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.