Thursday, June 20, 2013

Difference between tension and suspense -- writing tip

Survey Team Leader Nora Falconi's closest friend, anthropologist Marcus Cranshaw, has disappeared on Class M Planet No. 8055. Nora must find and rescue him before a long-awaited treaty takes effect, and 8055 becomes part of Ast territory.

Question from my e-mail:  What is the difference between Tension and Suspense in writing? Is there any? I've heard the terms used interchangably and nobody can give me much of a definition of either of them.

Answer:  Tension is how much the reader care's about your characters. If the reader doesn't like your characters, enjoy spending time with them, or care what happens to them, that's what editors call, "Lacks Tension."  Believe me. I've had enough return letters to prove it.

Suspense: is how much readers care what will happen next?  If you keep them guessing, that's suspense.

Having defined both terms let me give you an exaggerated example: 

Your detective, Sam Shovel, a hard-drinking, insensitive, biggoted lout, is being held at gunpoint by an equally nefarious antagonist. Whether he gets shot or not is a plot turning point. We are in suspense about whether that will happen. AND, Whatever happens, everything will be different afterwards. Remember, a turning-point is a place in your story where something changes forever.

Whether the reader cares if he gets shot? That's tension....

Now suppose Sam is working for Tess Trueheart, and (for an exorbitant fee) is trying to find evidence that will prove her innocent of killing the man who sold her an unsafe used car, raped her sister, and kicked her dog. Tess is a teacher in a school for the blind, takes care of her invalid mother, and helps little old ladies across the street. If Sam is shot, Tess will be found guilty for we care now whether Sam gets killed?

Do you see how a reader's involvement with the character can affect tension?

1 comment:

  1. great explanation of the difference between the two! thanks!
    sandy gardner