Conflict Equals Suspense

Every story is a suspense story.

That doesn't necessarily mean Suspense with a capital S— the edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting, adrenaline-surging kind. Sometimes it is a tension that hums beneath the surface of the action. But every story should generate in its readers a sense of anticipation, a mix of hope and doubt: What happens next? How will this all turn out?

Suspense is conflict's twin, or perhaps its shadow. If you set up a provocative conflict and play it out carefully, suspense marches along right beside it. Suspense grows out of your readers' desire to have the protagonist achieve her goal and their uncertainty about if and how the conflict will be resolved.

Creating suspense involves drawing your readers in and then keeping them hanging. A writer I know who is also an amateur magician likens writing fiction to performing magic tricks: "Stage magicians have a saying about how to handle an audience: First you make them care, then you make them wait. With stories it's the same thing." The interval between engaging the readers and letting them learn your character's fate is where suspense comes in.

The more uncertainty readers feel, the greater the suspense. If you'd like to ratchet it up a few notches, here are some time-honored techniques:

1. RAISE THE STAKES.

Every time you get your main character in worse trouble, up the ante for her. Make the consequences of success or failure more dire.

Remember to keep the risk and the payoff in balance. If you raise the risk that she confronts, you must also increase the benefit that comes if she succeeds. Otherwise, if she has any sense at all, your protagonist will cut her losses and walk out of the story.

2. ELIMINATE THE OPTIONS.

Keep reducing the number of solutions that remain available to your character. As she tries each one, have it fail for some reason, until with the last possibility she finally succeeds (or does she?). Suspense is built when you lead the characters—and readers—to believe a solution will work, then shut it off at the last minute.

3. ISOLATE YOUR CHARACTER.

Isolate your character physically. Put her in a tight spot, literally, confined to a small space or a locked place, or one that for some reason she can't easily leave. Send her far away from where she wants or needs to be, to an unfamiliar place where she has no knowledge of how to tap into whatever resources might be available for help.

Another option is to isolate her psychologically and emotionally. Send her to a place where she doesn't speak the language or for some other reason can't make herself understood. Create a situation in which no one believes her, no one is willing to help. Place her among people she cannot trust.

When you box in a character like this, you tap into basic fears that the reader shares, like claustrophobia and the fear of being abandoned or deserted.

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