What Is Suspense in Literature?
They say curiosity killed the cat — but satisfaction brought it back. Suspenseful stories depend on these very same traits in a reader. But just what is suspense in literature, and how can you weave that gripping tension into your own stories?
This thorough guide will give you all the information you need… and more. (See, we’re creating suspense already!)
What Is Literary Suspense?
Suspense is the tension a reader feels when they're not sure what will happen in a story — either during a single scene/chapter or throughout its overall arc. You might create suspense around anything that stokes readers’ curiosity, whether it’s a love triangle or a killer on the loose.
You can use suspense in a story to:
- Heighten tension during a dramatic scene
- Conceal answers you don’t want to give away
- Build up to a twist and make it more powerful
- Keep your reader turning the pages!
While suspense is most frequently employed in mysteries and thrillers, it should be present in every work of fiction — curiosity is what compels readers to finish your book! However, the amount and type of suspense you use depends on exactly what you want your reader to experience.
The 5 Types of Suspense (With Examples)
First of all, there are two types of suspense to know in terms of story structure: narrative suspense and short-term suspense. The first engages the reader with the central issue of the narrative, while the second keeps them intrigued minute to minute. A good novel has both.
1. Narrative (long-term) suspense
While technically any literary suspense might be described as “narrative,” this refers to tension that builds throughout the entire story. In narrative suspense, you pose a question, problem, or mystery at the book’s beginning, divulge more about it as the plot progresses, and wrap it up near the climax or ending.
Well-written narrative suspense makes it nearly impossible for readers to put down your book. However, that means the payoff has to be huge — if you’re going to tease readers for 300 pages, you need an incredible ending! This is part of why suspenseful stories often culminate in a plot twist or big reveal (or both, as in the arc of Amy’s disappearance in Gone Girl).
When constructing this kind of suspense, you want to continuously hint at its resolution. But you also don’t want to overwhelm your reader; the constant pressure of an impending reveal can make them feel overly anxious as well as impatient. With that in mind, temper this pressure with character development, non-suspenseful plot progression, or even a different suspense arc, as in the example below.
Example of narrative/long-term suspense
In To Kill A Mockingbird, there are two arcs of narrative suspense: 1) the question of what will happen to Tom Robinson, and 2) the suspense surrounding the mysterious Boo Radley. Both issues are introduced near the beginning, gain traction throughout the story, and eventually collide at the end, when Boo Radley saves the kids from Bob Ewell after the Robinson trial.
Having more than one arc of narrative suspense keeps the reader invested and gives the story added layers of depth. You can also accomplish these goals by using short-term suspense, which we’ll discuss in our next section.
2. Short-term suspense
Short-term suspense is just what it sounds like: a moment or brief scene of suspense that provokes a powerful reaction from the reader. This may tie in to the book’s long-term tension, or alternately can serve as a distraction or subplot.
Instances of short-term suspense usually involve a discussion or confrontation between characters that’s quickly settled, though it may resurface later. For example, the initial flare of tension between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy at the first ball in Pride and Prejudice lays the groundwork for their continuing contentious relationship.
One of the best applications of short-term suspense is to create cliffhangers — scene or chapter endings that leave the reader desperately in suspense. Just as Scheherazade would cut off her stories so the sultan would let her live, cliffhangers cut off your story at critical moments — when the only thing the reader wants to know is what happens next.
Example of short-term suspense
In Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty (the contemporary queen of short-term suspense) ends several chapters with irresistible cliffhangers, like this:
There was a tremendous crash of crockery and an extraordinary scream that tore through the night: “Clementine!”
The suspense doesn’t linger long, as we find out why this character is screaming within the next couple of scenes. Nuggets of short-term tension like this are always quickly resolved, which helps engage readers page by page while balancing out the slow burn of narrative suspense.
Now that we’ve covered structural suspense, let’s get into specifics. The following categories of suspense depend on the genre and style of your book; though they can be combined, you don’t necessarily need all of them.
3. Mysterious suspense
Mysterious suspense is the most traditional form of suspense, often used in thrillers and, of course, mystery novels. Though all suspense involves mystery in one way or another, mysterious suspense differs in that something is deliberately being concealed from the reader. They know they don’t have the whole truth and it keeps them on their toes.
This kind of tension can be used in the short term, but it's most famously employed across entire narrative arcs (think Agatha Christie). If you decide to do this, however, you need to add something unique to prevent your story becoming predictable — whether it's a highly original premise, an excellent plot twist to resolve the mystery, or both.
Example of mysterious suspense
In Jane Eyre, Jane observes a pattern of strange occurrences at Thornfield Hall, such as an unexplained fire and an attack on a guest. Mr. Rochester reassures her that these incidents are merely the result of a servant’s erratic behavior. They become engaged and Jane thinks little more of the events.
However, during their wedding ceremony, a man steps forward to announce that Rochester is already married. It’s revealed that Rochester has been keeping his deranged wife in the attic and that she is the source of all the incidents. Rochester was hiding her away all along, in order to keep Jane (and the reader) from discovering the truth.
4. Horrific suspense
Horrific suspense is when the reader knows something awful is going to happen, but the precise nature of it remains unclear — like waiting for a jump scare in a movie. As one might expect, it’s most common in horror and sometimes thriller novels.
Though it overlaps somewhat with mysterious suspense, horrific suspense differs in that it’s less vague and more expected. Also, horrific suspense is typically used in the short-term rather than the long-term because it’s less satisfying than solving a mystery: horrific suspense is more about shock value than satisfaction.
