Suspense is the sense of anticipation or worry that the author makes the reader feel. It’s the lack of certainty the author creates, which is often thought to be created by withholding information or limiting the readers’ perspective to reflect the character’s and nothing more. But there are better ways to add tension and suspense to your story.
The first thing to focus on is your characters. The more emotionally invested your readers are in the outcomes of the characters in your story, the more compelling your story will be when the characters are placed in risky situations. And this emotional investment comes from understanding what the stakes are for those characters. Ask yourself, Why should we care?, and then you’re ready to add tension.
Next, revealing information to the readers that the characters don’t know will help to increase the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the full significance of a character’s words/actions are clear to the reader but unknown to another character(s). This literary technique generates suspense and hooks the reader by giving them the means to anticipate and project – they know something is bound to happen but don’t know how it will be revealed or how the characters will react to it, providing endless possibility for conflict in plot and dialogue. It also shows how your characters (and people) work through their complications.
Now, as promised, let’s take a look at a quotation from the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, which succinctly exemplifies his method at creating suspense:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
These glimpses into the payoff (the unexploded time bomb) and the implication that the situation is increasing in severity through some means (like the tick of the time bomb) can help bring suspense to a scene.
Let’s add another layer of suspense. Remember those characters from before, the good characters? Imagine the aforementioned scene. Now, pretend that one of those characters knows the bomb is there but can’t reveal that they know this. While the reader is waiting for the explosion, they are also sharing the character’s anxiety to get away and act unconcerned as time runs out. Suspenseful, right?