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.
So 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