Other posts have talked about Drama and Tension. Drama is the conflict that propels your story; tension enhances drama by making the outcome of a conflict seem in doubt.Suspense is creating anticipation of conflict to come. Tension occurs once the race starts, as first one horse takes the lead and then another. Suspense is when horse shies away from entering her stall. Suspense keeps you on the edge of your chair waiting for the starting
Suspense is a collection of tricks, and it’s often belittled for that reason, but learning any craft is largely a matter of learning tricks. To be an effective writer, you must master and use the triumvirate of drama, tension, and suspense. Great fiction, as well as pulp, needs suspense.
Here are some tricks to build suspense.
Danger. The most primal suspense is high stakes- life or death.
The unknown. If an event occurs in a scene and the reasons for it are unclear, that’s suspenseful. Your character is walking down the street and people, for no reason he knows of, are avoiding him. Why?
The reversal. The tug-of-war that is tension entails some successes and some setbacks for your protagonist. If a setback occurs at the end of a scene, it will leave your reader wondering what’s next.
The ticking clock. An approaching deadline creates suspense. 24 Hours wouldn’t work nearly as well if it were titled 24 Years.
Dramatic irony, the trick Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, made famous. Your audience knows something your protagonist doesn’t know- the man in the closet with the knife, the bomb under the table.
Having your character anticipate something. Your protagonist has entered a music contest. In one telling, she just shows up, sings, and wins her prize. In the other, she’s constantly fretting over the contest, picking different dresses, rehearsing until her voice is hoarse, and thinking about how good her rival is.
A secret hinted at or exposed. See Chinatown. This also works well for character development, exposing an unexpected trait. Your character seems charming and nice- but then you find that he occasionally steals things from his co-workers’ desks. Also, your character’s nature is exposed slowly, in layers.
A character’s placed in a situation where a trait is potential grief. Say your character’s called into his boss’s office and reprimanded, that’s drama. But if he has a violent temper and is quick to react to attacks, and the boss calls him in… that’s suspense. Back to the Future uses this trick well.
The cliff hanger, failing to resolve a scene’s conflict. Cutting from the action to another place and time, such as to another subplot, does this- the potboiler technique. Delayed resolution at the end of novel or movie is also how you open the door to a sequel.
Inner tension or subtext. Your characters create tension not by what they say or do, but by what they don’t say or do that’s at odds with the dialog or action. Saying one thing and feeling an other. It’s how actors steal scenes. Good examples are the airport scene in Casablanca and Hemingway’s short story Hills Like Elephants.
Once you’ve created suspense, prolong it. Rear Window is an example; the killer takes his time coming up the stairs, opens the door but stands outside, lurking in the shadows…
The end of a scene is often the best place to deliver suspense. You need a bridge to what’s coming, something to keep your reader hooked.