How All Writing is Suspense

Why is my writing all about suspense? I think a better question is, is there any story that isn’t really about building uncertainty, making the reader wonder about what comes next, making them care? Suspense. And understanding that may be the perfect tool for any kind of writing.

(The Unified Writing Field Theory — searchings and findings on what makes stories work)

But suspense is only one genre, isn’t it? One Wikipedia page (since it’s probably the quickest source to go check; I’ll wait) lists 22 genres, and umpteen variations within them. I actually class my own writing as fantasy, urban fantasy and paranormal in particular, one of several genres that many people think of for its distinctive character types and weaponry (see also Science Fiction) or conflict (Crime or Mystery).

Except, many of those genres are about choosing tools. When a writer sits down to use them, Tom Clancy doesn’t have the same aims as Ian Fleming, and my battles aren’t trying to imitate Seanan McGuire’s. (Not that anyone could…)

What the idea of suspense can do is bring all genres and styles together—and show how each of us is making our own writing choices, even line by line, but all following the same cycle.

I call it a “suspense” flow, because I think that’s the word that captures the energy we want each part of a story to have—especially how it depends on balancing different parts of the flow to get the pacing right. You might argue for “action,” “mystery,” or other words, but I think “suspense” captures more in one word. And it all builds on what all writers do know is: conflict.

If #conflict is the 'engine' of a story, the #suspense flow shows which 'gear' the engine's in. Click To Tweet

How does that help us writing?

Partly, we can use the suspense model for a larger view of what any part of a story needs, whether it’s a single passage or a five-book plan. Such as checking for:

  • someone to root for
  • tone or atmosphere
  • complications, and a sense that these would be what he has to deal with
  • choices that are hard enough to reveal the character
  • pacing, not rushing or bogging down on the way to—
  • an outcome that means something

All of these are basic elements of writing and conflict, but this fits them all together to see them as part of the same cycle—and to ask whether they’re building the right kind of momentum, involvement, suspense.

“But my writing’s barely about suspense!” –If that’s what you’ve been thinking, consider this: the suspense flow is more than a way to find common needs in the genres and styles. It’s also a way to look at any part of writing, and to pick if you have any particular priorities for it:

  • If you want sensory mood or detail, you can start painting the picture right from the beginning, even before things happen.
  • To make your story more about its subject (anything from a neighborhood-specific tale to a political tale to SF and fantasy), you might define more of it by just what complications come out of it. Be sure the reader knows why it’s those problems those people have to face, and what that means.
  • A sense of mystery can mean playing up the contrast between choices about the subject, and of course stretching out how long it takaes to find that answer. Was it the vampire or the best friend that dunnit? Just why was the ruined city abandoned?
  • Or, classic suspense in its own right means extending the whole process, whether it’s building up more mood or looking for further complications to keep things up in the air.
  • Pure “drama” usually is code for making characters more important than what happens—not just important (we all want that), but focused on how they resist or interpret or put their own slant on the facts. Even in a whole sprawling war, nobody’s going to have the same PTSD as this one soldier.
  • Or an action story needs to do justice to the effect itself, the explosions at the end of the suspense cycle before the cycle starts up again.
  • (For that matter, comedy has the same need to stop there and enjoy the laughter. That same moment of release might well have explosions too, as long as fewer people are getting hurt.)

ItsAllSuspense

Naturally each point on the suspense flow is only as good as how the rest of the flow meshes with it. Only the crudest action story gets careless about why the danger’s there, or the hero’s choices in facing it; sensory description that shuts off once the complications appear would be absurd. And again, “suspense” is a reminder that it only works when the pieces have the right balance for the pacing we want.

Even a sequence that’s all mood or description can look at this pattern. By the time that boy finishes strolling out to the lake, what state of mind should the passage have nudged him to, and the reader with him? Do the bits of detail contrast with each other in ways that stir up preferences in us (looking at the open sky, and the gritty, tiring dust his feet kick up, before he’s finally rounding the corner), or give a sense of one thing disrupting another to demand our attention?

Can you look at these and see which part of the flow you want to give a bit more justification, a few more words, or an extra scene?

It’s all there, by one name or another. And if the combination of your words catches fire, it will do it partly because of what we call suspense.

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