What Makes a Good Suspense Story
For a good suspense story to work, it needs to not only intrigue the reader from the opening pages, but also shock them. If the story starts off with a figurative (or even a literal) bang, there is a swift, emotional connection established with the reader. They become engaged, and that’s important because what happens very early in the story sets not just the stage, but also the tone for everything else that is to come.
Other genres can afford the author a slow tease and a drawn-out development of key characters until a pivotal moment in the story is reached. Suspense stories are different.
If the reader isn’t wide-eyed and immersed in a suspense story by the end of the first chapter, it’s going to be tough to capture and hold their interest throughout the book.
Almost as important as making a strong first impression is the necessity of a strong but complicated protagonist.
Every story needs a distinguished leading character, but a suspense story works best when the hero is already dealing with challenges in their life prior to being drawn into the crux of the plot. This baggage adds a layer of complexity to the story, and it helps develop a unique perspective that the character might have in dealing with adverse situations. For example: Someone who leads a relatively carefree life is likely going to react to circumstances differently than someone who has suffered a deep loss, is stuck in a trying environment, or leads a highly stressful lifestyle.
With a well-established protagonist comes the significance of overwhelming him or her with obstacles – seemingly more or greater obstacles than they can possibly handle. If the reader is convinced that the protagonist is capable of dealing with whatever challenge arises, the story becomes less interesting.
Readers needs to be continually asking themselves how the leading character can possibly overcome the weight of the situations they’re in. If they’re not asking those questions, the author has failed to capture a key element of the suspense genre.
While the plight of the protagonist offers the story’s most vital perspective, additional perspectives can dramatically improve the way in which the story is told.
Some of the best suspense stories take a multiple-perspective approach, in which the hearts and minds of multiple characters – even the antagonist – are followed. Different people approach the same events or circumstances in distinct ways, and telling a story in that fashion adds its own element of suspense. Even going as far as changing narrative modes between characters is an alluring method of keeping things interesting.
Lastly, every good suspense story needs a good villain.
The importance of a strong antagonist was once described brilliantly by a non-literary, unlikely source: Professional wrestling icon, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Many of us who grew up in the 1980s probably remember Piper’s name, even if we weren’t wrestling fans. He was the sharp-tongued foil of the industry’s flagship hero, Hulk Hogan, during wrestling’s boom era.
Years after he retired, Piper explained how wrestling was mainstreamed into American pop-culture in the mid 80s, and why Hogan became a household name.
He claimed that the reason fans went so bananas over Hogan, was because of how much they hated Piper’s character.
Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert remarked on a similar observation years ago, stating, “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.”
The same logic applies to literary storytelling, especially in the suspense genre. The reader must find the story’s villain to be a formidable, perhaps superior foe. The villain needs to not only be capable of doing very bad things, but actually does them.
The best antagonists aren’t caricatures like classic cartoon villains… You know, the ones with grand goals of taking over the world, or who perform dastardly acts for no other reason than to be dastardly people.
No, a good suspense villain is one who is smart, calculating, and motivated by a specific need or desire. That need or desire can be driven by greed, jealousy, desperation, lust, or any of a number of catalysts. The antagonist doesn’t have to be inherently evil. He or she just needs to be determined enough in their actions to not let anything stand in their way.
Writing a good suspense story is all about creating a pressure-filled scenario in which more and more weight is added to the shoulders of the hero, and by extension to the reader. If done right, that weight will pin down the reader until the last page of the story.