For some readers, it’s curiosity. Once they’ve committed to a novel, they have to know what happens, period. For others, it’s a compelling character that makes them laugh every time he shows up. Or perhaps they have fallen in love with the author’s voice.
For me, it’s the plot. The not knowing what’s going to happen next. But there are two caveats for the story to hold my interest: either the plot has to be somewhat unpredictable or the premise must pose a “big question” that keeps me hooked until the end of the novel.
As writers, we have an arsenal of tools at our disposal to help construct our plots. Perhaps one of our best tools is suspense.
Suspense can be your novel's best friend.
Suspense is what will keep your readers guessing and coming back to your book until they reach the end. (And I don’t mean a thriller. Suspense should be found in any genre.) But injecting intrigue in your plot can be tricky. It must be handled with care for too much of it could make the reader confused and frustrated, and too little could bore him to tears. Finding the perfect balance is one of the hardest things we writers have to learn.
A few years ago, I took an excellent writing class called Revising Fiction. The instructor, Kirt Hickman, recommends a series of practical tips for building tension in a novel. I have adapted and condensed the ones I’ve found most helpful.
1. Surprise/mislead the reader.
Who doesn’t love surprises? Especially when we think we know exactly where a story is going. If a character does or says something unexpected, the reader will be shaken (or at the very least awakened from his blissful sleep.) The archetypal shapeshifter works wonderfully for this purpose. Surprises can range from having a character smile at someone before smacking him across the face, to having a trusted friend betray your innocent hero. Surprises can also come in the form of well-guarded secrets exposed at the right time.
2. Have a ruthless/powerful antagonist.
Powerful doesn’t necessarily mean “rich.” It could just be someone who has many advantages over the heroine (beauty, confidence, the love interest’s affection, etc.) Hickman recommends an especially violent character, but I think it really depends on what genre you’re writing. If your book is lighter, a violent character obviously doesn’t belong, but you can still have an antagonist powerful enough to torment the main character (and the reader!)
3. The nightmare comes true.
Though we may feel inclined to protect our characters (they’re our babies, after all), the truth is that when things go too smoothly it can be very boring for the reader. Remember what Leo Tolstoy wrote at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In other words, bad things should happen to your protagonist (whether you like it or not.)
Think of the worst thing that could happen to your main character. Now do it. (This can include taking away the thing that she values the most—be it an object, a loved one, a job, etc.) Think about Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. She loses her parents, her slaves, her money, her childhood crush (Ashley), her daughter and her true love (Rhett).
4. Give your character a phobia/fear to confront.
When a particular phobia or weakness is established early on in the text, it can be a good pay off for the reader when the character is forced to confront it. This could represent (when done right) a great moment of tension in the story. (Just picture your reader with her fingers clutching the pages of your book. Now that’s a beautiful image!)
Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo." The protagonist, Scottie (played by James Stewart), suffers from acrophobia and has to confront it twice to save the woman he loves. He fails the first time but succeeds the second time.
The reader won’t worry too much about your main character if you’re constantly sheltering her from tragedy. In order to warn the reader that bad things may in fact happen to the protagonist, you must show the danger is real and can reach anyone. How do you do this? By hurting your main character or killing someone whom she cares about (as painful as that may be for you, gulp.) This raises the hero’s personal stakes and gives you an opportunity to include an emotional moment in your novel.
6. Never make things easy for your main character.
Have you noticed that us human-types don’t usually appreciate things that are easily attained? (Remember when your mom/grandmother told you to “play hard to get” with that guy you liked? Well, she said it for a reason! It’s human nature to want those things we can’t have.) The same is true for our characters. If their goals come to them effortlessly, they won’t value them as much as if they suffer to get them (neither will your reader.) If readers witness the many obstacles the protagonist must overcome to achieve her goal, they will cheer for her when she succeeds in the end.
7. Include an external circumstance or event beyond the character’s control.
Think about the movie "Titanic." Remember how the imminent sinking of the ship added suspense and tension to an otherwise predictable plot? I watched this movie in the theatre and not a peep was heard during those harsh scenes where masses of characters were dying and there was nothing Rose could do to change her situation.
This doesn’t mean that every novel should have a natural disaster. Other external incidents can include wars, epidemics, political factors (ruthless dictators, protests, etc) or economical circumstances (think "The Pursuit of Happyness" or "Angela’s Ashes.")
8. Haunt your character with a past failure.
Characters should have flaws. We all know that. But if you include a past failure, it will add another layer to your story. The character will seem more real if the reader believes that the hero had a past before the novel started. Especially if this bad experience still affects his present decisions and his confidence to succeed in whatever mission he’s now encountering. Insecurities in characters are a good thing because as readers, we want to see them become stronger and grow.
9. Impose a deadline.
Do you hold your breath when you watch your favorite athlete (team, horse, loved one) during a race? Does your pulse quicken? Are you unable or unwilling to take your eyes away from the competition? (Even if you don’t watch any sports, humor me please.) Well, the same thing happens when a beloved character must beat a ticking clock to achieve an objective (especially if the consequences of not making it on time are disastrous.) There doesn’t always have to be a clock (though some novels/films use this element.) What matters is that you create a sense of urgency and transmit it to your reader. If you ever saw the movie "Nick of Time", starring Johnny Depp, you know exactly what I mean. A less literal example is the film "Poseidon". The characters are on a race against time to reach the top (in this case, the bottom) of the ship before it drowns. Many romantic comedies use this device, too. The protagonist must reach the love interest before she marries someone else or gets on a plane that will take her to a faraway land (for good!)
In "Back to the Future" (1985), Marty McFly must make his parents fall in love and then return to the time machine (the DeLorean) before lightning strikes the clock tower. Or else he'll cease to exist.
10. Add a final twist near the end of the novel.
Ideally, endings shouldn’t be predictable. The contradiction is that they shouldn’t be inconsistent with the plot, either. In other words, you shouldn’t write a tragic ending in your romantic comedy only because you don’t want the audience to predict the outcome. What you could do is come up with one surprise or twist for the reader that in retrospect seems inevitable. The reader should finish the book realizing that it couldn’t have ended any other way. An excellent example that Hickman offered in class is the movie "Shrek." We all know that Princess Fiona and Shrek will end up together (inevitable). The twist is that instead of Fiona staying a beautiful princess forever, she turns into an ogre, just like Shrek (surprise.) Upon reflection, we realize that an ogre and a princess wouldn’t have fit well together. Fiona had to become an ogre. Surprising inevitability.
Perhaps this last caveat is what makes endings so difficult. There must be a balance between giving the reader a satisfactory ending, but making it unique enough so that the reader can’t predict every bit of dialogue to the letter.
Use a combination of suspense builders that seem appropriate for your story and genre. Many successful novels and films do. Just take a look at this year’s Oscar-winning film "The King’s Speech" and you’ll find many of them.
King George VI, aka Bertie, must confront his fear of
public speaking in "The King’s Speech" (2010)