Suspense is a companion of tension and helps to create stories that are known as page-turners. Readers of such books are on the edge of their seats, wanting to know what happens next.
But how does an author create suspense? The key ingredient is the hint. But it’s a little more than a one-time tease. Instead, the author who uses suspense to its fullest postulates in chapter two, then considers in chapter ten, suggests in chapter sixteen, and verifies in chapter twenty-three. In other words, the author feeds readers bits at a time, just enough to make them want more.
Let me illustrate from Vanish by Tom Pawlik (Tyndale). In this story the protagonists wake up to find that almost everyone else has vanished. However, they hear whispering, then think they see a shape or shadow flit by at the edge of sight. Eventually these shapes become watchers, never approaching but always present. Until the fateful night when they try to drag one of the protagonists away. From then on, the watching figures are more aggressive, held at bay only by bright lights and loud noises. But their aggressive behavior escalates as they …
You get the picture. A little, leads to a little more. The reader doesn’t have a clear idea of how bad (or how good, in the case of a very different kind of story) things will become. And therein lies the suspense. It’s the not knowing that prompts readers to keep turning pages.
The key is for the writer to answer one story question for the reader while positing another of greater importance.
Obviously a supernatural suspense like Vanish leans heavily on the use of this device, but even a romance or a fantasy becomes a more compelling story with the infusion of suspense.