Suspense in Fiction

I had an unexpected lull in my workflow on Thursday, which gave me a chance to start developing a presentation I’m giving in May about “Editing for Suspense in Fiction.” Apart from reminding me that I miss prepping for class from my teacher days, it was a good chance to read up on the nuts and bolts of what literary suspense is, how it functions, where and how best to use it, etc. (Plot graphs for Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter may or may not have been involved.)

It also inevitably got me thinking about how I use suspense in my own fiction. Am I using a good balance of internal/interpersonal and plot/external suspense? Do I allow for enough space between action for anxiety and worry to build up? Do I mix short-term suspense in individual scenes with sustained narrative suspense throughout the entire story?

I touched on this in an earlier post, but I’ve been struggling with the pacing in the middle act of my portal fantasy novel, and suspense gives me a different angle to look at the structural soundness of the manuscript. Sustained narrative suspense is present—the central question of the book is called back repeatedly, and it directly affects the choices and movement of the protagonist—but too often the narrative suspense stands on its own. There isn’t a lot of short-term suspense from scene to scene, and because the conflict of the book is so focused and there aren’t a lot of side plots, it’s hard to tie together suspense elements from the various plot threads.

Another bit of advice that struck me was from a Writer’s Digest article by Steven James, who cautions that action often dispels suspense. He gave the example of romantic suspense, where storytellers usually draw out the will-they-won’t-they of the relationship for as long as possible, because once the romantic partners are together (or break apart), the tension eases. This helped me recognize an apprehension I’ve had for a while about my WWII zombie novel I’m shopping to agents right now, because both the prologue and chapter one include action scenes. I intentionally made them fairly different in mood and blocking, but I have wondered if the reader needs more breathing space between the two conflicts—which could potentially up the suspense factor.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve had both positive and negative responses from agents about the opening chapters, so I haven’t decided yet if they “aren’t suspenseful enough” and I should go back and change them, or if they’re the way they need to be. It seems like an oversimplification to say more suspense is always better, and as mentioned above, suspense comes in all shapes and sizes. (One of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever watched is Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which, when boiled down, is a sci-fi romance, with no spies or wars or shocking betrayals.) But in preparing for my presentation, I’m certainly finding suspense to be a useful lens for looking at my own work.

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