Creating Suspense in Storytelling: Tips & Techniques
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


Have you ever found yourself gripped by a story, unable to put the book down or pause the movie, just because you're too eager to know what happens next? Well, my friend, you've experienced the magic of suspense in storytelling. It's this feeling of intense anticipation, the role of suspense and tension in storytelling, that keeps us engaged and makes us emotionally invested in the narrative. Now, let's delve into the mystery of creating this beautiful tension in your own stories. Ready? Let's get started!

What is suspense in storytelling?

So, what's suspense? It's that nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat feeling that something significant is about to happen, but you're not quite sure what. It's the heartbeat of a story — the component that makes your readers' pulse quicken and their eyes move rapidly over the page. Think of Alfred Hitchcock's movies or Agatha Christie's novels — the suspense is what keeps you hooked until the very end.

Now that we know what suspense is, let's talk about its role in storytelling, especially its relationship with tension. While suspense is the feeling of uncertainty about a story's outcome, tension is the emotional strain or anxiety we feel as we wait for this outcome. The role of suspense and tension in storytelling is to engage the reader's emotions, making them care about the characters and the story.

Creating suspense and tension in your story involves several techniques:

  • Foreshadowing - Giving the reader hints or warnings about future events in the story.
  • Dramatic Irony - When the reader knows something important that the characters do not.
  • Unpredictability - Keeping the reader guessing about what will happen next.
  • Engaging Characters - Characters that the reader can relate to and care about.
  • Effective Pacing - Controlling the speed of the narrative to build suspense and tension.
  • Conflict - Problems or challenges that the characters must overcome, creating tension.
  • Setting - Using the environment or location to enhance suspense.

Ready to dive deeper into each of these techniques and learn how to use them effectively in your storytelling? Let's go!

How to employ foreshadowing

Remember when you were reading that mystery novel and you thought, "I knew it!" when the detective discovered the murderer? That's the power of foreshadowing. It's a clever technique that gives your readers a hint or a taste of what's to come in your story. But like a skillful magician, a good storyteller knows how to use foreshadowing without revealing too much.

So, how do you plant these clues without making them too obvious? Here are some strategies:

  • Subtlety is key: Don't give away the whole plot. Instead, drop subtle hints that make sense only when the plot unfolds. This increases the role of suspense and tension in storytelling.
  • Use symbolic foreshadowing: Symbols can be a powerful way to hint at future events. A broken mirror could signify impending bad luck or a red sunrise might hint at bloodshed.
  • Dialogue foreshadowing: Sometimes, a casual conversation between characters can hide significant clues. For example, a character might mention they're good at picking locks, which comes into play later in the story.
  • Flash-forward: This technique involves giving readers a glimpse of a future scene and then returning to the present narrative. This creates suspense as readers anticipate how the story will reach that future point.

Remember, the goal of foreshadowing is not to spoil your story but to prepare your readers for what's to come. It's all about balance—give them enough to keep them intrigued, but not too much that the mystery is lost.

How to utilize dramatic irony

Ever watched a horror movie and found yourself yelling at the screen, "Don't go in there!"? That's dramatic irony in action. You, as the viewer, know something that the character doesn't, and that creates a whole new level of suspense and tension in storytelling.

Dramatic irony isn't just for horror movies, though. It works well in all genres, from romance to thrillers. Here's how you can use it in your stories:

  • Let the audience in on a secret: The key element in dramatic irony is that the audience knows something that one or more characters don't. This could be a hidden truth about a character, an event that's about to happen, or even the outcome of the story.
  • Use it to create suspense: Dramatic irony is a powerful tool for creating tension. When the audience is aware of the danger that lies ahead but the character isn't, it makes them anxious and keeps them hooked to the story.
  • Enhance character development: Dramatic irony can help reveal character traits and motivations. For example, a character might present a friendly face to others while the audience knows their true, malicious intentions.

Used wisely, dramatic irony can play a pivotal role in enhancing suspense and tension in storytelling. It provides a unique perspective to the audience, making the narrative much more engaging and interesting.

How to create unpredictability

It's a calm Sunday evening. You're reading a book, sipping on a cup of tea, comfortably settled into the predictable plot. Then out of nowhere — boom! — a plot twist you never saw coming. Your heart races, your eyes widen, and the book suddenly becomes impossible to put down. That's the power of unpredictability.

