Suspense is the anticipation of an outcome, created through hints at what’s to come.
That outcome might involve the resolution of several different plot points, mysteries, or puzzles. While it is not exclusive to fiction, it is most commonly associated with that genre due to the wide variety of applications it has. A cliffhanger is one way to create suspense. The story stops short of revealing what happened, leaving the reader wanting more. This is often the case as the storyline is leading up to the climax or at the end of a novel when the writer wants readers to read a sequel.
Definition and Explanation of Suspense
Suspense is the feeling that a reader, or audience member, gets while waiting for an unknown outcome. They have to read, watch, or listen to more in order to get to that resolution. These passages are the most intense of the novel and it’s that intensity that makes it hard to stop reading. Without this aspect, a reader will likely lose interest in the story.
Types of Suspense
- Narrative Suspense: also known as long-term suspense, this refers to the tension that builds from the first page until after the climax. With this type of suspense, the writer poses a question or creates a mystery of some kind. If it is well-written, then readers won’t be able to put the book or story down.
- Short-term Suspense: suspense that lasts for a single scene or a brief moment and is then relieved. This might make the story’s individual parts more interesting. It could occur when two characters meet and the reader isn’t sure what they’ll think of one another.
- Romantic/Comedic Suspense: occurs when the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen between two characters. This might be related to the nature of their relationship.
- Mysterious Suspense: the type of suspense commonly associated with the term. It is used in mystery novels and thrillers and encourages the reader to continue on with the novel to find out what happens next.
- Horror Suspense: occurs when the reader knows that something awful is going to happen but they aren’t exactly sure what that is or when it’s going to strike. This could be a jump-scare in a horror movie.
Examples of Suspense in Literature
Othello by William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Othello, the writer makes use of suspense through the implementation of dramatic irony. This technique, which allows the reader in on something that the characters don’t know. In the case of Othello, the reader or audience member is aware that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello and that Iago has been trying to convince him of the opposite. Iago’s plans to destroy Othello’s career are obvious to anyone viewing the play and the suspense builds as the audience worries about Othello and what he’s going to do.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Throughout the Harry Potter series, Rowling builds suspense as more and more is revealed about Harry’s background, his fate, and Lord Voldemort’s plans. As each piece of the puzzle falls into place, tension builds as readers consider what’s next. It’s only partially relieved as those plans are revealed in part.
Examples of Suspense in Films
The Silence of the Lambs
In this well-known, award-winning horror film, the filmmakers create suspense as Hannibal’s nature is explored and Jodi Foster’s character, Clarice, makes her way through Buffalo Bill’s home at the end of the film. With the lights out, Clarice can’t see where she is or where Bill is. But, he’s able to track her with his night-vision goggles, just as the audience can. There is a particularly suspenseful moment where he comes very close to her and she has no idea. Viewers are meant to be concerned for her safety and worried about what Bill is going to do.
Jaws contains many well-known examples of suspense. These are emphasized through the classic theme. The audience is aware that the shark is about to appear but the people in the water and the fishermen aren’t.
Mystery or Suspense?
The two terms are quite similar to one another but that doesn’t mean that they can be used interchangeably. In a suspense narrative, the protagonist of the novel gradually learns what’s going on around them, slowly becoming aware of the dangers they face. These are parts of the plot that the reader is already well aware of. In contrast, mystery novels present dangers, puzzles, and mysteries that the reader is unaware of. They are as in the dark as the protagonist is.
Why Do Writers Use Suspense?
Writers use suspense to put readers on the edge of their seats. It’s this element of a story that encourages the readers to keep reading. If they can make it through the most suspenseful part of the story then they’ll be rewarded with an event that relieves the tension and reveals something about the nature of the narrative. Suspense is even more effective when the reader is attached to the characters in a story or novel. They should feel concerned for the characters’ fates.
Related Literary Terms
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.