The difference between the three main blocks of story lumps and bumps (Conflict, Tension, and Suspense) are subtle. Sort of.

Conflict is the external, Tension is the internal, but Suspense is anticipation.

In effect, Tension and Suspense are related, but more like third cousins than siblings. What does that mean? It means the reader is suffering.

Ah, so it’s not just the characters who have to suffer, it’s the reader, too. The reader suffers the suspense created by events that cause problems for the character, and the reader puts their life experience and knowledge to the story to anticipate what’s likely to happen, what problems are being created for the character, and they feel it.

Getting the reader into the story for the deepest emotional experience requires all three, but suspense is the best form of involvement.

What? Surely not. What about all the emotions, the events, the tension?

Yes, they’re important, because they create that feeling in the reader of anticipation. Suspense is anticipation of what’s to come, and it’s not going to be good, is it? They know, from experience, that it can’t be good, unless … and they read on to see how it comes together, how the character deals with the conflicts and lessons.

What about the character?

Characters live through conflict and the reader feels the tension, but it’s not the whole shebang. Without suspense, there’s no desperate need to turn the page, no desire to help the character think it through, no yelling at the character when they make the decision the reader knows is going to be less than ideal.

Suspending belief in the reader means they are part of the story (although I think it should be suspending disbelief). The story raises (suspends) their concept of reality beyond the normal and into something other-worldly. Into a story they live vicariously through the character/s they’ve bonded with.

So, if conflict is knots in the rope, and tension is the tangles, what is suspense?

It’s the hand on the rope, the one that untangles, unknots, and rolls the rope into a shape.

How does that sound? Rather vague and abstract, but with constant writing and reading and learning, I’ve discovered the subtle differences and how they relate to story. What do you think? Do you disagree, or have more to say? I’m happy to listen, discuss, and learn more, now and always.

9 thoughts on “Suspense

  1. Cool photo!

    For each scene that I write, I examine, in writing, fourteen different areas with potential for microtension, and let my brain throw out ideas.

    I then assign those ideas to the structure of the scene someplace, again, in writing (my brain can’t retain things for larger chunks of either work or time).

    And then I don’t necessarily use each idea in the place it’s been assigned, but I do reread all the notes for a beat before I write it, and find that it happens without conscious volition that the pieces assigned are visible in the final product. In other word, putting them on the page makes sure they’ll influence the actions and thoughts of the characters, often in ways I wouldn’t be able to create consciously. Just the fact that I gave my brain space, and asked those questions, leads to richer scenes.

    I learned this from The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass, but have made it my own, systematically, so I don’t forget to think about important twists such as who is angry and what about.

    It’s amazing what just asking a few simple questions can pull out of your subconscious. It’s there all along, but needs encouragement to speak up.

    We’re very rarely of one mind on any subject.

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    • I agree. My process involves a lot of pre-writing, and those types of questions are part of each scene and often part of each character’s beats – and once I’ve ‘done’ the pre-writing and start in on the real thing, I rarely go back to the notes. It’s all in the character by then.
      It’s true about the ‘one mind’ but that’s what makes it beautiful – at least one of those many different minds is going to make it easier for someone else to understand.


      • Exactly. The notes serve to get organized, sort things out, but once you start writing they often seem to have ordered themselves in your brain, and what comes out of your fingertips is magical.

        I find I can’t write a scene until I can follow a rough mini-movie in my mind, and then I listen, capture the thoughts and dialogue, and put a few things in so the readers can figure out where, etc., and shoot their own mini-scripts.

        It’s not that I don’t believe I wrote something when I read it later, it’s that I don’t know HOW I wrote it. So I keep following ‘process’ and it keeps working, so I guess that’s how I write.

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      • Yup. Whatever works for you.

        It’s good, periodically, to examine that process, to see if you have enshrined as necessary something that’s actually slowing you down, but after that, you have to go back to trusting you know what you’re doing.

        The periodic examination is not self-doubt. It is learning – maybe.

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    • Suspense is what Hitchcock creates in his audience by showing them a little more than the characters know. It’s all about creating an emotion in the reader, so whether fear, suspense, dread, etc., it’s not when the characters feel it that matters, it’s when the reader/audience feel it – they’re living/feeling/experiencing the story as they read.

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