The Thrill of the Unknown: Using Suspense to Enhance Emotional Impact in Writing

Episode #24 – April 18, 2024

Welcome to episode 24 of the Writing on Caffeine podcast. My daughter (Ragan Franzone) and I (Jonathan Franzone) are a father and daughter who have decided to write our first novel. In this podcast, we invite you to join us on this journey.

Dive into the heart of suspense with us as we explore how the thrill of the unknown captivates and moves readers. Discover the pivotal role of tension in storytelling, and learn how to masterfully weave anxiety, fear, and anticipation into your narrative to keep readers emotionally invested and turning pages.

Show Notes

In essence, suspense and tension are powerful tools to ignite readers’ emotions, maintain their focus, and create stories that are truly un-put-downable page-turners. Masters of suspense keep readers in a state of uncertainty until the very end.

1) Emotional Investment

Suspense and tension evoke emotions like excitement, anxiety, fear, and curiosity in readers. When done effectively, it emotionally invests readers in the story and characters, making them deeply care about what happens next. This emotional connection keeps readers hooked.

2) Sustains Interest

Tension and unresolved questions or conflicts sustain the reader’s interest throughout the story. Without suspense, reader engagement can wane. But unresolved mysteries, looming threats, and obstacles keep readers intrigued and turning pages to find out what happens.

3) Creates Anticipation

Suspenseful storytelling builds anticipation by hinting at potential future events or consequences. This anticipation compels readers to continue reading to have their expectations confirmed or defied in delightfully surprising ways.

4) Increases Stakes

Building tension often involves raising the stakes for the characters by introducing heightened conflicts, dilemmas or ticking clocks. Higher stakes amplify the suspense and make readers anxious to discover if the characters can overcome the obstacles.

5) Enhances Pacing

Effective use of suspense and tension enhances the pacing of a story. It allows for faster-paced, action-packed sequences intermixed with slower sections that ramp up the tension before another explosive event.

6) Fosters Active Reading

When suspense is well-crafted, it fosters active reading as audiences analyze clues, make predictions, and theorize about what will happen. This mental engagement deepens their immersion in the story.

How to Build Suspense and Tension

1) Ticking Clock

Introduce a time constraint or deadline that adds urgency and raises the stakes. This could be something like a bomb about to detonate, a terminal illness with limited time left, or an encroaching army about to attack.
Example: Mistborn: The Lost Metal (Wax & Wayne Book 4)

2) High Stakes

Increase what’s at risk or what could be lost for the characters. This makes readers invest more in the outcome. Potential losses could involve loved ones, freedom, survival, etc.
Example: The Lord of the Rings

3) Foreshadowing

Drop subtle hints or clues about potential future events or dangers to come. This plants seeds of anticipation and dread in the reader’s mind about what may unfold.
Example: Twilight

I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, p. 1

4) Unresolved Mysteries

Leave key questions unanswered by withholding critical information from readers. Their curiosity to uncover the truth will propel them forward.
Example: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (hallows versus horcruxes, also horcruxes, also also Harry IS a horcrux).

5) Ominous Atmosphere

Use vivid descriptive language to create a foreboding, ominous, or unsettling atmosphere that signals potential threats lurking.
Example(s): Mistborn, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games

6) Unreliable Narrators

Employ an unreliable narrator whose version of events or perceptions cannot be fully trusted, leaving the truth ambiguous.
Example(s): Hunger Games, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

7) Cliffhangers

End chapters or sections at the moment of highest tension before revealing what happens next. This forces readers to continue to resolve the suspense.
Example(s): Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings (Frodo’s demise by Shelob)

8) Contrast With Moments of Calm

Build periods of calm and normality before explosive events to increase the surprising, jarring impact and sense of looming dread.
Example: Ender’s Game, Hunger Games

9) Escalating Obstacles

Continually introduce greater impediments or raise the difficulty level for characters to overcome complications, amplifying the tension.
Example(s): So many examples (basically any good story). Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, The Hobbit, Twilight, Atlas Shrugged

10) Character Dilemmas

Place characters in impossible situations where they face agonizing moral choices with significant consequences no matter what they decide.
Example: The Hobbit (kill Golum or not, reveal the ring or not, taking the Arkenstone)