The tension begins

This entry is part 2 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

The suspense is killing me! I hope it will last.

—Oscar Wilde

Today we’re kicking off our series on tension, suspense and surprise. (I mean . . . surprise!)

It’s easy to look at those elements and think, “Oh, that’s good for a mystery or a romance, but my story doesn’t need those things” or “I’m not writing suspense, why does that matter?” But really, every story should have suspense, tension and surprise. Why are these elements so important? They’re what keep readers reading. Sadly, readers aren’t as indulgent as your friends and critique partners—we have to give them a reason to believe read on.

tss series medSo what’s the difference between the three? Surprise is fairly obvious, but suspense and tension are often used interchangeably (and I’m sure at least some of my sources won’t use the same terminology that I’m choosing). However, for the purposes of this series, I’m going to use “suspense” to mean things that propel us forward in the story—things that make us want to read the next scene. “Tension” will be the events within a scene that keep us from skipping that scene to get to see the next one 😉 .

In other words, tension is a scene-level (or page-level, since we will be looking at Donald Maass’s book) element—something that makes this particular scene interesting, that makes us care about it as readers. Suspense is the larger, overarching thing that keeps us reading once the scene is over—though, like I said, there’s plenty of overlap in those areas anyway.

Surprise, like I said, is fairly obvious. An unexpected event occurs. (This would be a counterexample.)

All three are necessary for a good story. I like the way Noah Lukeman puts it in The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life: “Suspense, more than any other element, affects the immediate, short term experience of the work” (119). Tension can be used to create that suspense, compel readers to read through the scenes themselves and keep them interested. Surprise is important because, well, nobody wants to read a story where they already know everything that’s going to happen!

So for . . . the next little while, we’re going to look at how (and how not to) create tension and suspense, how to use them, and how and when to use surprise.

What do you think? How would you differentiate between suspense and tension? What areas or topics interest you most for these elements?

Photo credit: Aart von Bezooyen

Series Navigation37 ways to keep readers’ pulses racing—and keep them readingSuspense fix: Raise the stakes

5 thoughts on “The tension begins”

  1. I think you’ve differentiated very well. Makes sense to me, anyway. I agree that every story needs both. I think it’s Donald Maass that said there should be tension on every single page. Without it the page will feel like filler between scenes.

  2. Good stuff.
    At my critique group yesterday, someone asked me (seriously) if there needs to be conflict in every chapter.
    I’ll leave you in suspense over my answer.

    I’d like to see methods on how to improve all three elements 🙂
    How to identify weak areas and fix them etc.

  3. @Carol—Yep, that’s why I mentioned him in this post.

    @Andrew—I’m beginning to have serious doubts about your critique group. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  4. LOL yeah, me too, but it was actually a different group than last time. In this group, the “leader” argues with almost every point I make. But there was a new guy there this time who was really perceptive. In this case, only need one apple to make the barrel.

  5. Woot! Makes me want to break out the Donny Osmond.

    Personally, I fantasize about stealing the good apples and running. Mwahahaha.

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