A Non-Genre Writer's Look at Suspense by Jason McIntyre
What creates suspense?
Years ago, a film-maker friend of mine told me he wanted to try something radically
different with his next project: he wanted to shoot a story that had absolutely no conflict.
He told me he didn't want to have a boy-meets-girl-then-loses-girl-love-story or a manrobs-
bank-to-provide-for-his-family morality play or anything else that showed person A
coming up against person B or obstacle C or life-changing circumstance D.
I thought about it for a bit, concluding that it definitely would have been unique among
popular films at the time, but also would have been maddeningly boring. It might have
made a somewhat interesting, avant garde music video done the right way, but it most
assuredly wouldn't be a story. Conflict, and by association, suspense, is the very core of
a good story. Without it, there is nothing to read, view or listen to that has any real
And, it doesn't really matter whether your medium is film, music or literature, holding the
audience in your hand and doling out to them enough to keep them glued to your tale,
but not so much that they're walking away, is the true test of a good bit of storytelling…
and my definition of suspense.
You can write in a horror or suspense genre or you can be entrenched in serious drama,
but if you're doing it right, there will always be some level of suspension. Your words are
the bridge from the beginning of the story to the other side of a great chasm. How you
use them keeps the bridge from falling and the reader held aloft, far above the churning
waters, but close enough to feel the spray when it white waters crash on the rocks. The
danger of falling needs to always be present, even if it's not a dangerous kind of story --
even if it's only a story about two lovers who are twenty years apart in age.
There, that's suspense. It might not be huge, or life-threatening, but everyone in the
room can put up their hand and say that they could foresee some difficulty in that: a
man in his twenties, a woman in her forties, the two of them still mad with passion for
each other. Roll cameras. And. Action!
I look at suspense in fiction and I say it's well-done if it meets two criteria.
First, has the author created an expectation that something is very wrong?
And, if not very wrong, then maybe it is currently sitting at "not quite right" and he is
presently building-building-building with each major "moment" in the story to that spot of
being very wrong. If so, tighten the straps and release the button on the drip bag next to
your gurney. Things will get pulled out of proportion. And they should.
Good authors do "wrong" very well and the tricks employed come across as natural, so,
basically, not as tricks at all. The concept of "building" is also key here. You want to see
something amiss right out of the gate, but you also want room to grow the feelings of
unease in the opening forty pages of a story. It should rise like the crescendo of a
classical piece of music, and, contrary to what some may say, it should build at a
A solid current example of this in pop fiction is the readily available excerpt from
Stephen King's new story collection, Full Dark, No Stars. The story is "A Good Marriage"
and the snippet is here:
Now, I won't ruin it for you if you haven't read it. Go ahead, if you're curious. I'll wait.
There. Neat, huh? Obviously I don't know where this story is going. And I don't want to.
But what he's done is a very solid, very suspenseful piece. King is obviously very good
at this. I don't need to remind any of you that he's one of the reigning masters, but I
don't know if this story will wind up being good in the end. Who knows, right? Not until
the final sentence. But at this moment, it illustrates my point very nicely. No one is
clinging to the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm. No one is holding a knife to my throat
and threatening to cut. But I'm suspended, nonetheless. I want to keep reading and find
out what the bloody hell this wife has found in the garage she shares with her husband.
Second, does the author create a world where we, the readers, do the opposite of
"suspending our disbelief?"
The reader needs to believe that what is happening could happen, may have happened,
will happen, or, in fact, happens every single day in the world that he calls home. This is
done through impeccable research and staying true to what most reasonable people
would believe they would do in a similar situation, given the same facts. Even if it's
science fiction or dark horror with strange things making scheduled visits in the dark of
the night (read my free short novel, Shed, for more of this kind of weirdness), the world
should be recognizable, either by its physical make-up or by its characters.
The above example by King gives a good dose of what I mean here, too. Anyone who's
ever been, married--even for five minutes--will "get" what King is saying about these two
people, their habits, their foibles, there angst and their love. Colliding and sparking and
retreating over the course of time, these two people are married. Plain. Simple. Married.
And the "realness" of it shows in every sentence. With a set up like this, how can we not
believe whatever is about to come next, even if it is at once off the wall and, well,
So my bottom line for feeling appropriately suspended while I read a book (in any genre,
not just the suspense genre) or while I watch a tv show, a flick or the top of the pizza
box are these two ideas: Is something itching that spot behind my eyes, making me
think twice about whether this should be happening? And. Do I truly believe I'm reading
or seeing something in the real world as I've come to know it?
Could this really be happening?
And, if it could, then I will immediately be freaked out when the bed moves under me,
even if it's only an inch.
* * *
Jason McIntyre is the author of the current Smashwords bestseller, "On The Gathering
Storm". He has also written the acclaimed short novel "Shed" and many other stories.
You can connect with him and learn more about his work by visiting his official website,
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