You May NOT Keep The Reader in Suspense As Long As You Like

So…this doesn’t happen to me often, but it recently did, so I suppose I should talk about it. If only to get it out of my system. In any case, you’ve probably heard that suspense is a great way to create tension in your story, right? So you’ve created circumstances and characters we care about, delayed the answers, and then…?

Oh, now the whole team’s off to demolish Gandricku the evil purple dragon. (that’s nice, but maybe we could–) Oh, snap! We lost the map! Now we have to make a deal with the troll king to find it again! (can we please get back on track?) I’m sorry, what was that? You wanted answers? Sorry buddy, better wait until we’re 25 hours in!

Look, suspense is a good thing. If you have the reader in suspense, that means they care about the stakes and the people involved. This means you have successfully crafted characters that people can care about…great job. Now the readers are biting their nails in excitement, hoping against hope that their heroine will emerge alive–

And then you slam the book shut. “No more answers today!” you say ominously. The reader relaxes slightly. Ah, so it’s gonna be cloak-and-dagger mystery, eh? I understand. “So…when do you think I can get some answers?” Says the reader. “Perhaps tomorrow.” Is your only answer, tucking away the mystery to address at a later date.

If you ever do that to the reader in your book, it’s completely acceptable. You are the master magician, the architect of the plot with sole ownership of the characters and all their actions. You can do whatever you want, within reason, of course. But when you subject readers to extended periods of suspense, it’s the reader who bestows a gift on you: their trust.

Do not betray that trust.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Tales of Arise is a great game. I’m not too into anime at all, but the good story and flashy, fast-paced combat really drew me in. But one element of the story I’ve noticed is the continuous and unrelenting suspense that the game keeps you in for like twenty-six hours of the runtime. And this is a really story-intensive game: I’m constantly being hit with cutscenes, plot developments, and character moments. We spend a lot of time developing the plot…except for one aspect.

So if you ever plan on playing the game (or maybe you’ve given it a shot already), the main premise is that you have a guy who’s always in an iron mask, he has amnesia, and he can’t feel pain. Then you have a chick who inflicts pain on whoever touches her in the form of dark, spiky energy. At this point, I had a butt-ton of questions, and among them were: why does this guy have an iron mask on? Why can’t he feel pain? Why can’t he remember anything? Why does the girl inflict pain on people who touch her? They say questions are ripe ground for storytelling, and these count as fertile ground. Play on to find out the answers about Iron Mask and Shionne!

So I did play on. And on. And on. For twenty more hours. At that point, I was like, “am I going to start getting answers to these questions? This is a forty-hour game and I still have no idea what the answers to most of these questions are.” You see, for the first bit I was content to sit quietly like a boy waiting for Christmas presents, enduring side plots and character developments in hopes that I’d finally get to witness the core revelations. But I was given the cold shoulder for so long that I actually started to drift off, becoming disinterested in the plot and characters. Someone would say “Are you okay, Shionne?” for the umpteenth time and, true to form, Shionne would reply “nah, it’s nothing”, to which I would say, “NO IT’S NOT NOTHING ANSWER THE GOSHDARN QUESTION”.

I wanted answers even more than the characters in the story did. I finally got them, almost thirty hours in, but I’m still sore about that. I would not be adverse to full answers this far in, but only if I was given a few cookie crumbles up to that point. With Iron Mask it wasn’t that big of a deal, but with Shionne I was beginning to doze off. She stays tight shut as a clam until she opens up and gives us all the answers.

Look, the suspense button is a good button. But just because you’ve got your thumb hammered down on top of it all the time doesn’t mean you can’t offer the reader some relief. Lead them with a few facts, whet their appetite instead of keeping them completely suspended. Don’t have one character shrug off the truth half a million times: let half of those times introduce facts that spark the imagination towards the conclusion, otherwise your readers might burn out.

Though if I’m honest, I don’t think this whole caboodle is too big of a concern. But it’s one more tool to fit in your toolbox, and I wanted to get it off my chest because it was pissing me off this fine 9:49 in the morning before I’ve had my breakfast. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m cranky in the mornings before I get my meal.

That’s all.


Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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