Unpredictability is a key player in the role of suspense and tension in storytelling. It keeps readers on their toes, always guessing what's coming next. Here's how you can weave unpredictability into your story:

  • Plot Twists: The sudden change in direction of a story is a surefire way to add unpredictability. But remember, the best plot twists are the ones that make sense in hindsight. They might surprise the reader, but they should also fit seamlessly into the story.
  • Surprise Elements: A character revealing a secret, an unexpected event, or an unforeseen consequence can spike the unpredictability factor. These elements should be shocking, but plausible within the story's context.
  • Keep Characters Evolving: Characters shouldn't be static. They should grow, change, and sometimes, even surprise us. An unpredictable character is an intriguing character, and they keep the reader engaged.

Unpredictability is a great way to keep readers hooked, turning the pages with anticipation. It's like a game of suspense, where the tension keeps building and the reader can't wait to see what happens next.

How to develop engaging characters

Imagine you're invited to a party. There are two groups of people — one group is lively, with a variety of personalities and quirks, while the other group is as exciting as watching paint dry. Which group would you naturally gravitate towards? The lively one, right?

The same principle applies in storytelling. Engaging characters make for engaging stories. They play a significant role in creating suspense and tension in storytelling. So, how can you breathe life into your characters? Let's find out:

  • Give them flaws: Perfect characters are boring. Flaws make characters relatable and human. It can be a fear, a past mistake, or a personality trait — flaws add depth to characters and make them more engaging.
  • Create compelling backstories: A character's past shapes who they are in the present. A well-thought-out backstory can not only make your characters more interesting but also provide a foundation for their actions and decisions in the story.
  • Make them active: Characters that take actions, make decisions, and drive the story forward are more engaging than passive ones. Active characters give the readers someone to root for, increasing the story's suspense and tension.
  • Give them goals: Characters should have something they're striving for. It can be a dream, a desire, or a need. Goals give characters a purpose and provide a direction for the story.

Remember, the more engaging your characters are, the more invested your readers will be in their journey. And when readers care about what happens to the characters, you've successfully created suspense.

How to use pacing effectively

Have you ever listened to a song that goes from slow and soothing to fast and exciting? It's a roller coaster of emotions, right? In storytelling, pacing has a similar role. It helps in setting the rhythm of your story that can have your readers on the edge of their seats. The role of suspense and tension in storytelling is deeply tied to how well you pace your narrative. So, how do you use pacing effectively? Let's dive in:

  • Know when to speed up: Action scenes, conflicts, or climactic moments often require faster pacing. Short sentences and paragraphs, rapid-fire dialogue, and detailed descriptions of actions can help speed up the pace.
  • Know when to slow down: Introspective moments, descriptions of settings, or emotional scenes often benefit from slower pacing. Longer sentences and paragraphs, detailed descriptions, and introspective dialogue can help slow down the pace.
  • Vary the pace: A story with only high-speed action can be as tiresome as a story that's slow all the time. Varying the pace keeps readers engaged. It also allows you to control the tension and suspense, rising and falling in rhythm with the story's pace.
  • Use pacing to build suspense: Pacing can be a powerful tool to build suspense. For example, you can slow down the pace to prolong suspense or use fast pacing to lead up to a surprising twist.

So remember, pacing is like the heartbeat of your story. It can race with excitement or slow down in anticipation, playing a crucial role in creating suspense and tension.

How to build tension through conflict

Imagine you're watching a soccer match where no team ever tries to score. Pretty boring, right? That's exactly how a story feels without conflict. Conflict is the catalyst that drives the story forward, and it plays a central role in amplifying suspense and tension in storytelling.

  • Introduce conflict early: Introducing a conflict early in your story grabs the reader's attention. It could be a dragon terrorizing a town, a lost treasure, or simply a character's internal struggle - the key is to make the reader worry about the outcome.
  • Escalate the conflict: Conflict shouldn't remain static. As your story progresses, the conflict should escalate, increasing the stakes for your characters and heightening the tension for your readers.
  • Use conflict to reveal character: Conflict is a great way to reveal your character's true nature. How they respond to challenges can tell readers a lot about who they really are, making them more engaging and real.
  • Resolve conflict in a satisfying way: The resolution of conflict is a moment readers look forward to. It can provide a sense of closure, or it could be a twist that sets up the next conflict, keeping readers hooked.

