Suspense does not just belong to mystery and thriller genres. It is a key ingredient in all genres—romance, drama, action adventure, children, religion, and fantasy to name a few—because it draws in and holds the reader as the story unfolds. As a Texas Forensic Investigator, and Tennessee Founder-President/CEO of an innovative biomedical company, I received a heavy dose of suspense on a daily basis. As an author I appreciate the power of suspense in my novels. I sprinkle it throughout like seasoning on a porterhouse steak. Great writing engages readers and holds them. To accomplish this, a writer must recognize suspense matters.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines suspense as a feeling or state of nervousness or excitement caused by wondering what will happen next. The emotions arise when the reader becomes aware of their lack of knowledge about a developing event or relationship or situation that is meaningful to them. The anticipation and uncertainty of dealing with this unknown pulls them deeper into the story. They become more invested.
The emotion can be anything from excitement and wonder to curiosity and terror depending on the type of story being told. The human emotions spawned by a suspenseful moment are powerful because we do it every day as we go through life. For example, opening a letter from the IRS can be a traumatic moment if one is worried about an audit. Or it can be an exciting moment if one is looking for a refund check. The “close score” baseball game with the last batter in the box—four balls two strikes and two outs—can elicit any of a wide variety of human emotions depending on the back story and unknown outcome. Is the batter struggling in his life and this is a pivotal moment? Does the game decide who goes to the playoffs? Did someone bet their life savings on the outcome? Regardless of the story the unknown outcomes create suspense. Human emotion grabs and holds the reader. They are satisfied. If you simply wrote about a baseball game won in the last seconds, you missed an opportunity to get your readers to invest more in the characters and story.
I investigated thousands of unsolved deaths for the medical examiner’s office. Although I handled so many cases, each death had its own unique suspenseful moments. Walking into each new crime scene I dealt with new unknowns. Is it possible a homicide has been manipulate to look like an accident or suicide? Or, did the killer make mistakes? Am I smart enough to find them? Did someone manipulate the crime scene, hide or change evidence? Did they inadvertently leave their DNA?
Like working a homicide crime scene, the questions we have throughout our lives stop only when we stop breathing. As a mystery/thriller writer I view the questions as suspense building opportunities. As a forensic investigator I walk into each case managing the suspense. The emotion is engaging and powerful.
For writers of mysteries and thrillers the creation of great suspense is vital. A mystery novel is about tracking down the truth. The protagonist is not typically in danger until they approach the truth. A thriller novel hunts for truth too, but the protagonist is in danger from the onset, and the reader knows it. As I talk about suspense as a writing tool, don’t confuse it with the rules of suspense novels as a genre—where the protagonist learns of danger gradually and the reader knows more and worries gradually. Suspense as a writing tool is used in all stories and genres like romance novels—will the boy get the girl? Even when writing a religious story suspense is a necessary ingredient to attract and keep readers engaged. They pick up the book seeking answers—how does good overcome evil?
Because my background is forensics and biotechnology, I have deep reservoirs of suspenseful moments from which to draw to create a riveting story. When my reviews say they could not put down my book, I know why. Suspense attracts and holds readers because it elicits the emotions that guide us through life. If you are a writer, make sure it is in your stories. If you are a reader, I know you are looking for it.
Steve Bradshaw article “Suspense Matters” appeared in Southern Writers Magazine