Don't Open the Door! There's Suspense Behind It!

Suspense is when the reader knows that there's something behind the door and the characters don't. When the readers don't know what's behind the door, and the characters don't know either, the reveal may be surprising, but without tension or payoff. Surprise and suspense are not the same things. Suspense has to build, and surprise just has to happen. Consider the following scenario:

  • A character is sitting alone in a room.
  • The character hears a scratch at the window.
  • The character walks over to open the window
  • A hand comes out of the dark night and grabs them by the throat and pulls them out.

Now consider this scenario:

  • You, the reader, know that a murderer has escaped the local prison
  • A character is sitting alone in a room.
  • The character hears a scratch at the window.
  • The character begins to walk over to the window.
  • Suddenly the lights go out. The only light is coming in through the window
  • They go to the light switch and flick it up and down in vain.
  • The walk over to the window and peer out. They see nothing.
  • The rest of the houses still seem to have power.
  • Only their house is dark.
  • They open the window and stick their head out. Nothing.
  • They close the window and proceed to walk back to their chair.
  • The lights come back on.
  • The murder is standing in front of them.

 

What are all the difference between the two scenarios? The first scenario is very linear. There's only one surprise and it comes at the end. You had no idea who the hand belongs to or why it's a bad thing.

In the second scenario, you have extra information. You know that there is a murderer on the loose. You know exactly the quality and severity of the threat. It's also not as linear as the first scenario. It's drawn out to build the suspense. You know that something that the big reveal is coming but more and more things happen that make the situation worse. The power goes out. But it's clearly only their house. They open the window. They stick their head out. And then, there's an extra twist that surprised you. You thought it was going to go just like the first scenario. It surprised you, but it was inevitable that it was going to happen. You have to walk the reader up the mountainside before you can throw them off.

But don't assume that all suspense is just horror. A character waiting at the mailbox to hear back from a job interview can be suspenseful if you know that their acceptance letter fell out of the mail truck. Or maybe it's a romance and they're going to visit their partner, but you know that the partner got in an accident and lost their memory. It's what causes you to jump up and down on your couch and shout "DON'T OPEN THE DOOR YOU IDIOT! THERE ARE BEES WITH BOWIE KNIVES BEHIND IT!"

So please, dear readers, don't just open the door.