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What Is Suspense?
In storytelling, suspense is the technique of keeping readers in a state of uncertainty in order to draw them into the story. Another definition of suspense is the feeling of positive tension a reader experiences when they are not sure what is going to happen.
Suspense that unfolds over the course of an entire story is called “narrative suspense.” Suspense can also unfold within a single scene or chapter. All great storytellers use suspense to draw readers or viewers into their work, from playwrights like David Mamet and television writers like Shonda Rhimes all the way to nonfiction writers like Gladwell.
What Is the Difference Between Suspense and Surprise?
There’s a subtle but important difference between suspense and surprise.
- With suspense writing, an author is playing with readers’ expectations of time. They know that the information they want (the identity of the killer, the hero’s means of escape, etc.) will come eventually, but they don’t know when it will happen.
- Surprise, on the other hand, is a story technique of delivering information that the reader had no idea was coming. Whether you’re writing a mystery novel, a short story, or a thriller movie, both of these literary techniques can be fun and effective.
5 Tips for Creating Suspense in Your Writing
While you might associate suspense with action movies or thriller novels, Gladwell’s work shows how suspense-building techniques can apply to nonfiction as well. Gladwell begins with big ideas and questions, then connects them to unique characters and situations to illuminate possibilities readers haven’t considered.
If your story features an element of suspense, try presenting questions, but withholding answers. You want your reader to ask “why,” and to keep turning the pages until you reveal the answers to them.
Here are some tools and techniques for adding suspense to your work, as well as examples of suspense in action.
- Ask “why.” While writers often focus on the plot and events of their story (the “what” of their story), the “why” is often far more interesting. This is true of suspense writing as well. Gladwell often uses the “why” to create suspense in his essays by posing a question without an obvious answer. The question can be big and general, or small and specific, as long as it’s intriguing. For instance, when Gladwell set out to write “The Ketchup Conundrum” for The New Yorker, he started with one head-scratching question: Why hasn’t ketchup changed? By using this technique, you’ll keep the reader in suspense by enticing them to turn the pages until you reveal the answer.
- Set expectations, then subvert them. Adding the element of surprise into the mix can help you create even more suspense in your writing. By figuring out what readers expect, you can surprise them with information that contradicts or complicates those expectations, leaving them wondering what will happen next. In Outliers, for instance, Gladwell argues that the success of professional hockey players is determined not by their talent and hard work, as we might expect, but rather by what month they were born in. By challenging our assumptions with a surprising claim, Gladwell creates suspense that compels us to find out how he’ll support that claim.
- Employ foreshadowing. One of the most essential literary devices, foreshadowing is the technique of hinting at what will happen later in the story. You can use plot to create foreshadowing (e.g., the protagonist receives a mysterious phone call) or character development (e.g., a character detests garlic and refuses to go outside). By giving away a small glimpse of what is to come, you’ll grab readers’ attention and keep them in suspense about how the events in your story will play out.
- Use cliffhangers. If you’ve watched TV, you’re probably seen an episode of a show that left its main character in the middle of the action, ending with the words “to be continued.” This is an example of a cliffhanger, a plot device in which a story (or a section of a story) ends abruptly, without resolving its conflict. Cliffhangers can happen at the end of a book, between chapters, or even within a story or essay. For instance, Gladwell uses the cliffhanger technique to create suspense in his writing by presenting a specific story, then pausing before the end to “zoom out” on his subject. Learn more about cliffhangers here.
- Make the reader wait. Writers are often tempted to rush to the climax of their story—after all, that’s the most exciting part. When creating suspense, however, it’s important to keep readers waiting as long as possible before your big reveal. The longer the wait, the greater the build up, and the more thrilling your conclusion will be.
Want to Become a Better Writer?
Whether you’re just starting to explore essay writing or you’re a seasoned journalist looking for some inspiration, learning how to craft a nonfiction story takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Malcolm Gladwell, whose books on seemingly ordinary subjects—ketchup, crime, quarterbacks—have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. In Malcolm Gladwell’s MasterClass on writing, the renowned storyteller shares everything he knows about researching topics, crafting interesting characters, and distilling big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.
Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Malcolm Gladwell, R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.