What Makes Great Suspense?


We’ve all read a book or two that set our hearts racing, our palms tingling, and filled us with that nervous anxiety of not knowing what’s coming next. Will our heroine save the hero in time? Will our plucky underdog defeat the impossible, overwhelming evil? Will that woman in high heels be able to outrun the pursuing T-Rex?

The beauty of suspense stories is that we don’t know how they’ll turn out. Sure, we’re hoping that good triumphs over evil and that the detective catches the murderer, but there’s no guarantee they will. Or, even if we’re pretty sure they do, we don’t know how it’ll happen. All we can do is hang on for the ride and find out!
But, have you ever stopped to think about what makes a story suspenseful? Probably not, as you’re so caught up by the heart-pounding excitement of the moment.
Let’s take a look at a few of the elements that make for a truly exciting suspense story.
A good protagonist. Every great story starts with the protagonist.
If your main character is whiny, weak, or unlikeable, often you’ll end up wanting the bad guy to win just so that irritating character gets what’s coming to them. Think of it as subconscious wish fulfillment—we’re so sick of those kind of people in real life, we’re glad when they “get theirs” in fiction.
So, in order to make a great suspense novel, you need a protagonist to actually care about. Not perfect—perfection is unrealistic—but a character you can connect with on a human level. Someone with similar strengths, weaknesses, desires, ambitions, struggles, and setbacks as you.
It’s only once you start caring about a protagonist, rooting for them to win, that you fear for them when it looks like they’ll lose. And that “fear of their failure” ups the suspense big-time!
A great antagonist. For every Neo, there has to be an Agent Smith. For every detective, there has to be a murderer.

Read the entire article in the September 2018 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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