Astronaut gets a little too close to an egg in Alien

Suspense builds up to conflict by causing heroes and the audience to worry about the outcome. It serves as a warning that can drive the characters and plot. Conflict that comes without that warning is jarring. While it can also be useful, it’s more likely to rattle your audience too much. Instead of pushing your audience off a cliff, imagine a hill that gets steeper the closer it comes to the climax. Suspense is a way to control the incline of that climb. Many methods build suspense, each with their own advantages.

1. Atmosphere

Alien uses a creepy atmosphere and imagery to build suspense for what's to come.
Alien uses a creepy atmosphere and imagery to build suspense for what’s to come.

Music, scenery, time of day, and weather can all affect suspense in a story. It was a dark and stormy night is a familiar trope, and contrast between light and dark is an intrinsic part of film noir. We’re talking about a broad category with limitless applications.

Atmosphere is especially important because it will destroy suspense if used improperly. Your evil forest will seem less menacing if the noonday sun is streaming down and rabbits are frolicking through flower patches. A story should be crafted in an environment suitable for the plot and characters; a disjunction between the atmosphere and the plot can jolt your readers right out of the story.

Location is critical when it comes to suspense. A gloomy or macabre location is useful for horror, whereas noir often features dreary crime-riddled cities. The location itself can be dangerous and threaten the protagonists directly, or it can serve as a backdrop to the story. Either way, put some thought into where the story takes place.

2. Mystery

John Carpenter uses mystery to pit survivors against one another as they wonder who is infected
John Carpenter uses mystery to pit survivors against one another as they wonder who is infected

Imagination and mysteries are powerful tools in the hands of a good storyteller. An unknown threat that the protagonists can’t prepare for is more dangerous than the beast they know.

You can create suspense by using myth or secondhand encounters to build on your monsters and villains. These stories will create an aura of mystery around the threat. The hero hasn’t encountered the threat yet, but they’re already scared because, holy crap, it breathes fire and shoots lightning from its eyes. Remember that your antagonist needs to live up to the hype or the actual conflict will fall flat.

Although useful in many stories, mystery is critical to noir. Noir features detectives, and they need a problem to solve. Use this focal point to drive the story and give your protagonist a tangible goal.

Mystery is also important when it comes to Lovecraftian horror stories. They focus on enigmas, madness, and the insignificance of humanity. The stories are structured around the terrible unknown: incomprehensible abominations exist that break reality, and they’re indifferent to the plight of mankind. These cosmic beings are blights to existence, and simply knowing about them makes you go insane. Lovecraft surrounded his denizens with an aura of mystery to allow room for the audience’s mind to run wild with every awful possibility. The most effective horror leaves the imagination to find its own darkest place.

3. Deadline

Nicolas Cage works under a deadline in The Rock
Nicolas Cage works under a deadline in The Rock

Setting a deadline for your protagonists is a simple way to add suspense. It’s an easy and straightforward method with the added benefit of driving the plot. Deadlines not only loom over the protagonists, they also provide a clear and concise end goal. This bluntness and efficiency makes it an attractive option for building suspense.

The less time the heroes have, the higher the stakes. You can use a vague timeline, but that lowers the suspense. Regardless of how much time you give them, the characters and audience should hear the clock tick. There should be regular reminders and signs that the time is drawing near.

Failing to meet a deadline should carry consequences just like any other threat. Same as how a toothless villain fails to impress people, it’s going to be underwhelming if nothing serious happens when the clock strikes zero.

Ticking time-bombs and impending attacks are frequently used in action-and-adventure stories. It’s direct, easy to implement, and builds up to a final exciting conflict, making it an attractive choice.

4. Peril

The celled monsters in Cabin in the Woods shows how much peril the heroes are in
The celled monsters in Cabin in the Woods shows how much peril the heroes are in

The easiest way to add suspense to the story is to make the protagonist’s obstacle more dangerous. Any hurdle you throw at your heroes should provide a legitimate challenge. By upping the scale, you can generate suspense by making it seem likely that they’ll lose.

Villains present an obvious menace, but antagonists aren’t the only way to foster peril. An environment can present turbulent weather or malevolent fauna. Sometimes, it’s not the journey itself that’s dangerous; it’s the destination. The hero may need to make a sacrifice in order to succeed, or maybe the final conflict is life-threatening. Either way, suspense must be built up before the climax.

Apocalypse scenarios, whether the end is nigh or has already happened, only work if there’s an incredible risk involved. Doomsday devices should bring exactly that. Apocalyptic wastelands should be filled with threats to set the world apart from the world before.

Peril is especially important when it comes to horror stories because they often feature monsters and villains that are supposed to seem insurmountable. They should be both dangerous and difficult to defeat. Whether or not there’s a weakness should hinge on the type of story told. Do the heroes overcome all odds and succeed, or do they fall short and succumb to powerful forces?

5. Losses

Vader's dismemberment of Luke shows that Luke is outmatched and in danger
Vader’s dismemberment of Luke shows that Luke is outmatched and in danger

It‘s going to be hard to develop suspense if heroes don’t encounter any difficulty. You can only build so much suspense by hyping up your obstacle. Show, don’t tell. An easy way to address this problem is to force your heroes to deal with some kind of loss or setback. There are a several types of losses they can experience.

  • Utility: The heroes are ready to take on the Big-Bad-Wizard because they’ve got a +4 Sword of Wizard Whupping. However, the Wizard has other plans and uses minions to steal the sword. Now the heroes and audience are uncertain of the outcome. Inflict losses on your heroes by removing useful tools or allies, and the impending conflict will seem more dire.
  • Personal: Heroes can also suffer losses that wear at their determination and will. Perhaps the monster snacks on the protagonist’s best friend. Or maybe the village manages to fend off the villain but only after the hero’s house burns to ash. Whenever the threat takes or injures something that the hero values, it can drive the plot and remind everyone that failure has consequences. These moments can also be used to develop characters as they will be defined by how they react to personal losses.
  • Wounds: A wound acts like any other obstacle by inhibiting them through physical or mental injury. Wounds can be intentional or incidental. Intentional wounds are inflicted by a monster or villain, and they hinder the hero while making the villain seem more dangerous. Incidental wounds are caused by accident or bad luck. Both methods prove the hero is vulnerable.

Regardless of how you use loss in storytelling, the losses need to be noticeable. Superficial wounds won’t generate much suspense and can even remove suspense, as escaping with minor wounds can make your hero seem beyond real injury.

More than all other stories, horror movies rely on death and loss to build up the final conflict. The monster or villain needs to seem like a legitimate threat through the death and dismemberment of victims.

Suspense is constant pressure; it weighs down on characters and the audience alike. Too much suspense will exhaust your characters and audience. Not enough and you won’t be as effective at building up to the final-showdown. Choose wisely to find the appropriate method and amount of suspense.

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