Picture this scene: A group of teens is playing a game of Monopoly. The four kids chat amiably as they roll dice and move their game pieces around the board.
One kid erupts in with glee when he draws a “get out of jail card.” Another kid is forced to sell his hotels. It’s a pleasant enough scene, but on the surface, it lacks true tension.
Suspense happens when the reader discovers there is a bomb hidden somewhere in the room, perhaps taped under the table where the kids sit, yet the characters are oblivious of its existence.
The tension in the scene is created not by the teenagers, but by the reader who anticipates the pending explosion and its aftermath.
The reader is engaged by her desire to warn the kids to get out of the room. Her heart pounds, and each second the kids remain seated and placid, her anxiety deepens because she knows this will not end well. She is consumed by dread.
According to Alfred Hitchcock, “Mystery is an intellectual process… But suspense is essentially an emotional process.”
We expect thrillers and mysteries to be suspenseful. It’s the nature of their genre. Not all stories are mysteries, but all good ones contain suspense. A great book attracts the reader on a cognitive level, and holds them inside the story through seducing them on a visceral level. I recently read a literary novel called The Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes.
Literary novels are often regarded as books where nothing happens, yet de Cespedes begins her novel by stating, “I was wrong to buy this notebook…it’s too late now. The damage is done.” Right away she creates suspense by admitting she had erred.
As a reader, I wonder, how could owning an innocuous notebook cause damage? My initial reaction is intellectual, yet as I keep reading, I become immersed within Vilaria’s world, and I want to know more of her forbidden story.
Romances use familiar and predictable tropes, such as enemies to lovers, and they adhere to the HEA (Happily Ever After) ending, yet the suspense occurs in how characters make the journey from “I hate you so much” to “I will love you forever.”
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed makes dumb mistakes takes deadly risks. Even though I know Strayed survives her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I worried about the entire time I read the memoir.
The key to telling a good story is to have great characters and setting and provide enough suspense to force the reader to keep turning pages.