Suspense and Tension Creative Writing

middleweightscourgeUrban and Civil

Nov 29, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)


Suspense and Tension Creative Writing

How do writers create suspension and tension in a story?

Remember that the most important element of suspense is set in motion during the

the writer introduces us to a main character and then introduces
us to
something a character desperately wants but can’t have. The character can want
something emotionally or physically or both (Bonnie and Clyde want to rob banks but
what they really want is freedom from poverty, freedom from being hounded by the
ce. So we keep wondering

will they get caught? Will they ever escape from their
poverty or criminal lifestyle? Our interest in whether or not the character can get what
he/she wants is what keeps us turning the page. The rising action of the story hap
when the characters keep facing obstacles to getting what they want. The writer keeps
presenting conflicts that interfere with the character getting what he/she wants to keep us
reading. Usually the conflicts grow in intensity and emotional weight,
until the character
comes to the climax where there is no turning back from the decisions he/she has made.
Ultimately, in the ending, the writer must answer the original question posed with a yes,
no, or a maybe. Do Bonnie and Clyde escape? No. They

are brutally shot to death
during a police ambush. Is Tim O’Brien able to escape the burdens of war? Well, yes
and no. Yes because his fiction brings the dead to life (as he tells us in his final chapter)
and this gives the character relief through im
agination. But no because he has become so
obsessed with the war that he keeps writing about it. Either way, the reader is satisfied
when the writer resolves the tension created by the original question.

When it comes to the moments of conflict withi
n a story, it’s interesting to
consider how the writer makes us feel tension. Why do we stay up late to finish a book?
How does the writer hook us in?

Take a look at George Orwell’s scene below from
where Winston encounters a
woman he has b
een fantasizing about for weeks. Notice his use of imagery (what do we
see, smell, taste, touch, hear, feel?). Notice how the character wants something (to read
the note given to him by Julia), but watch how long it takes to get to the moment when he
ctually opens the note: we go deep inside Winston’s thoughts and hear him consider
what it could be, what it couldn’t be, and then the third and more exciting possibility
what it actually is. Here’s a sequence of events:


“It’s nothing,”
she repeated shortly. “I only gave my wrist a bit of a bang.
Thanks, comrade!”
(character 1 speaks to protagonist as he/she leaves after some
physical contact of some kind).

And with that she walked on in the direction in which she had been going, as
riskly as though it had really been nothing. (
Protagonist watches the other character
leave, making an observation about the way that character walks

The whole incident could not have taken as much as half a minute. (
Have the
character consider how much

time their interaction took
). Not to let one’s feelings
appear in one’s face was a habit that had acquired the status of an instinct, and in any
case they had been standing straight in front of a telescreen when the thing happened.
Have the protagonist
reflect back on some question he/she has about the interaction
that just took place, something that make him/her nervous or doubt himself
Nevertheless it had been very difficult not to betray a momentary surprise, for in the two
or three seconds while h
e was helping her up the girl had slipped something into his
hand (
Now, have the protagonist mention something unexpected that happened
between the two of them during their meeting, have it be connected to something
concrete that was given from one to th
e other as the two interacted

consider that
this is something the P doesn’t feel he can reveal to the world around him/her
There was no question that she had done it intentionally. (
Have the protagonist consider
something about the other character’s beh
) It was something small and flat.
Describe the thing physically

tactile imagery
with two adjectives
) As he passed
through the lavatory door he transferred it to his pocket and felt it with the tips of his
fingers. (
Have the P move from one room w
here the interaction took place into
another, have the P hide the object that was given, feel it, and describe what it feels
). It was a scrap of paper folded into a square. (
Now, have the character identify
the object without giving everything away

leave some mystery

went back

to his cubicle,
sat down

the fragment of paper casually
among the other papers on the desk,
put on

his spectacles and

the speakwrite
toward him.(
Using a series of compound verbs, have the P do five diffe
rent verbs be
sure that at least two are tactile images

one of the verbs should have to do with the
) “Five minutes he told himself, “five minutes at the very least!” (
Have the P
either think or mumble something that has to do with how much time he/
she is
giving him/herself to look at the object more thoroughly

be sure to write it as
) His heart bumped in his breast

with frightening loudness. (
Describe a very
tactile image and associate it with a sound image

that shows the P’s anxiety or
tension about the object.

Whatever was written on the paper, it must have some kind of political meaning.
(Have the character consider deeply, with detail, what the object might be). So far as he
could see there were two possibilities. (
Have the P cons
ider two possible things the
object might be
). One, much the more likely, was that the girl was an agent of the
Thought Police, just as he had feared. (
Have the P consider something suspicious
about the other character, something the protagonist should
fear or worry about
He did not know why the Thought Police should choose to deliver their messages

in such
a fashion, but perhaps they had their reasons. (
Have the P consider why, given the P’s
suspicions, the motivations the other character had for giv
ing the P the object
The thing that was written on the paper might be a threat, a summons, an order to commit
suicide, a trap of some description. (
Now, have the character make a list of the
possible things it might be

with detail

that increase our su
). But there
was another, wilder possibility that kept raising its head, though he tried vainly to
suppress it. (
Now, have the P consider what the other possibility is

one that offers
hope for your P but involves some risk
) This was, that the
message did not come from
the Thought Police at all, but from some kind of underground organization. Perhaps the
Brotherhood existed after all! Perhaps the girl was part of it! (
Have the P now consider
three hopeful possibilities this other consideratio
n offers
). No doubt the idea was
absurd, but it had sprung into his mind in the very instant of feeling the scrap of paper in
his hand. (
Have the P doubt his hopeful thoughts and then connect it, using tactile
imagery to the object again
) It was not ti
ll a couple of minutes later that the other, more
probable explanation had occurred to him. (
Have the P reflect on how long it had
taken him to consider the second possibility
). And even now, though his intellect told
him that the message probably mean
t death

still, that was not what he believed, and the
unreasonable hope persisted, and his heart banged, and it was with difficulty that he kept
his voice from trembling as he murmured his figures into the speakwrite. (
See if you can
mimic the syntax of t
his sentence. Have the P consider the dangers involved in
considering the more hopeful possibility about what the object is, then connect it to
some physical reactions his body has as he considers the dangers and the hope

He rolled up the completed bun
dle of work and slid it into the pneumatic tube.
Have the character do something physical but unrelated to the object
). Eight
minutes had gone by. (
Have the character consider how much time has passed
) He
readjusted his speactacles on his nose, sighed
, and drew the next batch of work toward
him, with the scrap of paper on top of it. (
Now use a series of compound verbs to
describe three actions the P makes
). He flattened it out. (
Have the character handle
the object
) On it was written, in a large unf
ormed handwriting:

I love you.

(Have the P reveal what the object really is)

For several seconds he was too stunned even to throw the incriminating thing into
the memory hole. (
Have the character do an acti
on that reveals his shock or
). When he did so, although he knew very well the danger of showing too much
interest, he could not resist reading it once again, just to make sure that the words were
really there. (
Copy the syntax of this sentence

that has the P double check that what
he thinks the object really is is actually the reality