How does the structure of a piece of work contribute to suspense?

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lit-scribbler's profile pic

lit-scribbler | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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Different kinds of narrative structures can create different kinds of tension. For example, some stories start at the end and then circle back from the beginning. On the first of Howard Norman's novel The Bird Artist, the narrator confesses to a murder that is a key event in the book. So now the question becomes not what happened, but why and how.

In another narrative technique, in media res (Latin for "in the middle of things"), the idea is to throw the reader into the middle of the story and then alternate between moving backward into backstory, and forward with the rest of the story.

It is even possible, as in the case of the movie "Memento," or the novel "The Death of Artemio Cruz," to tell a story backwards.

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cschubert | (Level 1) eNoter

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Narrative structure can contribute to suspense in a lot of different ways--from the line level to the overarching plot level.

Shorter sentences tend to convey more tension, resulting in higher suspense.  Using active voice (instead of passive) and powerful verbs can propel the reader forward.  Examples:

-He was hit by the man. (Passive voice and weak verb)

-The man punched him.  (Active voice, more powerful verb)

Ending each chapter on a cliffhanger can also help promote suspense.  Leave the reader with intriguing, unanswered questions dangling at each chapter ending and they will be eager to keep flipping the pages.

In the overall plot, suspense is best created by withholding information and tension resolution.  For a romantic plot, the writer maximizes suspense by keeping the two romantic leads apart until the climax.  In a mystery, the true solution is kept from the reader until the very last moment.  Ultimately, it's the unknown that keeps the reader in suspense.

Finally, a good twist near the middle of the book is a great narrative tool for suspense.  By subverting the readers' expectations with a sudden twist, the writer can keep the audience engaged and guessing.

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