There’s a common misconception among writers that the best way to create suspense in fiction is to keep the reader guessing, to dangle the carrot of “what’s going to happen next” perpetually in front of readers to propel forward motion in the narrative. I read a lot of story submissions that begin by attempting to establish vague, mysterious circumstances or a creepy atmosphere in the hopes that readers will be drawn in, but it almost always fails. That’s because suspense is more effectively created by the reader having more information than the characters in a scene, not less. It’s that disconnect, that unequal distribution of knowledge, that drives readers to turn the page.
Readers Want to Feel Smart
Often in stories that are overtly aiming at suspense, there’s a lot of description, perhaps some ambiguous dialogue, or even sometimes action, but by the end of the third page, I still can’t answer the questions of who do I care about? (or even who are these characters?) and why now? If I can’t answer those questions very early on in a story (preferably by the end of the first page in a short story), I don’t care how interesting the situation may seem, I’m probably not going to want to read on. As a reader, I often wonder in those instances, why is the writer being so coy? It's frustrating and alienating for readers to feel like they should know what's going on but don't. Readers want to be grounded in a character, in a place, in a context. Creepy descriptions come across as campy and dull without context, so let’s examine a few ways to approach suspense differently.
Be a Generous Host
Consider your story to be like your house and you as the writer are the host; the readers are your guests. Do you want them to walk into an empty, dark room with hidden voices piped into the room via speakers, or do you greet them in person, take their coats, and show them where the drinks and bathrooms are for when they get around to needing those things later on? Readers want information when they enter a story. They want to know right away the who? and where? and most especially, why?
Surprise Does Not Equal Suspense
Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense, famously illustrated the difference between suspense and surprise by suggesting that you could give movie viewers fifteen seconds of surprise by having a bomb go off (apropos of nothing) in a film or you could show the bomb being planted with a timer and then have characters sit on top of it and have a pleasant conversation — then you’ve created fifteen minutes of suspense. The latter is far more powerful at creating and maintaining interest in the story. Writers tend to want to work up to a big reveal, which is fine for a first draft but often comes across as disingenuous to the reader and the text in a finished story. On the other hand, being forthcoming with information — that is, manufacturing suspense — is really ultimately more effective and satisfying.
Knowledge Is Power
I’m thinking of two of my favorite stories right now that frontload the beginning with information and wildly succeed at manufacturing suspense. The first is the famous story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” from Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son. Even in just the title alone, the reader receives tremendous amounts of information. Then there’s the first lines: “A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping… A Cherokee filled with bourbon… A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student… And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri…” That’s it! A list of facts about the situation — not the weather (though that comes later), not some description of a foreboding road ahead, just exactly, plainly what happens at the end of the story. And as readers, we’re so ready to keep reading; we want to find out who these people are whose lives are about to be so thoroughly upended or destroyed and how it all transpires.
Another story that gives the ending away at the beginning but always manages to be a great read is There’s a Monster at the End of This Book. It’s a children’s book by Jon Stone with Sesame Street’s Grover as the protagonist. Bear with me. My kids have been requesting this book from me continuously at bedtime, and it never fails to leave them in stitches. That’s because the child — the reader — knows what Grover does not know: that the monster at the end of the book is Grover himself. The reader is in a position of power over Grover because he reads the title and fears some terrible, actual monster, but the reader knows it’s just going to be a benign Sesame Street "monster" (or if they’ve read it before, they know it’s just Grover). In this case, it’s a kind of suspenseful humor created by that uneven distribution of knowledge. The reader enjoys watching Grover become increasingly alarmed over something that the children know is going to be no big deal.
So when you’re trying to make something riveting happen on the page, perhaps hold off on some of that atmosphere initially (and certainly avoid actual suspense words like “foreboding,” “creepy,” or “unsettling,” which tend to have the opposite effect). Instead, try just telling it like it is. Some variation of This happened, and it was pretty bad, and here’s how it all went down. More likely than not, you’ll be creating way more tension than if you were actively trying to be mysterious. You’ll be indicating to the reader that you know they’re looking for a good ride and you’re sure as hell going to give it to them.