Suspense and tension are fundamentally different concepts, although they often work in tandem. Suspense is the emotion generated by questions such as: Who did it? And why? Suspense is the essence of mystery, and the protagonist’s primary objective is to solve the puzzle of what happened.
Tension, on the other hand, is emotion driven by someone being in jeopardy. Often, it’s the hero or a person close to her such as her husband or daughter. In thrillers, a stadium full of people, a city, a country, or even the whole world may be in jeopardy. Tension is the essence of the thriller, and the hero’s objective is to rescue the threatened.
Of course, suspense and tension often work together to heighten the total drama in a story. In a murder mystery, as suspense increases with red herrings piling up, tension escalates as well, as the hero is in jeopardy of failing to find out who the murder is. When the danger of those threatened in a thriller becomes more immediate, the suspense of whether or not the hero will save the day drives the tension.
While mysteries and thrillers offer the clearest examples of suspense and tension, all most all stories from the most literate to the most basic genre-specific ones involve unanswered questions and threats. Readers who understand their preference for different amounts of suspense and tension can better pick the novels they’ll like.
What blend of suspense and tension do you prefer? What novel is an example?
Douglass Seaver, author
The Fourth Rule