Tension & Suspense

I have to give a solid shout-out to Donald Maass for his tips on crafting suspense. I've attended two of Donald Maass's workshops. One focusing specifically on his concept of Micro Tension, the other a weeklong workshop named Breakout Novel Intensive. Also, I've read and highlighted my way through his book, Writing the Breakout Novel.

I'm not going to attempt to encapsulate all of Don teachings - but do consider looking into his books and workshops if tension and suspense are particular areas of importance to your writing (they should be.) What I'd like to do is focus a key lesson I learned from Don that swirls about in the back of my mind as I write. Creating tension. Also known as suspense.

Tension very often implies doubt about what will happen. Here's a definition of suspense for you. Pay close attention....

suspense [səˈspɛns]
1. the condition of being insecure or uncertain
2. mental uncertainty; anxiety
3. excitement felt at the approach of the climax
4. the condition of being suspended

I know I'm belaboring this point a bit. You know, of course, what suspense and tension mean. But for me, looking at tension this way was a breakthrough. After I realized this, writing suspense became a matter of:

1) Creating a sympathetic character (the reader wants character to succeed/survive/achieve their goal)
2) Giving that character a clear scene and story goal
3) Creating questions and doubt about whether that character will achieve their goal.

This last point is most of the real work in creating tension. Once you have a goal - let's say it's something straightforward like get out of a burning house - then you can start making decisions.
Sometimes you can give the reader hope that your protagonist will get what they want. They scramble to the kitchen. The doors and windows are jammed tight - but they find a fire extinguisher and there's the sound of fire engines in the distance. You know that feeling... oh, this is good. But it's too easy... It can't be this easy... Something bad is going to happen.... That's doubt. That's good stuff to read. It'll keep you turning pages.

This, of course, doesn't just apply to life and death moments. It applies to any goal your character might have. Impressing the girl. Passing that test. Getting good results from that last doctor's appointment. Whenever you want something, there's the fear you might not get it. Oh, but it does help if you want it badly, and bonus points if you need it. Stakes, people. But that's another lesson...

You can work reader expectations any way you want. Give them hope and tear them down. (mwah ha ha!) Or make them despair, and then turn it around and give them that carrot. Those are valid, important moments in storytelling, too. The point, at least the point I took, is to be smart about those decisions. Look at your scene carefully. I like to use a highlighter. Find those delicious moments of doubt. If you do it, I promise I'll... I swear to you that I'll...

(mwah ha ha ha!)

V, over and out.


Excellent post! Now to go insert suspense into my ms.

*slurks revisionward.

Hey Brodi! Thanks for coming by-and I totally hear you. Slurking the same way...

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