In essence, conflict is the spice that gives your story its flavor. It's the difference between a bland dish and one that leaves you craving more. So remember, if you want to keep your readers hooked, don't shy away from conflict.

How to use setting for suspense

Ever walked down a dark alley at night and felt your heart race? That's the power of setting. It can play a significant role in creating suspense and tension in storytelling. Let's dive into how you can use it effectively.

  • Choose your setting wisely: A well-chosen setting can add layers of tension to your story. Imagine a thriller set in a claustrophobic submarine or a romance unfolding in a bustling city - the setting can set the mood and ramp up the suspense.
  • Describe the setting in detail: Use sensory language to describe your setting. Make your readers see the eerie shadows, hear the creaking doors, and smell the musty air. The more real your setting feels, the more immersed your readers will be.
  • Use setting to reflect mood: Your setting can reflect the mood of your story or character. A gloomy, rainy day can echo a character's sadness, while a bright, sunny park can mirror joy.
  • Change the setting to increase tension: Moving your characters between safe and dangerous settings can increase suspense. One moment they're in a cozy home, and the next, they're in a haunted forest - this contrast keeps readers on their toes.

So, whether it's a haunted house, a bustling city, or a quiet village, remember that your setting is more than just a backdrop - it's a powerful tool to create suspense and tension in your story.

How to keep readers hooked

Creating suspense and tension is one thing, but how do you ensure your readers stay hooked until the very end? Here are some tried-and-true techniques to keep your readers turning the pages.

  • End chapters with cliffhangers: You've probably experienced this - you're reading a book late at night, and you tell yourself, "Just one more chapter." But then the chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and you simply can't put the book down. That's the power of cliffhangers. They create suspense and make readers eager to find out what happens next.
  • Keep the stakes high: The role of suspense and tension in storytelling escalates when there's a lot at risk for your characters. Whether it's their life, their loved ones, or their dreams - if your characters have something important to lose, your readers will be emotionally invested in their journey.
  • Introduce plot twists: Unexpected plot twists can keep readers on their toes and add an element of surprise to your story. But remember - a good plot twist should feel surprising, yet inevitable in hindsight.
  • Create relatable characters: Readers are more likely to be engaged in your story if they care about your characters. Make your characters relatable and real - give them strengths, weaknesses, dreams, and fears. The more readers connect with your characters, the more they'll want to know what happens to them.

Remember, the goal is to keep your readers engaged and invested in your story. By using these techniques, you can ensure they're hooked from the first page to the last.

How to craft a satisfying conclusion

After the rollercoaster of suspense and tension in storytelling, it's time to bring everything together in a way that leaves your reader satisfied. Here are some practical tips on how to craft a conclusion that resonates.

  • Resolve the main conflict: The primary conflict that's been driving your story needs to reach a resolution. It doesn't always have to be a happy ending, but it should feel appropriate and satisfying to your reader. Make sure it aligns with the rest of your story and doesn't feel forced or out of place.
  • Show character growth: Throughout your story, your characters should grow and evolve. By the end, they should be different than they were at the beginning. This growth can be shown through changes in their actions, attitudes, or understanding of the world around them.
  • Answer the key questions: Remember the questions you raised during your story? Now's the time to answer them. Leaving some questions unanswered can create a sense of dissatisfaction among your readers. However, if you do leave some loose ends, ensure they're intentional and contribute to the story's overall impact.
  • Deliver the final twist: A final, unexpected twist can leave a lasting impression on your readers, especially if it ties together loose ends or provides a new perspective on the story. This twist plays a key role in suspense and tension, and can help make your conclusion memorable.

Ultimately, a satisfying conclusion is about bringing closure to your story in a way that aligns with the narrative you've built. By following these tips, you can ensure your readers close your book with a sense of satisfaction and a longing for more.

If you're eager to learn more about storytelling techniques, including creating suspense, consider exploring the workshop 'Documentary Filmmaking' by Jessy Moussallem. Although the focus is on documentaries, the concepts and techniques taught in this workshop can be applied to any kind of storytelling. Learn from an experienced filmmaker and elevate your skills in crafting engaging and suspenseful stories.