That’s not to say mysterious and horrific suspense can’t be combined. A novel might contain elements of both, especially if it’s a murder mystery. And Then There Were None, for example, seamlessly intertwines mysterious and horrific suspense throughout its arc, making the reader question both “whodunnit?” (mystery) and “when will they do it again?” (horrific).
Example of horrific suspense
Stephen King’s Misery is chock full of horrific suspense, but perhaps none more horrific than the infamous “hobbling” scene. By this point in the book, the reader fully understands that its villain, Annie Wilkes, is dangerously unstable, which contributes to their mounting dread.
After Annie realizes that her captive, writer Paul Sheldon, has been leaving his room while she’s been out, she declares that Paul “needs to be protected from himself.” The leads to her brutally chopping off Paul’s foot and cauterizing it with a blowtorch — a shocking twist, not because it’s wholly unexpected, but because it’s so extreme.
5. Romantic/comedic suspense
Romantic or comedic suspense may also occur when the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen, though this tension is typically lighter than other forms of suspense. Think back to our Pride and Prejudice example: “will they get together?” is the question at the heart of any romantic comedy.
Romantic suspense may occur in lighthearted or more dramatic fiction, such as harlequin romances. Comedic suspense, on the other hand, almost exclusively occurs in farce. One well-known form of this is dramatic irony, in which the reader knows something that not all the characters know, and is waiting to see how they’ll react to it.
Example of romantic/comedic suspense
In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola disguises herself as a young man in order to act as a servant to Duke Orsino. As part of her duties, Viola (calling herself Cesario) must deliver messages of love to Olivia, whom the Duke loves. However, this plan backfires when Olivia instead falls for “Cesario” — who of course is Viola in disguise. Meanwhile Viola herself has fallen for the Duke, who has no idea she’s a woman and continues to pine for Olivia.
How to Create Suspense
Though there are many combinations and manifestations of tension in literature, mysterious narrative suspense seems to be what most people struggle to achieve. As a result, these tips will focus on that type.
1. Make your readers hungry
Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, likens suspense to making a cake: there are a hundred ways to do it, but how do you make sure it’s delicious?
By not feeding your guests all day — so by the time they get their hands on that cake, it’ll be the best thing they’ve ever eaten.
You need to do the same thing with the suspense in your story. Build it up for as long as you can, teasing your audience with answers, making them hungry for more. Subtly reference a piece of your suspense arc as early as possible. Then make them anticipate each individual ingredient, agonizingly building to the final product.
That way, when your readers finally do get their cake — the big reveal or resolution — they’ll be ready to gobble it up.
Make 'em hungry. Image: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
2. Foreshadow important elements
Foreshadowing is a simple means of indicating something important, even if the reader doesn’t know why. Some foreshadowing doesn’t become evident until the very end of a book, like the train accident early in Anna Karenina. However, other foreshadowing easily clarifies itself to the reader and helps them make an educated guess about the resolution.
Strong foreshadowing techniques include:
- Presenting a significant object or character that returns later in the plot
- Seeming to reveal a secret, but neglecting the context or other key details
- Unusually vague or cryptic turns of phrase
3. Use flashbacks
Flashbacks are a great way to ratchet up suspense, whether it’s an isolated flashback that shows something shocking or a series of flashbacks that build toward the final reveal. Some novels even consist of half present-day narrative, half flashbacks, to maximize dramatic impact. (Jodi Picoult and Gillian Flynn are great proponents of this technique.)
No matter how you use flashbacks, however, they need to mean something in the story. You can include a red herring as part of flashback, but the whole thing can’t just be a diversion, or your reader will feel betrayed. That goes for content as well as tone — flashbacks should read as vividly and intriguingly as the present-day narrative, and shouldn’t feel like a distraction, but an augmentation to the plot.
4. Put characters in jeopardy
Placing your characters in a dangerous situation is the ultimate recipe for sudden suspense (remember Stephen King’s method in Misery). It’s especially helpful when you’re approaching the climactic point of your mysterious suspense arc, and need to escalate it with some short-term horrific suspense.
This technique only works if you’ve gotten readers to really care about your characters, so wait to deploy it until the end of your narrative. Also make sure the threat is realistic, and has been creeping in on the characters the whole time, whether they (or the audience) realize it or not.
For example, at the end of The Girl on the Train (spoilers ahead!), the mysterious suspense is resolved when we learn that Megan was killed by the narrator’s ex-husband. This plot twist abruptly transforms the mysterious into the horrific, as the narrator confronts her murderous ex — suddenly putting her life in jeopardy, when she didn’t even realize he was dangerous.
5. Stay one step ahead
It can sometimes be hard not to include hints the way you’d want them as a reader: crystal clear, so you can guess the outcome easily. But well-done suspense successfully cloaks its plot in obscurity, resulting in the hard-earned satisfaction of the resolution. This means staying ahead of your reader, in order to keep them on their toes.
As you write, don’t employ hints too obviously or frequently, and throw in some distractions or red herrings where you as a reader would be looking for clues. The key here is to hint at several different outcomes throughout the story, so that the reader can speculate without getting too close to the actual resolution — unless they’re a great detective, as you should be by now!
All these tips, as well your newly acquired knowledge of its various incarnations, have officially made you a master of literary suspense. Just think: you could be the next Liane Moriarty, Stephen King, or even Agatha Christie. Whichever it is, don’t leave us in suspense.
What's the best suspense you've ever read (or written)? What are your tips for recreating it? Let us know in the comments below!