpless fear…but this time we relax. We’re no longer on the edge of our seats.

But screenwriter William Goldman knows another truth about suspense—as soon as you resolve one question, you must introduce another to keep readers on the hook. No sooner is Buttercup safely away from the eels than she’s back in the soup with the kidnappers and their mysterious pursuer, headed for the terrifying-sounding Cliffs of Insanity.

Accompanying the suspense questions of who is following them, whether they’ll elude their pursuer, and Buttercup’s fate are more moments of tension: the race to beat the pirate ship to the cliffs…the dangerous climb to the top…the desperation to cut the confoundingly thick rope before the Man in Black reaches the top.

Tension is suspense’s handmaiden, and vice versa—each one amplifying the effectiveness of the other. Skillful authors weave both together to draw readers irresistibly through into their stories on a taut thread of unanswered questions and constant frictions.

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