copyright 2009, Pat Bertram
Suspense is a hard thing for many authors to write. We don’t want to give away the story too soon, yet if we don’t tell enough, we will bore our readers. Readers need to know where we are going, they need enough clues to be able to participate in the journey, and they need a stake in the outcome. If a character agonizes for pages about a decision she has to make without readers knowing what the problem is, they won’t care. They will skip ahead or, even worse from our point of view as an author, they will toss the book aside.
For example, while getting dressed for an appointment that she’s dreading, a character may be dropping things out of nervousness and arguing with herself or another character about keeping the appointment. Readers might have empathy with her indecision, might even wonder what’s going on, but there is no real suspense because they have no stake in the matter.
If readers find out the character is getting ready to go to the doctor to learn the results of a test, the suspense is a little greater, and they have a little more empathy, but the scenario is still not detailed enough to build tension.
If readers find out the character has uterine cancer and needs to meet with the physician to decide on a course of treatment, that raises the stakes for both the character and the reader. And the tension level rises.
But if readers learn that the character’s mother died an agonizing death even after undergoing years of treatment for uterine cancer, and the character is trying to decide whether she is willing to undergo the same treatment or whether she would rather live out the remainder of her days the best way she can, then we have created real tension, and readers care. They wonder what the character will do, what they would do in her place, how they would feel if they had to make the same decision. It gives them a personal stake in the outcome, and they keep reading to find out what she is going to do.
As an added bonus, readers get to know her better and can empathize with her even if they don’t agree with her final decision.
So, by not withholding story points, we can create tension, develop a character, and please our readers. Not a bad day’s work.