Use suspense to engage your readers in your story
The suspense element is something that readers love. It can be heavy and it can also be light, but when you add it to your story, your readers will keep reading until they come to resolution. And isn’t that what you want?
But my biography, or my train sighting nonfiction book, doesn’t need suspense, does it? Oh yes it does. But more of that later.
Let’s consider the two most common types of suspense.
First is the suspense of the “signpost”. This is where something happens, or is said, or described that hints at some outcome, pleasant or unpleasant, in the future. Here is an example:
They took me to a dimly lit room. A picture hung on one wall. It was stained by age, but I could make out the shapes of two people, a man and a woman. The man held a short sword in one hand, and as I watched, I felt a strange uneasiness take hold of me. He couldn’t say why he was like this at the time, but he wanted to get out of that room and never come back.
The reader will get the message that something in this painting portends something bad for the future in history. Notice the phrase “at that time”, this tells the reader who later found out. It is a sign, a hint of dark things to come. Your readers will keep reading to find out what it’s all about.
Then there is the suspense ‘up to your eyes’. The Indiana Jones stories, like many others, show the hero or heroine “up to the eyes” in a desperate physical situation that is life-threatening or at least seriously damaging to their health. Impossible because chases and underground passages full of rats come to mind. If you want your readers to frantically turn the pages, you need to keep them in difficult situations the entire time to build suspense.
Sometimes the suspense is a little less fraught with physical danger. For example, in a romantic story, you can keep your readers in a state of turmoil that depends on whether the heroine will marry the wealthy landowner or reject him for the penniless farmer’s son.
What about the biography or the non-fiction book? Believe it or not, the same applies to them. For example:
“When I was 17 I wanted to join the army and fight for my country. So I went to the hiring office, lied about my age, and signed up. If only I had known what this decision would have meant in my life and that of my parents, it would never have been so hasty. ‘
You can see that readers will want to know how this decision changed all of those lives.
“One of the most serious forms of blight is the orange spot. Many gardeners say it can’t be cured, but I’ll let you in on my own secret cure later in this chapter. ‘
It’s a good idea to plan when the suspense occurs and when it resolves. In all likelihood, the suspenseful object and its resolution in a short story may be the reason for the story in the first place. In a book, you may want to have a series of suspenseful situations at all times. However, make sure these suspenseful episodes vary in intensity, as we don’t want readers to be almost in a state of apoplexy from beginning to end.